Recently, I have found myself craving eggplant all the time – and I have perhaps become addicted to the tannic and earthy taste of a vegetable that is actually a giant berry. And so, given my passions and my interests, I have also been researching the Jewish history of this most extraordinary plant. Today, the eggplant is so associated with Israel that it is difficult to believe that eggplants were not, in fact, present during the First and Second Temple period. Rather, the plant is from India – and the word “aubergine” in English and French comes via Arabic and Persian from the Sanskrit vatiga-gamah, which might be related to the word for flatulence. I cannot speak to that effect, but I can say that eggplants reached the Jewish Mediterranean in about the 7th century CE.
Eggplants have long been a beloved mainstay of Sephardic cooking – and show up in all sorts of pastries, stews, and salads. Folk songs wage a fight between the eggplant and tomato (another newcomer), which were long considered the two favorite vegetables of the Sephardi community. In Morocco, Jews and non-Jews make a pungent and delicious salad called za’aloukwith eggplant, as well as a lovely eggplant jam. Moroccan Jews even candy eggplant! Ashkenazi Jews historically only ate eggplant in Hungary and Romania, but developed an attachment to the plant there as well. Eggplants were one of the first foods adopted by settlers in Israel and Palestine in the early 20th century, and today eggplant might as well be a food group in Israel.
This salad is a riff on a recipe more typical in Israel today – one often called a “Moroccan” eggplant salad, though it is somewhat different from typical salades cuites. As in North Africa and Turkey, “salad” in Hebrew, or salat, can also refer to small plates of vegetable dishes served at the beginning or as part of a meal. Even in English, the term salatim is now frequently used among Hebrew-speaking Jews. The eggplant used in Israel is smaller and fried more deeply in oil, whereas I have used the larger Mediterranean eggplant. I also have added more garlic, because garlic is delicious. In any case, this eggplant salad – though given that it is cooked I hesitate to say “salad” – is easy, delicious, and goes well with many other dishes.
Anyway, here is a simple and delicious recipes for chickpeas that you can make for Purim – or whenever. The hearty beans are paired with a piquant tomato sauce not unlike that served with chickpeas or other beans in parts of Turkey. It is very easy to make and is a good weekday dish that will also keep well for leftovers for lunches. On the other hand, it is also a very good and reliable dish for a dinner party that can please folks with many habits of diet – it is vegan and gluten-free. Even Esther, I hope, would approve in all her glory!
Spicy Garlicky Chickpeas
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
8 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more, to taste – I like a bit more)
1 teaspoon white wine or apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup water
6 cups cooked chickpeas (1 pound dried*)
Heat a saucepan and add the olive oil. Then, add the onion and garlic and sauté for two minutes, or until the onion begins to wilt.
Add the salt and red pepper flakes and stir in thoroughly. Sauté for another 30 seconds, then add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute, or until the onions are softer.
Add the tomato paste and mix in thoroughly, then add the cup of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
Remove from the heat and add the chickpeas. I recommend that the chickpeas be hot when you add them. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. When hot, the chickpeas go well with rice or noodles; when at room temperature they are particularly good with a dense bread.
*If you are using dried beans, soak the chickpeas overnight or for eight hours in water with 2 inches/5 centimeters to cover. Then, drain the beans and boil in four quarts/four liters of salted water for one hour or until soft.
The question became then, what style do I use? Until recently, lentils were viewed as a food of mourning and famine in the Ashkenazi world, and were thus disdained until the early 20th century – though by 1938, when Fania Lewando’s vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish was published, lentils were common enough in Lithuania to appear in several recipes. A soup recipe was among them. In the Sephardic and Mizrahi realms, however, lentils were an everyday, quotidian, and celebrated food. The lentils used in the Mediterranean – and in Claudia Roden’s Egyptian recipe – were red, but brown and green lentils are more common elsewhere. And, of course, seasoning differed across the Jewish world – as well as the carbohydrate or presence of meat or dairy in the soup. There are as many Jewish lentil soups as Jewish communities.
I recently made my own lentil soup – a throwback to my grandmother’s recipe, but with more vegetables and a slightly sharper flavor than her very meaty and saltier soup. This soup is probably closest to a French lentil soup, but with Palestinian seasoning. I used the green lentils common in France, along with the very Nordic split peas and leeks in the place of onions. Leeks go well with lentils: their sharpness and vegetal flavor balance out the lentil’s starchy meatiness. Meanwhile, the sumac and za’atar add a pleasant bitterness to the soup – and the fenugreek adds an irresistible aroma.
