Preparing Charoset. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Preparing Charoset. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK


It doesn't matter if you make charoset with coconut, peanuts, apples, or mango, this Passover symbol serves to bind the Jewish people together

The foods on the Seder Plate have a symbolic role, in which the food is also part of a night full of festivities and anecdotes with a much larger goal: to teach future generations about our shared history as a people in order to strengthen our connection and transcend cultural difference. In a world often filled with uncertainty and struggle, the Passover story is a reminder of better times ahead, but the celebrations didn’t always look like they do today. A look at one of the seminal traditions on the Passover plate that literally, and figuratively, binds us together: charoset.

How did the Seder plate come to be?

Up until the destruction of the Temple in 70 B.C. Passover celebrations looked fairly different from those we know today. First off, they took place at the Temple itself. Second, these early gatherings included just three of the items featured on the modern day Seder Plate: lamb, matzah, and bitter herbs (which scholars agree originally referred to bitter lettuces or endives local to the region). All three are mentioned in the book of Exodus as obligatory foods that must be on the table when celebrating Passover.

With the destruction of the Temple, Jews faced a challenge: how to celebrate a holiday marking freedom, redemption and thanksgiving at their arrival in the Land of Israel, in an era of bondage, destruction and exile from that home. And exile from the Temple, as well – standing or not – the site to which they traveled and was the focal point of their celebrations.

The Rabbis, the spiritual leaders of the community, needed to establish new ways of observing the holiday. So they documented and condensed the Jewish customs, including those for Passover, in order to adapt them to the new conditions of their lives. They modeled the Seder on the Greek symposium, and co-opted some of the practices, and so the public Passover ceremony at the Temple was replaced by the private – the Passover meal and the reading of the Haggadah. New foods were added to the three symbolic foods – lamb, matzah and maror – to add symbolic meaning and round out the Seder.

Charoset Makes the Plate

One of these late entrants to the Seder Plate is charoset (also known as halegh (Iran), haliq, hallaq, halika (Iran/Iraq), dukka (Yemen) , harosi, charosef, charoseth (Ladino), chroyses, charouses, (Yiddish)), which is mentioned in the Torah, though whether or not it was one of the obligatory Passover foods is still a matter of some debate. Noted food scholars, Susan Weingarten and Gil Marks, remarks that, just as the ceremony of the Seder was based in Greek tradition, so too did the menu reflect that influence: lettuces or herbs dipped in various sweet-and-sour sauces was a common dish. 

The name “charoset” is believed to originally come from the word for clay (heres), a reference to the mortar that the Israelites used to make bricks as slaves in Egypt. How did such a sweet dish become the symbol of such a harsh period? Theories over the years posit that this duality is intentional: in every evil there is also good, that even slavery can end with redemption and new life. The first mention of charoset is in the Mishnah (between the first and seventh centuries), in the context of the spices used for its preparation – the word charoset is mentioned as though it was already an accepted practice. 

Jerusalem based scholar, Susan Weingarten, searched for all the written occurrences of the word charoset and came across it in a small book published in the Cairo Genizah – a sort of dictionary that explains terms from the Mishnah and gives their Greek translation. In this dictionary, the Greek translation given for the word charoset is embamma – a kind of dip which actually has a recipe dating back to a 4th century cookbook. In the recipe it notes that embamma could only be safe to eat by consuming it with certain ingredients. Apparently the lettuces and endive of the time (the same bitter herbs that were used as maror) were extremely bitter, and were suspected of containing kappa, a type of poisonous worm or juice. Eating them could be made safe by pairing them with charoset, which contained ingredients to counteract the kappa, a home remedy if you will. Charoset’s inclusion on the Seder plate is a result of this custom and even the blessing for charoset is only in association with the maror – charoset is, in fact, not eaten on its own but as an accompaniment to the bitter herbs.

What is Charoset’s symbolic meaning?

In the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud they talk about all kinds of regulations and rules related to charoset and there, for the first time, they mention that charoset is a reference to the mortar the Jews used to make bricks while slaves in Egypt. In fact, the Jerusalem Talmud emphasizes the matter of its thick and muddy texture. But in order for charoset to really resemble mortar, a great deal of discussion about its texture had to occur first, and only thus were the ingredients chosen. 

Other’s claim that charoset must resemble the blood with which the Israelites marked their lintels so that God would pass over them in the plague of striking down the firstborn. According to this same Rabbi, charoset should generally be thin and red, and in many versions, red wine or vinegar is added to achieve this end. 

