It's not often you come across a food that's supposed to look like, well, mud. But charoset--a mixture of fruit, nuts, spices, and wine--is meant to do just that. It's symbolic of the mortar the Israelite slaves used to build storehouses for Pharoah in Egypt. Charoset is an important fixture of the Passover Seder, and though it's typically eaten just once a year at the Seders, in any of its many variations, it's absolutely delicious.
Is it a Mitzvah?
Whether or not eating charoset fulfills a mitzvah (commandment) is a point of debate. The Gemara notes that some rabbis argued its purpose was simply to offer sweet relief from the sharp flavor of maror (the bitter herbs that are also eaten as part of the Seder), while Eliezer ben Zadok held the conflicting opinion that eating it did indeed constitute a mitzvah. In any case, tasting it is a Seder highlight, not least because it is one of the first foods we get a chance to enjoy during the course of a long evening!
What's in a Name?
The word charoset derives from the from the Hebrew word “cheres,” meaning clay. According to the Rambam (Maimonides), who recorded one of the earliest known recipes for charoset, the mixture is meant to look like clay mixed with straw. (The Book of Seasons 7:11).
One of the fascinating things about charoset is that the recipes are incredibly varied, and often give insight into treasured ingredients in Jewish cookery throughout the diaspora.
Sephardic Jews tend to use dried fruits in their charoset, thereby staying close to Maimonides’ description of the dish. Figs, dates, raisins, dried plums, dried apricots, coconut, and oranges (often as marmalade) are among the fruits favored in various Sephardi and Mizrachi recipes.
These recipes are often simmered, unlike the Askenazi recipes, which tend to be a mixture of raw chopped fruits and nuts.
Sephardi and Mizrachi recipes also tend to be more generous in their use of spices, including cardamom, ginger, pepper, coriander, and cinnamon. By contrast, because Ashkenazim consider many spices to be kitniyot, they have fewer options to work with on the seasoning front and tend to stick to cinnamon.
Ashkenazi Jews often use fresh apples in their charoset. Some say apples are used in remembrance of the apple trees under which the Jewish women secretly gave birth in Egypt (Song of Songs 8:5), but the fact that apples were readily available and affordable in Eastern Europe likely had something to do with the starring role they play in Ashkenazi charoset recipes.
Similarly, some say Ashkenazim use red wine in charoset in remembrance of the splitting of the Red Sea; others say it is in remembrance of the plague of blood. Of course, wine was also a kosher ingredient for Passover that went well with fruit and acted as a natural preservative in the days before refrigeration -- factors that surely weren't lost on those creating charoset recipes.
- Charoset Recipes from Around the World: This ever-evolving collection of international charoset recipes includes links to everything from Ashkenazi apple and walnut charoset, to a date syrup and walnut version from Iraq, from an Israeli charoset that combines elements of Ashkenazi and Sephardi recipes, to modern takes on traditional Sephardi charosets from cookbook author Ronnie Fein.
- DIY Charoset: Of course, there's no need to follow a set recipe--you can have fun creating your own special charoset! The goal is simply a tasty mixture of fruit that looks more or less like mud. Play with a combination of hand chopped or food-processed apples, pears, dried fruits, spices, and/or nuts. Use juice and/or wine to moisten the mixture. If you want to sweeten your charoset, sugar, honey, pure maple syrup, jam, or date syrup (silan) are all great options. Charoset making experiments are a fabulous way to keep kids busy while you're prepping for the Seder. Plus, if they hit on a good combo, serving it to Seder guests gives them a vested interest in the proceedings!
Beyond the Seder Table
If you think charoset is just something to eat with matzo and bitter herbs while you wait for the Seder's festive meal, think again.
The stuff makes a terrific condiment throughout Pesach. If you've got leftovers, try it plain or as a matzo topper for breakfast or a snack. But don't stop there--it's great on grilled chicken or fish, served as a cheese accompaniment, stirred into yogurt, or dolloped on quinoa.