The mention of a Moroccan fish dish stirs Dafna Tapiero’s memory — of a jar of saffron water perched on her grandmother’s counter in Paris.
The jar sat there, ready to brighten her grandmother’s Passover recipes like rice, chicken and the first course, pescado blanco, the Judeo-Spanish name for the dish Ms. Tapiero’s grandmother Violette Corcos Budestchu ate growing up in Morocco and later made at Passovers in Paris.
“You filled the fish with cilantro and parsley in the middle,” said Ms. Tapiero, recalling her grandmother’s preparation, “then added tomato and peppers and olives, and slowly poured the saffron water over all.”
Ms. Tapeiro, an international economist who was born in New York, is a descendant of the Corcos family, with a lineage stretching back centuries and mostly extending across the Mediterranean and the Americas.
The family, while not one of huge prominence, has a well-documented history, thanks to various members who have traced its 12,000 descendants.
According to the family, the Corcoses left the Middle East sometime before the 13th century, the first recorded date of their presence in Spain, where they learned many new dishes that became part of the Sephardic canon. Ms. Tapiero’s direct line fled to Fez, Morocco, during the Inquisition, while others in the family spread as far and wide to the Netherlands; Livorno, Italy; Gibraltar and Curaçao, among other places.
Along the way and across generations, they, like so many other families, passed down recipes, which changed slightly over time as the family spread. Among the dishes was that saffron fish, a dish typical of Moroccan Jewish cuisine, often served at Passover and on the Sabbath.
The dish began as a simpler preparation, as a whole fish with onions and a little lemon, and maybe saffron, a spice that arrived in southern Spain with the Moors in the eighth century. (Many cooks substitute ground turmeric for the more expensive saffron.) The peppers and tomatoes, an addition from the Americas, later came to embellish and deepen the dish’s flavors.
The cookbook author Danielle Renov is from another branch of the Moroccan Corcoses from Fez. Her book, “Peas, Love & Carrots” (Mesorah Publications, 2020), includes many recipes from her grandmother Marcelle Corcos, including a take on saffron fish using fish fillets, and lots of peppers, hot and sweet, along with a side of garlic mayonnaise.
To Ms. Renov, who lives in Jerusalem, including her family recipes — like the saffron fish — was “a stamp of authenticity.”
“These are the dishes I grew up eating,” she added, “and the experience of cooking, eating and serving them is tied to the deep emotional connection I feel to the ones that first cooked them for me, my mother and my grandmother.”
Other members of the Corcos family, now scattered across continents, have their own iterations — variations on a theme.
Nicole Corcos-Ittah of Paris has two interpretations: In one, she adds a lot of garlic, fava beans and red peppers. In the other, she incorporates preserved lemon, olives, carrots, tomatoes, cilantro and sometimes potatoes.
Sidney Corcos, a retired museum director in Jerusalem, is in part responsible for putting together the family’s extensive history, continuing his father’s work. He adds turmeric to his version, in addition to the saffron.
Ms. Tapiero sticks to her grandmother’s recipe.
Rabbi Dennis C. Sasso, the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, recently discovered his own distant connection to the Corcoses.
He grew up in Panama, but his ancestors left Spain, then Portugal, during the Inquisition, winding their way through Italy, the Netherlands and Brazil before settling in the Caribbean islands of Curaçao and St. Thomas. Although he does not make saffron fish, he makes escabeche, another fish dish featuring peppers, and prepared by other descendants of the Corcos family in Jamaica.
“Our people’s capacity to survive and thrive through history and geography included culinary adaptation,” Rabbi Sasso said.
And the recipe continues to be passed down. Ms. Renov, for instance, will be serving the dish for Passover this year.
“When I serve these exact recipes to my own children,” she said, “my hope is to pass on the love, warmth and comfort that I was given through these dishes.”
Recipe: Saffron Fish With Red Peppers and Preserved Lemon
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