By Michele Amira
Jackie Feldman believes that the best way to preserve a culture is around a table laden with delicious foods. For her recipes, the 30-year-old Dupont Circle resident and University of Florida alum draws from her Greek and Turkish Sephardic roots, a love of Persian ingredients and the Cuban food she grew up with in Miami.
Last year, she started a blog called Healthy Sephardic Cooking to offer guilt-free versions of dishes from the Sephardic diaspora. She also started the group Sephardic Jews in DC to “ensure that Sephardic culture doesn’t die out, but rather will continue to evolve and be celebrated for its many contributions to Judaism,” she explained.
What inspired you to start Healthy Sephardic Cooking?
I wanted to share my recipes — both family recipes and the ones I’ve developed — with my friends and family, as well as the Jewish community as a whole.
Is there such a thing as unhealthy Sephardic cooking?
Sephardic food is generally healthier than Ashkenazi food, since there are more vegetarian and vegan options, but I make the recipes even healthier [by making them low carb].
What are your favorite Sephardic ingredients?
I would say saffron, orange blossom water and, oh my God, anything with dates. For example, I make this Persian-style ice cream that has rose water, saffron, pistachios and candied orange peels in it. It’s one of my favorite desserts to make. I get most of these ingredients from Moti’s Market and Yekta Market, which is run by an Iranian family in Rockville.
Why are Sephardic traditions important to the Jewish community?
All too often, Sephardic culture in the U.S. is minimized, and many of our customs and traditions have been lost as we absorb into the greater Ashkenazi community. It’s important to remember that Sephardim spent hundreds, if not thousands, of years developing their own organic Jewish customs, practices, recipes, prayers and languages. We must remember this culture and heritage, even as our own practices evolve and modernize.
What makes you Sephardic?
My friends love to joke that I’m basically from everywhere. My mother’s side is Sephardic and they migrated [from Spain] to Greece and Turkey, following the expulsion of the Jewish community from Spain. Then, they moved to South America in the late 1800s. My father’s side is Polish-Russian. So, they’re Ashkenazi. But they also migrated to South America in the late 1800s. This makes me both Latin and Jewish.
What makes Sephardic food unique?
Sephardic food is unique because it was developed due to Jewish practices like kashrut [Jewish dietary law], Shabbat and the need to stretch out limited pantries. Another thing I find fascinating is that many communities brought over so many types of food from Spain. Sofrito [a sauce] is a great example of this. Many vegetables, like eggplant, artichokes and leeks were used by Sephardic communities for years, using them in traditional methods of food preparation.
Tell us about a Sephardic Jews in DC event that you catered and organized.
I loved cooking for the American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) Turkish Shabbat dinner [in September], because I had the opportunity to make many of my family recipes, most of which have been passed down for hundreds of years. While conducting research and formulating a menu, I got a chance to speak to different branches of my family to learn their versions of family recipes.
Also, I loved educating people on the Jewish history and ties to Turkey, one of the few countries that accepted hundreds of thousands of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, following the Spanish Inquisition. They treated the Jews admirably well in comparison to their neighbors.
Which countries inspire your cooking the most?
I’m most inspired by the food from Iran, Turkey, Morocco and Israel. I also consider myself to be an honorary Persian. I’m fascinated by Persian food.
Have your travels influenced your cooking style?
Yes. One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to go to local markets, especially spice markets and restaurants. My favorite restaurant is Azura, in the Machane Yehudah market in Jerusalem. All of the food is home cooked by the owners, who are Kurdish-Turkish Jews. I remember asking for lemonana [mint lemonade], and they ran over to the market stall next door to chop me some fresh mint for my drink. Those moments truly inspire and make me work hard to preserve that culture and way of cooking and hosting.
Michele Amira is a Washington-area writer.
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