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Israeli chefs target every last crumb for Passover

By Daniella Cheslow

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 6 2012 1:00 a.m. MDT

In this Thursday April 5, 2012 photo, a worker of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa rabbinate immerses dishes from boiling water to remove remains of leavened food in one of the kitchens in Liliyot restaurant making it kosher for the Jewish holiday of Passover, in Tel Aviv, Israel. The Jewish springtime holiday Passover is known as a festival of freedom, but its hallmark is a litany of dietary restrictions centered on not eating leavened bread for a week. The rules are so elaborate that chefs who want to observe the ritual law must prepare weeks before, cleaning away every last crumb, buying up doubles of kitchen utensils, and planning menus without bread or regular flour.

Ariel Schalit, Associated Press

TEL AVIV, Israel — The Jewish springtime holiday Passover is known as a festival of freedom, but its hallmark is a litany of dietary restrictions centered on not eating leavened bread for a week.

The rules are so elaborate that chefs who want to observe the ritual law must prepare weeks before, removing every last crumb, buying up new sets of kitchen utensils and planning menus without bread or wheat flour.

At Liliyot, one of Tel Aviv's most prestigious kosher restaurants, chef Noam Dekkers oversaw his staff on Wednesday, their last regular day in the kitchen before the annual Passover scrubdown — a process he calls "logistical mayhem." The holiday begins Friday at sundown.

At the end of the day, Dekkers' cooks threw away leftovers like chopped vegetables and fish. Then, they stored plastic cutting boards and boxes, locked grains away and scrubbed all steel cooking ware.

The following morning, city rabbis oversaw the final sterilization, when the restaurant staff blowtorched grease off the grills and dunked all the metal and glass cooking utensils into cauldrons of boiling water. As of Thursday night, Liliyot was kosher for Passover.

"Tel Aviv is a secular city," said Dekkers, a nonobservant Jewish Israeli. "But quite a big part of the community keeps the Jewish religious traditions, especially of the holidays."

The preparations at Liliyot are part of a nationwide frenzy as Jewish Israelis prepare for Passover with a binge of cleaning and shopping culminating in a holiday dinner Friday known as the seder.

Passover celebrates the biblical Exodus story of the Israelites' escape from slavery in Egypt.

God killed the first-born boys of Egypt after the pharaoh refused to release the children of Israel from bondage, but "passed over" the houses of the Israelites. Distraught over losing his son, the pharaoh let the slaves free, and the Israelites fled so quickly they did not have time to wait for their bread dough to rise before baking it.

So on Passover, observant Jews avoid bread and instead eat thin wheat crackers called matzoh to recall the Israelites' flight.

Beyond the injunction on bread, observant Jews also refrain from eating grains like wheat, spelt, rye and oats on the holiday unless they're in the form of matzoh. And Jews whose ancestors come from eastern Europe also steer clear of legumes and rice.

The Passover rules are in addition to regular kosher regulations that proscribe pork, require meat to be ritually slaughtered and forbid mixing of meat and dairy.

In Tel Aviv, about 950 businesses keep kosher year-round. Rabbi Shimon Baluka, director of the Tel Aviv-Yafo Rabbinate's kosher department, says the Passover rules are so tough that only a third of the kosher businesses take the trouble to get certified. The others close for the holiday.

Besides the pre-Passover inspection, about 100 supervisors will ensure kosher restaurants stay to the rules during the holiday, Baluka said.

At Liliyot, beyond cleaning, keeping kosher for Passover means stripping the regular menu of any chametz, the catchall word for food not kosher for the holiday.

Dekkers said he changed his menu while trying to hew as much to the original as possible. For example, seared gray mullet served over black radish and a slice of chewy focaccia becomes kosher without the bread. The juicy rib-eye steak served with multicolored carrots is nearly untouched. Pasta dishes are gone.

The most important thing, Dekkers said, is to keep the food light with plenty of interesting produce.

"I don't have a problem with heavy food, but I do have a problem with that heavy feeling after a meal," he said.

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