Passover rituals spiced by each culture’s Seder plate

Savory Chicken Soup with Spiced Matzo Balls


The Passover holiday has always been awe-inspiring for me. To think that millions of Jews across the world gather with family and, in other years, with friends on the same night(s) around a seder plate with the same symbols to recount the same story of our people’s journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land is at once humbling and powerful.

It does not matter whether your tradition has you dip your greens in salt water or lime juice or vinegar, we are all reminded of the tears that our ancestors shed during their time of enslavement. This is beyond awesome.

But as familiar as the Passover story and symbols are to all Jews, the festive seder meal differs widely around the world.

Take, for example, the Jews of Kaifeng, China. While I was familiar with the Jewish community in Shanghai, I knew nothing of the Jews who came to China more than a thousand years ago, most likely as Persian merchants who traveled the Silk Road.

Many settled in Kaifeng, part of Henan Province along the Yellow River. They assimilated but held on to their Jewish identity, gathering for services on holidays and sharing their history, photos and documents in a Jewish center.


More recently, however, the Chinese government has suppressed their religious practice and disassembled the center and other markers delineating this as the once vibrant Jewish community it was. Consequently, many Kaifeng Jews have made aliyah to Israel over the past five to 10 years.

Today, few Jews remain in the Kaifeng community. Those who stayed are observant and refrain from eating pork or shellfish. In a post on the New York Times “Sinosphere” blog, Becky Davis describes a typical Kaifeng Passover seder meal: homemade matzahs, soups with bamboo and fresh tofu, steamed fish, beef wrapped in sliced vegetables and platters of crisp greens in mustard sauce. Seasoning those dishes, I assume, were herbs and spices used in most Chinese cuisine from that area: ginger, five-spice powder (a mixture of star anise, clover, cinnamon, peppercorns and fennel seeds), cilantro and cumin.

In East Africa, where Ethiopian Jews conduct Passover seders to commemorate the past and celebrate a hope for renewal, the holiday signals a time of cleansing. In addition to cleaning their huts, many Ethiopian Jews will break their dishes and spend the week before Passover making a new set.

In an article for The Canadian Jewish News in 2016, Mark Mietkiewicz shared the following description of a seder meal in Ethiopia:

 “The ritual meal took place outdoors, by moonlight. The Jews sat on the ground, separated by age and gender. The sparse meal, of kita (Ethiopian matzah) and meat (ritually slaughtered cow or sheep), was eaten rapidly, as if indeed they were fleeing from Egypt.”

The herbs and spices these Ethiopian Jews used to flavor their meal might have included cloves, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric and a popular Ethiopian spice mix called berbere. The mix can vary  but might contain allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, chilies and turmeric. Beginning in the 1980s, many Ethiopian Jews made aliyah to Israel through clandestine programs organized by Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, and those spices have come with them.

In India, where many Jews from the Bene Israel and Cochini sects have recently made aliyah to Israel and immigrated to the United States, their traditional seder meals reflect India’s culinary culture, with more Sephardic nuances. In a column written by chef Julie Sahni for the Los Angeles Times in 1991, she related her experience of attending an Indian seder:

“It was impossible not to be intoxicated by the hypnotic scents of spices and herbs that emanated from the Seder table laden with dishes such as lamb braised with spices and fried onions, a layered casserole of hot sauteed fish and cool greens perfumed with dill and mint, a soul-soothing pot of spicy okra and a plate of coconut rice.”

I would imagine that some of the traditional Indian spices used in that seder feast included cardamom, coriander, cumin, cloves, mustard seeds, nutmeg and turmeric.

These are only three of the many Jewish cultures around the world that tell the same story of Passover but feast on quite different seder meals. What a rich and diverse people we are. For this Passover, I have put together a menu of some of our more traditional Passover fare, but tweaked each dish with spices taken from Chinese, Ethiopian and Indian traditions.

Chag Sameach!

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of seven. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].


Savory Chicken Soup with Spiced Matzo Balls

You will need your homemade chicken soup (or purchased rich chicken broth) to prepare the chicken soup recipe below.

Plan to make the matzo ball aromatics using the recipe below the soup recipe. Once completed, add the aromatics to your regular matzo ball recipe before forming the matzo balls. Cook the matzo balls, as directed in your recipe, drain them and then add them to the soup as directed in Step 3 below of this chicken soup recipe.


  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
  • ½ yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
  • 1 large carrot, trimmed and cut into thinly slices (like coins)
  • 1 celery stalk, cut into half-inch pieces
  • ½ tbsp. peeled and grated fresh ginger
  • ½ tbsp. peeled and grated fresh turmeric (available at Whole Foods, or 1 tsp. ground turmeric)
  • 3 c. strained chicken soup or broth
  • ½ lb. boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into half-inch strips
  • ½ tsp. dried thyme leaves
  • ¼ tsp. coarse kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 8 Spiced Matzo balls (see matzo ball aromatics recipe below)
  • Fresh minced cilantro or parsley, for garnishing


1. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or medium saucepan over medium high heat. Once oil is hot, add garlic, onion, carrots and celery; cook for two to three minutes, or until onion becomes translucent.

