Passover or Pesach in Hebrew is an eight day festival (seven in Israel) which has change very little over the centuries since its establishment and like many Jewish celebrations it is characterised by feasting.
Commencing the previous night of the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the festival commemorates the biblical Exodus from slavery in Egypt and the 40-year journey through the wilderness to the land of Israel. The Hebrew calendar is based on the lunar cycles and therefore has leap months in a 19-year cycle allowing for Passover to occur from March to April of the Gregorian calendar.
The Passover feast, called a Seder (meaning 'order’), involves the reading of the Haggadah, a book of questions, prayers, songs, and discussion about the importance of the occasion. Geraldine Brooks’s novel The People of the Book (Viking, 2008) is about one such Haggadah that was written in 15th century Spain and found its way to Sarajevo.
Three things must be specifically mentioned during the Seder: pesach (the Passover sacrifice), matzah (unleavened bread), and maror (bitter herbs). Since Biblical times, there has been no Passover sacrifice, but unleavened bread and bitter herbs are considered staples. The bread serves as an edible reminder that when the Israelites fled from Egypt, they left in such a hurry that their bread dough had not risen. Similarly the bitter herbs symbolise the bitterness of oppression and slavery in Egypt.
Unleavened bread is made of wheat flour and water, mixed together and baked in thin sheets before any wild yeasts might have time to work. Matzah may be ground to be used in baking.
The ban on leavened foods extends to most grains, and in order to maintain the household free from leaven, there is a thorough cleaning of the house before the festival, and a separate set of crockery is kept for use only during Passover.
The food served during the Seder has its own rituals. On each table there lies a large ceremonial plate with a number of symbolic foods, including a roast lamb shank, in memory of the Paschal sacrifice, and a hard-boiled egg that is a symbol both of mourning and of renewal. A range of herbs, and a paste called haroset adorn the tables also. These are said to be symbols of the mortar and clay that was used in building by the Israelite slaves. Its exact composition varies according to country and even city, but it is always composed of fruit and nuts. For Jews originating in Eastern Europe, haroset is a mixture of grated apples, chopped walnuts, cinnamon and sweet red wine. In Morocco, the fruit will likely be dried fruits, and the nuts walnuts and almonds. Other versions use dates, some include oranges, and Yemenite haroset is often spicy.
The prohibition on leaven has been extended in Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish culture to include all pulses and rice, because of their similarity to proscribed grains, and the way in which they swell during cooking, as yeast does. There is considerable diversity among Jewish communities throughout the world: some eat rice, some do not. Some eat beans, but not rice. Some of the most orthodox of communities will not even use finely ground matzah in baking.
In Ashkenazi cooking, there are special dumplings made for the chicken soup. The rest of the year, soup is served with noodles, but on Passover, the dumplings, called kneidlech, are made of ground matzah, eggs, and chicken fat. Eastern European Jews also used to ferment beetroot, and to make sweets from carrots and beetroot.
For Jews in the northern hemisphere, and particularly those from North African, Passover is a spring festival where the menu will include many fresh green vegetables. Since most Jews make cakes during Passover, the baking is a specialised skill as no flour or leavening can be used. For the most experienced Jewish cooks, this is no more of a challenge than the form of the sonnet was for Shakespeare. Cakes are made using ground nuts and lots of eggs. Macaroons are also popular, since they are made with egg whites. Matzah itself is used for a range of dishes, from savoury pies to sweet fritters.
In Morocco, the end of Passover is marked by a festival called Mimouna, and the table was traditionally decorated with all kinds of symbolic foods, including new growth leaves and grain, fish, fruit, sweets and pastries. Special pancakes, called mufleta, are eaten, which are dipped in honey and butter. Mimouna is also now celebrated in Israel.