Have you ever prepared lasagna for Passover? Tiramisu? How about a matzoh eggroll?
As unusual as that last treat may sound, it’s very common on Tunisian Passover tables, says food blogger Huppit Bartov Miller. Soaking the matzoh in water makes it pliable, she explains, and you can add any combination of fillings like mashed potato, sautéed onions, greens or a hard-boiled egg to suit your tastes and diet.
“When I posted that dish on my blog last year, it got 5,000 views and crashed the site,” she recalls. “[The readers] loved the idea that you could make something like that for Passover.
“Our culture found a few genius ideas,” she says. “At Passover, everyone feels so restricted, but we use matzoh as a canvas.”
An Israeli of Tunisian descent who now lives in Reisterstown, Bartov Miller started the website afooda.com in 2014 at the prompting of friends who repeatedly asked for recipes for her Tunisian-influenced dishes. With its recipes for shakshuka (fried eggs in spicy tomato sauce), mehalta (a vegetable stew of root vegetables and greens) and mazura (a garlicky Tunisian carrot salad), the blog is a living culinary tribute to Bartov Miller’s late Tunisian safta, or grandmother, who with their father raised Bartov Miller and her two sisters.
“My grandmother was the source of stability and coming together,” says Bartov Miller. “I noticed at a very young age the power that food and traditions have, and how everyone was drawn to the kitchen or the table, especially at holidays.”
Although her grandmother didn’t explicitly teach her granddaughters how to cook, the children were always in the kitchen with her and given a piece of dough to play with, or assigned jobs like shelling fava beans or peeling garlic.
“It was very natural and informal,” says Bartov Miller, who tries to involve her own children — twin daughters Gefen and Shaya, 7, and son Eliav, 4 — in the kitchen in the same way.
Dark-haired and petite, with a smile that comes easily, Bartov Miller speaks lovingly of some of her favorite Tunisian and Israeli dishes, like hamin, the stew she often makes for Shabbat, and mehalta, the “mama of all Tunisian dishes.”
“Something magic happens when all the ingredients come together,” says Bartov Miller.
In her bright, minty-green kitchen, she bakes her own lighter-than-a-cloud pita and makes homemade labneh from Greek-style yogurt. Rather than cheesecloth, Bartov Miller uses a cloth given to her by her father to strain the yogurt, hanging the bag from the knob of a cabinet to drain over a metal bowl set on the marble countertop.
She’s not fond of gadgets, preferring a good knife over any other tool, and she has a small collection of French blue Le Creuset pots that she began buying piece by piece with savings from her first jobs. Anyone who knows her, she says, will know that the best gift to bring her is spices.
Afooda has become not only a creative space to invent recipes but also an opportunity to encourage and teach readers, says Bartov Miller, who first came to the United States as an exchange student in 2000 and returned several years later to continue her studies, eventually teaching Hebrew in Jewish day schools.
The Gift of Food
Each weekly blog entry is a story built around a recipe, with connections to a holiday, technique or family story. “Through food, you get to learn about another culture,” says Bartov Miller. “You learn a lot about origins and what grows in that area.”
At the heart of the blog, though, is a belief that food is a gift, something that binds us together and creates memories.
Bartov Miller shares a story about one of her daughters coming home from school and feeling sad and a little lonely because her best friend had been home sick for several days.
“I asked her, ‘What’s going to make you happy?’” says Bartov Miller. “And she kind of thought for a second and said, ‘Shakshuka?’ And so I made shakshuka that night because I loved that it made her happy.’”
Huppit Bartov Miller blogs at afooda.com
Mary K. Zajac is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
An Israeli of Tunisian descent, Huppit Bartov Miller learned the fine art of Middle Eastern cooking from her late safta, Hebrew for grandmother. Photo by Steve Ruark
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