With scores of variations and a history that dates back 2,000 years, this ancient concoction reflects myriad traditions passed down through the ages.
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large glass bowl of charoset
Credit: Zach Zimet / Getty Images

Starting on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan (or Nissan) and ending on the 21st day (this year, that's sundown on April 15 through April 23) Passover (Pesaḥ or Pesach in Hebrew) memorializes the biblical story of Exodus when the Israelites were liberated from slavery in Egypt. The celebratory meal, called a seder, is served on the first night (and in some communities, the first two nights); throughout the rest of the week, leavened bread is off-limits and replaced with crisp unleavened bread or matzo instead. Made from flour and water, matzo symbolizes the Hebrews' hasty departure from Egypt, having no time to wait for the dough to rise. Other holiday staples also carry great significance. Chief among them? Charoset, also known as haroset. Here, we explain exactly what this essential Passover dish is.

Star of the Seder Plate

Sweet and flavorful, charoset is usually everyone's favorite symbolic dish on the Passover seder plate, sitting beside a shank bone (zeroa), a roasted egg (beitzah), bitter herbs, or horseradish (maror), and a vegetable like parsley, lettuce, or celery (karpas). "Charoset is a sweet, rich paste made with fruits and nuts, spices, wine, or honey," explains Kenden Alfond, founder of Jewish Food Hero, a website and community centered around healthy food and modern Jewish life, and author of several cookbooks, including the forthcoming Feeding Women of the Talmud, Feeding Ourselves. "This mixture is symbolic of the mortar used by Hebrew slaves to build Egyptian structures," she says. Charoset's flavor also signifies the sweetness of freedom.

Charoset is thought to resemble the fruit relishes that Roman nobility paired with greens two thousand years ago. Today, it's eaten during two steps in the Passover seder ritual, says Alfond, noting that "seder" literally means "order" in Hebrew. While the Haggadah is being read, before the festive seder feast begins, everyone eats bitter herbs (representing slavery), dipped in charoset. Charoset is also eaten with bitter herbs and matzo, creating what's known as a korech (Hillel sandwich).

In addition, the condiment can be used to enliven Passover recipes, like our cornish hens with a charoset-flavored stuffing.

Myriad Traditions Passed Down Through the Ages

As to the specific ingredients of this ancient concoction, well, that depends on the traditions you or your seder hosts embrace. "Individual family charoset recipes are unique and are most likely influenced by where the family currently lives and where their ancestors lived," says Alfond. "Jewish food has always been a multicultural affair because of the Jewish experience of migration."

Ashkenazi Jews or Ashkenazim (those from Central and Eastern European) make their charoset with chopped apples or pears with almonds or walnuts. Mizrahi Jews or Mizrachim (those from North Africa and the Middle East) may add apricots. And Sephardi Jews or Sephardim (the Mediterranean, from Spain or Portugal) use a different recipe altogether. "Nowadays, Sephardi charoset is mainly made with dates, figs, cinnamon, and nuts. It doesn't have apples — this is the main difference," says Hélène Jawhara Piñer, chef, scholar, and author of Sephardi: Cooking the History. Recipes of the Jews of Spain and the Diaspora from the 13th Century to Today.

Another Sephardi take on charoset is arrope, a gooey syrup made by boiling raisins and water, mixed with nuts.

Apples Versus Dates

In addition to heritage and tradition, geography, plus the fruits and nuts available in those ancient lands, obviously account for the many interpretations of this ritualistic dish. "The climate of a territory always has an influence on the crops that grow. It shapes our diet and forces us to adapt. The diet of the Jews is not spared by this component," says Jawhara Piñer, noting that the domesticated apple dates from the third millennium. "As it requires cold winters to grow, this may explain why the Ashkenazim of northern Europe use it more, compared to the Sephardim of Spain and southern Europe where the climate is more favorable to the growth of fig trees and date palms."

Whether chunky or viscous, made with chopped apples, dates, or arrope, charoset plays an integral role in the Passover seder. Matched with matzo, it's an unbeatable snack. Big picture, it's also the stuff that memories are made of. "The best way to eat charoset is at the Passover seder surrounded by family and friends," says Alfond.

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