I’ll admit it — I’ve always wanted to be a Sephardi Jew.
When the thought of handmade couscous excites you more than the prospect of a Lady Gaga and Rihanna world tour, when you take desperate and unsuccessful measures to work on your tan despite your freckly fare skin and when schug (Yemenite hot sauce) is in tow at all times — you’re a Sephardi wannabe.
With roots in Belarus and Polish shtetls I easily could have grown up with Yentl Mendle’s crew. However, since early childhood, my Shabbat dinners, holidays and sometimes even entire summer vacations were spent exclusively with Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. This, perhaps, explains my blatant obsession with Sephardi food and culture. Raised by Askenazi-Israeli parents in the U.S., our adoptive family was made up of other Israeli immigrants who took us in when we moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia.
My mother, a true master in the kitchen, quickly adapted her famous chicken soup with matzo balls and secret gefilte fish recipe to make room for delectable Sephardi goodies. Israeli food, she would explain, is the product of diverse cultures. “The food I make is a combination of Mizrahi, Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Arab elements and styles of cooking, where kreplach is served alongside chraima (North-African red braised fish) and Tunisian carrot salad is plated beside chopped liver.” She would go on to tell me that the Jews of the Diaspora brought their far-flung cuisines to the table and incorporated additional ingredients and ideas from regional Arab and Middle Eastern cuisines.
And then she would pull out her all-star, impeccable, queen-of-the-kitchen Turkish Moussaka from the piping-hot oven. Endless layers of spiced minced meat, perfectly sautéed eggplant and homemade tomato sauce to be served as one of the many main dishes at our Shabbat dinner table, typically surrounded by a large crowd of diverse, passionate, opinionated and loud Israelis.
Moussaka served fresh and hot, with fluffy pita to sop up the oozing sauce is rewarding, filling and even relatively healthy. While my mother’s version is by far my favorite, the dish has origins in Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Romania and the Levant and each place prepares it differently. My mother’s recipe uses three separate cooking methods to combine the different ingredients into one delicious and colorful dish. In some cases, Moussaka is even prepared with béchamel sauce and potatoes.
Today, the Israeli kitchen is constantly changing, adding more flavors and tastes from around the globe and becoming more sophisticated. Moussaka, while still popular in my home can only be found at Mizrahi and Sephardi home-cooked food joints, places that Sephardi-wannabe’s such as myself frequent regularly, even if it means doing so alone.
My Polish Mother’s Turkish Moussaka
3-4 long eggplants
2 pounds shredded beef (chicken or turkey)
2 large white onions, diced
1 bunch of Parsley
1 bunch of coriander
9 garlic gloves, minced
8 ripe tomatoes, diced
1 green pepper, diced
3 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the eggplant into round slices, add salt and paint with olive oil, place in the oven to bake for twenty minutes or until golden brown. Dice the onion, tomatoes and pepper, mince the garlic. Meanwhile, in a large pan, heat a little olive oil on medium to high heat. Add half of the chopped onion and fry until golden brown for 5 minutes. Add half of the garlic and all of the minced meat, season with salt and pepper, let it cook for 4-6 minutes on medium heat.
For the tomato sauce, heat some more olive oil in a separate pan on medium heat, add the second diced onion, letting it turn golden-brown for about 5 minutes. Then add rest of minced garlic, and the diced green pepper and 8 tomatoes. Cover the pan and let the sauce simmer for approximately 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add ¼ cup water and the juice of a lemon. An alternative is to use two jars of Barilla Basilico Tomato sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Add ¾ of the tomato sauce to the minced meat and onions. Lightly oil your largest rectangular baking pan or use two smaller ones. Place first layer of eggplants on it, add the minced meat and tomato sauce mixture and repeat (layer this as you would lasagna). Top pan off with remaining tomato sauce. Turn heat up to 390 degrees and bake uncovered until bubbling for approximately 20 minutes (depends on the oven), then bake for an additional 15 minutes.