“The Sweat Smells”: Hilbeh and the Politics of Smelly Food

“Doesn’t fenugreek make your sweat smell?” This was the question I received from an incredulous friend as I ate my lunch one workday in Lower Manhattan: this time, a sandwich in which I had included hilbeh, the Yemenite fenugreek paste. Indeed, many ask if the pungent spice will cause their sweat to be “nasty” or if the smell might be repulsive to potential partners. Others, perhaps, see a good sign in a partner that smells like fenugreek. I’ll leave the merits of a fenugreek- or not-fenugreek-scented paramour aside to come back to the fact that everyone agrees – and biology confirms – that fenugreek is a food that “smells,” and the hilbeh I am about to introduce has a whole aspect to it beyond its garlicky, pungent taste and delightfully gelatinous texture.

Hilbeh on a spoon
Homemade hilbeh. (Photo mine, August 2016)

Before I continue, I should mention that hilbeh is one of the more fascinating dishes in the Jewish culinary canon. It is a jelly made from the ground and soaked seeds of the fenugreek plant, which has been cultivated in the Middle East since at least six thousand years ago. Fenugreek is mentioned as a typical food of the Galilee during the Second Temple period in Josephus and as common in the Mishnah, in which the plant is called tiltan. In Yemen, fenugreek, which is called hilbeh in the local variety of Arabic, became a basic part of everyday food: the dip hilbeh was and is eaten daily, and by some Yemenite Jews, at festivals as well. Even today, hilbeh is considered the mark of Yemeni identity among Jews and non-Jews alike. In the world of Jewish cooking, though, fenugreek is not a Yemenite spice alone. Fenugreek is common as a seasoning in North African, Iranian, and Turkish Jewish cooking, and also makes an appearance in the Jewish cuisines of South India. On Rosh HaShanah, many Sephardi Jews eat fenugreek as a matter of ritual – for one of the words for fenugreek in Hebrew and Aramaic, rubya, resembles the word that means “to increase in merit.”

Brown fenugreek seeds in a container
Fenugreek seeds before soaking – notice their rusty color! (Photo mine, August 2016)

It is a biological fact that fenugreek alters the smell of one’s sweat. Raw fenugreek contains sotolone – a chemical that causes your sweat to smell, faintly, of maple syrup once you consume it. Factories that process fenugreek can also emit this smell – as most famously discovered here in New York in 2009. (This smell is also why fenugreek shows up in imitation maple syrup.) The plant itself also has a particularly pungent odor. So, though delicious, fenugreek also carries the risk of changing one’s “body odor” – and many think for the worse.

Fenugreek is hardly alone in the realm of “smelly Jewish food” – every community has its foods, from odorous herrings and pickles in the Yiddish realm to the peppery sauces of Bukharan cuisine – that is, to say, more scented than Wonder Bread. (Your author politely points out, though, that the digestive aftereffects of Wonder Bread can be very malodorous indeed.) Yet fenugreek has also been one spice that is noted as pungent, in Israel and elsewhere in the Jewish community. Of course part of this is simply because fenugreek is pungent. But the lasting power is inseparable from the fact that fenugreek is strongly associated with the Yemenite community – whose food, like other non-Ashkenazi foods, was considered smelly and unsanitary for a long time, particularly in Israel. Thus I shall delve into a bit of history:

In 1950s Israel, the odors and scents of non-European cooking were heavily policed and societally scrutinized – even as those of Ashkenazi cooking were often given a “pass.” One could begin with the “reeducation” that governmental and quasi-governmental organizations like WIZO sponsored and sought to spread in the communities of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants to the new Jewish state – which largely meant pushing immigrants towards a Central or Eastern European norm of cooking. The State also subsidized European foodstuffs  – like European bread – but not, for example, the Middle Eastern pita. Meanwhile, commentary on the “unsanitary” and “unhealthful” nature of non-European cuisine was common in the media, in education, in state policy, and from more established Ashkenazi residents of the state. This, of course, all happened in a context where state policy simultaneously selectively appropriated and reworked Arab Palestinian cuisine to create a separate “natural Israeli” culinary norm.” In all of this, scent was a major factor in the day-to-day policing of food. Arab Jewish food was “smelly,” “odorous,” “caused a stink.” The smells were associated with uncleanliness, a “lack of civilization,” and ultimately – race. Fenugreek was simply one part of this history: another Middle Eastern food whose smell was not suited for the “modern” Israeli table. Even as other Arab and Middle Eastern foods became popular among all groups in Israel later on, the idea of “smelliness” or “uncleanliness” remained strong – particularly for Yemenite and Ethiopian Jewish food. A similar tendency exists in the United States, where an effective class ceiling exists for many so-called “ethnic cuisines” – fine for cheap eats, but not for an expensive dinner. Smell is a key part of that trend.

