Did you ever think that the foods you eat, enjoy and love so much could be a reason for you to be persecuted, executed or expelled from your homeland? This is what happened in 15th century Spain to the Sephardic Jews.
Today’s recipe comes from the Sephardic Jews of Medieval Spain during the 15th century. Sephardic Jews, as they are known, are the Jews that came from Spain or have Spanish ancestry who were living in Spain for centuries dating from ancient times. The word “Sephardic” comes from the word “Sepharad” which is the Hebrew word for “Spain”. One branch of my family on my father’s side originally came from Spain. I don’t know much about his side of the family except that they were expelled during the Inquisition and immigrated to other places, ending up centuries later in parts of Eastern and Western Europe as well as South Africa and, of course, The United States.
Between the 9th and the11th centuries the Jews of Iberia for the most part flourished when the Muslim rulers controlled the peninsula. This was known as the “Jewish Golden Age” where the Jews thrived religiously, culturally and economically. Unfortunately, this “Golden Age” didn’t last very long as the Jews were persecuted for many centuries afterward during the time when the Catholics controlled Spain. This was the beginning of the infamous Spanish Inquisition, established in 1478 by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile.
Source of photo: Wikimedia Commons
It was a very dark time in history, when thousands of innocent men, women and children had to convert from their religion. If they didn’t, they were tortured, put to death, or had to eventually leave their homeland. On March 31, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the “Alhambra Decree”, also known as the “Edict of Expulsion”. (See note below)
Source of photo: Wikimedia Commons
All Jewish citizens regardless of age or gender had to be out of Spain by the 31st of July of that same year. Ferdinand and Isabella wanted a totally Catholic Spain. Today we would call it “ethnic cleansing”! The Inquisition continued into the mid-19th century. For several centuries Jews had to fear for their lives, just because they were Jewish. The Inquisition was used as a source to ensure that the Jews and Muslims who previously converted to Catholicism, were actually practicing Catholics. They were known as “Conversos” or the “New Christians”. Many of them, for outward appearances, pretended to be Catholic, but in the secrecy of their homes, still practiced Judaism. It was precisely these New Christians that King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella and the Grand Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada (who also had Jewish ancestry), were looking for.
Source of photo: Wikimedia Commons
One of the ways for the Inquisitors to find out if the Conversos were practicing Judaism in secret was through their customs, the food they ate, and how the food was prepared. Jewish dietary laws require that Jews eat meat that is “kosher”, do not eat pork, any kind of shellfish, fish that doesn’t have scales, or mix dairy products with meat.(see note below) In addition to their dietary laws, observant Jews keep the Sabbath beginning from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. This meant that all work has to cease, including cooking food over an open fire or even lighting that fire, until the Sabbath was over. Another way that the Inquisitors would find out if the “secret Jews” were still practicing their Jewish traditions, were to publically post a list of Jewish customs, and have the their fellow citizens detect if the Conversos were following those customs. This list would inform them if their neighbors, friends and, yes even their own family members, were still observing the Jewish Sabbath, laws and customs. Basically, everyone was a spy for the Catholic Church. Spying through the food that they were eating, and the customs that they kept, was an extremely easy way to find out if the Conversos were resorting to their old ways.
Eggplant was a huge staple food of the Sephardic Jews of Medieval Spain, as well as olive oil. Olive oil was heavily used in their cooking. The oil was another way that the Jews could be turned into the Inquisition because Christians would cook with lard (pig fat), and since any food involving a pig, as I mentioned previously, was not kosher and could not be used. These food items, including others such as chick peas, were a dead giveaway.
The recipe and the next few paragraphs are excerpts from the book entitled “A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews” written by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson and will describe the history of the recipe and how a house servant reported Isabel and Beatriz to the authorities as being crypto-Jews. Please take a step back in time through the testimonies of those who lived during that period.