2. Add grated ginger and grated or ground turmeric; stir until vegetables are well coated. Add chicken broth, chicken breast, thyme, salt and pepper.

3. Bring soup to a boil, add chicken strips and immediately reduce heat so that soup simmers. Continue simmering for 10-12 minutes, or until chicken is tender and cooked. Carefully lower matzo balls into soup; continue to simmer for two to three more minutes, making sure the matzo balls are covered in the broth.

4. To serve, spoon two matzo balls into each bowl. Ladle soup and vegetables over matzo balls, and garnish each serving with minced fresh cilantro or parsley.

Makes about 4 servings.

Matzo Ball Aromatics for Spiced Matzo Balls

1. Heat 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat.

2. Add one green onion, trimmed and finely minced; 2 tbsp. finely minced cilantro or parsley; and 1tsp. peeled and finely grated fresh ginger.

3. Sauté this mixture for about one minute or until softened. Add ¼ tsp. salt and stir to combine. Fold into matzo ball mixture.

Enough aromatics to season 8 matzo balls.


Chinese-Spiced Braised Brisket


One 2¼ to 2 ½ lb. brisket

1½ tbsp. five spice powder 

Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 tbsp. olive oil, divided, plus more as needed

1 oz. fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated

1 large yellow onion, peeled and sliced

5 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

4 c. beef stock or broth

½ c.  kosher for Passover soy sauce

2 tbsp. honey

¼ c. packed light brown sugar

1 star anise or ¼ tsp. anise seed (available at most grocery stores or ethnic markets)

2 whole cloves

1 whole cinnamon stick

4 scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces


1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

2. Rub both sides of the brisket with five spice powder and season with coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper; set aside.

3. In a large Dutch oven, heat 1 tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add rubbed brisket to pan and sear until browned, about one minute. Turn brisket over and sear the second side. Transfer brisket to a plate; set aside.

4. Reduce heat under pot to medium-low. Add 1-2 tbsp. olive oil to Dutch oven (no need to clean it out). Add ginger, onion and garlic to the pan, sautéing until aromatic but not burned, about one to two minutes.

5. Add ½ c. of the stock to the mixture in the pot and turn heat up to medium high, all the while scraping the bottom of the pan to deglaze it.

6. Add brisket to pan, along with remaining ingredients and the additional 3½ c. beef stock. Bring mixture to a simmer, cover pot and place it in the preheated oven. Cook for about two hours and 45 minutes to three hours, or until meat is fork tender. Remove the lid and let brisket cool in the pan with the liquid.

7. Strain liquid of all the solids and pour the strained liquid over the brisket. Place brisket in a dish or container and cover tightly with foil paper or a lid. Refrigerate brisket overnight (or for up to two days).

8. One hour before serving, preheat oven to 325 degrees. Have an ovenproof serving or glass baking dish ready.

9. Slice brisket against the grain and arrange the slices in baking dish. Pour the liquid over the brisket, cover tightly with aluminum foil and heat for 30 to 40 minutes or until brisket is hot. Serve.

Makes 4-5 servings.

Spiced Coconut and Butternut Squash Mash


  • 2½ to 3 lbs. butternut squash, cut in half vertically and seeds removed
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • ⅓ c. finely shredded unsweetened coconut, for garnishing
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1 tsp. mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
  • 2 tbsp. finely minced yellow onion
  • 1, 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp. coarse kosher salt
  • 2-4 tbsp. full-fat canned coconut milk, or more as desired (leftover coconut milk can be frozen for a few months)
  • ½ tbsp. honey (optional)
  • Fresh cilantro or parsley leaves, for garnishing


1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. 

2. Rub cut side of each squash half lightly with olive oil. Place squash cut side down, onto prepared baking sheet. Roast for about 45 minutes or until the squash skin is toasted in spots, the flesh is very tender and squash is beginning to collapse. Let squash cool, reserve.

3. Meanwhile, place shredded coconut onto a small baking pan and toast in oven for four to five minutes, stirring coconut after two minutes for even toasting; set aside for garnishing.

 4. Warm coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the mustard and cumin seeds and cook for about one to two minutes, or until mustard seeds begin popping. Add garlic, onion, ginger, cayenne pepper and salt; stir, sautéing for an additional three to four  minutes or until garlic and onion have softened.

5. Scoop out reserved squash from the skin and add it to the saucepan. Fold squash in pan until it is evenly mixed with the spice mixture.

6. Reduce heat to low and gradually add coconut milk while mashing with a potato masher, until you reach a desirable consistency. Taste, adding honey (optional), and more salt as needed.

7. Spoon squash mixture into a serving bowl and garnish with toasted coconut and cilantro or parsley leaves.

Makes 4-6 side servings.