"Atzel Nekhama" - in comfort - and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv.
“Atzel Nekhama” – in comfort – and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv. Hilbeh is listed as an item available. Photo mine, April 2016.

Smell is ultimately biological. But whose smell matters and whose foods’ smell matters is, like sweetness, inextricable from the racialized social and cultural context that embeds the people with whom a food is associated. Thus the odor of fenugreek, delicious as it is, is more weighted and in some ways more maligned than what many consider the equally malicious odors of brie cheese, fish and chips, mayonnaise, hamburgers, or something with the French mushroom paste duxelles. (Or, as one reader pointed out, herring in the Jewish context – may Hashem bless the non-Ashkenazim whose nasal functions have been temporarily destroyed by our pickled fish.) The fact that fenugreek is consumed by groups not at the top of the sociocultural hierarchy in Israel or the United States, and the fact that the consumption of such spices is highly ethnicized and racialized as “other,” means that the scent associated with fenugreek and its consumption thus becomes a marker of “otherness” and marginalization. And in comparison to the smelly foods of the less-maligned, there is also an element of class: after all, blue cheese is favorably racialized and made elite in a way fenugreek is not. Or, as Pierre Bourdieu might say, fenugreek is not part of an élite habitus. So, the next time you eat and smell fenugreek – or if you do so for the first time, think about how its smell is also a sign of power – or lack thereof.

And enjoy it – for fenugreek is delicious!


Here is a recipe for hilbeh, based on those of an amalgam of Hebrew-language recipes from Yemenite Jews.

Hilbeh (Fenugreek Paste)

Based on the recipes of Hadassa Mishmor, Rahamim Keta, and “Savta Berakha” (links all Hebrew-language)

2 tablespoons fenugreek seeds

2 cups hot water

1 large clove garlic

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp white vinegar

1 red chili pepper, chopped, or 1 tsp strong chili powder

½ tsp coriander seeds

  1. Soak the fenugreek seeds in hot water, in a covered dish, for up to 24 hours. I sometimes stick the seeds into the fridge. The water will cool but needs to start off hot to bring out the fenugreek’s gelatinous quality.
  2. Drain the seeds and place into a food processor with the remaining ingredients. Blend until you have a frothy, unified mixture. If you’re using a mortar and pestle, grind the fenugreek and garlic first together, then add in the other ingredients. (In terms of time, I recommend the food processor.)
  3. Decant into a container and allow to sit for twenty minutes before serving, on bread. You can eat the hilbeh with samneh and/or z’houg. Hilbeh keeps, refrigerated, for about a week. I find that hilbeh is the perfect accompaniment to a fried egg.

Thank you to Tzeyeen Liew, Amram Altzman, Sumaya Bouadi, Mikaela Brown, Aaron David Lerner, and Yün-ke Chin-Stern for help with a few bits of this piece.

The Cosmopolitan Herring (The Barrel Always Smells of Herring II)

Read the first part of the herring series here, and the Chopped Herring (Forshmak) recipe here.

I’m wary of particularism, and particularly when it’s seasoning my food – ironic, perhaps, for an ethnic food blogger. And yet in Jewish cuisine we are plagued with the particular: this is Jewish, that is “authentic,” yet something else is a sign of “assimilation.” Any Google search can return you blog after tweet after article with this hackneyed approach to food. And in all this herring is a token of an idealized past – a lieu de mémoire that takes one back to a time when “Jews ate Jewish food, and that food was herring, and people cared about our heritage.” (I paraphrase here this rendition of history that is unapologetically centered on Ashkenazim.) Herring is “special” and “Jewish,” even if the Lithuanian and Polish jars of pickled herring taste pretty much just the same as the “Jewish” ones.  What is with this search for purity and authenticity in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, made manifest in herring? It cannot just be the ghost of the fear of “assimilation” – as we happily buy into the ideas of “nation” and “heritage” Christian Europe pushes on our own myriad uses of the terms. There’s something – in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu – of trying to prove one’s status as a better Jew by showing that one’s tastes are more correct, more pure. But to do that nebulous task with herring?

Georg Flegel - Stilleben mit Hering und Bartmannskrug, 1600
Georg Flegel – Stilleben mit Hering und Bartmannskrug, 1600. Flegel spent part of his life in the major herring trade town of Utrecht, in the Netherlands.

