May 11, 2023
In Kosovo, my homeland, my grandmother would make a dish called Tespishte for my birthday as a child.
From that time on, the taste of it was embedded forever in my memory. Not only because of its sweetness, but also because of the moment of celebration that everyone in the family shared and enjoyed. Growing up in the Balkans during the 1970’s, eating and dining were strictly private matters as restaurant culture was almost nonexistent and the industrial food products had just started to appear in the market. I have memories of going to pastry shops only during hot summer days to eat ice cream, drink boza (fermented drink made from corn flour) and eat “shampite”- a meringue pie served in a tall glass and topped with a scoop of ice cream. At home, typical sweets were whatever fruit was in the season, locally produced or from the garden. Special desserts were made during holidays and celebrations like birthdays, engagements, weddings, childbirth, moving into a new house, or after a funeral. The preparation of food for these special events as well as daily tasks related to caring for the family, belonged to women, beginning with grandmothers. Remembering the past always sounds like nostalgia, longing for “the good times”, but it doesn’t imply turning the clock back, because that’s impossible and as we know, nothing ever stands still, but evolves over time. There was a particular way of life at one point of history, which we were part of and was characterized by different developments and values than today.
A few years ago, during the Jewish Holidays, I noticed that various publications such as the New York Times and Washington Post were highlighting a traditional Jewish dessert called Tishpishti. According to Gil Mark’s “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food”, Tishpishti originated in Turkey and is popular across Sephardic Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities. The name is a meaningless word stemming from Turkish and translating roughly as “ quickly done”. The Turkish Cultural Foundation website points out that this dessert is credited to the Sephardic Jews who emigrated to the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1492. As far as I know, it is only made by Sephardic Jews and by Albanians in Kosovo. The method used for making Tespishte could be considered “pate a choux” with similar dishes found in other cultures such as cream puffs, churros, tulumba, and smokvara .
Tespishte is really a very simple dish, made only of a few ingredients (milk,butter,flour and sugar), and eaten occasionally, but it has survived for hundreds of years, being passed down from generation to generation across multiple continents. Through trial and error, people discovered and passed down recipes for preparing dishes, way before the first cookbooks. Historians usually say that oral history doesn’t last more than two or three generations, after that, it disappears from memory if it’s not written down. But the story of Tespishte contradicts this theory, because it existed for such a long time before people started to write family recipes as a way to preserve their culture. It is thanks to mothers and grandmothers across continents who have passed down this recipe that it is still in existence today. Writing and publishing recipes intensified in the 20th century and expanded rapidly since people who were interested in food and culture extensively searched for the lifestyle of their ancestors.The need to chronicle everything came naturally as our civilization went through the rise and the fall of empires, brutal endless wars, persecutions, enslavement of people, forced migrations,etc. - the list is endless, but we want to focus on the bright side of humanity, on this cohesive force that instinctively and spontaneously, lead us to share the common goods for the benefit of all. People migrate for various reasons and different circumstances, and when you end up in another country you take your food with you as a way to hold on to your identity and heritage.
I began to research traditional Sephardic cookbooks to see if there were written recipes for other foods like the ones I had grown up eating. I came across authors whose food, customs, and habits not only survived, but have also been transformed into a beautiful combination of cultures.
Viviane Alchech Miner (born in 1945), a descendant of two distinguished Sephardic families, until the age of nine lived in Geneva, Switzerland and in 1954 her family emigrated to the United States, where she became a graphic designer. In 1984 she published a personal collection of family recipes “From my Grandmother’s Kitchen “- A Sephardic Cookbook “. She writes that her ancestors left the province of Murcia,Spain, in 1425 and sailed eastward to countries that were then part of vast Ottoman Empire - Bulgaria,Yugoslavia,Greece,Romania and other countries ringing the eastern Mediterranean. United by their religion, customs, trade, and even their language, Ladino, these self-contained communities flourished until the convulsions of the twentieth century disrupted and destroyed them. “I started watching my grandparents cook when I was five years old “, she writes. ”By that time my family was living in Switzerland, where I grew up. I didn’t realize until I was older that the food reflected the places where my ancestors had lived, thought I remember wondering why our food - the bulemas, borekas, fritadas and huevos haminadas - was different from that which most of our Swiss friends and neighbors ate”. But no recipe was written down, and when her grandmother died in 1976 at the age of 85, she realized that there would soon be no one left who could help her record the recipes. “I began by writing down all the family recipes that I knew and used and asked my brother to do the same. As far as we knew, this was the first time any of these recipes had been written. Finally, I went to Switzerland to talk to the relatives who had been the closest to my grandmother, her children, nieces, nephews and cousins, now in their 70s. Had I waited too long before starting the cookbook, this legacy would surely have been lost.” In this beautiful cookbook, full of family photos, I found two recipes for Tishpishti, Stuffed Grape Leaves, Guvetch, Cheese Borekas, Baklava, Halvah and other recipes which I clearly recognized as my grandmother’s cooking too.
As cookbooks became more popular, world-renowned food writer Claudia Roden, who published multiple bestsellers, including the International Award-wining “The book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York”, is an inspiration for anyone interested in culinary field. Born and raised in Cairo, she completed her formal education in Paris and then moved to London to study art. In her “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” she writes about the times that were changing and how she decided to search for traditional recipes: “Egypt in my time was a very mixed cosmopolitan society in the cities.There were long established communities of Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Syrians and Lebanese ,as well as expatriate French and British communities. Our royal family was an Ottoman Albanian dynasty, and our aristocracy was Turkish.The Jews were also mixed. My grandparents came from Syria and Turkey, and apart from the indigenous community, there were families from North Africa, Iraq and Iran. When we ate at friends’ home we enjoyed a range of dishes from various countries. But the great impulse to record recipes came when my family left Egypt for good, following the Suez Crisis in 1956 and because of Egypt’s ongoing war with Israel. My large extended family was dispersed all over the world. The sense of loss, of missing each other, the country where we had been happy, and the friends we left behind, was deep and painful. For more then ten years we continued close, intense relationships, with family and friends across countries, meeting often. We exchanged recipes as we would precious gifts. Everybody was desperately looking for them and passing them on. We had never had any cookbooks. There had been none in Egypt. Recipes had always been transferred from mother and mother-in-law to daughter and daughter-in-law, with minor exchanges between friends and family. That is why I started collecting recipes in a serious way”. Her outstanding and remarkable lifetime work,meticulously recording the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food cooked through centuries,by tracing the roots of every recipe,is a priceless contribution to the world’s heritage.
From grandmothers’ kitchens throughout centuries to today's explosion of recipes lays this feminine strength that has kept together world’s traditions in continuity. What is here to stay from traditional food and what would be left behind is up to future generations to see. The Semolina Cake from Jerusalem’s Neighborhood Ovens - Jewish Food Society.org tells the story of Rifka Hazan, now 89 years old, which gives us hope that traditional food is here to stay as long as memories of togetherness are the hallmark of everlasting relationships. Growing up in Jerusalem in the 1930 and 1940, Rivka remembers how her mother Ester Fernandez made this cake, called Tishpishti, for holidays, particularly Purim. Her recipe crossed the Atlantic and today her grandson makes the cake with his daughter in New York, to help safeguard the tradition.
We pay tribute to all of our mothers and grandmothers for their historic contributions to preserving culture for new generations. Through our burek, we are hoping to maintain and share one small piece of our heritage and grandmother’s recipes with you.
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