On the Jewish food scene: Matzah brei: sweet or savory?

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I was shocked! Seriously, I had difficulty absorbing what I was hearing. Even a year later, it still makes me shake my head. This shock occurred when I turned the TV to the Food Network and saw that Molly Yeh’s show was on. She was talking about matzah brei (AKA fried matzah) and what she said stunned me. (For those who are unfamiliar with Yeh, she has a Jewish mother and a Chinese father, and her dishes often utilize elements of both cultures.) She noted that while she normally preferred savory to sweet, in the case of matzah brei, she went with sweet. Well, excuse me, but sweet is the only type of matzah brei there is.

However, the idea that matzah brei could be savory – as much as I like vegetables, matzah and veggies just don’t go together – was not the only shocking part of the show. You may be thinking, “What could be more shocking than savory matzah brei?” To soften the matzah, Yeh used cold water. Seriously, cold water? That made no sense. My mother always filled the tea kettle and used boiling water to soften the matzah. How could cold water possibly give you the same results?

After recovering a bit from my shock, I decided that I needed more input on the issue. That meant learning what real people (as opposed to TV or online cooks) thought about these two issues, so I turned to Facebook. There I posted the questions: Savory or sweet? Hot or cold? The answers were an interesting mix. On the subject of savory vs. sweet: some preferred savory, some preferred sweet and some ate both. The big surprise was that no one else used boiling water to soften their matzah. Some used cold water while others used warm from the tap. I’m not sure why my mother decided the water needed to be boiled first (yes, she let it come to a full boil), but that was the tradition in my household, so I will probably continue to do so in my mother’s honor.

Looking at recipes online to expand on my friends’ comments, I noticed many descriptions of matzah brei called it a breakfast food. What? That also made no sense because, to me, it’s a great, quick evening meal. I don’t think we ever ate it for breakfast. Maybe that’s because the way my mom made it, the eggs didn’t stand out. This was not a dish of eggs and matzah, but rather a cooked product whose outstanding feature was the warm matzah, kind of like a Passover bread pudding. As a child, I sprinkled cinnamon sugar on mine; now that I don’t use sugar as a sweetener, I either sprinkle plain cinnamon on it, or pour maple syrup on it. In the past few years, I’ve added the cinnamon to the matzah and eggs before I cook them to get even more cinnamon taste. 

Will I be making savory matzah brei this year? Absolutely not! I’ll save my veggies for salads and other side dishes during the holiday. The fact that matzah brei is sweet is what makes it a great treat, different from regular meals of a protein, starch and vegetable. So, do me a favor and call your savory matzah dishes something other than matzah brei. Matzah brei is sweet!