Cuisine of Sephardim is sexier, says S.F. chef Joyce Goldstein

If food is sexy — and Joyce Goldstein is the first to argue that it is — the cuisine of the Sephardim is one of the sexiest cuisines of them all.

She said so in a recent conversation about her new cookbook, “Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean.”

The author of numerous cookbooks and owner of the former San Francisco restaurant Square One took “a year and a half of steady brain-breaking work” to research and write this paean to the cuisine of the Jews of the Northern Mediterranean.

“It was so much work,” the San Francisco chef said, explaining that this cookbook required much more effort than others she has done.

“You’re translating from foreign languages. You’re going from metric measures to American. Then, because many of the recipes are from the oral tradition, often they don’t work at all, and you have to go to traditional texts to see what they did. Everything takes about 10 times longer than if I were doing personal recipes. I want to be accurate, but I want to make great food.”

Furthermore, she said, some of what she found were “descriptions rather than recipes. Some recipes said things like ‘bake until done.'” Then, based on her own knowledge, Goldstein would figure out for how long and at what temperature.

Goldstein, who has long been a proponent of the Mediterranean diet, began thinking about this book while working on her last Jewish cookbook, “Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen.”

Her publisher had suggested a larger focus on Jewish cuisine of the Mediterranean, but she believed it would be too vast an area to cover.

“I thought, ‘I’ll die, it’s too big of a subject,'” she said. “So we decided to do two books divided by the way the migration went.”

This book covers the Jews who fled Spain for the Ottoman Empire, including Turkey, Greece and the Balkans.

Now she’s at work on part two, which covers the southern Mediterranean, or North Africa. “The diversity is so amazing,” she said.

Goldstein was raised on Ashkenazi food, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Although her parents were both immigrants from Eastern Europe, her mother’s family name was Salata, a Sephardi name.

What is considered Jewish food in America is almost exclusively Ashkenazi, said Goldstein, who hopes to change that, because, she said half-jokingly, “it’s a difference between heart attacks and no heart attacks.”

While she still loves the food she grew up on, Goldstein said she doesn’t eat it often because it is so filling.

“Ashkenazi food is much heavier,” she said. “Because you had poor people cooking what they had, it’s often packed in fat and potatoes.”

In contrast, Sephardi cuisine relies less upon meat and more upon vegetables. Olive oil is used instead of chicken fat.

“There’s a wonderful use of herbs and spices,” she said. “It’s much lighter, healthier, and more diversified. It’s closer to the California style of cooking because of the lightness and fresh ingredients.”

Rattling off the many vegetables such as eggplant, artichokes and zucchini that are staples of Sephardi cuisine, Goldstein said that unlike the meat-based diet of the Ashkenazi, the Sephardim only ate meat on special occasions.

Goldstein pointed out that both cuisines are emblematic of the cultures themselves.

“The Jews of Eastern Europe were a closed community. They didn’t want anyone to influence them,” she said.

In contrast, she said, “the Sephardic Jews were mingling with the people, learning from them at the market, finding out what they were cooking. It was a lovely exchange, the way we’d like to think it would work,” she said. “Ashkenazi Jews weren’t out in the community while Sephardic Jews were active everywhere, and that was reflected in their food.”

Since closing Square One four years ago, Goldstein, 65, is hardly sitting still. In addition to her cookbook writing, she’s doing restaurant consulting and product development. In between writing part two on Sephardi cuisine, she’s working on a smaller book about Italian wine bars.

Goldstein hopes that people’s Jewish food horizons will expand beyond blintzes, chicken soup and kugel.

“I think people are beginning to discover a whole other Jewish culture out there,” she said. “It’s nice for them to cook another kind of Jewish food.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."