Freedom feast: the Caribbean Passover

The Seder, the ritual dinner for the Jewish holiday of Passover, is a celebration of freedom and memory. Franka Philip learns more

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

You can’t love food and not be interested in the culinary customs of other cultures. And as an avid cookbook collector, you find that certain authors and titles come up as “must reads” for the true foodie.

In Britain, most of the “must read” cookbook lists include titles by the Egypt-born writer Claudia Roden, such as The Jewish Book of Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day, which many describe as groundbreaking. Roden, an Egyptian Jew, brings her anthropological background to bear on her food writing, and the book is a great journey through the history of the Jewish people — via their stomachs. Many of the recipes in The Jewish Book of Food — especially in the section that deals with Sephardic cooking — are vibrant and comforting, but very much at odds with my perception of Jewish food as austere.

Fast forward a couple of years, to the emergence of a dynamic Trinidadian food blog called Trinigourmet, offering the best of our traditional dishes. The author, Sarina Nicole Bland, posts a wide range of dishes, not just the usual pelau, callaloo, and roti. But I was surprised and excited one day when I saw interesting recipes for the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. It was only then I realised that Bland has a Jewish background, and when she cooks for Jewish celebrations, she adds a Trini twist, reminiscent of those recipes from Claudia Roden. So when I thought about writing this column about celebrating Passover in Trinidad, obviously the first person I called was Miss Trinigourmet herself.

The Jewish community in the Caribbean is small, but very diverse. Bland describes her background as Minha Shephardic — typical of Jews from Spain and Portugal, different from Eastern European Jews. But wherever they’re from, for many Jews the most important festival in the calendar is Passover — observed in 2013 from the evening of 25 March until the evening of 2 April — which commemorates the liberation of the ancient Israelites from bondage in Egypt, a story told in the Biblical Book of Exodus.

Passover dinner is known as the Seder, and according to Wikipedia, “the Seder is integral to Jewish faith and identity . . . an occasion for praise and thanksgiving and for re-dedication to the idea of liberation. Furthermore, the words and rituals of the Seder are a primary vehicle for the transmission of the Jewish faith from grandparent to child, and from one generation to the next. Attending a Seder and eating matzo on Passover is a widespread custom in the Jewish community, even among those who are not religiously observant.”

Bland invites about six friends to Seder every year — and they must take part in the ceremony as well. “The friends I’ve invited to Seder are open, receptive, and curious,” she says. “They’re completely onboard and interested.” She explains that the Seder, which lasts about three hours, follows a particular order. “It’s a ritualistic dinner. It’s quite formalised, and there are certain times during the meal that you serve different things.

“As Passover is to celebrate the liberation of the Jews from Egypt, you have to relate the meal to that. We eat a boiled egg, which shows the strength of the Jewish people — the harder they’re boiled, the harder they get,” she jokes. Also on the Seder plate are bitter herbs and a sweet paste called harset. “The bitter herbs represent the feeling of being enslaved. In the West, people use horseradish, but in Trinidad, I use caraili” — known elsewhere as bitter melon.

“Harset is made of raisins, apples, and nuts. If you get the balance right, it has the same texture as the mixed fruit you use to make your black cake. This represents the mortar that was used in building the pyramids and buildings of Egypt. It’s eaten twice during the meal.”

Jews also eat matzo, unleavened bread, during the Seder, as it is forbidden to eat leavened bread during Passover. As many know, Jewish food must be kosher — conform to Jewish dietary laws. Bland explains there are different levels of kosher. “For me, I don’t use shellfish, dairy, or pork.” The main dinner, she says, is like an intermission during the rituals. The main course can be meat-based or vegetarian. Bland prefers a vegetarian or vegan meal — mainly because a lot of her friends are vegetarian, and also becaause it’s easier to avoid mixing meat and dairy — definitely not kosher.

Some of the dishes that Bland has served on her vegetarian Passover menu include butternut squash soup with ginger, cranberry almond slaw, eggplant mina, fifteen-minute chocolate amaretti torte, and Moroccan tea. She often incorporates salads and white fish. And “Passover is a good time for flourless desserts,” she says. “Using ground almonds and nuts are from the Western European influence. My chocolate torte is flourless.”

Planning for her Seder takes weeks — mainly because she orders her kosher products online. “They take a while to get here.”

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that four glasses of wine are drunk during the Seder. Two cups are drunk during the first half, before the main dinner, and two in the second half. You’re supposed to drink while leaning as far left as possible, to signify the freedom of the Jews after leaving Egypt.

An important part of the Seder is the readings and the discussion during dinner. The Seder is a communal reading, where all the participants read passages. Bland believes this encourages Jews to tailor the Seder to their values. “I’m really interested in independence. Slavery wasn’t only Black or Jewish — there’s still a lot of slavery going on. My passion is feminism, and with the readings I choose, I leave room for discussion,” she says.

In keeping with her feminist values, she has added the Miriam’s Cup ritual to her Seder. In traditional Seders, there is a fifth cup of wine poured in honour of the prophet Elijah, who it is said will arrive one day to herald the advent of the Messiah. Miriam’s Cup is a tradition started in the 1980s to honour the role that Miriam the Prophetess played in the Exodus, and it also encourages participants to celebrate the achievements of Jewish women.

I’ve been invited to Bland’s Seder this year, and I’m excited to attend. I’m looking forward to experiencing not only the food, but the communal vibe and interesting discussions. And even though I’m not Jewish, I’m inspired by the idea of having my own small “Passover” dinner to celebrate spiritual life, and give thanks for what has gone.