Passover starts this Monday at sundown, and the 14850 Dining Report is taking a look at the food traditions surrounding this springtime holiday. Straight out of the Bible’s Book of Exodus, the Passover story is about the Jewish people’s departure from slavery in Egypt, and the holiday is full of traditions that recall aspects of that story. Of course, the most famous Passover meal is the Last Supper, so some Easter traditions have their roots in Passover.
The fleeing Jews’ rushed to bake their bread before it had a chance to rise, so they could escape Egypt before Pharaoh changed his mind. That’s the origin of matzah, the crispy flat bread that looks like an oversized cracker and isn’t much more interesting. But it also means a general prohibition on eating grains during Passover, from wheat and barley to rice and corn. That cuts out prepared foods made with any kind of flour, gluten, or corn syrup or corn starch.
The good news is that the corn syrup restriction leads to Kosher for Passover Coke, made with sugar cane syrup for a couple of weeks a year. Look for the telltale yellow cap with Hebrew writing on it.
Local eateries can help by making sure there are some dishes available without grains — so, no gravies with flour, soups without corn starch. Bakeries might have flourless chocolate tortes or coconut macaroons on hand, and just about any restaurant can make a salad without croutons.
Some observant Jews eliminate not just bread and pasta and other grain items from their diets for a week, but also all legumes — which includes peanuts and soy, so such vegetarian staples as peanut butter and tofu are off-limits. These restrictions are mostly observed by Jews of Ashkenazic, primarily Eastern European, descent, but generally not by those of Sephardic descent, often from northern Africa or Spain. Some Jewish communities are phasing out the restrictions on legumes, and even rice and corn, based on discussions in 2015.
Most alcoholic drinks are grain-based, including beer and whisky, though determined observers might seek out potato-based vodka (most commercial vodkas these days are grain alcohol), sugar cane spirits like rum and cachaça, and agave-based tequila.
This spring is the last chance to visit Hal’s Deli in downtown Ithaca for their Passover style menu, including matzah ball soup, salads, and omelets with matzah on the side instead of toast. Gefilte fish and chopped liver platters might not appeal to everyone, but a turkey salad bowl or grilled chicken with potato pancakes might be more your style. It’s not a strictly Kosher eatery, but it’s Passover-friendly. Hal’s is closing in late May.
For real Kosher dining, Cornell’s 104West kosher and multicultural dining room is open to everyone. Cornell hosts a “Super Seder” on the first and second nights of Passover each year. Reservations are good, but walk-ins are welcome. The Kol Haverim Finger Lakes Community for Humanistic Judaism is hosting a Humanistic Passover Seder on Saturday, April 15th.
Local supermarkets offer a mixed bag of Passover supplies for residents stocking up for meals at home. Tops and Wegmans both have large areas set up with not just matzah, but also sodas and candies without corn syrup, cereals and crackers made from matzah meal, Passover noodles and baking mixes, and more.
You can make sandwiches out of matzah, though they tend to fall apart, and it’s fun to make matzah pizza with the kids. The best use for matzah during Passover is Matzah Brei, basically a matzah omelet made with crumbled-up matzah and minced onion. It ends up more like a crisp, sweet pancake than like an omelet.
If you’re not Jewish, try not to be offended if some of your friends can’t eat your birthday cake or have some of your whisky with you this week. Whether you’re celebrating Passover or Easter or one of the even-older spring equinox festivals celebrating rebirth, we wish you a happy spring season.