Herring is proof that Jewish cuisine is anything but pure.

After all, this little fish is the one that “globalized” Northern Europe before “globalization.” Herring had been consumed on the shores of the North Atlantic and Baltic since time immemorial; by the ninth century CE, when records mention herring as an important foodstuff in today’s Norway, the fish was already locally pickled and traded around the Baltic. Around this time herring was a common food for Jewish and Gentile communities in today’s Germany, and was a staple food in Scotland and what is now Lithuania. (Pacific herring was heavily consumed in Japan and native North America, but the pre-modern herring cultures there merit separate discussions.) But at a certain point, more was needed: herring migrate long distances and often quite suddenly, and close-to-shore fishing no longer provided adequate supplies. At the same time, pickling and salting methods had improved such that the fish could now be kept for a long time, for lengthy distances of travel.

Soused herring in the Netherlands.
Soused herring in the Netherlands. (Photo Takeaway via Wikimedia/CC)

Thus herring – known as “silver darlings” in later years for their high value – quickly became a valued trading commodity: fish were brought in from the high seas, pickled, and then sold at massive markets in Europe’s fast-growing medieval hubs. Herring was one of the many commodities that fueled the medieval economies of cities like Bruges, Bergen, Riga, and London. In fact, herring was one of the main items traded within the Hanseatic League after that confederation of merchant guilds and towns was founded in 1358 – and the bounds of the League closely matched Europe’s herring capitals of the day. In later years, the development by Dutch sailors of shipboard fish preservation – and the spread of that technique across Northern Europe – again propelled herring as a commodity in the 17th century. Its quantity and cheapness also allowed the fish – highly profitable for its procurers – to become popular as a staple food across Northern Europe, from Northern France to Russia.  More grimly, British colonists included the fish as part of rations for enslaved Africans – which is partly why herring remains part of local cuisine in Jamaica today. (Though a Briton might have consumed herring at home, the performances of colonial rule and domination – and wealth as a colonist – meant he was less likely to do so abroad, and more likely to eat meat.) Meanwhile, trading networks dedicated to the fish had developed in Europe, which brought herring from ships through port and market towns to tables across the class spectrum in early modern Europe. Much of Europe’s poor – especially Jewish – became particularly dependent on herring, especially in Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Scandinavia, and Scotland. Meanwhile, movements across the continent – including the Ashkenazi Jewish migration from Germany into Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary in the 13th century, later German movements to the east Baltic coast,  and the 17th-century Swedish imperial expansion – also brought new preparations of herring to those areas – and expanded the trade connections around the fish.

An Icelandic postage stamp with herring.
An Icelandic postage stamp with herring. Iceland’s independence was partly funded by herring. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Jews were at the center of these trading networks – we were part and parcel of what made herring happen. Let’s start in Amsterdam – where this very “Ashkenazi” fish was traded by Sephardi Jews from their arrival in the Netherlands in the 16th century. By the 17th century, when Amsterdam was the major center for fish and pretty much everything else, several Sephardic families had become vastly wealthy through trading fish – though, at least in the Netherlands, few of a largely urban Jewish community became fishermen themselves. Many wealthy Ashkenazi families in Germany had themselves become rich from trading herring in Hamburg and Bremen. Further afield and of more modest means, salesmen and peddlers traded and moved barrels across the European continent, to Lithuania and Poland, the heartland of Ashkenazi Jewry (and herring), France, and elsewhere. Some of the first Jewish settlers in cities previously banned to Jews – such as Stockholm and Norrköping in Sweden – were herring merchants, as were some of the first Jews to arrive in England after readmission in the 17th century. As the herring industry and fishery continued apace in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did Jewish involvement – especially after “emancipation” in the early 19th century in many European states. Many of the first Jews to arrive in the Scottish Highlands, Iceland, Norway, and Finland had some connection to herring. But it was hardly Jews alone who were growing in terms of herring.

