Kitchen Inquisition


I’ve been doing an unusual story this week. It involves Spanish Jewish history and food – the fabulous food and people of Sepharad, Hebrew for Spain, but also a one word summary for the Golden Age in Spain, before the Jews were persecuted and then expelled in 1492. So that means that this week, and for the next few weeks, we'll be cooking some of the wonderful dishes of that old Sepharad - with its signature spices now associated with North African, Turkish, Bulgarian, Yugoslavian and Greek Jewish cooking. 


523 years after it expelled its Jews, Spain is offering citizenship to their descendants. 

The number of Jews expelled then is variously estimated at between 50,000 and 250,000 and their descendants today likely number in the millions – though proving a connection back that far to the satisfaction of the Spanish government will not be easy. Could you do it? I can’t imagine how I could find evidence about my family going back over 500 years …


I've been interviewing Israelis originally from Turkey, Greece, Italy, Bulgaria and South America - and before that, in the 1400's, from Spain. Many still speak Ladino, the 15th century Spanish which they took with them and preserved – along with their Spanish prayers, songs and food. Their marriage certificates, the ketubot, still record that they are married according to the Religion of Moses and Israel and the laws of Castillia. 

It is simply astonishing. 

Go to the end of this post to have a listen to 2 descendants of expelled Spanish Jews, Yitzhak and Rinat Emanuel, a father and daughter, sing together in Ladino. You won't regret it!

Israeli singer Rinat Emanuel and her father, the former Cantor Yitzhak Emanuel


In the late 1400s, the power couple of Christendom, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquered back Spanish lands which had been held by the Moors, the Muslims who ruled during the fabled Golden Age.

After that, the Chrisitian rulers gave the Jews a choice: Convert or Die.

It seems about 100,000 chose to die, and the same number chose conversion. They became known as Conversos, but many Spaniards suspected them of remaining secret Jews. 

Paintings by Polish Jewish artist Arthur Szych. This series depicting the Church's relationship with the Jews is called "Ad Marjorem Dei Gloriam" which means "For the Greater Glory of God". It is also the motto of the Jesuits. 


The problem with forcing someone to convert at gunpoint is that you don’t trust them to be committed to your religion. After their military conquests, Ferdinand and Isabella wanted to root out Jewish heretics, so they negotiated with the Pope to set up the Inquisition in Spain. In effect, their own Inquisition, separate from Rome. 

They began in one town, Seville, searching for secret Jews. From there, the Inquisition spread across Spain, terrorising the population for more than 350 years! 

Torture was its main investigatory method. It’s estimated that 150,000 people were charged with crimes and up to 5,000 killed. (By the end the Inquisitors were also hunting converts from Islam, Protestants, witches, etc etc.)



Today when we think of the Inquisition we might first go to the Monty Python sketch – isn’t it amazing how effective one funny line can be?

And of course more seriously we think of the main man: the Grand Inquisitor, priest Tomas de Torquemada and the tortures he institutionalised. A wheel you were stretched till you confessed – or your back was broken.  Or both. Also auto da fe, where those who confessed were burnt at the stake. Publicly, so as to terrify everyone else.  


A fascinating book A Drizzle of Honey  tracks how food became a weapon in the Inquisition’s arsenal.

Inquisitors haunted family kitchens, and used employees and neighbours to report if Sabbath meals were cooked on Fridays, or if pork was refused at a shared meal.

The Inquisition set maids to spy on their mistresses, looking for "Jewish food”.  This account is from the New York Times review of A Drizzle of Honey.

“A few days before Passover in 1503 in northern Spain, Angelina de Leon was kneading a dough of white flour, eggs and olive oil, flavored with pepper and honey. She formed walnut-size balls, flattening them into round cakes and pricking them with a fork.

Maria Sancho, the family maid, was watching. This was exactly the sort of recipe that the Inquisition authorities had told servants to report. Maria had also seen her mistress soaking and salting meat before placing it into the stew pot.”

Apparently Torquemada himself would stand on a hill above a city on Saturdays looking for houses where there was no smoke coming out of the chimneys. Since Jewish law prohibits lighting fires on a Saturday, he would send his Inquisitors there.

(And, in a plot twist you couldn't make up, apparently Torquemada’s mother was a Jewish Converso. There’s a whole novel right there!)

Another book full of history and simply wonderful recipes is Claudia Roden’s The Food of Spain.


The authors of A Drizzle of Honey are historians who combed through the Inquisition archives, looking for descriptions of “Jewish food” in the court testimonies.

"Lamb and beef were the favourite meats among the secret Jews and that chickpeas, eggplant and chard were recognized as Jewish vegetables.”

The Jews also used cinnamon and sugar liberally, even in stews and with fish. Vinegar was very important, and spices were used in quantities the authors describe as staggering.

Coriander (cilantro) was a thing, so was saffron, and both orange and rose water.  

It sounds like the cuisine of Morocco today!  