In the Middle Ages, herbs were added to the recipe to better evoke the texture of clay. In Rambam’s version, hyssop leaves (za’atar) were added – since the Israelites used hyssop branches to spread the blood to mark their lintels – and they were intentionally not ground up so that their consistency could better mirror the straw used in constructing bricks. Still others note that spices such as cinnamon stick or raw ginger should be used to achieve that same stringy, straw-like texture. 

The flavors across the globe

Another element often mentioned in the Talmud is that charoset should be sour, and that this sour flavor comes from apples. Much like the bitter herbs of the past, the apples also had a different flavor, and this variety was quite sour. Why apples, you ask? Here we find yet another layer of symbolic meaning: Jewish women who feared Pharoah’s threat to their male children would go out to give birth under the apple trees to save them from death. Another Midrash says the relevance of apples is because these same women seduced their husbands under the apple trees, despite Pharoah’s threats. Either way, both the Jewish women and the apple trees ensured the continued existence of the nation.

Rashi, who lived in 11th century France, was the first to replace vinegar – which leant the mixture its sour flavor in the earliest versions – with real apple, and added dry, sour wine and local greens. It wasn’t a matter of divergence, Rashi lived in the Champagne region and took part in the wine trade and so these were the raw materials available to him. Later on, apple became the dominant ingredient in the European versions of charoset since it was easier to obtain apples in the cold, temperate regions of Central and Eastern Europe.

However, not all charoset contains apples. It is important to note that there are an incredible number of variations indicative of the local ingredients and conditions: in the first versions, which developed in Jewish-Spanish communities, the main ingredient is dates, or silan (date honey) which was more widely available and the color of which was reminiscent of the local clay. In parts of Germany, pears were more readily available and popular, and so they were utilized instead. And Turkish, Balkan and Greek communities utilized raisins. Rashi’s successors, sometime between the 12th-14th centuries, claimed that other fruits that appeared in the Song of Songs and were symbolic to the people of Israel deserved to be included in the charoset as well. Thus, the pomegranate, fig and walnut become legitimate ingredients in this symbolic food. Meanwhile, the charoset of African-American Jews is made with crops most commonly associated with slavery: pecans, cocoa powder, figs, and sugarcane.

Persian iterations are supposed to be some of the most complex, and while we found many mentions of recipes integrating as many as 40 different ingredients, representing the 40 years in which the Jews wandered the desert, we couldn’t find an actual recipe. However, ingredients are said to include 5 types of apples, 3 types of pears, 3 types of grapes, 2 types of figs, 2 types of dates, dried apricots, dried peaches, dried cherries, dried prunes, black and golden raisins, currants, walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts, pomegranate juice, cinnamon, cardamon, allspice, nutmeg, fenugreek seeds, saffron, cloves, black pepper, white wine, red wine, rose wine, vinegar, and apparently sometimes even banana (which we assume to be a more recent addition).

And so wherever Jews live, we see slightly different versions – from peanuts amongst the Jews of Uganda to a version with cocoa and liqueur from the Jews of Curaçao, Brazil, who were leaders in the cocoa trade; persimmons used in the Bukhari community, or mango, pineapple, and guava in Indonesia; orange zest, chesnuts, pine nuts, or hard-boiled eggs depending on where you’re from in Italy or rolled into little truffles in Morocco; maple syrup in parts of Canada or coconut and cherry jam in Surinam or sesame seeds in charoset recipes from Yemen.

What do I do with the leftovers?

First off, you should be so lucky! But if you’ve gone slightly overboard, there are many different options for your leftover charoset. If you served a fruit based iteration (apples or pears) the leftovers are no brainers as filling for sweet and savory applications like handpies or stuffed chicken or strudel, though we’ve also seen recipes for charoset chocolate cake! Heavily spiced, or date based iterations are perfect as marinades for chicken, as filling for baked apples, or drizzled atop yogurt or ice cream for a charoset parfait. And you can use almost any version as an addition to chicken salad, a spread on your favorite sandwich, or a topping for the morning after matzah brei. If you’ve gone through all the options and still have some on your hands post Passover’s end, you can braid it into challah, mix it into a batch of muffins, or throw it into your favorite tabbouleh recipe.

*שמנו לב שחסרים כמה פרטים קטנים להשלמת הפרופיל שלך ב־FOODISH, אפשר להוסיף אותם בקלות בעמוד המשתמש שלך.