JANUARY 18, 2002 | current issue | back issues | subscribe |

When the Jerusalem of the Balkans Was the Mediterranean's Pearl

In Salonika, the Sephardic Community Once Weaved, Dyed, Fished, Mined and Cooked Up Spinach Pies

The Food Maven
By Matthew Goodman

There was once a great city, a cosmopolitan center of commerce and culture. Its port welcomed immigrants fleeing terror and want; its dense, bustling streets presented a kaleidoscopic variety of native dress and hummed with the sound of the world's languages. Built on the twin pillars of tolerance and trade, the city was a beacon of pluralism, whose daily existence contradicted the modern siren songs of nationalism and ethnic hatred.

This great city is not New York but Salonika, "the Pearl of the Mediterranean." Located on Greece's northeast coast, along the Aegean Sea, Salonika (today officially known by the Greek name Thessaloniki) was once one of the most Jewish cities in the world. Though its population comprised a multitude of religions and ethnicities — Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Bulgarian, Serb and countless others — Jews were by far the largest single group in the city. Indeed, by the 16th century Jews actually constituted a majority of the population, although this percentage would later decline somewhat; according to the census of 1900 (a high-water mark of sorts for the city, before the tragedies that were shortly to arrive), of Salonika's 173,000 residents some 80,000 were Jewish, 60,000 Muslim and 30,000 Christian. The Jewish population in Salonika, in fact, was more than 10 times that of Greece's second-largest Jewish center, Athens.

Jews had lived in Salonika since the second century before the common era, but a significant community did not exist until the Byzantine period, when several hundred Jews lived there. According to information put out by the contemporary Jewish community of Salonika (available online at, the first European immigrants to Salonika were Hungarians who arrived in 1376; a larger number of Bavarian Jews settled in 1470, founding the small Ashkenazi community there. The Jewish population of the city grew enormously during the 15th and 16th centuries, with the arrival of some 20,000 refugees from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sicily and North Africa, fleeing the ever-expanding reach of the Spanish Inquisitions. This sudden influx would ineradicably shape the identity of the Salonikan Jewish community, which over time became a kind of Sephardic enclave on the Greek mainland.

As was true in many Mediterranean and Asian centers, the Jews of Salonika were largely involved in international trade, much of it in silk, cotton and grain; a sizeable number were craftsmen, who became well known in the region for their skill in weaving, dying and the manufacture of jewelry, while still others worked as fishermen, in tobacco production and in gold and silver mines. (The Salonikan port — the city's economic lifeblood — was almost entirely run by Jews and, like most of the city's businesses, was closed on Saturdays in observance of the Jewish Sabbath.) Commerce and all of the other daily activities of the Jewish community were conducted in Ladino, the language of Spanish Jewry, although by the early 20th century French had become the primary language of some of the wealthier families, who had been educated in the schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle. Hebrew, of course, was reserved for religious activities, which flourished in Salonika. As has been noted by, among others, the Greek historian Nicholas Stavroulakis, the city had 32 synagogues, whose names reflected the origins of their congregants: the Aragonese synagogue, the Castille, Catalan, Majorca, Lisbon and so forth. Salonika was a center for the study of Torah and kabbala (the 17th-century false messiah Sabbatai Zvi found fertile ground for his ideas among the Jews of Salonika, and a sect of his followers survived there until the 20th century), as well as secular subjects including medicine and the natural sciences. As Vilna was long known as "the Jerusalem of Lithuania," so was Salonika known, even more expansively, as "the Jerusalem of the Balkans."

So lived the Jews of Salonika for centuries, in this little port city with its intricate mazes of narrow, winding streets, by yards and gardens planted with fragrant vines and fruit trees, in simple stone and wood houses that looked out upon the sea. (In his 1946 memoir "Farewell to Salonica," Leon Sciaky described his family's house as "presenting a modest, unassuming front to the outside world: plain whitewashed walls, pierced by green-shuttered windows, a saddle roof covered with irregular tiles, browned and weathered, with here and there patches of green and silver mosses creeping toward the eaves.") All through the heyday of the Jewish community in Salonika, from the 16th through the beginning of the 20th century, the city was part of the Ottoman Empire, and the Jews there adopted many aspects of Turkish style, including dress (Jewish men, for instance, often wore fezzes) and cookery.

