Celebrating Passover: The History And Symbolism Of Matzo Balls

Apr 3, 2015
Originally published on April 7, 2015 3:42 pm

Nothing says Passover like a good bowl of matzo ball soup. That's according to Joan Nathan, chef and grande-dame of Jewish cooking, who spoke to Steve Inskeep of NPR's Morning Edition about the importance of the tradition.

The Jewish holiday of Passover celebrates the Biblical story of the Exodus, or the freeing of Hebrew slaves from Egypt.

"It's really the defining story of Judaism. Everybody in some way can identify with it – Jewish or not," says Nathan, author of a new book, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France. "I like the tradition of going back to a lot of these old recipes that have been here for centuries and centuries and sort of realizing who I am and where I came from."

The Passover meal, known as a Seder, is all about remembering Jewish history. Much of the food is deeply symbolic. Matzo represents the unleavened bread the Jews ate while fleeing Egypt, for example, and horseradish is a symbol for the bitterness of slavery.

Before the machine-made matzo became widely consumed in the 19th century, Jewish people would visit their local bakery for Matzo bread, and make matzo balls with the leftover crumbs.

But the dumplings were not always called matzo balls. They were called knoedel, Nathan says, and the Germans, Austrians and Alsatians used them in soups. When Jews moved to Poland, they referred to them as knoedela, and in the 1930s, the U.S. Manischewitz company started packaging the product and called them "Alsatian feathery balls." Nathan says it was probably U.S. comedians and vaudeville performers that finally dubbed them "matzo balls."


Recipe: Joan Nathan's Matzo Ball Soup

2 tablespoons rendered chicken fat

4 large eggs

1/4 cup chicken broth or water

3 teaspoons salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger or 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 cup matzo meal

Put the chicken fat, eggs, broth or water, 2 teaspoons salt, freshly ground pepper, the ginger and the nutmeg in a medium mixing bowl. Stir well with a wooden spoon, then add the matzo meal and stir just until mixed. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour, or overnight.

Bring a large pot of water with the remaining teaspoon of salt to a boil. Set a small bowl of cold water next to your work space. Dip your hands in the water, then form matzo balls about the size of small walnuts. Drop the matzo balls into the boiling water, then cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until al dente.

Serve with chicken soup.

Yield: About 10 matzo balls

Note: There are two ways that one can render the fat. The first way is to take the fat off the chicken and melt it down in a frying pan with onions. The second and easiest method is to make chicken soup (using the skin), then cool and refrigerate the soup overnight, and spoon off the fat that accumulates on top.

Reproduced from Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France copyright 2015 by Joan Nathan.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Passover starts tonight. It's a big Jewish holiday - not just for the meaning, but also for the food.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MATZO BALLS")

SLIM GAILLARD: (Singing) All over the matzo balls, gefilte fish - the best ole dish I ever, ever had.

INSKEEP: Nothing says Passover like a good bowl of matzo ball soup, or so I'm told. I'd never actually tried any matzo ball soup until just a few days ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

JOAN NATHAN: Hello.

INSKEEP: Hi, Ms. Nathan. Hey - Steve Inskeep.

NATHAN: How are you? Wow.

INSKEEP: I'm OK.

NATHAN: It's a pleasure to have you - to show you about matzo balls.

INSKEEP: Glad to be here.

We went to visit Joan Nathan, author, chef and grand dame of Jewish cooking. There was a reason we arrived at her house on a perfect spring day - I mean, a reason beyond the good company and good food in her kitchen. The food tells a story. The Jewish holiday of Passover celebrates a story in the Bible, part of the great story of Jews enslaved in Egypt. If you're not a Bible reader, that's OK. Just think of it as part of the plot of Charlton Heston's "Ten Commandments."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TEN COMMANDMENTS")

CHARLTON HESTON: (As Moses) Let my people go.

NATHAN: It's really the defining story of Judaism. Everybody in some way can identify with it, Jewish or not. You know, somebody said - what is it? - we got out of Egypt. Let's eat (laughter). And I like the tradition of going back to a lot of these old recipes that have been here for centuries and centuries and sort of realizing who I am and where I came from.

INSKEEP: The Passover meal, known as a Seder, is all about remembering Jewish history. Much of the food is deeply symbolic. Matzo represents the unleavened bread the Jews ate while fleeing Egypt.

NATHAN: And horseradish is a symbol of the bitterness of slavery.

INSKEEP: I bet there's lots of us who have not seen a chunk of horseradish like this before. It looks like a chunk of wood basically.

NATHAN: (Laughter) Right - just take a little bit of it.

INSKEEP: Just bite right off of this.

NATHAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: OK.

NATHAN: (Laughter) It should be bitter.

INSKEEP: Wow, a sinus-clearing experience.

NATHAN: (Laughter) That's what you're supposed to have. Do you want some water?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

NATHAN: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: So that was a chunk of horseradish.

NATHAN: Horseradish root.

INSKEEP: I actually teared up a little bit.

NATHAN: Good. I think you'd do very well at our Seder.

INSKEEP: So where does matzo fit in?

NATHAN: In the Bible - I believe it's the Book of Exodus - it says that you must only eat unleavened bread. And of course, this is machine matzo - 19th-century. Before that, in most towns there'd be a big oven there. And they would buy - let's say I had five children. I would buy maybe five pounds of matzo. And of course, some of them would crumble, and with the crumbled matzo you would make matzo balls.

INSKEEP: Oh, leftovers.

NATHAN: And, you know, that - matzo balls were never called matzo balls before. They were called knoedel - K-N-O-E-D-E-L. And they were dumplings that were German. In the 12th century or 11th century, the Germans, the Austrians, the Alsatians used these big dumplings in soups that were made out of bread. Then they went east when Jews went to Poland, and they called them knedle. And then they came to this country, and the Manischewitz Company boxed them in the 1930s and they called them Alsatian feathery balls. And my guess is that comedians - vaudeville - said they're matzo balls. So would you like to learn to make them?

INSKEEP: I would love to.

NATHAN: Oh, great.

INSKEEP: Joan Nathan's recipe for matzo ball soup starts with matzo meal and four eggs.

NATHAN: So this you...

INSKEEP: You're beating the eggs here.

NATHAN: A lot of people use a mix when they're making their matzo balls. The mix has baking powder in it. And that's why they float so beautifully 'cause there's a lot of jokes about floaters and sinkers. I lived in Israel when I was very young and I worked for the mayor of Jerusalem, and Golda Meir was known for her sinkers.

INSKEEP: The prime minister of Israel.

NATHAN: And they were really the hardest matzo balls you can imagine.

INSKEEP: So is the sinking matzo ball considered to be better or worse than the floating?

NATHAN: Well, it depends on what your mother made.

(LAUGHTER)

NATHAN: Then the other thing I do is...

INSKEEP: We got a big pot here, OK.

NATHAN: Right, and I had - I just took it out of the refrigerator. If I'm making chicken soup, the fat rises.

INSKEEP: OK, so you're scooping out some chicken fat.

NATHAN: A lot of people make shmaltz, which is chicken fat, but I just use what comes off the top.

INSKEEP: You just taught me the real definition of shmaltz, which is a word that I use in a completely different context.

NATHAN: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: We added shmaltz to the matzo meal and the eggs. Then we rolled them into balls, maybe the size of a golf ball or smaller.

NATHAN: Oh, you are very good. And make it bigger than mine 'cause I was making it too small.

INSKEEP: OK.

NATHAN: A little bit smaller than a walnut, I'd say.

INSKEEP: That was a little large.

NATHAN: You are very good.

INSKEEP: A little oversized.

NATHAN: It's OK. A lot of people like them big.

INSKEEP: Are they floaters or sinkers?

NATHAN: The proof is in the eating, I think.

INSKEEP: Cook them in water on a stove. Give them 15 minutes or so and then drop them in a bowl of chicken soup.

NATHAN: They look pretty good, don't they? Here, I'll give you two - a bigger one and a smaller one. Looks pretty, doesn't it?

INSKEEP: And they were just about all floaters.

It's very tasty. So when people do sit down to eat the matzo balls at Passover, did they say bon appetit? L'chaim? Anything?

NATHAN: L'chaim. Yeah, l'chaim. L'chaim.

INSKEEP: Well, there we go. L'chaim.

NATHAN: L'chaim.

INSKEEP: In the chicken soup - and I don't mean chicken noodle soup, I mean a giant pot of chicken soup with a chicken in it - the matzo gives you that hearty feeling that you get from turkey on Thanksgiving, which is the kind of family gathering that Nathan will host tonight. Although instead of football on TV, they will have children performing the Bible stories that Passover is meant to remember. Joan Nathan's new book is titled "Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search For Jewish Cooking In France." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.