How cardboard like the matzah we know today came to be and where is its softer cousin.
It would be difficult to find a Jewish person who does not know Matzah. It is the centerpiece of our most celebrated holidays and its presence throughout the diaspora speaks to its enduring importance. As an Ashkenazim raised in New York, I’ve always been most familiar with flat, cracker-shaped matzah made in the interest of preservation (at least historically). I’ve also had the pleasure of enjoying the many Passover iterations of Matzah, like Matzah Brei, Matzah Pizza, and Matzah Toffee. Although there is great diversity in the applications of matzah, the basic ingredient remains the same: hard, square, perforated (but has anyone managed to crack one at its perforations? ). When a Yemeni friend of mine explained to me that Matzah was, of all things, soft in his family’s Passover, I knew I had to learn more. The first thing I learned? The thin, cracker-like version of Matzah isn’t that old – before the 18th century almost all Matzah was soft, and in some parts of the world it still is.
When a Yemeni friend of mine explained to me that Matzah was, of all things, soft in his family’s Passover, I knew I had to learn more.
Across the Diaspora, Jewish cuisine varies, both in style and substance. These differences are often influenced by local geography, local tastes, and kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). Matzah, too, despite the strict rules inherent in its production, reflects these influences.
In 17th and 18th century Italy, for example, where Jewish communities flourished, three distinct varieties of Matzah developed to meet the needs of these communities: Shmura Matzah for seders (they meet a higher level of supervision of kashrut); Ordinary matzah for the intermediate days of the Passover; and something called “rich” Matzah, a sweet pancake made with white wine, eggs, sugar, anise and goose fat. Goose fat, in particular, seems like a particularly appropriate choice, as it recalls our delicious use of schmaltz in other dishes. These “rich” matzahs were available to everyone, including the gentiles. However, this matzah, especially a variety made in Ancona, became so popular that wealthy Jews from Venice imported it for seders, and its beloved status among Gentiles prompted Pope Pius IV in 1775 to impose heavy fines to Gentiles buying matzah as well as their Jew. neighbors who sold it as a way for him to separate communities.
Nearby, in Spain, similar varieties of matzah began to emerge. Regular Spanish matzah was not as simple as the familiar cracker or regular Italian matzah, as Spanish included eggs and olive oil in the preparation. Spanish Jews also appreciated more sophisticated matzah and developed their own “rich” matzah. This was made with white wine, honey, cloves and pepper. This version was quite in demand but was inappropriate for religious purposes, so Spanish Jews began to develop simpler versions of this “rich” matzah, omitting the wine and cloves. Another variety of matzah that grew in the chestnut forests of northern Spain was chestnut matzah – using chestnut flour mixed with eggs, olive oil, honey, sugar, pepper and plenty of cinnamon (early recipes are very clear about cinnamon – this matzah calls for quite a bit).
Outside of Europe, matzahs tend to omit spices and sweets, but stringent processing regulations remain important. Like the Matzah of the Levant and the Matzah of the Arabian Peninsula, matzah tends to be soft when made in African Jewish communities. In Ethiopia, matzah is known as Kit’ta in Amharic and Kitcha in Tigrinya. It’s made with whole-wheat flour and dark sesame oil (not to be confused with brown or light sesame oil), and cooked like a pita or roti in a flat pan. Kit’ta is pressed flat with a fork, giving it a unique texture and appearance. Plus, in honor of the story that created this tradition, Kit’ta is made quickly and on demand, taking no more than 20 minutes from start to finish.
Yemeni matzah is said to be the closest thing our ancestors ate during the exodus from Egypt, and its simplicity seems to back up that claim.
Yemeni matzah is said to be the closest thing our ancestors ate during the exodus from Egypt, and its simplicity seems to back up that claim. Yemeni matzah is traditionally made with flour, water and nothing but the labor of its baker. The production of Yemeni matzah, like in Ethiopia, also focuses on the speed and efficiency of the process, and reducing the ingredients to two is certainly one facet of this. You can find soft matzah available fresh or frozen in Israel and other cities or online in the US here.
Source: Natali Zabari
These recipes are largely very old, as the introduction of Isaac Singer’s Matzah machine in 1838 enabled Jews to import Passover-ready matzah from places where it was impossible to make it from zero. Additionally, the fact that machine-made matzah reliably stayed fresh for months encouraged this spread, and labor-intensive fresh matzah recipes fell into disuse. However, some contemporary Jewish communities are finding ways to make do with what they have (in the absence of prohibitively expensive imported matzah). In Kaifeng, a city in China that was once home to a thriving Jewish community, some descendants of that community are reconnecting with their heritage. At Passover in Kaifengmatzah is replaced by Baobing, the thin Fujian pancakes served in American Chinese cuisine with Moo Shu dishes.
Much like the story of Matzah that is told in the Passover story, Jews around the world make do with what they have, and the variety of Matzah that comes out of this forced creativity is amazing to behold.