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Sous-vide Brisket, Matzah Pizza And Rosewater Marzipan — A Guide To Delicious Passover Food (Yes, Really) In LA

A table filled with bowls and plates, showing different foods associated with the holiday — matzah, kugel, matzo ball soup and pickles
A Passover meal kit from Wise Sons
(Courtesy of Wise Sons )
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The festival of Passover — Pesach in Hebrew — starts tonight, and will last until next Thursday, April 13.

Ask a Jewish person how they observe the holiday and you’ll get various answers, especially here in Los Angeles. Some will simply attend a seder, the evening meal where the biblical story of the Israelites escaping bondage in Egypt is traditionally retold.

Others strictly observe the dietary practices of the holiday, eating unleavened matzah instead of bread, avoiding any other leavened food such as pasta or cookies and cleaning their homes from top to toe.

And some people sort of do both. Or neither.

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I realized how important the tradition was to me in April 2020, when we held our seder over Zoom, the first major celebration that COVID lockdowns prevented us from having in person.

I just remember feeling like this monumental meal I was sharing with my wife and our then 9-month-old twins — and my parents and sister over the internet — just was so sad.

It felt like we were living the hardships part of the Passover story. At one point, I excused myself, walked into the bathroom, and started sobbing, thinking, “Is this the world my children are going to be living in?”

Those were tough times. But we made it through. And this year, I’ll celebrate our freedom from all sorts of plagues, in person on vacation with my family for spring break.

When it comes to festivals, delicious Passover food is somewhat limited. Matzahs are a really hard food to pump up — it's as if the Swedes were dead set on getting everyone to just eat Wasa crackers in all these unique ways for a week. But in a place as diverse as L.A, there are many tasty offerings out there.

Rosewater and cardamom: Iranian-Jewish flavors

Tannaz Sassooni is a food writer living in Los Angeles. (Check out what she wrote about hummus for LAist.) She’s currently collecting recipes and stories from Iranian Jewish grandmothers for a cookbook she’s working on.

She says the first night of Passover is always at her mom’s house with tons of family. Instead of dipping food in salt water as many Ashkenazis of Eastern European descent do (to simulate the tears of those enslaved), her family dips it in vinegar.

"And our bitter herb is usually a bitter lettuce," she says. (Ashkenazi tradition uses horseradish.)

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Two photos side by side: On the left, a woman with medium skin tone, shoulder length brown curly hair, glasses, and a dark gray sweater, stands inside a home near the window. The photo is taken from outside looking in. There are white orchids on the left of the frame. On the right, the exterior of a home. The walls are white and the shape is triangular. The foreground is full of sage and lavender.
Tannaz Sassooni, 45, poses for a portrait from inside of her home in Los Angeles.
(Pablo Unzueta

"Our charoset is the best charoset in the world,” Sassooni says of the fruit-and-nut mixture on the seder plate to remind us of the mortar used in the building of the pyramids.

“We use my grandfather's recipe. He faxed it to all of his children from Israel many decades ago, and that’s still what we go by. It has a million fruits and spices and nuts and wine and vinegar and fruit juices — it even has bananas, which I think is very, very strange, but that's part of the recipe.”

The mixture is then blended in a hand-cranked meat grinder. “It's a whole endeavor, so you have a nice texture. I’ll take a jar home and eat it throughout the week,” Sasooni says.

A close up of hands brushing crumbs and dirt from the wooden floor onto a plastic dust pan.
Tannaz Sassooni, 45, an Iranian Jewish and food writer living in Los Angeles, does her usual spring cleaning and begins to throw away any leavened bread and flour products in the trash, as Sassoni prepares to celebrate the Iranian Persian Passover with her family.
(Pablo Unzueta

Passover often falls within a few weeks of the vernal equinox — Nowruz, the Persian New Year. For Iranian Jews, there’s often some overlap. The Nowruz spring cleaning tradition of khāne-takānī parallels the Jewish practice of removing chametz (bread and leavened food products) before Passover. And, of course, there are those snacks that work perfectly for both holidays.

While her mom prepares badam sookhteh, toasted almonds coated in cardamom (“it means burnt almonds, but it's almonds that are wrapped in dark caramel”), Sassooni regularly makes toot, the Persian word for mulberry.

But this candy does not actually contain mulberries; it just resembles them. It’s a marzipan made from almond flour, tinted with saffron, and perfumed with rosewater. Sassooni says that when toot is served with tea to friends and family, it ensures a sweet new year and is an excellent compliment for the Passover celebration.