Siglufjörður harbor
The herring town of Siglufjörður in northern Iceland, which boomed in the early 20th century as a result of the herring trade. (Photo Hansueli Krapf via Wikimedia/CC)

By the early twentieth century, a herring economy stretched from Florø, in Norway, to Kazan, in Russia, to New York, to London, and to Helsinki. Many coastal towns in Northern Europe were dependent upon, and grew rich from, the fishing industry that grew upon their herring-rich waters. Some places, such as Siglufjörður and Neskaupsstaður in Iceland, Rotterdam (link in Dutch), and Great Yarmouth in England saw huge population growth as fishing promised money to a generation of working-class men. Coastal towns – sometimes these fishing centers, but also places like Dieppe (link in French), Stavanger, Gdańsk, and Lunenberg, Nova Scotia not only had industries centered around processing and preserving herring for shipment far afield, but also provided a generation of women employment outside the home and their hometowns – and by extension, a newfound liberation. Networks of traders – many still Jewish – then brought herring from Reykjavík to Copenhagen, Cherbourg to Lyon, Rīga to Siberia, Norway to Jamaica, and Halifax to New York. Herring peddlers  – memorialized in Yiddish literature  – and fishmongers and shopkeepers then sold the fish to an ever-hungrier public.

Jews were involved at all points in this process, but were especially active in the preservation and distribution of the fish – which still played a key part in the diet of the poor Jewry of Eastern Europe. Many families depended on herring beyond nutrition – including Marc Chagall’s, whose father sold herring in Vitebsk. Yet as much as herring was Jewish, herring was also part of a huge economy. Such was the size and importance of herring as a fish that Iceland’s industrialization, urbanization, and independence was largely fueled by the herring and cod fisheries of the country. Even today, much of the country’s infrastructure dates from the days when that infrastructure was needed … for fish. And no doubt some of that herring ended up “Jewish.” Meanwhile a similar, also-Jewish-influenced herring industry grew in Seattle and Alaska on the bones of thousands of years of Salish and Tlingit fishing for the slightly different Pacific herring. Some of that herring certainly also ended up “Jewish,” in San Francisco and New York.

herring refrigerator at a Polish supermarket
The herring refrigerator at a Polish supermarket in Brooklyn – with many herrings identical to the “Jewish” ones of an Ashkenazi synagogue kiddush. (Photo mine, January 2016.)

And much of what we know as “Jewish herring” – and cuisine, for that matter – comes from the contacts we facilitated or were introduced to during these heady centuries. Take herring in cream sauce – a “classic Jewish” preparation for the fish, with sour cream mixed into the pickling. Its origin? Sweden – and not  a moment of Jewish ingenuity. This recipe was possibly introduced to Ashkenazi Jews during the Swedish invasion of Lithuania and Poland – an event that also marked a downturn for tolerance of Jews in Poland. Later Jewish tables were then dependent on a herring industry by and large not dependent on Jewish labor; from that industry, recipes were also taken – for example, herrings with mustard or herrings with juniper berries. Even the very basic ingredients of the herring’s pickling reflected surrounding environments – such as the increasingly sweet herrings of Poland after the sugar-beet industry took off there in the 19th century. And well – though we adjusted, redid, and reworked herring – the very fact we eat the fish has plenty to do with our non-Jewish neighbors. There was no forshmak in the Mishkan.

In turn Jews left, through herring, an indelible mark on the tastes of Europe. In some cases, the tastes were a direct contribution: for example, forshmak is served in Finland and Estonia in local renditions of the Jewish chopped herring that are very much not kosher. Meanwhile, herring is prepared with Jewish recipes by Christian Russians and Ukrainians to this day, and were popular during the Soviet Union. Yet in other cases the mere presence of herring on the menu owes a lot to the Jewish trading networks that brought this cheap, pickled commodity inland – and kept it there. How else would the sea-bound herring have then ended up deep in the landlocked countryside around Minsk? Or the favored garlic of Ashkenazi cuisine in herring dishes across Eastern Europe? The entire industry depended on Jews; even after the ravages of the Holocaust, our tastes still linger across the region. Just as “authentic” Jewish cuisine is impossible without the Swedes, so too “authentic” Lithuanian silke is nothing without the Jews.

Herring on potato pancakes
Herring on potato pancakes in Vilnius. (Photo mine, March 2015)

Herring is a reminder that particularism never quite captures either the cosmopolitan majesty of Jewish history, nor the complexity of the context that inevitably surrounds it. Our tastes are not just shaped by halakha and tradition, authenticity and some “Yiddish” je ne sais quoi: they are inseparable from the Swedish military exploits of the 17th century, the herring factories of Iceland and Scotland, Russian appetites, and the spices brought by Dutch and Portuguese traders through Sephardi warehouses. Without any of these factors Jewish herring is not what it is: an element is missing, but so is the Jewishness. After all, we took in all these influences and combined them for hundreds of years – just as we did other things – taking us far from the idealized purity of yore that never quite existed. And certainly not in our barrels of fish.

