Jews, Food, and Spain: The Old­est Medieval Span­ish Cook­book and the Sephardic Culi­nary Heritage

January 5, 2022

A fas­ci­nat­ing study that will appeal to both culi­nar­i­ans and read­ers inter­est­ed in the inter­sect­ing his­to­ries of food, Sephardic Jew­ish cul­ture, and the Mediter­ranean world of Iberia and north­ern Africa.

In the absence of any Jew­ish cook­book from the pre-1492 era, it requires ardu­ous research and a cre­ative but dis­ci­plined imag­i­na­tion to recon­struct Sephardic tastes from the past and their sur­vival and trans­mis­sion in com­mu­ni­ties around the Mediter­ranean in the ear­ly mod­ern peri­od, fol­lowed by the even more exten­sive dias­po­ra in the New World. In this intri­cate and absorb­ing study, Hélène Jawhara Piñer presents read­ers with the dish­es, ingre­di­ents, tech­niques, and aes­thet­ic prin­ci­ples that make up a sophis­ti­cat­ed and attrac­tive cui­sine, one that has had a most­ly unre­marked influ­ence on mod­ern Span­ish and Por­tuguese recipes.

Discussion Questions

Hélene Jawhara Piñer’s book, Jews, Food, and Spain: The Old­est Medieval Span­ish Cook­book and the Sephardic Culi­nary Her­itage, is an engross­ing work of his­tor­i­cal research that draws upon a thir­teenth-cen­tu­ry col­lec­tion of recipes to exam­ine the mul­ti­cul­tur­al and mul­ti­lin­gual tra­di­tions in which Jew­ish culi­nary tra­di­tions devel­oped in the Iber­ian Penin­su­la. The author of that medieval cook­book was Andalu­sian and of Arab ori­gin, and may have been either Mus­lim or Jew­ish. What is fas­ci­nat­ing is that cer­tain foods in the cook­book were marked as Jew­ish, most notably egg­plant, an intrigu­ing top­ic that Piñer explores in depth as she takes read­ers on a food jour­ney from medieval times to the present day, show­ing how cer­tain dish­es found in the medieval cook­book con­tin­ue to be cen­tral to Span­ish Sephardic cui­sine. Food and her­itage are insep­a­ra­ble, and as Piñer notes, Ignor­ing people’s food is to ignore what defines them.” Food must be tak­en seri­ous­ly, as Piñer does. With a doc­tor­ate in Medieval His­to­ry and the His­to­ry of Food, and also as a chef, she brings that vast wealth of knowl­edge and years of expe­ri­ence in the kitchen to her enlight­en­ing his­tor­i­cal study. Indeed, she sug­gests that the book be paired with her cook­book, Sephar­di: Cook­ing the His­to­ry: Recipes of the Jews of Spain and the Dias­po­ra from the 13th Cen­tu­ry to Today.

For read­ers inter­est­ed in learn­ing about the com­plex ways that food came to be a core part of Sephardic iden­ti­ty, this book is indispensable.