On top of a white marble counter there are Nowruz items such as a basket of eggs, a bowl of apples, a plate with marzipan balls, a plate of coins, dates, and a grass plant.
Tannaz Sassooni’s kitchen, which she says, is an expression of creativity and her culture during this time of the year.
(Pablo Unzueta

Brisket and chicken soup — the traditional Ashkenazi meal

For Evan Bloom of Wise Sons Deli, his “go-to Jewish holiday” has always been Passover. His first days cooking for large groups were at friends' Passover seders at UC Berkeley.

“Passover is all about filling your house with people. You are not supposed to turn people away. Seders are always big and always fun,” says Bloom.

The Passover story has a special connection to the Wise Sons origin story. They got their name from the Haggadah, the guidebook for the seder. Bloom says their name refers to the story of four sons who each ask questions about the seder: The Simple Son, The Son Who Does Not Know How To Ask, The Wicked Son, and The Wise Son.

Wise Sons filled a niche in the Bay Area when they started their operation in 2011. There wasn’t a traditional Jewish deli in San Francisco and a population yearned for their grandma’s brisket, with a farm-to-table approach.

Now they have seven restaurants — four in San Francisco, two in Oakland, and one in Culver City. Bloom grew up in Southern California, so having a location in L.A. is a homecoming.

A table containing various dishes of foods for Passover.
Meal for two for Passover from Wise Sons
(Courtesy of Wise Sons)

During Passover, they offer a popular seder dinner package.

Bloom says it's a traditional Ashkenazi meal, apple and walnut charoset, chopped liver, matzo ball soup, roasted brisket or chicken.

“The brisket is pre-sliced and sous-vide — you finish it in the oven,” Bloom says. "During the pandemic, people got really into finishing things at home. It's easier on the production end so we leaned into it."

Where to eat during Passover
    • Easy order Seder meal and plate kits (sold separately): Wise Sons 9552 Washington Blvd,
      Culver City, CA 90232
    • Matzoh ball soup, garlic and dill tots, and Hobak latkes: Yangban Society, 712 S Santa Fe Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90021
    • Matzah-crust pizzas with your choice of toppings: Fresh Brothers (various locations)
    • Khoresh: A Persian stew often served with lentils for the second night of Passover -Kabob By Faraj 8680 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035

The potato kugel is from a former employee’s nana, and the peas and carrots in lemon butter on the menu are an ode to Bloom’s own safta (Hebrew for grandmother) — but these peas don’t come from a can. There’s also a chocolate matzo with bittersweet caramel.

Bloom says another popular order is the Seder Plate Kit — which comes with a lamb shank bone, horseradish root, parsley, greens, egg, charoset, sea salt, and an orange.

The orange is a recent progressive addition to the seder. Jewish feminist scholar Susannah Heschel held a seder in the 1980s and chose to include an orange on the seder plate — “because it suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.”

Bloom urges people to order through the website in advance because “we Jews often do things at the last minute.” But the roast brisket plate will be on special at the restaurant for the first few nights for any stragglers.

Gourmet chocolate matzah: Compartés

Compartés, an LA-based Oprah-endorsed gourmet chocolatier, offers desserts for Passover. CEO Jonathan Grahm says that they’ve been in business for 75 years. “People remember buying their chocolates as kids — and now give them to their own grandkids.”

A matzah is covered with dark chocolate, on top of a brown swirled background
Chocolate matzah from Compartés gourmet chocolates
(Bailen Estrada
Courtesy of Compartés)

Grahm says, “growing up, my grandma kept kosher — so our family seder tradition is to use parve dark chocolate matzahs.” It means the dark chocolate does not have dairy, so it doesn’t run the risk of mixing milk and meat, especially during a meat-centric Passover meal.

Comfort food with Korean and Jewish roots

I'm Jewish. My wife is Korean-Irish-Catholic, but she's from Encino — which I guess also makes her culturally Jewish.

While my children have a halmoni, who taught my toddlers how to say “mashita” when eating something delicious, my Irish Catholic father-in-law remembers the pickles brining on the fire escapes as he delivered groceries to South Boston bubbies. And that was the first thing he was reminded of when he saw onggi kimchi ceramic pots when he visited Seoul.

A few times a month, our family gets breakfast on Sunday mornings and dines at a Jewish deli, Brent’s, with my in-laws.

It’s a quintessentially L.A. blend — one which we share with Chefs Katianna and John Hong, who run Yangban Society, a Korean American restaurant in the Arts District.

They incorporate their fine dining background with “a multidimensional, autobiographical experience that showcases their respective backgrounds and upbringings,” according to the website. It’s comfort food with Korean and Jewish roots.

The initial concept at Yangban was a deli. Like the ones that Kat grew up with in upstate New York.

Korean American deli reminds her of going to a Unitarian church as a kid, where going to a deli was an incentive. Like the Greek deli or the Italian deli, the places that serve the food of families and communities.

