Sephardic Recipes With A Modern Twist

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When Vivian met Nik she was charmed by his Irish accent and was amazed to find out that there were Irish Jews.

Jewish history in Ireland began over a thousand years ago, when five Jews brought a gift to Toirdelbach, the king of Munster, but they were soon sent back to where they came from. By 1232, there was a small community of Jews living in Dublin, with King Henry III granting the Treasurer and Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer “custody of the King’s Judaism in Ireland.” Following the expulsion from Portugal in 1497, a number of Sephardic Jews settled on the south coast of the Emerald Isle. Ireland’s first synagogue was built in 1660, near Dublin Castle. During the Great Famine, many Jews donated generously to famine relief and according to a Dublin newspaper, Baron Lionel de Rothschild and his family donated a sum far greater than the joint contributions of the Irish landowning aristocracy, which included the Devonshires, the Fitzwilliams and the Herberts. By 1891, the number of Irish Jews had swelled 300% to 1,506 members.

In 1892, Nik’s great grandfather was 20 years old when he left his home in Lithuania, determined to reach the “goldene medina.” A bottle of vodka was inducement enough for the border guard to look the other way as he escaped over the border into Belarus. He begged rides, slept in barns and worked for meals, as he trudged 792 miles through Belarus and Poland to get to the German seaport of Hamburg. There he found his way aboard a vessel, but it was only at sea that he found out that the boat was headed for England, not America. In Liverpool, he boarded another ship sailing west, but this ship was bound for Ireland and that’s where he stayed.

Arriving as the penniless Moshe Helman, he was renamed Maurice Elliman by immigration officials and like many other hard-working and entrepreneurial immigrants he became a successful citizen of his new country. He started as a grocer and became a big player in the entertainment industry. He married Leah and together they had children, many grandchildren and many, many great grandchildren.

A century later, his great-grandson Nik landed in the Big Apple after winning the green card lottery through the Morrison Act. A short time after his arrival, a friend Nik had met on a BBYO tour of Israel introduced him to a friend of hers, Liz. Liz had met Vivian on the SEC Hamsa trip when Neil Sheff was their brave and fearless counselor. Liz invited Nik to a Sephardic Educational Center event organized by Vivian, then-president of the New York chapter. They met and “the rest is history!”

Throughout the years of their marriage, Nik and Vivian and their four children have always celebrated Passover with his family in Dublin. For the first night Seder, Nik’s mother makes an incredible spread. The first course is a fish cocktail featuring cod and a homemade mayonnaise in the cocktail sauce. The main course includes sweet and sour salmon, poached salmon, fried plaice (a delicious white fish) and fried fish balls. There are lots of salads: carrot and raisin salad, mushroom salad, potato salad and a big mixed green salad. The desserts are mouthwatering: Sacher Torte, Lemon Pavlova, oranges in a Cointreau caramel sauce, homemade ice creams and fresh fruit.

Inspired by that incredible menu, we share with you Sharon’s grandmother’s recipe for Salona, Iraqi Sweet and Sour Fish. The sauce is a tangy, spicy, sweet combination of fresh lemon juice, pomegranate syrup and curry. Adding layers of onion, tomato and garlic make this white fish recipe all kinds of delicious. Perfect for a light meal on Passover or any time of the year.

On this St Patrick’s Day, we share it in honor of our wonderful friends, Nik and Vivian (who comes from an Iraqi Jewish family. And in honor of Sharon’s grandparents and parents, who share March 17th wedding anniversaries (1943 and 1964, respectively).

May we all be blessed with the luck of the Irish!

Salona, Iraqi Sweet and Sour Fish

2 pounds white fish fillets (cod, sea bass, bream)
2 large onions, sliced into rings
4 large tomatoes, sliced into rings
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
Salt and pepper to taste
Oil for sautéing

The Sauce
3 lemons, juiced
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses or maple syrup or honey
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes

  1. Over medium heat, mix all the sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.

  2. Simmer gently for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

  3. In a heavy-bottomed pan, sauté onions over medium heat until they are soft and translucent, then set aside.

  4. Cut the fish fillets into large chunks, then brush with olive oil and sprinkle with curry powder, paprika, salt and pepper.

  5. Pour a light layer of oil in the pan and arrange the fish on the bottom.

  6. Layer onions and garlic on top of the fish.

  7. Place the tomatoes over the onions, then add the sauce on top.

  8. Cover and simmer gently for about 25-30 minutes.

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Luck of the Irish: Iraqi Sweet & Sour Salona