Ashkenazi-style charoset: apples, walnuts, cinnamon and red wine. (photo by Yoninah via commons.wikimedia.org)
What Passover seder symbol is common to all communities but is not mentioned in the biblical passage that enjoins us to eat the paschal offering, matza and bitter herbs? Charoset.
Charoset is loosely defined as a paste of fruit, spices and wine, symbolic of the mortar used by the Hebrews when they were slaves in Egypt.
The word is of unknown origin but may be from the word heres, meaning clay, because of its color. The custom of eating charoset is thought to have come from the time of the Babylonians, who dipped food in relishes or sauces to add flavor.
Some years ago, I surprised all my seder guests by serving both the traditional Ashkenazi version and a Sephardi version of charoset, which everyone loved and wanted in future years.
The New York Times Passover Cookbook, edited by Linda Amster, says that the Iraqi version of charoset is one of the oldest and most time-consuming recipes, dating back to the Babylonian exile of 579 BCE. Made into a jam from dates, grapes, pomegranate and honey, it was a sweetener in the ancient world and is still used by Iraqi, Burmese, Syrian and Indian Jews.
The Talmud says charoset must be sharp in taste and similar to clay in substance and color. Differing geographies is one of the reasons there are differing charoset recipes.
Ashkenazim tend to use apples, chopped almonds, cinnamon, red wine and perhaps even matza meal; sometimes walnuts or other nuts are used. Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews tend to use fruits that grew in Eretz Israel in biblical times, such as grapes, figs, dates, almonds and pomegranates. Israelis often turn charoset into a dessert by adding bananas, dates, orange juice and/or sugar.
Abraham Chill, author of The Minhagim (The Customs), writes that each ingredient symbolizes something different from the Egypt experience. The mixture as a whole stands for the mortar used by the Jews in making bricks, and the cinnamon resembles the color of the bricks they made. Wine represents the blood of the Jewish infants thrown into the Nile. Almonds are used because the Hebrew word for almond, shaked, is also a word that means to accelerate, as G-d accelerated the end of slavery. Apples are used because it was said that Jewish women during that time gave birth to their babies under apple trees in order to avoid detection by the Egyptians.
In her book The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, Joan Nathan states that charoset is “one of the most popular and discussed ritual foods served at the seder.” She says the fruits and nuts refer to verses in the Song of Songs, which mention an apple tree and the garden of nuts; the red wine recalls the Red Sea.
Because the maror or bitter herb is so strong, some say that the real purpose of charoset is to allay the bitterness. As part of the seder, the charoset and maror are placed between matzot to make a sandwich, which is said to have been invented by the first century CE Rabbi Hillel, hence, its name, the “Hillel sandwich.”
There are as many variations on the ingredients of charoset as there are Jewish communities.
Jews from the island of Rhodes use dates, walnuts, ginger and sweet wine. Jews of Salonika, Greece, add raisins. Other Greek Jews use walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, raisins, cinnamon, cloves and red wine and spread it thickly on matza. Turkish Jews include orange.
A Moroccan friend told me she used some of the seven species from the Bible in her charoset: dates, almonds, nuts, pomegranate seeds, figs, wine and cinnamon. Jewish Daily Forward Food Maven columnist Matthew Goodman once wrote in the Forward that Moroccan Jews sometimes make charoset paste and roll it into balls. He says this is a legacy from Jews of medieval Spain, who made the balls of apples, dried fruit, almonds, cooked chestnuts, sugar and cinnamon (but no wine) and then drizzled the balls with white vinegar before serving.
Jews of Venice use chestnut paste, dates, figs, poppy seeds, walnuts, pine nuts, orange peel, dried apricots, raisins, brandy and honey, while Jews of Bukharia use nuts, almonds, dates, raisins, apples and wine. Egyptian charoset contains dates, nuts, banana, apples, wine, cinnamon and pomegranate seeds.
An Iraqi woman told me that instead of a paste type of charoset, they would buy a special date honey and sprinkle chopped nuts on top. Goodman, again in the Forward, explained that its foundation is a syrup, halek, made by boiling dates, straining the liquid and then reducing it over a low flame until thick. Halek is one of the earliest of all sweeteners and may be the source of the reference in “land flowing with milk and honey.” Chopped walnuts or almonds are then added to the syrup. Jews of Calcutta also follow this custom.
A Dutch woman told me that she makes a chunky mixture with more apples and only a few nuts, plus cinnamon, sugar, raisins and sweet wine. Jews from Surinam in Dutch Guiana use seven fruits and coconut.
Following the injunction to have a sharp taste, Persian Jews use dates, pistachios, almonds, raisins, apples, orange, bananas, pomegranate seeds, sweet wine, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, vinegar and black pepper. Likewise, Yemenite Jews use dates, raisins, almonds, nuts, figs, dates, sesame seeds, apples, pomegranate seeds, grape juice, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and black pepper. Jews from Afghanistan pound charoset in a mortar with a pestle and use walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, apples, sweet wine, pomegranate seeds, dates and black pepper.
One exception I have found to Ashkenazim following the strictly sweet version was a friend whose father’s family came from Galicia. He recalled that their charoset was made from apples, nuts, wine, cinnamon and horseradish.
Here are but a few recipes.
CLASSIC ASHKENAZI CHAROSET
6 chopped apples
1/3 cup chopped nuts
1/4 cup raisins
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp sugar
1/4 cup red sweet wine
Combine apples, nuts and raisins. Add cinnamon, sugar and wine. Depending on your preference, this can also be made in a food processor.
1/2 cup seeded, finely chopped dates
1/2 apple, grated
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/8 cup red wine
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ginger
Combine dates and apple. Add nuts, wine, cinnamon and ginger.
1/2 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup chopped raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup chopped almonds
1/4 cup red wine
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/8 tsp cinnamon
Combine dates and raisins. Add walnuts, almonds, wine, lemon juice and cinnamon. Form into balls.
1 1/2 cups pitted dates
2/3 cup raisins
2 seeded oranges
2/3 cup almonds
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp cinnamon
In a food processor, coarsely chop figs, dates, raisins, oranges and almonds. Try to keep the fruit chunky unless you prefer it pureéd. Pour into a bowl. Add wine, cayenne, cinnamon and blend.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant features for janglo.net and leads weekly shuk walks in English in Jerusalem’s Jewish food market.