Kat said they were actually removing the deli on the day that I called, to focus on plated table service.

A black and white image of a woman of Asian descent wearing an apron. She stands over a counter, looking down, holding a metal spoon over a plate of food. Behind her is a stainless steel kitchen with a row of pots hanging from the ceiling, and two dark silhouettes of people are on her left side.
Chefs Katianna Hong, Yangban Society
(John Troxell/©John Troxell
Courtesy of Yangban Society )

Chef Katianna was born in South Korea and was adopted at 3 months old, when she was brought to the United States and raised half-Jewish in a "mixed celebratory" household in upstate New York. She has lots of fond memories of cooking with her grandma.

“Since my family lives all over,” Chef Katianna says, “We can usually celebrate only once a year, so it's like one big celebration — Christmas and Hanukkah and Passover — with matzo balls and menorahs.”

Meanwhile, John grew up in the Jewish suburbs of Chicago: “Koreans getting bagels, it all felt natural.”

Yangban offers several Passover-adjacent items on its menu, like the matzo ball soup. Chef Katianna Hong uses her grandmother’s matzo ball recipe and floats it on a creamy foam broth of emulsified chicken bones.

Also on the menu is hobak latkes made with produce from Girl & Dug (a Korean American-owned farm) containing squashini, Yukon potato, diced onions, white kimchee, egg, matzah meal, and a little Korean pancake (pajeon) mix . For snacking purposes, you can nibble on the garlic and dill tots — fried tots tossed in house-made roasted garlic butter, chopped dill, and scallions, served with whipped crème fraiche, dill oil, and applesauce for dipping.

Chef Katianna says her matzah mandu — Korean dumplings — will most likely be added to the menu, so stay tuned.

Matzah pizza: Fresh Brothers

Everyone who's committed to eating matzah for a week has devised creative ways to make that bland cracker more palatable.

Whether that’s spreading butter on it, or more ambitious projects — matzah brei, anyone? — most of us have stumbled on the matzah pizza from Fresh Brothers. (Sounds easy, but it’s not. When I make it at home, it’s often like a too-crunchy Boboli that always falls apart.)

The pizza chain was founded in 2008 and has 24 locations in Southern California, including Terminal 2 of LAX and the Rose Bowl.

Fresh Brothers have been serving matzah pizza for the eight days of Passover for the past 10 years. “At our sixth store, the Beverly Hills location, my brother told me he noticed a drop in sales for one week in April,” says co-founder Scott Goldberg.

They realized the drop in this predominantly Jewish neighborhood was because many folks had given up leavened bread for Passover.

A close up shot of four matzah pizza with different toppings against a cardboard background
Matzah Pizza, Fresh Brothers
(Courtesy of Fresh Brothers )

“So we said, ‘why not try matzah pizza as a gimmick, and that gimmick was a hit,” says Goldberg. “It turned into an annual tradition that we call Matzah Madness, 'cause it's always around March Madness.”

Now every Fresh Brothers location has it for the eight days of Passover. Goldberg says they’ll typically sell 7,000 - 9,000 matzah pizzas over that period.

They’ve been actively contacting synagogues to inform them about this promotion while clarifying that none of what they’re serving is actually kosher for Pesach. “Some folks are not personally kosher, but they still keep Passover,” says Goldberg.

The architecture of a matzah pie is crucial if you don’t want it to crack in half or get too soggy. Goldberg says the key is to take one piece of matzah and put a little bit of cheese on it, then add a second sheet of matzah on top — the way a taquero slides in the second tortilla for structural support — which also kind of makes for a stuffed crust matzah.

Goldberg says that their signature margherita pizza is popular, and they ensure that pans and knives don’t allow meat and milk to touch. (Not quite Glatt kosher standards, but the intention is there.)

Meanwhile, Goldberg’s personal favorite matzah pizza is Da Works, pronounced in his native Chicago-ese, with decidedly un-kosher sausage, pepperoni, mushroom, green peppers and red onion.

The joys of the diaspora

The Exodus from Egypt was the start of the Jewish diaspora — and the diaspora is where I feel most at home.

This is where I have the opportunity to connect with our cousins from so many other tribes, especially somewhere like L.A. There's this sense that we are all related through our own experiences, and we all have the same interests — that is, taking the lessons we’ve learned from the past, the security of familial support, and if we have children, hoping that we can make their lives better.

And this Passover — in contrast to the hardships of 2020 — my family and I are lounging on the beach in Cabo. And since the drinks are included at the all-inclusive resort, we're planning on having at least the four ceremonial cups of wine — and holding a fifth one out for Elijah.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

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