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Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is one of the most important festivals for Jews around the world. Since ancient times, celebrating the liberation of the Israelites from slavery under Pharoah means gathering for a ritual feast called a Seder. During the meal we recount the story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt toward the beginning of the Jewish nation.

There are certain elements of the celebration that everyone incorporates, such as displaying the symbolic foods of bitter herbs, a green vegetable, a lamb shankbone, boiled egg and charoset (sweet sticky mixture). And of course, bread that rises is out and unleavened matzah is in.

But if you thought that all Jews have the same traditions and eat the same food, think again. Due to millennia of being scattered across the globe, different Jewish groups have developed unique customs and recipes that were influenced by their surroundings and history. Here are just a few Passover traditions you might find among Jews of different ethnicity.


Ashkenazi Jews

This is the group that comes to mind when most people in the US, the UK, South Africa and Australia think of Jews, the ones whose forebears spoke Yiddish. The word ‘Ashkenazi’ means ‘Germanic’ and describes Jewish people who lived in Western Europe before being forced to  move to Eastern Europe for centuries.

Their food was influenced by the cuisine of a region with brutal winters, so at an Ashkenazi Passover seder, you may eat matzah balls in your chicken soup, gefilte fish, brisket with tzimmes (stew of potatoes, carrot and prunes) and chopped liver on kichel, a sweet cracker made with eggs.

Aside from grains, Ashkenazi Jews also stop eating foods called kitniyot for the eight days of Passover – rice, beans, corn, peanuts and other legumes. A common tradition at the seder is for the leader to hide a piece of matzah, called the afikoman, and let the children hunt for it – the winner gets a prize.


Sephardi Jews

‘Sefarad’ is the word for ‘Spain’ in Ladino, the language of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. From the time of the Roman Empire a large Jewish community flourished in Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar and southern France. After being expelled in 1492 they fled to Anatolia (now Turkey) and North Africa and then countries such as Greece, the Balkans, Italy, Holland, and eventually to England.

Passover food on the Sephardic table will be full of Mediterranean flavours, including fish or chicken with leeks, celery roots, artichokes, lemon, olives and potatoes. They are allowed to eat kitniyot, so dishes can have rice, chickpeas and beans. Sephardic seder meals may include lamb, unlike those of Ashkenazis, and they may conclude with ahashoo, a crunchy sweet made with honey, ginger, nuts, cinnamon and matzah flakes. Instead of hiding the afikoman, the piece of matzah is placed in a cloth sack and each person present takes a walk around the room, symbolising the journey of the Jews from Egypt to the promised land.


Mizrahi Jews

Although often included in definitions of Sephardic Jews, as they share some history and many customs, Mizrahi (meaning Oriental/Eastern) Jews have a separate heritage.  They are descended from Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, from countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria, Afghanistan, India, Iran and Iraq. Mizrachi Jews have always maintained a presence in the land of Israel.

At a Mizrahi seder table, you will find variations on the kitniyot rule depending on the family history. You’ll probably notice aromas of cumin and saffron, coriander and garlic. Dishes could be spiced meatballs, Moroccan fish, beef stew, stuffed potatoes, and anything with dates and apricots. Dessert might include almond cake, honey-soaked walnut cake or sesame cookies.

A well-loved custom is to wait for the singing of ‘Dayenu’ and then hit each other with green onions to remember how the enslaved Jews were beaten by their masters.


Italkim (Italian Jews)

While Italian Jews may be Ashkenazi or Sephardi, they also include a community with a history separate from either of them. Jews of the Italian Rite, or ‘Italkim’, have been living in Italy since the Roman retuned with them as slaves following the destruction of the second Temple.  

Italian Jews and non-Jews influenced each other’s cuisine immensely, using olive oil, wine and garlic. In Rome particularly, Jewish cooking has become an integral part of the city’s traditional food – with dishes such as carciofi alla Romana (Roman-style artichokes) or fritti (fried pieces of vegetable or fish). Over Passover, you might be offered baccalà (codfish) with pine nuts and raisins, stuffed tomatoes with rice, roast lamb or braised beef, risotto, peas, artichokes, or lasagne made with matzah. Topping the  sweet treats are ciambellette, delicious cookies made with flour, olive oil, eggs and sugar.

For a typical Italian Passover custom, wait for the seder plate to be brought in with great ceremony and singing, placed on top of a child’s head, and rotated so everyone can see the symbolic foods before the seder begins.


Happy Passover to all who celebrate with their unique recipes and customs!

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