In Rome, a Hidden Jewish Cuisine

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To try a recipe for cershi, a garlicky pumpkin spread best served with pita bread or couscous, click here.

The cucina ebraica romana (Roman Jewish cuisine) is famous among Romans and visitors alike for its carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style—deep fried—artichokes), fiori di zucca (fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella), and aliciotti e indivia (anchovies with endive). These dishes, widely available in restaurants throughout Rome, are seasonal, generally made from local ingredients, and, above all, kosher.

"It is on holidays and Shabbat that these dishes are still made, but the traditions are disappearing quickly."

Far less well-known in Rome, but no less important, are the typical dishes of the Libyan Jewish tradition, called the cucina ebraica tripolina. It is found almost exclusively in homes, especially on T'fina (Shabbat). Its protagonists are hearty stews served with couscous. Cinnamon, cumin, caraway seed, paprika, turmeric, parsley, and hot chilies play supporting roles.

Rome has the most ancient Jewish community in Western Europe, stretching back to 161 BCE. Over the past 22 centuries, the city's community has been shaped and enriched by the arrival of diaspora groups, first in antiquity—the slaves of Pompey (63 BCE) and Titus (70 CE)—then refugees fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Southern Italy (1492), and most recently, Libyan Jews escaping pogroms (1967).

Several thousand Libyan Jews settled in Rome, arriving primarily from Tripoli. Although they were embraced by the local community, they continued to preserve their unique culinary traditions, which differed greatly from those already present in the city.

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Perhaps their most iconic food, and a classic T'fina dish, is haraimi, a spicy fish stew served with couscous that is made with tomato paste, paprika, cumin, caraway seed, lemon, and garlic. Other typical dishes include mafrum (stuffed vegetables), shakshuka (eggs in a spicy tomato sauce), lubya b'selk (beans with spinach), cershi (a garlic-rich pumpkin spread), and brik (a fried stuffed crepe). There is a strong emphasis on seasonal ingredients, and the recipes share common traits with those of other North African cuisines.

One can find the cucina ebraica tripolina in Rome in a handful of restaurants. Ba' Ghetto's two locations (Via Portico d'Ottavia, 57; Via Livorno 10) serve a mixture of Jewish dishes from Rome, the Levant, and North Africa. Among the latter are haraimi with couscous and brik, but the kitchen will prepare other dishes of the cucina ebraica tripolina upon request with advance notice.

Ba' Ghetto's owner Amit Dabush described the state of the cucina tripolina in Rome: "It is on holidays and Shabbat that these dishes are still made, but the traditions are disappearing quickly. These recipes are preserved in the homes, by grandmothers. Some dishes cook all day Friday and are not practical for households where both man and woman work." The recipes may be evolving under modern exigencies, but the adherence to the rules of kashrut (kosher law) remains prominent as ever.

Recipe: Cershi (Garlicky Pumpkin Spread)


All photos courtesy of labna.it.

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Katie Parla is a food historian and sommelier based in Rome, Italy. Follow Katie on her blog, ParlaFood.com, and on Twitter at @katieparla.

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