Decorate your Sukkot table with Ethiopian, North African, and Sephardi breads full of fall colors and tantalizing spice mixes. Broaden your palate with the customs of worldwide Jewish communities. Laden with seasonal honey, pumpkin, or orange, they don’t need braiding and make perfect gifts.
Throughout the Hebrew month of the High Holidays known as Tishrei, Jews from North Africa enjoy this orange-scented boulou bread. Boulou is also called pandericas, mounas, and petit pain and is a citrusy and golden addition to Sukkot.
Sephardi and North African Jews were among the first Jews to experience oranges when they were brought through North Africa to Spain near the end of the 9th century. Jews contributed to early citrus businesses as distributers and wholesalers. Ashkenazim peddled oranges in Europe and also became primary wholesalers of oranges in England. Israel’s Jaffa oranges juiced big business pre-statehood and for a good part of the 20th century. That distinguished heritage radiates through this amazing bread.
On the High Holidays the dough for this Ethiopian bread is doused with honey and the slices are then drenched with honey. Initially baked in a clay covered pot lined with banana leaves over embers, this dabo bread is enriched with butter and milk, as reflected in its Amharic name: yemar = honey; yewotet = milk; dabo = bread. Some Ethiopians believe that bee honey was one of the many gifts that the Queen of Sheba brought to King Solomon (II Chronicles 9:1).
This focus on honey in this tasty loaf makes sense, given that Ethiopia’s honey manifests regional subtleties from its local biodiversity. This includes a highly valued white honey derived from sage plants in the Tigray region. Honey forms the basis of the national fermented honey wine, tej, and its related honey water called birz.
Pumpkin is a popular ingredient in Sephardi dishes, according to food writer Emily Paster. Leah Koenig, author of The Jewish Cookbook, argues that Jews “helped normalize” foods like pumpkin when they were new to European menus. In the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks notes that in Italy, pumpkin came to be associated with Jews. Pumpkin made early appearances in Mediterranean foods via Sephardim in Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Libya, Morocco, India, and Bukhara. Award-winning chef and cookbook author Joyce Goldstein suggests that Sephardim may have embraced pumpkin because the texture resembled meat and could be used for dairy and meat meals.
Pumpkin had seasonal appeal especially during the High Holidays. As Gilda Angel, an expert in Sephardi foods notes, “Food made with pumpkin is served to express the hope that as this vegetable has been protected by a thick covering, God will protect us and gird us with strength.” One Hebrew word for pumpkin or squash, qara, provides the pun for “tear or rip” -- any evil decree of the new year should be torn up. The word also sounds like the Hebrew for “called out.” That is, good deeds should be called out and recognized as in “yikaru lefanekha z'khuyoteinu", "may our good deeds be called out before God at the time of judgment.” Since a pumpkin contains many seeds, it also came to symbolize fruitfulness and fertility.
This Sukkot, reclaim these diverse, autumn-infused baked goods from legendary and resilient Jewish communities.