Green lentils in a jar. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Sauteing the leeks and tomatoes. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Life goes on. Despite the election there are still friends to feed, Shabbats to observe, and foods to comfort us. Trump can take away our dreams but he can never take away our ability to use our hands to rebuild love, even by means of the easiest recipes. Like this one.
In Pittsburgh there is a little restaurant – kiosk, really – called Conflict Kitchen. At this restaurant, the food of whatever country the US is “at conflict with” – armed, political, or social – is served on a rotating basis. When I visited Pittsburgh, Conflict Kitchen were serving delicious Venezuelan arepas; currently they are honoring the water protectors of Standing Rock (donate!) and other indigenous resistance by serving the food of the Haudenosaunee – whose lands historically reached their southern extent at Pittsburgh. Other versions have included Iran, Cuba, and Palestine. The effort allows those in Pittsburgh to see a more human side of the oft-demonized “enemy” – and call into question the way US power works. But one cuisine seemed obviously missing: the bright, fresh flavors of Iraqi cuisine – much of which is also Iraqi Jewish cuisine, found in the diaspora centers of Ramat Gan, London, and Los Angeles. As I watched another one of Trump’s speeches as I browsed the Conflict Kitchen website, looking for the Iraqi version that never was, I wondered: how could I use Jewish food and cooking to recreate their mission in my kitchen?
Channeling the spirit of Conflict Kitchen, I sought to start by making an Iraqi recipe myself – a beet salad that is simultaneously fresh and light, but hearty and deeply warming. I first had this salad in Israel, at the house of a friend of a friend; I had been surprised there to learn that beets and other root vegetables were part of everyday Iraqi fare. Then, with the first bite, I was stunned by the light, dancing flavor of the salad: the heaviness of the beets was offset by the sharpness of the garlic and the happy dance of the mint. When I got home, I did more research and found that Iraqis have been eating beets since well before my own Eastern European ancestors: recipes with beets are mentioned as early as 1500 BC. I have often thought of the salad since that day, but had never bothered to actually make it. But after the election of Trump, I decided that one way of resistance to his racism and demonization was to pay homage to those we have oppressed – and to our own heritage – in the kitchen. So I invited a few friends over for Shabbat, with the salad as the main centerpiece dish.
Beyond Iraq, beets have also been a food of Jewish comfort in the darkest times for millennia. The greens of the beet have been consumed since the time of the Second Temple, when beets were considered a prized delicacy. In fact, it is stated in the Talmud in Masekhet Shabbat that one can show delight in the Sabbath day with “beets, a large fish, and garlic.” (The rabbis and I have something in common.) In later centuries beets became a common food across Central and Eastern European Jewish cuisine – showing up in soup, pickles, and even confectionary. Even today, beets are key in the comfort food of many Jewish communities – from the Kurdish and Iraqi Jewish soup for kubbeh to the Ashkenazi borsht. This humble root is the bridge.
And perhaps from beets other bridges can be built too.
Iraqi Beet Salad
Based on a recipe by Nawal Nasrallah
2 pounds beets, peeled and diced
1 fistful fresh mint, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp sumac
½ cup Greek yogurt or other plain yogurt (optional)
Salt and black pepper to taste
Boil the beet pieces until soft. Drain and let cool.
Mix with the other ingredients except the salt and pepper until thoroughly combined.
Add the salt and pepper to your liking. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Thank you to Derek Kwait, Meggie Kwait, Berakha Guggenheim, and Sara Liss for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
I was browsing through Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food the other day and happened upon this delightfully simple and incredibly tasty Iraqi recipe. Shalgham helu – or, as it also seems to be known, maye al-shalgham or shalgham bi-dibs – is simply turnips cooked with silan, also known as dibis,rub, or date molasses. The latter is a syrup, made from dates, that acts as a sweetener in Iraqi cooking. Iraqi Jews frequently use silan in pastries, stews, and with bread – and also in their charoset for Passover. Turnips cooked with date molasses is a common Iraqi dish – and one recipe I found (Hebrew) says that some Iraqi Jews serve this as a dessert.
