Mar 27, 2009 | Learn 'Bout Our Food

A Taste of Greek Jewish Tradition

Once Upon A Time
Although hardly a soul has heard of it, there was a very significant Jewish life in Greece, centered around the town of Salonika. Jewish presence there was so strong that, up until the first part of the 20th century it was said to be “the Jerusalem of the Balkans.” Jewish presence in Greece goes back thousands of years — the first community likely established by sailors who settled in Salonika after leaving Alexandria. Others arrived after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. These early, “Romaniote” Jews lived there in small numbers, well assimilated into the Greek community for many centuries. What made Salonika so special though was the influx of Jews who came 1500 years or so later — over 20,000 arrived between the years 1493 and 1536, following the Inquisition and the expulsion from Spain and Portugal.

Although it’s Greek today, at that time Salonika part of the Ottoman Empire. The Jewish prominence in the city was no passing phase — at the turn of the 20th century, 400 years after the Spaniards started to arrive, Salonika was still very much a Jewish town; there were roughly 80,000 Jews, out of a total population of 150,000. (The rest of the population was hardly homogenous — Orthodox Christians, Muslims and others accounted for the remaining 70,000.) They carried on Jewish traditions that their ancestors had brought from the Iberian Peninsula hundreds of years earlier. Ladino (aka Judezmo), which is to the Sephardic community what Yiddish was in Eastern Europe — a blending of medieval Spanish with some Hebrew and a handful of words gathered up from Greek, Turkish and other Balkan languages — was the primary language of the town. Many non-Jews spoke it fluently. The Jewish presence was so strong that, although Salonika’s Christian community took Sunday off and the Moslems made Friday their day of rest, pretty much the entire town shut down on Saturday.

A Diverse Community & Foodways
Salonika was somehow, for many centuries, a model for diversity, a place where people seemed to get along, where different ethnic and religious groups lived together with a fair degree of respect for each others’ right to be who they were. This constructive coming together of cultures carried through to the cooking too. While Greek and Turkish politics are usually presented in the context of conflict, there are many overlaps between the two very important and interesting cuisines; the cooking of the Jews of Salonika includes both influences, but blended in a unique-to-the-food-world way that also includes the heavy influence of Spain.

It starts, as so many foodways do, with the bread. As in Spain, bread was considered a blessed food, treated always with great respect. It was apparently quite common for Jews in Salonika who happened upon a bit of bread on the street to pick it up, kiss it and carry home with great respect. At best it was brushed off and set aside to eat later, at the least it was set on a ledge and out of harm’s way. At the same time, it was also every day food — breakfast was typically bread and cheese (I’d imagine feta or fresh mzythra but I’m not really sure). In the winter months, women would make pan escaldado — stale bread cooked lightly in water, then dressed with grated cheese and oil. On Sabbath, children snacked on pan con azeite y asucar — slices of bread sprinkled with oil and sugar. Note that the names are Ladino, clearly connected to Spanish, and not to Greek in the least.

Savory Pies
As in the rest of Greece, there was a great tradition amongst Jews of serving savory pies. Unlike other Greek communities though they never mixed meat and cheese, adhering strictly to the rules of keeping kosher. Borekas, individually portioned, flaky phyllo-like pastries, filled with most everything you could imagine (though again, no mixing of meat and milk) were eaten in much of Turkey and northern Greece, but became a recognized Jewish specialty. Fritada — dishes of beaten eggs with various fillings — very much descended from the Spanish tortilla and are still the consummate Spanish egg dish today. The Greek Jews also seemed to love big white beans — what are known in Spain today as Judion, in Greece as Gigantes. Piaz is a bean salad with lemon and olive oil that’s still commonly made and was considered very much a dish of the Jewish community. Fideikos — the name is from the Spanish, fideos — were very popular and there were a number of macaroni dishes in the Jewish kitchen. Joyce Goldstein’s excellent book Sephardic Flavors, has a recipe for macaroni and cheese, made with milk and feta.

As is true in all Greek kitchens, Jewish cooks had a great love for vegetables. Okra, eggplant, artichokes, zucchini, tomatoes — the book has dozens of dishes that make this cooking a great one for vegetarians. Vinegar was used extensively, as was oil, either sesame or olive. Jewish cooks also had a great love of nuts and dried fruits, including a passion for apricot pits (the same used to flavor Italian amaretti cookies). Sweets were an interesting mix of the Spanish and Eastern Mediterranean — baklavas, nut-filled crescents, spoon sweets (jam-like confitures), Spanish-style sponge cakes, lots of walnuts and almonds.

I’m particularly fascinated with the Jewish emphasis on eggs, most particularly the huevos haminados. These are long-cooked eggs, simmered or baked for hours in a liquid turned naturally brown from onionskins, intensifying the flavor in the process. With their round shape and association with fertility, eggs have always had great symbolic significance. A big thing in nearly all the Sephardic Jewish communities, the huevos are typically served at Passover, on the Sabbath table and at holiday meals. In Salonika though, they seem to have moved beyond being a special occasion offering into a staple of every day life. They were eaten at every type of meal. They were chopped and added to salads. They were used as garnish for other dishes. Students even gave them to teachers the way Americans are advised to bring apples. I imagine bowls of them on Sabbath tables, shining the color of mahogany wood from being rubbed with olive oil, ready to peel and to eat, surrounded by families dressed in medieval Spanish silks.

Recent History
Massive fires at the end of the 19th century and again during WWI made life in Salonika very difficult. Tens of thousands were displaced. Early in the 20th century when the Ottomans left and the Greek government took over, thousands of Greeks were brought from other parts of what was the Ottoman Empire and settled in Salonika, in part to effectively Hellenize the town. While the Jewish population remained the same, its relative significance in size was radically reduced. The introduction of mandatory schooling in Greek cut into the long-standing use of Ladino as the language of every day life. But the real killer — literally and figuratively — was the Nazi occupation. Without going into all the details, between 1941 and 1944 something like 96 percent of the town’s Jewish population was deported and put to death in German concentration camps. Today there are only a few thousand Jews in Salonika. For me this sense of complete loss, of disappearance… it makes the whole thing a bit like a fairy tale with a bad ending. However a sizeable population of Jews from the area escaped and settled in the U.S. bringing with them their complex and flavorful history came too.