What is passover and how is it celebrated?

The Jewish festival of Passover is great for the gluten-free – with an eight-day ban on bread. More importantly, it’s when Jewish families get together to celebrate the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt.

When is Passover?

Every year, around the same time as Easter – it varies annually – Jewish families commemorate the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt with the festival of Passover – Pesach in Hebrew. Although fixed in the Jewish calendar, the exact date of the festival varies in our calendar, because Jewish months are based on the lunar year.

What is Passover?

The departure from Egypt was so hurried, there was no time to wait for bread to rise. So, for the duration of the eight-day festival, any foods made from wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt that has come into contact with water and been allowed to ferment and rise (aka ‘chometz’) are off limits. Anything made from these grains – other than a special cracker, called matzah – is out, including cakes, biscuits, pasta and bread.

Jewish people whose families originated in eastern Europe (known as Ashkenazi Jews) also have to avoid rice, beans, some seeds and legumes (aka kitniyot) which can make meal planning even more tricky. Those whose ancestors were from the further south Mediterranean countries, North Africa and the Middle East (known as Sephardi Jews) – are able to enjoy rice, seeds and legumes.

Spring cleaning and a Seder

Passover kicks off with a special meal to which large groups of family and friends sit down together after a foodie ritual called a Seder — pronounced say-dur. Before the festivities begin, it’s traditional to give your kitchen (and sometimes, your entire home) a thorough spring clean to ensure it’s clear of all of the banned foods. Many families keep an entire set of crockery, cutlery and kitchenware that has never been in contact with chometz and is brought out once a year during Passover.

What is the Seder service?

The Seder service takes place after sundown on the night before Passover starts — which is when a day begins in the Jewish religion. It recounts the events prior to and during the journey to freedom, using a series of foods, wine, prayers and songs to tell the tale. This (often lengthy) storytelling session involves the entire family. Although it can extend for stomach-grumbling hours, it can also be a lot of fun.

Seder literally translates as order and, as well as being the name of the ritual, is also the name given to the special plate on which the ceremonial foods are placed.

What foods are served on the Seder?

The foods on the Seder plate are full of symbolism – a roasted egg and spring herbs signifying renewal; charoset – a paste of apples, nuts and wine which represents the mortar on the pyramids that the Israeli slaves were being forced to build; bitter herbs (known as maror) which help us remember the enslavement; a roasted shank bone for the lamb eaten with unleavened bread before the departure; and matzah — the unleavened bread. There is also salt water, signifying the tears shed by the slaves.

Vegetarians and vegans replace the lamb shank bone with chopped up beetroot which ‘bleeds’ like meat; and egg with non-animal symbols like a cleaned up avocado stone or round, white aubergine. Items they feel more appropriate to a festival celebrating freedom which should involve animals’ rights too.

During the Seder service, children get to act out the tale of the ten plagues that were sent to try to persuade the Egyptians to let the Israelis go. A single drop of wine or grape juice is dropped on a napkin or white table cloth for each plague.

Fun fact: Sephardi Jews hit each other during the service with leeks or long spring onions to symbolise the whips that were used on the slaves.

All about matzah

So how come you can eat matzah, which is made from flour and water? The key’s in the bake. To qualify as kosher for Passover (or Pesach as it is known in Hebrew) the flour must only be in contact with water for no more than 18 minutes before it is baked. (After which the mixture is said to ferment.) Some can’t wait to tuck in each year, others endure it as the bread of affliction, as it is sometimes known.

Seder menu

Seder dinners are often huge affairs, with the number of guests often on the 20’s and 30’s, so any dishes need to be easily scaled up to feed a crowd. It also helps to prepare something that won’t spoil, as the dish may have to wait for a while.

After the service, many families serve up a (strange sounding but oddly comforting) bowl of lightly salted water and chopped up hard-boiled egg, over which they liberally crumble matzah. Many start their meal with Jewish chicken soup with matzah balls – dumplings made from matzah meal. Another traditional food at Ashkenazi tables for Pesach is gefilte fish – a blended mixture of minced white fish, onion, seasonings and herbs that’s moulded into loaves or balls and poached or fried, then served with horseradish sauce.

For the next eight days, the challenge for Jewish home cooks is to create three meals a day plus snacks that don’t contain any of the forbidden foods.

Many have become pretty creative around matzah and there are plenty of variations of lasagnes, pizzas and even refrigerator cakes using that instead of the traditional pasta, dough or biscuit-base. Matzah brei (rhymes with fry), which is a version of French Toast that uses matzah instead of bread, is a popular breakfast or brunch treat and can be eaten sweet or savoury.

Menu inspiration for a perfect Passover

One-pot beef brisket on tray with domino potatoes

For your Seder main meal, try this slow-cooked red wine braised beef brisket which will wait for your service to finish and pairs perfectly with these golden roast potatoes and green veggies like this zesty broccoli, garlic and lemon side dish. Or get ahead with a couple of salads, like this deliciously crunchy quick pickled red cabbage or warm roasted cauliflower salad.

Desserts can be more of a challenge, but everyone will love this gorgeously gluten-free apple and almond cake. It’s also good to end your feast with a simple fruit plate and these addictively good coconut macaroons.

During the next eight days, breakfast can be tricky with cereal, porridge and toast all off-limits. Eggs are a staple protein, especially for breakfast, simply scrambled, poached or fried, or cooked in a simple shakshuka for a Middle Eastern-style breakfast or with a few of your five-a-day in this hearty sweet potato and sprout hash with poached eggs. Or go healthy and light with this green rainbow smoothie bowl or a zesty banana, clementine and mango smoothie.

Egg-based lunches are also traditional for Passover: this herby Persian frittata will go down well, or include some of your five-a-day with this one packed with colourful spinach and pepper. Soups make a warming and healthy lunchtime option filled with flavour; try this one with red pepper, squash and harissa or hearty sweet potato and carrot which both pack a nutritional punch. Or if you need to eat on the go, pop this vegan broccoli salad in a lunchbox.

For supper, quick evening recipes don’t get more simple than this colourful harissa chicken traybake or salmon, potato and fennel bake.

And for a speedy snack, make a big batch of this delicious dried fruit compote to pair with yogurt and nuts or these vegan nut butter cups which are sweet enough to hit the spot without being too indulgent.

Want to learn more about festivals and cultural celebrations? Read our guides below…

10 things to know about Ramadan
What is Holi and how is it celebrated?
What is Rosh Hashanah?
Diwali recipes

What’s your favourite Jewish recipe? Leave a comment below…

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