This dish is two things: incredibly delicious and ridiculously easy. I made this while making something far more complicated and talking to my future roommate on the telephone. The result is spectacular and I may have had some turnip pieces as my midnight snack that night. Even someone just getting started in the kitchen should not have too much trouble with this recipe.
You can buy date molasses at most Middle Eastern or Jewish shops. Many health food stores also carry date syrup.
So easy! Get some turnips.
Chop them and add date molasses and salt.
Boil them in water.
(Photos mine, June 2016)
Shalgham Helu (Turnips with Date Molasses)
Based on the recipe by Claudia Roden
1 ½ pounds small white turnips, peeled
3 tablespoons date molasses (silan)
½ tsp salt
Chop the turnips to the size you want – smaller pieces cook faster, larger pieces are prettier.
Place the turnips in the bottom of a medium-sized sauce pan, and drizzle the date molasses over them. Then add the salt.
Cover the turnips with water to 2 cm/2/3 inch, and set the pot on a high flame.
Bring to a boil, then cook uncovered for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the turnips are tender and the liquid has reduced. Serve warm or cold with the “sauce.” (Note: The longer the turnip pieces sit in the sauce, even in a container in the refrigerator, the darker their color becomes.)
Thank you to Lexi Freiman, who participated in User Acceptance Testing of this recipe.
Nota bene: this post takes a more academic turn than past posts.
This post starts because I wanted to make qatayef for Shavuot. (Sadly, I ran out of time before the holiday to make them.) Qatayef are pancakes, filled with sweet white cheese or walnuts, which are then fried and served with a rosewater-infused syrup. They are native to the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine – and are frequently served both for Ramadan, which is currently occurring, and by Syrian Jews for Shavuot. Qatayef are extremely popular in Arab communities around the world, and new types of the pastry are constantly created – for example, filled with Nutella. Like their Muslim and Christian neighbors, Jewish communities from Syria served them for festivals for centuries, and continue to do so in diaspora. The cheese variety is considered a specialty of Shavuot, and other Jewish communities have since taken on to eating them. When Shavuot coincides with Ramadan, as it does this year, one could also say it is qatayef season. Indeed, who would not want a season of delicious, spongey dough filled with luscious cheese and nuts, with the sugary taste of syrup dancing on your tongue?
In case you couldn’t tell, I personally think qatayef are awesome.
While looking up recipes for qatayef – which are also called atayef or ataif, I recalled the prior times I had eaten them: most notably, one time in an overheated Syrian pastry shop in Queens. I had been with an Ashkenazi Israeli acquaintance, who waved his hand dismissively as he told me “all these Arab and Sephardi pastries are far too sweet.” And indeed, I had heard many Ashkenazim claim that the traditional desserts of the Middle East, or North Africa, or the Balkans, and the sweets of the Jews of these regions were all a tad more sugary than tasteful. “Cloying.” “Intoxicating.” “Too sweet.”
“Too sweet,” you say?
Okay, let’s back up here for a moment. “Too sweet” from Ashkenazim is kind of cute in a quaint and awkward way, given that we serve things like taiglach, little pastries that are literally doused and boiled in honey. I hate taiglach with a burning and fiery passion, but among things that I like from the Ashkenazi tradition, we find macaroons exploding with sugar, hamantashen stuffed with ever-sweeter fillings, and sour cream cakes that seem to have an expanding sugar topping as the years go by. You get the idea: we can be “too sweet.” That said, white Gentiles have also called our sweets “too sweet.” (And the food other things – this will be in two or three posts’ time.) This is also supremely awkward and tragically quaint. Let us not forget that White Middle America serves the dessert salad, which may even contain combinations of Cool Whip, Snickers bars, and Jell-O. Meanwhile, élite coastal America has gone on a juice craze in which ever-sweeter, ever-more-sugary drinks substitute for solid foods. Who has an oversized sweet tooth now?
To be fair, we shouldn’t be shaming people for having a sweet tooth. But the “proper amount of sweetness” – and whose food is “too sweet” – is always a very political determination. Just as Ashkenazim, who hold power and privilege in Israel, deemed Mizrahi food to be “too spicy” or “too peppery” in the 1950s, so too have other foods of the non-elite been called too extreme in flavor. The food of “Russians” (also Ashkenazi!) was too salty, the food of “Arabs” too fatty, the food of the Yemenites “too pungent.” And the sweets like qatayef, of course, were far too extremely sweet – or so it was said – for the Ashkenazi tongue. This is akin, as I noted above, to how Ashkenazi sweets (and sour foods too!) were held in low regard by American “reformers” in the early 20th century, or how the food of the black working class is considered “too fatty” or “too sweet” by the white middle class here in the United States. Sweetness is always political.
