ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Just in time for Passover, a visit to a legend of Jewish cooking at her home in Washington, D.C.
Hi, Joan. It's so nice to finally meet you in person.
JOAN NATHAN: I know. Come in. Come in.
SHAPIRO: Joan Nathan has written almost a dozen cookbooks. Her newest, "King Solomon's Table," is about the worldwide reach of Jewish food.
NATHAN: I've been studying this for a long time. And it's sort of putting everything together, things that I've been thinking about, that I've been ruminating about for years.
SHAPIRO: Today, she's showing us just how far the reach extends, with global variations on a single dish that's on the table of Jewish families at Passover. But before she can do that...
NATHAN: Look at this. Wait. Where is it?
SHAPIRO: ...She's got to find one particular tool in her crowded kitchen drawers.
NATHAN: There it is. Look at this one.
SHAPIRO: Oh, what is this? Is it called a mezzaluna?
NATHAN: It's like a mezzaluna, but it's a chopper. That - before Cuisinart's came in...
SHAPIRO: How old is this?
NATHAN: It's pretty old.
SHAPIRO: This chopper has a wooden handle and two worn, curved blades. She found it at an antique store. And it's the key to the way Joan Nathan makes haroset. Haroset is essential to Passover. It's sort of a rough paste made from fruit and nuts. You spread it on matzo, often with horseradish. It's supposed to resemble the mortar the Jews used for building when they were slaves in Egypt.
NATHAN: I can track people by what their haroset is.
SHAPIRO: Joan Nathan's new cookbook has five recipes for haroset from every part of the globe. We'll get to them in a moment. She says Jewish cuisine is not as distinct as Indian food or Mexican food because Jews live all over the world. So wherever Joan Nathan travels, she seeks out the local Jewish food traditions. Here's what she found when she visited Tbilisi, Georgia, in the 1980s.
NATHAN: So I went to a rabbi's for dinner. And he made this dish. It was an eggplant, diced-up eggplant with the skin. And he used ginger and other flavorings in it. Then I went to Italy and had the exact same dish...
SHAPIRO: Which is many miles away.
NATHAN: ...With different flavorings. And it occurred to me that Jews were always merchants from the get-go. And people would be traveling. Let's say - let's say you were traveling, and you've got some seeds. You wouldn't take a whole eggplant. It wouldn't last.
So the men would bring them home, plant them. They'd cook with the eggplants. And he'd tell his wife what he ate. And then you would eat them similar - he knew that they were cut in a certain way with the skin. He knew they were fried and that you could eat them cold, which is wonderful for the Sabbath. So that's...
SHAPIRO: Because you're not allowed to cook on the Sabbath.
NATHAN: ...Right, exactly. And so that's how these foods traveled.
SHAPIRO: And just like the eggplant dish, haroset has evolved as it traveled from one continent to another over the centuries.
SHAPIRO: Joan Nathan brings out two kinds of haroset.
NATHAN: One is a Maine haroset with blueberries, of course, and cranberries, a very modern one without nuts, which is really good because today, so many people...
SHAPIRO: Have allergies.
NATHAN: ...Have allergies. And then this one, which looks like mud - a lot of them are supposed to look like mud because it's supposed to look like mortar. And this is from Persia. And it has, in it, apples and bananas, which must be a later ingredient, pomegranate juice, three kinds of nuts - walnuts and almonds and pistachio nuts - and a lot of spices.
SHAPIRO: So with these harosets, from blueberries to pomegranate juice, you travel from Maine to Iran showing really the scope of Jewish cuisine.
NATHAN: Exactly, exactly. And actually, I also have one from Brazil with cashew nuts in it.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) And is that traditional? Would Brazilian Jews be eating that at the Seder table?
NATHAN: Well, yeah, of course, they would. And what would - because the Jews were kicked out of so many countries, they settled in other areas. And this is a perfect way to illustrate the wandering of the Jews. OK. So here, I - can I give you some work to do?
SHAPIRO: Sure. Put me to work.
And soon we're making a traditional haroset that most American Jews eat this time of year - apples, walnuts, cinnamon sugar and sweet kosher wine.
NATHAN: I know I have some.
SHAPIRO: The process is pretty easy - dump everything into a bowl, chop it all together.
NATHAN: Very good.
SHAPIRO: How fine do we want it?
NATHAN: Well, it depends on what your mother did.
NATHAN: I like it a little chunky. My mother-in-law made it pureed practically.
SHAPIRO: At this point, it looks pretty much like what I grew up eating at Passover. Then, Joan Nathan shows me another global haroset tradition.
NATHAN: When the Jews went from Spain and Portugal to Morocco, a lot of them make dates and nuts in little balls. And one of them, in Paris, that I that met, rolls hers - she rolls it in cinnamon.
SHAPIRO: Naturally, the Parisian Jews turn their haroset into truffles.
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SHAPIRO: Joan Nathan is the author of the cookbook "King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration Of Jewish Cooking From Around The World."
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