A South African Seder, Inspired by Lithuanian Roots

Spicy Flavors of African Cape Put Stamp on Litvak Tradition

Carrot Candy: Beth Pollak, who’s family is South African shows off a plate of sweet and spicy ingberlach in her Brooklyn home.
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Carrot Candy: Beth Pollak, who’s family is South African shows off a plate of sweet and spicy ingberlach in her Brooklyn home.

By Leah Koenig

Published March 19, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
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On Passover, when Jewish dietary restrictions are especially stringent, the local menus skew traditional: chicken soup, many different kinds of herring, p’tcha (calf’s foot jelly), brisket and homemade desserts including an unusual, carrot candy called ingberlach (the name stems from the Yiddish word for ginger, ingber, the candy’s primary flavoring).

“When I was a child everything was handmade on Passover, because you had no other option,“ said Ida Jones, who grew up outside Johannesburg and currently lives in a small coastal town about five hours east of Cape Town. “Today there is no shortage of certified kosher-for-Passover products flown in from Israel, but that is only in the last several decades.“

Despite the adherence to tradition, local influences still sneak into the Seder meal. Most striking is South Africa’s positioning in the Southern hemisphere, which means North America’s familiar autumn produce is in season during South Africa’s spring.

The result: Apples are a key ingredient in the Passover menu — from the traditional haroset to the bits of green apple lending crunch and sweetness to chopped herring, and apples stewed with cinnamon and cloves for dessert. The grapes that Perkel’s family once bought for wine also come into peak season in the weeks leading up to the Seders.

When it comes to fish, many South African families up the ante from gefilte on Passover, serving fried fish balls bound with matzo meal and a dish called mock crayfish among the spread of starters. The former, which Perkel’s daughter, Naomi Pollak, says “look like falafel and taste amazing,” are a testament to the British colonial influence. (Brits do love to fry their fish.)

“We had thousands of fried fish balls all year round,” recalls Dean Jankelowitz, a South African native who now co-owns the popular Manhattan restaurant Jack’s Wife Freda.

Mock crayfish, meanwhile, is a kosher take on lobster salad. In the culinary anthology “Man With a Pan,” South African-born novelist Tony Eprile describes the mock crayfish he ate growing up as “rock cod dressed up in a ketchup-mayonnaise mix.”


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