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Holiday Feature Through Food, Southern Belle Tries to Save Sephardi Cuisine

November 21, 2003
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“During our Chanukah bazaar, we open our doors to the whole city,” says Emily Amato, a member of Congregation Or VeShalom, an Atlanta synagogue with Sephardi roots.

She gushes as she describes its silent auction, the game-room arcade and the irresistible aroma of Sephardi cuisine, such as home-made Greek salads, marzipan and baklava.

Local vendors rent tables and sell items ranging from jewelry to art to hand-crocheted afghans.

Scheduled this year for Dec. 7, the Or VeShalom Chanukah Bazaar is such a happening that Jews and non-Jews alike flock there for the fun — and the fabulous food.

“We cook for months ahead of time,” says Amato, 82, who has worked on the bazaar since the fifties. The event is so large that starting before Rosh Hashanah, almost two dozen women meet every Tuesday in the synagogue’s kitchen to prepare burekas, turnovers stuffed with cheese, potatoes, rice, eggplants, spinach and other vegetables.

Burekas are the signature dish of Jews from many Sephardi countries. Sinfully delicious, they are a bit labor- intensive to make, which is why people don’t mind paying between $15 and $18 a dozen for this delicate pastry that the sisterhood women stockpile in the freezer during the months before Chanukah.

Although the bazaar is a fund-raiser, the volunteer cooks do not charge the public for their labor, only the cost of ingredients.

“I buy my burekas at the bazaar,” Amato says, laughing. “I don’t have time to make them at home because I’m so busy preparing them every Tuesday.”

Paying homage to a 24-hour supply of oil that stretched for eight days after the Maccabees miraculously defeated the Assyrians, the foods associated with Chanukah are fried in oil.

Brown and crunchy potato latkes are at the heart of the Ashkenazi tradition. By contrast, many Sephardi Jews cherish burmuelos.

“Burmuelos are fritters, sort of like doughnuts — but not really,” Amato says, describing the round ball of dough that has inspired a wide range of recipes, including some especially for Chanukah.

Because Amato’s family has lived in Atlanta for a century, Amato speaks with a lilting accent, as sweet as the syrup drizzled on Chanukah burmuelos when they’re pulled crisp from a pot of sizzling oil.

Seeking an education, Amato’s father left the Greek Island of Rhodes shortly after the turn of the last century. At age 16, he went to Atlanta to join a brother who had moved there and set down roots.

When it came time to find a wife, Amato’s father turned to the Jewish community of Rhodes. After exchanging letters and photographs with a young woman, he began a long-distance romance through the mail. Five years later, he married the lovely woman, who became Amato’s mother. On blind faith, she traveled from Rhodes with her widowed mother, who settled with the young couple in Atlanta.

“That’s how people did things back then,” Amato says. “And believe it or not, these were all good marriages.”

Raised on olives and feta cheese, Amato’s mother came to Georgia steeped in a cooking style considered exotic.

“No one in Atlanta knew what yogurt was in those days,” Amato says. “But we had yogurt from day one, because every week my mother made a new batch.”

She also rolled her own phyllo dough for sweet and savory delicacies. She exposed her children to the sensational cuisine of her youth.

When Amato grew up and married, she missed foods from her mother’s kitchen. Whenever she attempted to prepare a dish, she had to call home for the recipe.

“I told myself — you can’t keep doing this,” she says. At some point, she began appreciating the value of the cuisine stored in her mother’s head. She started jotting down her recipes.

The wife of the congregation’s rabbi, aware that many of the Or VeShalom women held their family’s culinary heritage on scraps of paper, encouraged Amato and others to collect their recipes for a cookbook.

First published in 1971 by the congregation’s sisterhood, “The Sephardic Cooks” has been updated three times, most recently in 1992. Both The New York Times and the Washington Post have featured articles on this fabulous collection of easy-to-make recipes.

Influenced by its surroundings, in some ways Congregation Or VeShalom is as Southern as a Georgia peach.

Amato says the synagogue is hard to pigeonhole. Its sensibility leans toward Judaism’s Reform movement, but it veers from it, too.

“It’s difficult to understand what we’re like, unless you come down here and visit us,” she says.

The congregation was founded in 1910. Like Amato’s family, most of the founding members came from Rhodes. Some families hailed from Turkey and Tunisia.

But during the 20th century, Atlanta saw an influx of Jews from Eastern Europe. Today the synagogue’s Sephardi families have been eclipsed. The congregation is now 60 percent Ashkenazi.

“Over the decades, our kids have married Ashkenazi Jews,” Amato says.

While she welcomes newcomers to Or VeShalom, she also feels a sense of sorrow over its fading Sephardi past. Eager for her parents’ legacy to survive, she is teaching her grandchildren her mother’s recipes.

“Sephardic cooking is about the best in the world, but it’s a pity you can’t get it in many restaurants,” says Amato, explaining that for the most part, the only way to taste this cuisine is to be invited to someone’s home.

“I’m afraid these recipes will be lost,” she says.

That’s why she spends so much time promoting her synagogue’s Chanukah bazaar.

Besides the camaraderie of marvelous women who make burekas with her on Tuesdays, she is energized by the joy the festivities generate.

But Amato has a more meaningful mission. As long as she entices people with the vibrant taste of Sephardi cuisine, she is keeping the flavor of her heritage alive.

21/2 cups water

1 cup vegetable oil

1 tsp. salt

1 egg, beaten

1/2 cup grated cheese

No-stick vegetable spray

1. Bring water, oil, and salt to a boil. Remove from heat and quickly stir in flour, until consistency is that of soft pie dough. Knead until smooth, adding more flour, if needed.

2. Shape into walnut-sized balls. Place in bowl, covering with waxed paper.

4. Fold ovals into turnover shape and cut outer edges with rim of a glass. Brush tops lightly with egg and sprinkle with cheese.

5. Coat baking pan with no-stick spray. Place Burekas on top and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, or until brown.

Yield: 60-70

Potato Filling:

3 lbs. potatoes, cooked and mashed

1/2 lb. cottage cheese, mashed

2-4 eggs

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 tsp. salt

Mix ingredients together well, until fluffy.

butter for greasing pan

6 eggs

4 oz. cottage cheese

1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking powder

1. Defrost spinach and drain well.

2. Cook macaroni as directed on label.

3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat a 9 x 9 inch baking dish with butter. Place dish in oven to heat.

4. In a large bowl, beat eggs well. Add the three cheeses, salt, and baking powder to the spinach and macaroni, mixing well.

5. Place mixture inside heated pan. Return to oven and bake for 25 minutes, or until casserole bubbles at edges and is firm. Cut into squares and serve.

Yield: 16 squares

1 egg

1 cup milk

11/2 cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

Cooking oil for frying

1. Beat egg. Add milk and beat again. Mix together flour and baking powder and gradually add.


1/2 cup honey

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup water

Ground cinnamon, optional

Mix ingredients together. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until sticky. Pour over Burmuelos while hot. Sprinkle with cinnamon.

No-stick cooking spray

3 cups blanched almonds, ground fine

1 cup sugar

3 egg whites, slightly beaten

1 tsp. vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Coat cookie sheets with no-stick spray.

2. Mix remaining ingredients together. Make medium sized balls, about 3/4 of a teaspoon. Place on cookie sheet. Bake for ten minutes, or until slightly brown.

Yield: Approximately 3 dozen

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