On Seder night, the Haggadah sets the order or Seder of the evening, but foods and traditions vary enormously among different communities. Ashkenazim can’t imagine a seder plate without horseradish, while many Sephardic families use romaine lettuce for maror and celery leaves for karpas. Naturally, foods were often influenced by what was available locally and by regional culinary traditions.
My Sephardic mother cooked the eggs for the seder plate in onions skins and added a dash of coffee. So the Eggs had a marbled look and had a tinge of onion flavor. I wondered if this was inspired by the idea of decorated Easter eggs.
The one element that changes most from community to community is the recipe for haroset, the condiment that symbolizes the mortar the Israelites used to make bricks. The recipe most of us are familiar with is chopped apples and walnuts. In some Sephardic communities, haroset is made from boiling dates until they are reduced to a thick liquid, then adding chopped walnuts. Yemenite Jews use chopped dates and figs, cumin and cardamom. Persian communities mix spices with over a dozen kinds of fruits and nuts, including dates, pomegranates, bananas, oranges and pistachios. Venetian Jews blend chestnut paste and apricots. Despite the bitterness it is supposed to symbolize, only a few communities temper the pleasant flavor of haroset. Among them, the Greek Jews of Zakynthos mash raisins in vinegar, and add pinches of pepper and finely ground brick!
Various communities also have different fascinating customs on Seder night.
Moroccan Jews hold the seder tray aloft and pass it over the heads of everyone at the table, proclaiming that they have left Egypt and are now free.
Persian Jews beat each other lightly on the back and shoulders with bunches of scallions or leeks when they chant Dayenu, to symbolize the sting of the taskmaster’s whip.
The Bene Israel Jews in the villages around Bombay still dip a hand in sheep’s blood, impress it on a sheet of paper, then hang it above the doorway as a hamsa. For good luck.
Some Jews from Romania fill a pillowcase with heavy objects and carry it around the table, to remember leaving Egypt with one’s goods and chattels.
In Hungary, women would place their jewelry on the table to remember how the Israelites were given precious metals by the Egyptians to hasten their exodus from the land.
In Gibraltar, some people add a little actual brick dust to the Charoset.
In Góra Kalwaria, Poland, seder guests would act out the crossing of the sea in their dining rooms. Some families even poured water on the floor to make the experience even more realistic.
In Turkish homes, the father or grandfather throws grass, coins and candy for the children to collect, a symbol of the wealth the Israelites brought out of Egypt (the grass represents the reeds of the Red Sea), and a wish that the year ahead should be "green" and productive.