The Hillel Sandwich is a a traditional passover specialty. Simple in concept, it is a potent and delectable seasonal item.
The base is matzah, unleavened bread (cracker-like). Seder participants recall the slavery that reigned during the first half of the night by eating matzo (the “poor person’s bread”), maror (bitter herbs which symbolize the bitterness of slavery), and charoset (a sweet paste representing the mortar which the Jewish slaves used to cement bricks). In the process of fleeing from the wrath of Pharaoh, there was no time to leaven the bread, and hence what was probably a flat risen bread like pita, became matzah (even flatter and denser).
My mom’s homemade horseradish (the pink color comes from beets mixed in). This is known as the bitter herb and symbolizes the bitterness and harshness of the slavery which the Jews endured in Ancient Egypt. This concept is extended to represent the bitterness of any kind of enslavement or bondage, throughout the whole world and all peoples.
Horoset, a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and other spices. This is representative of the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt.
We lay everything out.
Start with the horseradish.
Throw some of the horoset on top, and enjoy.
On the symbolic level: During the Passover Seder (the annual commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt), one re-enacts ancient customs in the Haggadah. In the section of Korech, or ‘sandwich’, participants are instructed to place bitter herbs between two pieces of matzo and eat them after saying in Hebrew: This is a remembrance of Hillel in Temple times — This is what Hillel did when the Temple existed: He enwrapped the Paschal lamb, the matzo and the bitter herbs to eat them as one, in fulfillment of the verse, “with matzot and maror they shall eat it.”(Numbers 9:11) In modern times, when there is no paschal lamb, Ashkenazi practice is to emulate this by making a matzo, maror, (horseradish or lettuce) sandwich. Philo has called this sandwich a “moral migration from wickedness to virtue. Repentant sinners at first brood bitterly (maror) over their past misdeeds. Then matzah, the healing food, brings them to humility and contentment.”
The culinary interest is in the combination of flavors and textures. The crunch of the matzah, the often savage punch of very good horseradish, and the sweetness of the apples. For me, both the matzah and the apples allow one to withstand a higher does of horseradish. At home I like to mix the sweeter red (because of the beets) radish with Atomic Horseradish. The later is often lethally potent, and good for some good table pounding during the 10-15 seconds required to “endure” the experience.