Friday, March 19, 2010

Passover in Tokyo

(Aimee & husband, Marc, posing beautifully at an equally lovely Seder setting.)

I'm happy to share this Foodie Friday with my good friend and colleague, Dr. Aimee Weinstein. Aimee is a writer and recently was contracted to do a non-fiction book about English translation on signs in Tokyo. She also has one completed novel going through a final round of edits before she embarks on a query adventure with it, and a second novel that she's finished in draft form. Aimee writes for several magazines and ezines on travel, food, and Jewish life. Today, she's talking about her adventures following Jewish food traditions for Passover while in Tokyo. For more of Aimee's work, you can visit her at

Thank you, Aimee!!


It is that time of year again, and I alternately love it and dread it. It’s time for the Jewish holiday of Passover, which by standards is, along with Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah in the fall, if not the superbowl of holidays, then at least at playoff level. By way of explanation, the holiday is based on the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The story goes that after the ten plagues, the Pharaoh released the Jews to leave the country and the Jews wanted to get out of there quickly, before he changed his mind so they left Egypt in a great hurry. Because of their haste, they did not have time to wait for their bread to rise to take with them on the journey. In commemoration of the leave-taking, Jews are commanded to eat matzah – unleavened bread – for eight days every year. Jews eat matzah to the exclusion of other types of grains. No corn, wheat, rye, barley, rice or anything. Eight days. It’s a full week of meat, potatoes and veggies.

Since I live in Tokyo, Japan, Passover has always presented a particular challenge. First of all, none of the traditional foods are readily available. I’m very lucky that the Jewish Community Center ( imports all of the really important foodstuffs directly from Israel. The biggies include boxes of matzah; matzah meal, which is crushed up matzah used for frying; and jars of gefilte fish, which is a conglomeration of fish that’s gelled together into balls – hey, it’s ethnic food – don’t ask! They also import and sell Kosher-for-Passover wine, macaroons, and even ketchup. Food for this all-important week has to be labeled not just Kosher, but Kosher-for-Passover, meaning free from all grain except matzah meal – the ground-up matzah.

In the U.S. there are often aisles of the grocery store devoted to Passover items. I remember growing up that it was the one time of year my mom would buy candy. Remember, it had to be labeled Kosher-for-Passover, and that means no corn syrup, so it was special candy. She made us eggs for breakfast every morning because cereal and toast were against the rules. Sometimes we’d have a board of matzah with sauce and cheese on it for lunch – matzah pizza. There was meat and potatoes every night for dinner.

When I had my own home in Virginia, I went even further with the traditions of the holiday. I changed over my dishes so that I had special pots, pans, plates and silverware for the holiday – things that had never touched anything leavened. It was the one week a year that my husband and I kept completely and strictly Kosher. My family thought I was crazy at the time, but it was not so hard for us to obtain the items we needed and make the extra effort to use different kitchen items.

But in Tokyo everything is different. The entire diet of the country is rice-based. Noodles are omnipresent in day-to-day life. I don’t have the storage in my little house to keep the extra dishes so I gave them away. We go out to eat a heck of a lot more often here than we ever did in the U.S. because we live in the middle of a city with one of the biggest concentration of accessible restaurants in the world. We are nowhere near family with whom to celebrate and have the traditional seder meal on the first two days of the holiday. All of this leads to huge issues with keeping Passover properly.

And so we adapt. There are two types of Jews in the world: Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Ashkenazi Jews are from Eastern Europe originally and Sephardic Jews are from Western Europe – Spain, mostly. Sephardic Jews eat rice on Passover. Most of the Jews I know in Tokyo magically become Sephardic on Passover no matter their ancestry. The Jewish Community Center holds two big seders that are well-attended. Many people host their own seders at home for their “family of friends” – everyone is in the same boat, so we form our own families. We splurge on the very expensive meat here to make up for the lack of carbs. I make my own candy – chocolate matzah to be exact. It’s messy and annoying, but the kids love it and it brings back good childhood memories for me to have candy in the house when I normally don’t.

So much of life overseas is about adaptation. I miss my family at this time of year and know that they are getting together without me. I miss my favorite holiday foods (carrot soufflé, brisket, matzah-stuffing…) which never taste quite right with Japanese ingredients even if I make them from scratch. But as I make my own seder for sixteen people this year, I know that my kids will have their own childhood memories of these times. The sixteen people who will be at my house next Tuesday night are special, wonderful humans with whom I am grateful to share my life – Jewish or other parts.

And so while Passover presents its challenges and problems, especially in Tokyo, it’s still an important time of year to be a Jew no matter where we are in the world. It’s comforting to know that all Jews across the globe are celebrating the same idea in their own way. And eating the traditional foods in the best way they know how.


A Novel Friend © 2008 by para Você | Re-design Sweet Baby Girl