Those who are only generally familiar with Middle East politics and the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict might believe Arabs and Jews—or, more generally, Muslims and Jews—are ancient enemies. At times it feels like an old conflict, one not entirely unlike the Sunni-Shiite divide in many of the states neighboring issue. But it is and was not so.
For the most part, interfaith relations between Jews and Muslims throughout history—at least up until the early parts of the 20th Century—have been as warm as could have been expected in the context of the times. In both cases it was certainly warmer than either religion’s relationship with Christianity. There were, generally, neither Crusades nor Pogroms (albeit no equality either).
While we often remember—with a mixture of pride and sadness—that one of the greatest flowerings of Jewish culture occurred in Spain, we sometimes forget that it happened in the parts of the Iberian Peninsula controlled by Muslims following the Conquest in 711. Prior to that time, the Aryan Visigoths proclaimed that only Catholics could live in Spain. Under Muslim Moorish rule things were different. While Muslims were, no doubt, the primary citizens of Al Andalus—Jews and Christians had fewer rights and responsibilities—Jews enjoyed religious tolerance, the right to practice their religion and a generally high level of autonomy. Long periods of this tolerance, of course, were interrupted by occasional periods of oppression.
The Golden Age of Sephardim began with the reign of Abd al-Rahman III (912–961) the Caliph of Córdoba and his closest (and Jewish) advisor, Hasdai ibn Shaprut (915–970). This Golden Age attracted Jewish scholars, artists and writers. Within the limits of the age some of the greatest cultural contributions grew out of Jewish-Muslim collaborations such as the translation center in Toledo and advances in medicine throughout the region as Córdoba became a center for Jewish knowledge and culture.
One catalyst to the collaboration between Jews and Muslims was similarities and shared history of Jewish and Islamic traditions and culture. Nowhere, perhaps was that more evident than in food. While all halal food is not kosher, much could be. And all kosher food is halal. This facilitated a significant culinary cultural interchange that affected both cuisines. Sephardic Jewish mezé helped inform the growth of a tapas tradition, boquerones en vinagre (anchovies in vinegar) being but one example. Similarly, much of Sephardic cuisine began its life as Moorish dishes filtered through the laws of kashrut.
One dish of disputed pedigree is gazpacho, that familiar cold soup that is so perfect for hot Southern California evenings at the height of summer. The name itself gives clues—albeit potentially conflicting ones—as to the origin of the dish. The most frequently cited source for the origin of the word “gazpacho” is the Mozarab word caspa—meaning “fragments” or “residue,” possibly alluding to bits of chopped vegetables and small chunks of bread in the soup. Others—including food writer José Briz (author of Libro Del Gazpacho y de Gos Gazpachos) assert it comes from
the Hebrew word gazaz (גזז) meaning “to shear” or, again, “to break into pieces.”
What is clear is that while we almost indelibly associate gazpacho with tomatoes the dish was originally made without them. Gazpacho is surely pre-Columbian in origin and may well be of Roman descent. At its core gazpacho incorporates—as the name suggests—bits of bread (often stale bread soaked in water) and olive oil, sometimes incorporating garlic and vinegar. Indeed, in Spain today there are many varieties of gazpacho that do not include tomatoes. White gazpacho based on garlic and almonds is common, as are pepper-based versions and many more.
But the gazpacho familiar to most Americans is, essentially, a garden salad in a soup form. The Andalucían classic is based on brilliantly fresh tomatoes together with cucumbers and sweet peppers. Often, finely chopped versions of those same ingredients are passed tableside as garnishes.
The traditional Andalucían version—true to the origin of the dish—includes stale bread soaked in water. Aside from history and tradition, the incorporation of the bread thickens the soup effectively, so much so that water is often added to adjust the texture. I have made that version many times and enjoyed it greatly.
But I could not help wonder about the culinary value of the bread. Its historical value I could understand; its culinary value less so. For me, the bread and water dull the flavor of a dish that is all about how the freshest of ingredients crash against each other melding into a crystalline clear and different flavor that is entirely its own thing. There is no need for bread, no need for water, the dictates of two millennia of history and tradition notwithstanding.
Gazpacho is all about the freshest possible ingredients at their height; nothing less, nothing more. And now, at the height of summer, I like to add a spicy chile pepper to the mix. Maybe it is just another hint, if not hit, of summer heat. For this version I took the dish in a slightly Mexican direction adding a jalapeño pepper and garnishing with some cilantro (either a purée or an oil) garnish.
Spicy Gazpacho with Cilantro
For the Gazpacho
1 fresh Persian cucumber
1 red bell pepper
1-2 jalapeño peppers
4 incredibly, supremely flavorful tomatoes
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup sherry vinegar (balsamic is a barely-acceptable substitute)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
For the Cilantro Purée
1 bunch fresh cilantro
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
- Prepare the Cilantro Purée. Bring a pot of water to a boil and plunge the cilantro into the water to blanch. Rinse the cilantro in cold water and squeeze dry. Place the cilantro in the bowl of a food processor and process on high drizzling in the oil. Transfer the resulting purée to a bowl. If desired, strain the purée into an oil.
- Purée the Cucumber. Coarsely chop the cucumber and add to a Vitamix or other high speed blender (or a food processer). Starting on the lowest setting possible, begin pureeing the cucumber, gradually raising the setting until the cucumber is completely liquidized.
- Purée the Bell Pepper. Return the Vitamix to its lowest setting. Coarsely chop the bell pepper and repeat the previous step with the pepper. Do the same with one of the jalapeño peppers.
- Add the Tomato. Quarter the tomatoes and add the quarters to the Vitamix one at a time.
- Season the Soup. Add the sherry vinegar and olive oil and taste the soup adjusting the salt, pepper and vinegar balance. Also test for heat. If you want more, add the remaining ½ jalapeño chile pepper. Refrigerate the soup for at least half an hour.
- Strain and Plate the Soup. Strain the soup through a fine-mesh sieve or strainer. Indeed do so more than once until you achieve a silky texture with which you are happy. Garnish with the cilantro purée or oil.