The Jewish cuisine that developed in Salonika mixed Turkish and native Greek influences — these two are themselves closely related — with many of the dishes descended from the earlier stay in Spain. Among their regular fare, the Salonikan Jews ate lots of fish, pulled from the plentiful waters of the Aegean; the egg-and-lemon soup ubiquitous in the region — called avgolemono in Greece and (from the Ladino) sopa de huevo y limøn in Turkey, and both in Salonika — as well as soups and stews made from lentils or the white beans they called fijones, from the Spanish frijoles; stuffed vegetables in the Sephardic style; vegetable fritadas and the long-cooked eggs known as huevos haminados; nut cakes and sesame cookies and creamy rice-flour puddings, and they always kept on hand an array of fruit candies and preserves to offer anyone who happened to stop by, served with a tall glass of water.

One of the most beloved of all the Salonikan delicacies were the double-crusted pies known, as in Spain, as pasteles; when prepared as individual pastries they were called pastelikos, which were formed not as half-moon turnovers, in the fashion of the Turkish boreka, but as small dough pots covered by a separate lid. Pasteles were always savory rather than sweet, most often filled either with meat or with a combination of cheese and spinach; the latter version was much like the Greek spanokopita and the Turkish mina de espinaka, except that it used pastry dough rather than filo or sheets of matzo.

Nearly as special, and far easier to prepare, were meatballs; they were sometimes formed simply from beef — mixed with egg and bread before rolling and frying, and often simmered in tomato sauce — but more often the meat was extended, and lightened, with vegetables that included spinach, leeks and potatoes. The result was very similar to the Sephardic meatballs made in Turkey and known in Ladino as albondigas; among the Jews in the rest of Greece, these meatballs were called keftedes. In Salonika, however, they were called neither albondigas nor keftedes but instead keftikes, not quite Greek and not quite Turkish, but rather something entirely its own, a fitting testament to the city's singular nature.

Next time: The foods — and the future — of Salonikan Jewry.

I've adapted this recipe from one in "Come, Es Bueno" (Eat, It's Good), a cookbook published by Congregation Etz Ahaim of Highland Park, N.J.

Pastel de Espinaka (Salonikan Spinach Pie)

for filling:

2 pounds fresh spinach
1 cup (about 8 ounces) cottage cheese
1 cup (about 6 ounces) crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup (about 3 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 small onion, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

for crusts:

2-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup warm water
1 beaten egg plus 1 tbsp. water for egg wash

1. Wash the spinach well and remove the stems. Place the wet spinach in a large saucepan over medium heat and cook until just wilted, about 3 minutes, turning often. (Do this in batches, if necessary.) Place in a bowl and let cool.

2. Make the crusts: In a medium bowl, mix together the flour and salt. Place the oil and water in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat to combine. Add the flour a cup at a time to form a soft dough that holds together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Turn out the dough and knead it until smooth. Divide the dough in half and form two small rectangles. Wrap each rectangle in plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 20 minutes.

3. Make the filling: Squeeze out any excess water from the cooled spinach, then finely chop. Place the spinach and the rest of the filling ingredients in a large bowl and stir until blended.

4. Make the pasteles: Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly oil a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one of the dough halves to a rectangle about 10 by 14 inches. Place it in the prepared dish, letting it extend slightly up the sides. Spoon the filling into the dish and smooth out the top. Roll out the second crust to 10 by 14 inches and cover the filling with it, trimming the excess. Lightly brush the top crust with the egg wash.

5. Bake until the top crust is golden, about 45 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.

Serves 8.

| current issue | back issues | subscribe |

back to the 
Forward homepage