So to honour the Jews of Spain, we’re preparing those “Jewish vegetables” chickpeas and chard.

I like to boil chickpeas when I have the time, but I do fall back on tinned tomatoes and frozen spinach in emergencies – and this week was one of them. Across Israel, supplies of basic veges like tomatoes, cucumber and spinach are running low, due to the long Jewish New Year holiday period. (Tomatoes are apparently running out due to a combination of the broiling summer and some new virus. But as a cameraman said at the studio today, “The tomato virus doesn't explain why there are no eggs!” It seems this Holiday has just gone on too long... )

So I am able to report that you can make this recipe with tinned tomatoes and frozen spinach, and it's still really good!

Spinach and Chickpeas

serves 4


  • 450 g English spinach

  • 3 large garlic cloves, crushed

  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

  • ½ teaspoon saffron threads

  • 2 teaspoons sweet paprika

  • ½ teaspoon smoky Spanish paprika

  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin

  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves

  • 3 cups cooked chickpeas – either 1 ½ cups (250 g) dried chickpeas, or 2 x 450 tins chickpeas

  • ¼ cup olive oil

  • 1 onion, finely chopped

  • 1 large tomato, peeled and chopped; or ½ cup tinned tomatoes

  • ¼ cup sultanas or raisins

  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar


1. If you're not using canned chickpeas, soak the dried chickpeas overnight and then cook till they are soft. Reserve 1 cup of the liquid.

2.   Steam the spinach by wilting it in a pot with just the water clinging to the leaves after rinsing. It will produce more water as it cooks. It is ready when all the leaves have wilted down, about 2-3 minutes. Drain. Chop coarsely and press to extract liquid.

3. In a food processor, or a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic with the salt and the saffron till you have a paste. Add the paprikas, sweet and smoky, the cumin and cloves and mash till combined. Add ¼ cup of the chickpea liquid.

4. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to a pan. Add the onion and tomato and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until they are softened, about 5 minutes. Add the spiced garlic sauce to the onion and tomato and cook for  2-3 minutes more. 

5. Add the chickpeas with their remaining liquid, then the raisins and bring to a boil. Add the spinach, stir in vinegar, reduce the heat to moderate, and simmer for 15 minutes. When it's ready serve in 4  bowls, with 2 remaining tablespoons of olive oil drizzled on top.



There is a richer version, where you fry bread in olive oil and then add it to the mix, with a little vinegar. It does make it tastier, but also heavier – not to mention more calories. So am leaving out that ingredient … but if you like it, that’s the Smitten Kitchen option, by way of uber London Spanish restaurant Moro. There they cook the Spanish Muslim food of Andalucía. The tastes of Moorish Spain, so similar to the Jewish  dishes, are popular everywhere again today. 

Jerusalem verdict

The dish as per the recipe I've given you here ie minus the bread, but with smoked paprika, is wonderful. Earthy. Filling. Tasty. And even better re-heated the next day. I’d happily make it once a week!

Candice who lives in Madrid basically says she almost does that, cooking if often.

She always uses fresh spinach and tomato but more often than not relies on the excellent prepared chickpeas available in Spain.

"They are sold in jars, not cans, and the best quality ones are a great time-saver." 

Candice advises you to try it once with the bread, "which sort of pulls the whole thing together."

p.s. OLIVE OIl

The other amazing thing I've learnt this week is that In 15th century Europe, only Jews used olive oil. Christians fried in pork fat, and Muslims in clarified butter. (Both those were problematic for Jews. Pork is forbidden and butter is not suitable for use with meat -- it’s not kosher.)

The smell of food fried with olive oil became so strongly associated with Jewishness that Christians  avoided it for fear of being mistaken for secret Jews!

In fact, many of the “proofs” of secret Jewish cooking are the basis of Spain's cuisine today: large quantities of garlic and onions; frying in olive oil; and the use of spinach, eggplant and chickpeas.

For the next few weeks, we will be making more recipes from the exiled Jews of Sepharad, who reached North Africa as well as Italy, Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. Their flavours appear in those cuisines too – as we can see from our Food is Love Grandmother Rina, who cooks the food of Libya where she grew up,  and Food is Love Grandmother Rosa who is from Greece. More of these wonderful tastes next week!


And finally lucky you - a chance to hear Israeli singer Rinat Emanuel and her father the former Cantor Yitzhak Emanuel singing together acapella in Ladino. They are two of the thousands of Israelis who are eligible for Spanish citizenship. They have a family tree dating back to  the expulsion from Spain and Yitzhak speaks Ladino. Here is Adios, a sad very Spanish song about parting from a lover. 

Rinat is also  currently collaborating on a project called Earth, Wind and Desire with the Spainsh poet Juan Carlos Garcia Hoywelos.

He writes poems in Spanish and asks artists to translate them into other Iberian languages. This Ladino song Solo Una Lagrima is a translation of his poem, produced and set to music by Ron Laor.

Rinat Emanuel and Ron Laor

Rinat Emanuel and Ron Laor