Adafina Brings Alive Childhood Memories from Tangier

15 April, 2022
Tang­i­er, Moroc­co (pho­to cour­tesy Alamy).


Yaëlle Azagury


There is a Moroc­can say­ing: “A Sab­bath with­out ada­fi­na is like a Sul­tan with­out his king­dom” (Sebt bla skhi­na fhal sul­tan bla m’dina).

Ada­fi­na looms large in Sephardic cook­ing and cul­tur­al imag­i­na­tion. Dat­ing back to medieval Spain, this fla­vor­ful dish is a one-pot meal which Sephardic Jews tra­di­tion­al­ly enjoy on the Sab­bath. In medieval Tole­do, it was made with chick­peas, eggs, and meat. The ada­fi­na of my child­hood in Tang­i­er, Moroc­co also includ­ed pota­toes and sweet pota­toes, both of which, hav­ing arrived to Europe after the dis­cov­ery of the New World, were lat­er addi­tions to the orig­i­nal recipe.

Jews are pro­hib­it­ed to cook on the Sab­bath, so ada­fi­na is pre­pared the day before and slow­ly sim­mers overnight, allow­ing the ingre­di­ents to release their juices.   Con­tem­po­rary Sephardic cooks use an elec­tric hot plate, but in the medieval peri­od, the dish cooked for hours in the coals in earth­en pit ovens.  Hence its name, ada­fi­na, which, like oth­er Span­ish words, comes from the Ara­bic.  It is root­ed on the verb “d’fen,” mean­ing “to bury.” Vari­a­tions on the name include dafi­na, d’fina, skhi­na, and in the Ottoman Empire, it is known as hamin.

An intrin­sic part of medieval Iber­ian cul­ture, ada­fi­na is men­tioned in such lit­er­ary works as El Libro de Buen Amor (1330) by Juan Ruiz, and La Lozana Andaluza (1528) by Fran­cis­co Del­i­ca­do. Food anthro­plo­gists con­sid­er ada­fi­na the first iter­a­tion of the olla podri­da, itself the pre­de­ces­sor of coci­do. Coci­do, how­ev­er, con­tains pork and sausages, both of which are non-kosher ingre­di­ents. The lat­ter were pre­sum­ably added to the orig­i­nal dish dur­ing the Inqui­si­tion by con­ver­sos seek­ing to prove they were true Catholics.

Moroc­can ada­fi­na (pho­to cour­tesy Maroc Mama).

Ada­fi­na is a well-trav­eled food and, chameleon-like, has host­ed many influ­ences. Just as it is an inte­gral part of the Iber­ian her­itage, so, too, it is deeply enmeshed in Maghribi cul­ture. The Moroc­can dic­tum cap­tures with char­ac­ter­is­tic humor the dish’s repute. In liken­ing ada­fi­na to a wor­thy king­dom, it brings to light the close­ly-knit rela­tion­ship of Jews and Mus­lims in Moroc­co. It also high­lights the Moroc­can Jew­ish expe­ri­ence as one of rel­a­tive com­fort, reveal­ing that pok­ing a lit­tle fun at the Oth­er was accept­able. And it stress­es that ada­fi­na was a desir­able dish known and prized by Mus­lims as well. In Tang­i­er, food was fre­quent­ly — espe­cial­ly on hol­i­days — exchanged between the two com­mu­ni­ties. The mutu­al shar­ing of del­i­ca­cies, com­mon in Moroc­co, oiled the machin­ery of Jews and Mus­lims liv­ing side-by-side, in har­mo­ny, albeit separately.

My mem­o­ries of our family’s ada­fi­na in Tang­i­er are rich­ly tex­tured. I am instant­ly trans­port­ed to a time when, on a Fri­day after­noon after school, I tim­o­rous­ly entered the spa­cious and charm­ing yel­low kitchen in our 1950’s vil­la. This was not a child’s domain, for I knew it was the locus of elab­o­rate and arcane con­coc­tions, a lab­o­ra­to­ry of sorts. My moth­er and our cook, pay­ing lit­tle heed to me, bus­ied them­selves to ready before sun­down the meals of the Sab­bath — one for that night and anoth­er for the next day.  I watched the eggs for the ada­fi­na boil with the peels of red onions — a mys­te­ri­ous process that dark­ened the eggs, and whose oth­er pur­pose was to dis­tin­guish them from the plain hard-boiled eggs of mourn­ing. That col­or or col­orci­to had to be ver­i­fied by the exact­ing cooks in my fam­i­ly. I also gazed at the prepa­ra­tion of caramel, that liq­uid gold to be poured on the Sab­bath dish to fur­ther enhance the desired shade. Mes­mer­ized, I observed the pre­cise alche­my by which the bub­bling water and the sug­ar pro­duced a dark­er liq­uid, amber-look­ing and sweet-smelling. The broth became a heav­en­ly nectar.

Oth­er fra­grances, too, slow­ly filled the air: pep­per, gin­ger, turmer­ic, nut­meg, mace — a spice I have oth­er­wise sel­dom encoun­tered — and the mar­velous, heady scent of clover.  I learned that some fam­i­lies used dif­fer­ent sea­son­ings, cin­na­mon for instance. For my moth­er, how­ev­er, cin­na­mon was on the oth­er side of the line between civ­i­liza­tion and bar­barism. In fact, there are infi­nite vari­a­tions of ada­fi­na from house to house. Com­pe­ti­tion among cooks was fierce, tasters and crit­ics demand­ing. Our ada­fi­na delight­ed in that it includ­ed tue­tano (mar­row bone), which my father served me on a piece of bread, and rulo de carne mol­i­da, a cross between stuff­ing and a meat roll with nut­meg and marjoram.

Final­ly, at four or five in the after­noon, pri­or to sun­set, the cook­ing cer­e­mo­ni­al end­ed, and the stew was placed on an old elec­tric plate that lay on a gran­ite coun­ter­top adja­cent to our Arthur Mar­tin stove. It was to regal­ly sit on its altar all night, sim­mer­ing, the scent float­ing in our house through the next day. Occa­sion­al­ly, it released a slight­ly nau­se­at­ing odor, that of an over­done dish cook­ing on a hot plate. By night­fall, the Sab­bath begun, and my moth­er and I wait­ed for my father’s return from syn­a­gogue. The house had grown silent after the maids left, the atmos­phere slight­ly dull, except for the occa­sion­al excite­ment in the kitchen lat­er, when the hot plate mal­func­tioned — a fre­quent mishap. I recall how my moth­er, alert­ed by a burn­ing smell, often rushed into our kitchen, dis­cov­er­ing that the liq­uid from the ada­fi­na had evap­o­rat­ed. “Por Dios! Casi se que­ma la casa!” (The house has near­ly burned down!), she would exclaim in the chant­i­ng into­na­tion of the Span­ish-speak­ing Jews of north­ern Moroc­co. But invari­ably, adding a lit­tle water to the stew, or oper­at­ing some oth­er trans­for­ma­tion I did not com­pre­hend, she mirac­u­lous­ly ren­dered it more fla­vor­ful, thus revers­ing the fates. In my mind, then, in keep­ing with its ety­mol­o­gy of some­thing to “cov­er” or “bury,” of some­thing per­haps illic­it, ada­fi­na sum­mons the thought of a slight­ly dan­ger­ous activ­i­ty. But it is also syn­ony­mous with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of adapt­abil­i­ty, amend­ment, and redemption.

Not an easy dish to find in Moroc­co these days, the fam­i­ly-owned Ram­sess restau­rant in Essaouira, pic­tured here, has d’fina on the menu, made with bul­gur wheat, chick­peas, pota­toes, chunks of beef and hard boiled eggs. They serve the dish in hon­or of restau­rant man­ag­er Fatimzara Ottmani’s Jew­ish great aunt, from a rare mixed mar­riage many years ago. The d’fina at Ram­sess is pop­u­lar among Mus­lim cus­tomers. (See Maroc Mama’s recipe here.)

My rec­ol­lec­tions of ada­fi­na, car­ry me evi­dent­ly to the moment of con­sump­tion — the cul­mi­nat­ing point of the Sab­bath lunch, one which was often anti-cli­mac­tic. Most of the time, it was just my father, my moth­er, and myself — I was an only child— and my par­ents not being chat­ty, oppor­tu­ni­ties for mus­ings and reflec­tion were plen­ti­ful. I cred­it ada­fi­na with help­ing me to decode the tex­tures of their rela­tion­ship, to grasp their secrets and wor­ries, and thus to inter­pret in oth­er set­tings the emo­tion­al tem­per­a­ture of a room, to read under­cur­rents of joy, sad­ness con­ceal­ment, or dis­con­tent. The Sab­bath was a qui­et day in which I wasn’t allowed to do much, oth­er than eat and observe.  It seemed long and dark — the col­or of adafina.

In truth, while grow­ing up I dis­liked ada­fi­na — or rather, I con­vinced myself that I did. I found it heavy and indi­gestible. In my ini­ti­a­tion from child to adult, it became a stake, a learn­ing tool, a rite of pas­sage. I viewed ada­fi­na as an icon of what I ought to relin­quish, an anti­quat­ed food, somber and stodgy. I believed all our efforts as Jews with a West­ern edu­ca­tion were to be geared at becom­ing “mod­ern,” a process which inevitably dic­tat­ed culi­nary changes.

Today, from my home in Con­necti­cut my ado­les­cent fool­ish­ness is exposed. Mem­o­ry, like falling in love, is a process of Stend­halian crys­tal­liza­tion. Just as the boughs of a tree glit­ter from icy accre­tions after a snow­fall, so, too, with time we embell­ish the object we regret, adorn­ing it with mag­i­cal qual­i­ties.  And yet…Adafina, with its kalei­do­scope of fla­vors, trained my palate, taught me to taste, parse, and dis­cern. It also taught me that even a sim­ple dish made pri­mar­i­ly with eggs and pota­toes could, in the right cloth­ing, sparkle.

There is a beau­ti­ful Tal­mu­dic para­ble that today res­onates pow­er­ful­ly with my feelings:

“Cae­sar [the Greek Emper­or Hadri­an] said to Rab­bi Joshua ben Hana­nia:  How is it that the Sab­bath meal smells so appeal­ing? He said, we have a cer­tain spice called Shab­bat that we put in it. Let me have some, he request­ed. [Joshua replied,] For those who observe Shab­bat, it works, for those who don’t, it doesn’t.” (Sab­bath, 119a)

Ada­fi­na is not only a meal. It is a cre­do, a sys­tem of beliefs. It is the emblem of a micro­cosm, of a place, of the peo­ple who cooked it, of my moth­er and of my father, of our friends, of the per­son I was then, of a reas­sur­ing week­ly return, of reg­u­lat­ed time, of the cocoon we lose when we become adults and take on respon­si­bil­i­ties, of my Mediter­ranean world. Ada­fi­na, the one I now make for my chil­dren, is redo­lent of a van­ished uni­verse — that of my own child­hood, which will nev­er return.



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