But sweetness is also a way of showing “good taste.” After all, “taste” is about status at the end of the day – as the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu noted, “taste” and “knowledge” are the cornerstones of marking oneself as “elite.” So too – as Bourdieu himself noted, famously in his chart of the food space, that certain tastes showed more knowledge of food, more cultural and economic capital, and thus higher status. It is the same with sweetness in the Jewish world – a certain type of sweetness is othered and ethnicized as “Mizrahi” and “lower-class,” but that same “natural-sweetness” can be celebrated in an “Ashkenazi” or “elite” dessert. (Apply as you will to other ethnocultural contexts.) At the same time, it is also reversed: the love of something exotic and recherché, (which is for many folks Mizrahi and Arab sweets!) can also show higher-status standing whilst sticking with “traditional” or more well-known foods shows a lack of “cultural capital.” One interesting consequence of multiculturalism is that “knowing” an “exotic” dish – itself a deeply politically loaded term – can score you status points even as its key flavorings are dismissed as “bad taste” in the cultural economy. It is a show of high cultural and economic status to “know” and even be at ease– and I borrow Shamus Khan’s use of “ease” here – with the sweetness of a dessert, but at the same time be able to declare it “too sugary.” So it is good taste to know qatayef, but it is also good taste to recoil at the joyous sweetness it brings.
Whose “sweet” is “too sweet?” This, I have demonstrated, is as much a question of social status as it is of physical taste and ideologies of “what is good for you.” It is also perhaps biological – as Bee Wilson noted in her book First Bite, many of the base limits of our tastes are dependent on what we eat in early childhood. That might limit some of the kinds of sweetness we like, but it does not change the politics of how we express it. When qatayef and kanafehand baklavaare dismissed as too sweet in a Jewish context, it is inflected with a context that is not quite as present for other foods.
Permit me an anecdote: a few weeks after the qatayef incident, the same friend who called them “too sweet” brought me two macaronsfrom a well-known bakery. At the time, white-collar New York was in the midst of a macaron craze – everyone, it seemed, wanted an airy almond-meringue cookie with different “elegant” flavorings. The macaron was “classy.” It was recherché. It was more “elegant” and “refined” than a chocolate chip cookie. I’d had a macaron or two before – they were fine. These macarons were supposed to be “the real deal,’ though. I took one bite and…the sugar rush went straight to my head in a way it did not for qatayef, or brownies, or jams. It was so sweet. I did not say anything – it would be rude to turn down such an expensive gift – but I silently cringed as I finished the two macarons. I wonder now: would the declaration “macarons are too sweet” be taken as axiomatic as it is for qatayef or any Arab or Arab-Jewish confections?
The moral? Let people have their tastes, but also recognize that tastes are always socially inflected. So when we say that a group’s desserts are “too sweet,” do we mean only that they are too sweet? No, because if the sweets are from a community that we have power over – Mizrahim for Ashkenazim, Arabs for Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, Jews and Arabs alike for White Gentiles in America – is it also a reflection that we have been taught, our tastes have been primed to find those things distastefully sweet. And part of unlearning that is to celebrate different tastes, but some of it is also to find where our own, in their power, can be critiqued.
And in all this we should leave the qatayef in their proper place. Which is preferably within our easy reach.
Two bonus recipes for you all today, before Parts 5 and 6 of “Pesach of Colors” are unleashed on the internet.
Huppit Bartov Miller at the wonderful Sephardic Israeli blog Afooda tweeted me her lovely Iraqi charoset recipe after finding my recipes on Twitter. It’s a delicious combination of peanuts, walnuts, silan, and grape juice, and yours truly was very impressed with the test batch he made this week. Make the charoset – linked below – and also check out the rest of the blog!
If Passover cleaning also makes you want to drink – to forget your misery or make it more fun – my friend the “Kiddush Club President” at Tippling Through The Torah mad the delicious “Gifts of Gold” cocktail for Parashat Vayakhel a few weeks back. It’s fruity, sweet, and tastes like divinity. Check it out: