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On March 27 of this year, Monique and Josef, the Moroccan-born couple that own Patisserie Avyel, plan to roast a turmeric-coated lamb shoulder above a bed of onions. My friend Judith, whose family hails from Algeria’s Tlemcen region, will blend almonds and raisins into mlosia, a thick jam. And, in my apartment, I will simmer matzo balls in chicken broth as my Lithuanian ancestors once did.

All of us Marseillais will be cooking these foods for Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. While Jewish celebrations and cooking are as intertwined as the braided challah bread we eat on Shabbat – “all of our fêtes pass through the kitchen,” quips Frédérique, a Marseillaise with Tunisian roots – Pesach is a particularly food-centric affair. So much so that the holiday is consecrated in a meal itself, the seder, in which the Passover story is told through symbolic food and ritual.

These seders will be hosted in households across Marseille. Currently, the Jewish community comprises a tenth of the city’s population – around 80,000, making it the third largest in Europe. Les juifs have been present here since the Roman Empire. Marseille has been a consistently welcoming metropolis due to its “intermingling of so many men of different origins, customs and beliefs,” wrote local historian Augustin Fabre. In the 1940s, a local paper even dubbed Marseille “the Jerusalem of the Mediterranean.”

yabrak recipe

Nowadays the city is a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, with more of the latter, understandably, since they come from surrounding Mediterranean lands: North Africa, southern Europe and the Middle East. Cuisine séfarade feels at home in Marseille, our markets brimming with the springtime vegetables so prominent on its Passover plates.

Local Moroccans savor soupe de fèves while Algerians dig into archa, lamb shoulder stewed with cabbage and favas. The fava bean itself symbolizes renewal – its husk embodies the divine protection the Jews had during their plight. Tunisians tuck into msouki, AKA “springtime stew,” loaded with peas, carrot fronds, artichokes, chou nouveau (sugarloaf cabbage) and other seasonal veggies. Some cooks use as many as 18, the equivalent of  “chai,” meaning “life” in Hebrew.

Eager to share a recipe from a Marseille kitchen rather than the pages of a cookbook, I popped into my favorite Jewish eateries to get some suggestions. The popular kosher Israeli place, Yossi, was inexplicably closed. David, at Patisserie Journo, raved about his family’s msouki, but didn’t have a recipe since his grandmother does it by memory. This was the same issue at Patisserie Avyel and others. Many traditional recipes are shared orally or by hand, daughters learning from their mothers through simmering, chopping and cooking together.

Fittingly, I finally found my source through word of mouth. Two calls – one to fellow food writer Ezéchial Zérah and the other to chef/historian Emmanuel Perrodin – both led me to the same person: Frédérique Zuili. Professionally, she is an operations manager at a global cleaning company. But the Marseille-born Tunisian could make a living cooking – like her second cousin, local chef Philippe Zerah. Every Friday, Frédérique bakes challah for Shabbat. She cooked hundreds of briks for her son’s bar mitzvah. When I met her at her house, she had not one but two homemade desserts on hand: almond boulou cookies and bouskoutou, a brioche-like cake. With a friendliness as warm as the mint tea we sipped, she shared her love of cooking traditional Sephardic dishes.

Each Passover, Frédérique makes yabrak, romaine leaves stuffed with herb-infused meatballs. “We only make these boulettes romaines for Pessah,” she explains. “It just doesn’t have the same taste at other times of the year.” In choosing the same dishes each year (as many Jews do), the recipe becomes part of the ritual, transcending beyond mere gustatory pleasure. “Its our madeleine de Proust,” she smiles.

Yabrak’s main ingredient, romaine lettuce, is one of the six ingredients on a traditional seder plate. As maror, bitter herbs, they represent the bitterness of slavery that the Jews endured during their sojourn in Egypt. For some Tunisians, romaine isn’t all about hardship. At the end of Passover, “we put romaine leaves on the doors to bring happiness into our home,” explains Frédérique. I find the recipe fitting for Marseille, the romaine lettuce paying homage to our history as part of the Roman Empire.

While romaine leaves are a must in Tunisian yabrak (Syrians use grape leaves), each recipe has its own nuances. Some cooks mix the meatballs with spinach and rice or flavor them with harissa, cloves or cinnamon. Others add tomato paste to the water that the yabrak simmers in. As a fan of “ancient Persian dishes that use fresh herbs,” Frédérique likes to stuff her meatballs with cilantro, mint and parsley.

Her recipe comes from a homemade cookbook – a lined-notebook of handwritten recipes from her grandmother, mother-in-law and those of her own creation. Inside, yoyo (Tunisian doughnuts) and pkaila (fried, stewed spinach) mingle with soupe à pistou and crepes, the blend of both Tunisian and Provençal influences befitting of a true Marseillaise chef.

Frédérique serves her yabrak atop rice, but if you observe the Passover rules of kitnyot – where legumes and rice are forbidden – they are delicious on their own or with a French purée of potatoes.

Recipe: Yabrak, Romaine Leaves Stuffed with Herby Meatballs

4-6 people (18-20 bundles)

2/3 kg (1.5 lbs) ground beef
2 onions, diced
1 bunch each (around 1 cup) of parsley and cilantro, finely chopped
1/3 cup fresh mint, finely chopped
2 eggs
1 large head or 2 medium heads of romaine lettuce (around 18 leaves – use large outer leaves only)
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
1 packet of Spigol (a spice blend of turmeric, paprika, and saffron favored by Sephardic Jews to flavor and color their dishes – order online or substitute with 1 tsp turmeric, ½ tsp paprika and a pinch of saffron instead)
Harissa (optional – can be used in meatballs or as condiment)
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat large pot of water to blanch romaine leaves.

Put onions in a strainer, and sprinkle with salt to let them drain off their liquid while chopping the herbs.

In a large bowl, mix the chopped herbs and the onions with the ground meat. Generously salt and pepper. Add 1-2 tablespoons harissa, if using.

Add eggs and mix with your hands until the meat is moist. If the meat mixture still seems dry, Frédérique’s trick is to add a bit of hot water.

Soften the romaine leaves so that their spine is pliable and easy to roll. Blanch in boiling water for 1 minute then douse in a bowl of ice water to keep the bright green color. Don’t dry – you need the moisture to roll the leaves. (You can also soften the romaine leaves in the microwave: Rinse leaves, but don’t pat them dry since moisture will soften them. Line a plate with paper towels, then leaves, then paper towels. Microwave 30 seconds, then check. Continue to do so until leaves are soft, but have not shrunk.)

Put leaves on damp towel or damp wooden cutting board. With a soup spoon, scoop meat into your palm and form into an oval-shaped meatball with your hands. Place at the base of romaine leaf. Roll up the leaf, folding sides towards the meatball as you go to create little packets.

Heat a large cocotte or deep saucepan to medium heat. Add olive oil then sauté garlic for 30 seconds. Mix in Spigol (or 1 tsp turmeric, ½ tsp paprika and a pinch of saffron) and a cup of water. Carefully add romaine bundles to the pan – they like to be snug. Add water until it reaches halfway up the bundles. Bring water to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover pot. Cook for 30 minutes.

Remove from cooking liquid and serve over rice, potatoes or solo.

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