The Paris Stew: Sephardi + Ashkenazi, Turkish + French, Trump + Le Pen, Ladino + Yiddish, Schwarzenegger + Chasidic Jews
While Sibel Pinto was speaking yesterday at Parler Paris Après Midi about Sephardic Jewish cuisine in Turkey with a PowerPoint presentation filled with photos, and bowls of fresh-made goodies in front of her awaiting us, not only was my mouth watering for a taste, but I was bombarded by thoughts of the maniacal world in which we live today. This is the world where we are trying desperately to overcome the racist radicalism of ISIS and other racist maniacs such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen who actually have other maniacs supporting them.
Scary, but true. The more global we get, the more tribal we respond, or so it seems. As the world comes together via our amazing communications network of the 21st-century, we react by clinging even more to our roots and our need to belong to a smaller community — or “tribe.” This is why Americans gather in Paris to comfort one another as Americans who feel the same cultural clashes. And this is how it happened that Sibel Pinto came to speak to us yesterday.
Sibel and I met in 2003 at the very same monthly networking gathering, Parler Paris Après Midi, when she was just a fledgling chef. Today, the Istanbul-born-France-transplant who divides her time between Versailles/Paris and Istanbul, is not only a chef, but is also an instructor, lecturer, author, caterer and tour guide devoted to the perpetuity of her native cuisine — handed down to her by her mother, her mother’s mother, her husband’s mother and the women before them.
At the time of our meeting, it was remarkable to me how two Jewish women from completely different backgrounds, hers Sephardic having grown up in Turkey, me Ashkenazic having grown up in the U.S., were so connected and so much more similar than different. There was only one explanation for that — our Jewish cultural upbringing.
Her talk about the voyage the Jews made from their expulsion from Spain and Portugal to settling in the Ottoman Empire in the late 15th-century was fascinating, including learning about the language they spoke — “Ladino” — a language derived from medieval Spanish, with influences from such languages as Aragonese, Astur-Leonese, Catalan, Galician-Portuguese, and Mozarabic — much like Yiddish — but also with vocabulary from Ottoman Turkish, Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, French, Italian, Greek, Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian! (Wikipedia.org) This is the first I’d heard of it, even though about 100,000 people in Israel speak it, about 8,000 in Turkey and another 1,000 in Greece. (My personal experience was that of Yiddish, of course, learning it from my mother and grandmother who spoke it so we “kinder” wouldn’t understand what they were saying.)
Their cooking came with them, of course, always adapting to the ingredients presented in their new environment. It’s decidedly distinctive from Ashkenazi cooking, mainly for this reason — this is the cuisine of the Mediterranean unlike the Jewish cuisine of which its origin was from Russia and Eastern Europe where the local produce was so different. We learned about these ingredients, of their poverty encouraging recipes using every morsel allowing nothing to go to waste, of the flavors one might expect and even of the passion associated with the art of home cooking. Sibel joked that he and her mother-in-law have come to odds over whether the leek meatballs (“köftes de prasa”) should be cooked in the oven or stove-top to the point of threatening her marriage!
The Jewish community in Istanbul is small, but closely-knit, with a population of about 17,000. Preserving their Sephardic-based cuisine is up to people like Sibel. Besides all she has done to study the cuisine and offer it up to all those willing to taste and learn about it, she’s written about a book about “The Evolution of the Sephardic Cuisine in Turkey: Five Centuries of Survival” that “compares the Sephardic and Ottoman cuisines in order to show how both contributed to and enthusiastically embraced each other’s cultures.” It won 1st place in the World Gourmand Cook Book Awards of 2010 (category of Best Culinary History Book) in Germany and 3rd place in the World.
If you are interested in discovering the cuisine for yourself first hand, next Spring, Sibel will be taking a group of aficionados on a “Sweet-and-sour journey of the Turkish Sephardic cuisine” — an insider tour in Istanbul centered around the cuisine of the Sephardic Jews of Turkey! To learn more, contact Sibel at [email protected].
A la prochaine…and Happy Chanukah!
The Adrian Leeds Group
(with Sibel Pinto)
P.S. Plan your winter getaway for a few days in the sunny south of France and rent my bright, comfortable and luxurious Parler Nice Apartment Le Matisse. For more information visit Parler Nice Apartments or email [email protected] and stay “with” me!