The story of Sephardic cuisine is the story of the Jewish community in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). An ancient community, which raised spiritual giants and whose people held key positions in the Spanish government, until it was uprooted and forced to choose between country and religion.
According to the accepted narrative, Jews had already arrived in the area during the time of the First Temple, and the community is one of the oldest in the world. Over the course of generations, despite periods of rocky relations with the non-Jewish population, the community became very influential, especially during the period of Islamic rule, and claims cultural and intellectual giants such as the Maimonides, Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi.
The emergence of Christianity as the leading, widely spread, and established religion marked the end of the Jewish Golden Age. Spanish leadership refused to accept the presence of the Jews, and in 1492 presented them with a choice: Christianity or deportation. Some Jews chose to leave Spain and settle in other countries- mainly in and around the Balkans or Israel- and others changed their religion, whether voluntarily or otherwise. The deportees brought with them their possessions and belongings, but also a priceless intangible import: a Ladino culture that is jealously guarded to this day, and the Sephardic cuisine which they grew up with; food made with the produce native to the Iberian Peninsula such as wheat, olives, citrus, eggplants and legumes; long-cooked foods seasoned simply with onions fried in oil, salt and pepper, but with deep, rich flavors which developed during slow-cooking; stuffed vegetables and fruits and more. Naturally, over time, the deportees absorbed some of the local influences of their new homes and incorporated new ingredients and local cooking styles: in Turkey, for example, they adopted the yufka (phyllo) dough to make mini bourekas, and in Israel they were exposed to the native Arab cuisine and began to season their traditional sofrito dish with local spices such as Baharat.
Quite a few Jews chose to stay in the Iberian Peninsula and were forced to convert to Christianity, with some of them fully embracing their new religion, while others converted only in appearance and continued to observe Jewish laws and customs in secret. The cuisine of these forced converts during that time reflects the effort and sophistication required to hide their kosher kitchens, as well as the efforts expended by the investigators of the Inquisition in exposing them. One of the cornerstones of keeping kosher was the issue of eating pork. Bernardes, the court historian of Ferdinand and Isabella, wrote that “Jewish eating customs included preparing meat dishes with onions and garlic and frying them in oil instead of pork fat.” Bernardes believed that frying in olive oil was “a disgusting custom, because it leaves a very repulsive smell.” Food researcher Peter S. Feibleman wrote in his book The Cooking of Spain and Portugal, “A true Christian used to eat pork at least once a day. Preferably in public.” The forced converts, for their part, created the appearance of using pork in foods such as cholets – fried bread (akin to french toast), which was cut into the shape of pork ribs. While eating it, they would burn a chunk or pork or some lard in the fireplace, so that the smell would waft outside the house. At least the mitzvah of eating chamin on Shabbat could be observed relatively easily: since Spanish food is characterized by prolonged cooking, they could put the dish in the oven on Friday, and enjoy it on Saturday, without arousing the suspicions of the inquisitors.