April 15, 2009

Matzah Brei
Na'ale, Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Inbal, our CouchSurfing hostess, whipped up a traditional Passover meal for us to try called Matzah Brei. During Passover (the seven-day holiday that comes to an end this evening), Jews following their religious doctrine are required to remove all Chametz ("leavening") from their homes. This basically refers to either to a grain product that is already fermented (e.g. yeast breads, certain types of cake, and most alcoholic beverages), or to a substance that can cause fermentation (e.g. yeast, sourdough or high fructose corn syrup). The consumption of chametz is forbidden during this time (in most Jewish traditions).

Observant Jews typically spend the weeks before Passover in a flurry of thorough housecleaning to remove every morsel of chametz from every part of the home. Even the cracks of kitchen counters are thoroughly scrubbed, for example, to remove any traces of flour and yeast, however small. Any item or implement that has handled chametz must then be fully cleansed to remove all traces of chametz from them.

It is customary to turn off the lights and conduct the search by candlelight, using a feather and a wooden spoon: candlelight effectively illuminates corners without casting shadows; the feather can dust crumbs out of their hiding places; and the wooden spoon which collects the crumbs can be burned the next day with the chametz. Some forgo the traditional tools and use modern equivalents, such as a flashlight, table brush and dustpan.

No Yeast Allowed? Pass the Matzo…

The main symbol of the Passover holiday is matzo, or unleavened bread. This is a type of flatbread made solely from flour and water which is continually worked from mixing through baking, so that it is not allowed to rise. It basically looks and tastes like a giant salt-free saltine.

The Torah says that it is because the Hebrews left Egypt with such haste that there was no time to allow baked bread to rise; thus, flat bread, matzo, is a reminder of the rapid departure of the Exodus. Matzo has also been called "poor man's bread." There is an attendant explanation that matzo serves as a symbol to remind Jews what it is like to be a poor slave and to promote humility, appreciate freedom, and avoid the inflated ego symbolized by leavened bread.

Numerous recipes exist for this dish. Typically the dry matzo is briefly softened in hot water or milk, broken into pieces, mixed with eggs, and pan-fried in butter. It may be formed into a cake, like a frittata, or broken up and cooked like scrambled eggs. It can be savory or sweet. Some eat it with sugar, syrup, or jelly.

The dish actually quite tasty.

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