“Isabel Gonzalez, tried by the Inquisition in Ciudad Real in 1511, allegedly “used to cook on Friday for the Sabbath stews with eggplant, onions, coriander and spices”
“Beatriz and Isabel Gonzalez, the daughters of Fernan Gonzalez, voluntarily confessed to Judaizing during the first wave of trials in Ciudad Real in 1483-1484. Among the particulars of their confessions are that they koshered their meat; that they dressed up for the Sabbath and lit candles; and that they celebrated Yom Kippur and Passover. During their trials they successfully pled for mercy, claiming that their extreme youth had led them to imitate the adult Judaizers in their family without giving the matter serious thought.”
“Beginning in 1511, the Ciudad Real Tribunal reopened cases against suspected heretics and indicted the Gonzales sisters again. This time, however, the Inquisition had to try them in absentia, because when the sisters became aware of the investigation, they fled to Portugal where Beatriz’s husband Juan de la Sierra had a business selling saltpeter to King Manuuel I. By them Isabel was a widow, for her husband, Rodrigo de Villarrubia, had been tried and burned by the Inquisition in the late 1490s. One witness reported that Isabel considered her husband a martyr and believed that false testimony had condemned him. Whenever she spoke of him she burst into tears.”
There is no question that the family continued to self-identify as Jews and to practice as many Jewish customs as they were able. Catalina Martin, who served in the Gonzalez house for three years, reported, for example, that “they celebrated Friday nights and Saturdays, when they did no work, and they put on clean shirts and holiday dresses and they decked themselves out like it was a Sunday, or a [Christian] festival; and on Saturdays they did no cooking, and would not even let [her] or a black slave who worked for the family make a fire.” They would not eat from any utensil used by their servants, nor would they drink from a jar that the servants might have used. They would not let their clothing and the servants’ clothes be washed in the same tub. Catalina also described how Beatriz and Isabel used to pray, their shoulders covered with linen cloths, lowering and raising their heads and swaying forward and backward.
This recipe for Sabbath eggplant casserole is part of Catalina Martin’s testimony against the sisters.”
Even though the recipe comes from the 15th century, it was adapted for the modern kitchen.
|Isabel Gonzalez’s Eggplant and Onion Stew|| |
- 1 medium eggplant (about 2 lbs)
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 2 cups chicken broth (see variations)
- 2 medium onions, quartered
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 3 whole white cardamom pods (see variations)
- ½ teaspoon ground dried coriander (see variations)
- 1 teaspoon dried cilantro leaves
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves (see variations)
- Peel the eggplant. Cut it into ½ inch thick slices and soak for 30 minutes in salted water. To keep the eggplant from rising to the surface, you may need to weigh it down. Rinse the eggplant a few times in cold water and press the slices between paper towels to remove the excess water. Cut the eggplant into small cubes.
- Place the eggplant into a large pot and add the chicken broth. Add the onions and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pot. Simmer for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Remove the cover and stir in the five seasonings. Continue to simmer for another 30-45 minutes.
- Notes: Serve over rice or couscous. This dish is good either hot or cold.
- This stew may be thickened by adding 1 piece of toasted bread that has been soaked in 4 tablespoons of white vinegar.
- Instead of cardamom, coriander, and cloves, substitute 1 teaspoon ground caraway seeds and ½ teaspoon ground feel seeds or ½ teaspoon ginger and ½ teaspoon pepper
- For the chicken broth you can substitute meat stock or vegetable broth.
Based on what was presented, Isabel and her sister Beatriz escaped to Portugal, although I am not sure if they were tortured or put to death, as it does not say, but Isabel’s husband was unfortunately burned at the stake in the late 1490’s like so many other Jews.
In conclusion, the recipe that I chose, exemplified what the Jews experienced during these terrible times. The authors have recreated recipes from Inquisition testimonies and primary sources which depict a riveting image of the history of the Sephardic Jews. If you are interested in the history of the Spanish Jews and their food during the Inquisition, I highly recommend this book. Even if you aren’t a history buff like I am, but are interested in recipes from another time and place, this is a book for you! These were really great recipes from a very significant and horrific time in history.
The expulsion of the Jews had an enormous detrimental effect on Spain. The result was not only economically, but emotionally and academically as well. Spain took a huge loss from this, as 2% of their wealthiest and most prominent citizens were made to leave the country.
Notes from above:
English version of Alhambra Decree
An explanation about what kosher food is can be found here: