The experience of Passover goes beyond flavor


By Leah Holzel

The pungent kick of horseradish on a fresh crisp sheet of matzah. The tender mouthfeel of a feather-light kneidel, moist with savory chicken soup. Umami-rich brisket, braised low and slow, dotted with molasses-y prunes and plumped, tart dried apricots. No Jewish holiday table inspires such positive food associations as Passover, and for so many of us, this will be our first taste of a full-on Pesach feast since the pandemic began.

But for the many who had COVID-19 and, with it, experienced sudden-onset smell loss, this could be a particularly emotional and challenging event: How to navigate a beloved holiday meal when you’re unable to perceive the essence of food’s flavor? It can feel like trying to navigate a desert. Alone.

But as someone who’s experienced smell loss first hand (non-COVID respiratory infection, and I eventually recovered), I know that traditions have a particular power, that holiday-food memories and their emotional impact are actually assets that support sensory perception.

A first step in leveraging that asset is to galvanize the senses that are still intact. Focusing attention on the possibilities of what this sensory stimulation can help bring about is in keeping with Passover as the feast of freedom.

Our sense of taste registers the sensations of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, as distinguished by the taste buds on our tongues. The seder table pops with ingredients that stimulate these tastes. Reach no farther than that bowl of classic charoset, which handily incorporates all five discreet tastes in a single dish: sweet honey; sweet and tart apples and dried fruit; slightly bitter walnuts, almonds and tannic red wine; savory walnuts; salt as seasoning.

We vividly experience charoset through our sense of touch and mouthfeel, exploring all these ingredients through contrasting textures and shapes. In fact, part of what makes that family recipe you grew up on so familiar and recognizable is how it feels in your mouth when you take a bite.

And then there’s our trigeminal nerve in the nasal cavity that reacts to so many aromatic spices, and is responsible for our perceiving charoset’s cinnamon and clove as warm. But when it comes to trigeminal sensation’s prominent role in our appreciation of the Passover meal, there’s no more dramatic example than our experience of horseradish’s pungent fire.

Matzah, perhaps more than any other seder ingredient, speaks to how traditions and holiday-food memories positively influence our experience of food in the absence of flavor. It explains the anticipation and excitement of pulling a stack of smooth white sheets from the box, at the sound of the snap they make along those clean, perforated lines, and our true affection for that otherwise dry and crunchy, tasteless cracker.

(Lena_Zajchikova / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
(Lena_Zajchikova / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The Hillel Sandwich, or Korech — charoset, horseradish and matzah — is where all these elements of our flavor system come together. We’re no doubt drawn to this ritual food because of the confluence of so many sensations all in one bite. This odd and otherwise funny-looking food points to our powerful drive to make meaning of what we’re eating through our senses. For those who are struggling with smell loss, hungry to access an experience of flavor, reach for the trove of food memories and emotions you have to draw from, along with those senses that are still intact. They’re your own custom-made keys to connecting to the pleasure of Passover’s table.

The Hillel Sandwich

Makes about 4 cups

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

4 apples (about 1¼ pounds), preferably a multicolored assortment of Granny Smith, McIntosh, Golden Delicious and Macoun

2 tablespoons grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ cup honey

1 tablespoon plus

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

½ cup red wine

8 ounces walnut pieces, coarsely ground or finely chopped

4 ounces golden raisins, chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper


Prepared horseradish

Core and finely chop the apples and transfer to a mixing bowl. Toss with the lemon juice, zest and granulated sugar. Toss the mixture occasionally while you complete the next steps. (Tip: The apples can macerate, refrigerated, for up to 36 hours.)

Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the cinnamon and cloves, and toast, about 1 minute. Add the honey, raise the heat to medium and simmer, stirring frequently, about 3 minutes.

Pull the saucepan off the heat and add the vinegar, which will come to a simmer quickly. Return the pan to medium heat and simmer, stirring for about a minute. Add the wine, stirring to incorporate, and let simmer, stirring frequently, until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of syrup, 6 to 10 minutes; cool.

Stir the walnuts and raisins into the apple mixture. Add the honey-wine reduction and toss to dress; season with the salt and pepper. Serve on matzah topped with horseradish, open face or sandwiched.

Leah Holzel is a smell-training coach, food writer and recipe developer specializing in culinary design for smell-loss. She’s the author of an upcoming cookbook for eaters with smell disorders. This originally ran in Washington Jewish Week.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here