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A Seder with a Syrian Flavor

When my mother was a child in the 1920s, her great aunts once held a formal Passover Seder. The women wore long gowns and the men tuxedos. Celebrating the Jews' liberation from slavery in Egypt, they felt, was worth getting dressed up for.

Of all Jewish holidays, Passover includes the most formal, multi-course meal. Tables are set with the best linens, the china is taken out of quilted storage cases and the silver is polished. Fresh flowers make the table look like a spring garden.

I've always loved the Seder table but found the food lackluster. Let's be honest, gefilte fish is homely, even with its dashing side of beet-enhanced horseradish. And cakes made with matzo meal never look or taste like the real thing.

Then I discovered the Jews of Aleppo. And in their exotic, fragrant and flavorful cuisine, I found enticing options for my traditional Seder menu.

Like most American Jews, I come from an Ashkenazic background. That means my relatives came from Eastern Europe.

Sephardic Jews are from countries, such as Syria, along the Mediterranean Sea. That means they have better food. Middle Eastern meals begin with chickpea hummus and eggplant baba ghanoush. Meat and vegetable dishes are accented by dried fruits, nuts and fragrant spices. Vegetables are stuffed with rice, and desserts are sprinkled with orange blossom water.

The first Jews settled in the northwestern Syrian town of Aleppo around 586 B.C. After years of conflict between Jews and their Arab neighbors, the last Jews left Aleppo in 1997. The Jews of Aleppo largely moved to Israel, South America and the United States. And they brought their food and culture with them.

None of the recipes, however, were written down. They existed only in the minds and the hands of the older women.

About 30 years ago, Poopa Dweck got worried. A first-generation Jewish Syrian-American, she wanted to be sure the traditional foods were not lost with the cooks who knew how to prepare them. So she and other women in her community in Deal, N.J., began talking to older cooks and writing up their recipes.

Last year, these community recipes were rewritten and compiled in a large, coffee-table cookbook full of color photographs and the history of the Jews of Aleppo, Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, written by Dweck and Michael J. Cohen.

Dweck says Syrian food differs in some ways from other Middle Eastern cuisines. The use of tamarind, for example, is uncommon in cooking of other countries in the region. Dweck says tamarind was introduced to Aleppo from India via Persia in the seventh or eighth century and has remained integral to the cuisine. Tamarind pods hold a sweet-sour pulp used to season food.

Also unusual are the small bitter cherries, abundant near Aleppo, featured in a number of dishes. One recipe is for a stew of meatballs with allspice and pine nuts smothered in a sauce of cherries, onions and tamarind.

Dweck says the food of Aleppo also is known for its liberal use of spices. Allspice, cinnamon, saffron and cardamom are common ingredients.

There are, however, some strict dietary laws for Passover that limit options. The rules prohibit anything made from wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt, reminding us that in their haste to leave Egypt, the Jews did not have time to let their bread rise.

One of the major Passover dietary differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, however, is the question of rice. The Ashkenazi, making a different interpretation of Jewish law, do not eat rice on Passover. The Syrians do.

Ashkenazi Seders usually include chicken matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, a roast meat, green vegetable and cake made with matzo meal — or some variation thereof. Color and spice are rarely in attendance.

For her Seder, Dweck serves Aleppian rice with its crunchy, golden crust, roast veal stuffed with spiced ground meat, stuffed artichokes, meatballs stewed in cherry sauce and candied coconut with pistachios — a meal in full color.

It's a Seder menu worthy of my great aunts' damask cloths.

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Bonny Wolf
NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.