“Arab and Sephardi Pastries Are Too Sweet”: Sugar, Power, Taste, and the Politics of Sweets

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?

Qatayef with cheese and pistachios
A more open qatayef with sweet cheese and ground pistachios – they look so yummy! (Photo Abbad Diraneyya via Wikimedia Commons)

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?

Qatayef in syrup
Delicious qatayef bathing in glorious attar. (Photo Hasan Isawi via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

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.

semolina halva
Turkish sweets are also often called “too sweet” by Westerners – but they are often so delicious, like this nutty, toasty semolina halva (ırmık helvası) I enjoyed in İzmir. (Photo mine, May 2015)

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 kanafeh and baklava are 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 macarons from 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.

Qatayef asafiri
A souped-up version of qatayef asafiri qatayef with cream – in Lebanon. (Photo Deed89 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

And in all this we should leave the qatayef in their proper place. Which is preferably within our easy reach.


I recommend the qatayef recipe by Hala’s Kitchen, which is simple and easy to follow. For a more involved recipe, take a look at the recipe by Anissa Helou, one of my food heroes, whose post from before the Syrian Civil War is a painful look back at the now-bittersweet delicious memories of Damascus many Syrians hold.

Enjoy! (And to this blog’s Muslim readers, Ramadan mubarak wa-karim!)

Shavuot II: Cheesecake!

Me with cheesecake
I’m really excited about this cheesecake. (Photo Gabi Kirk, June 2016)

Mention Shavuot to a Jew in the United States or Canada, and their first response is often “cheesecake.” The holiday associated with dairy foods has now become, for many, only associated with a creamy concoction of cheese, eggs, and sugar, soft and yet mysteriously solid. In fact, I’m pretty sure that for many American Jews the cheesecake on Shavuot matters more than the important event the holiday actually celebrates: revelation. This connection may seem modern, but – as I noted in my last post, when I made cheese and talked about dairy on Shavuot – dairy and this holiday have a long history together, and cheesecake and Jewry also have a long and delicious relationship.

Cheesecake has a long Jewish history spanning the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds – in fact, the longest of any recipe yet profiled on the blog. In Ancient Greece, combinations of flour, fresh cheese, and honey were baked and dried; this recipe was likely known in the Holy Land. (The Priestly Source may himself have eaten this.) Similar desserts were eaten across the Roman Empire, probably including by those Hellenized Jews who sought to assimilate into access to imperial power. Later on, Jews settled in many cheese-eating parts of the world: and so you ended up with Italian Jews making ricotta-based cheesecakes (more on that later), and Ashkenazi Jews – as Claudia Roden notes in her book – absorbing and reimagining the cheesecakes of their non-Jewish neighbors. English Jews before the expulsion of 1290 probably made a cake like the sambocade found in medieval cookbooks; medieval Spanish Jewry probably ate cheesecakes not unlike the quesada pasiega (video in Spanish) still common in Spain today. By the 19th century, cheesecakes were popular Shavuot and festival dishes in many places of the Jewish world.

Three cheesecakes
Cheesecakes, ready to go. (Photo Gabi Kirk, June 2016)

Cheesecake is now considered in many places a “Jewish” food. In Rome, the traditional ricotta-based cassola  and crostata di ricotta (video in Italian) are both recipes that originate in the Jewish quarter of that city. The recipe is based on the Shavuot and Sabbath delicacies of the Sicilian Jews that arrived in Rome after being expelled from their home island in the fifteenth century. Today, the Jewish cheesecake has become a Roman Christmas tradition, one that has even attracted the attention of the New York Times. Across the ocean, in New York City, Toronto, and Montréal, the cream cheese-based cheesecake of North American Jewry is considered a “Jewish” food of the first order – and in the rest of the United States, “real” cheesecake is often “New York, and Jewish.” Indeed, as Joan Nathan notes in Jewish Food in America, cheesecake was first popularized in the United States by Jewish delis in New York.  (In college, the first question one non-Jewish friend asked of me, when he learned I was Jewish, was for a cheesecake recipe.)

Cheesecake on a plate
Eating cheesecake – a bit of the almond base fell off to the side! (Photo mine, June 2016)

For this recipe, I made a simple ricotta cheesecake with an almond base, using the homemade cheese I made for the last post. Of course, you can also use store-bought ricotta and/or quark cheese. One of the great things about ricotta cheesecakes or quark cheesecakes is that you don’t need to have a water bath for them, as you do for the far more delicate cream cheese-based cakes common here in the United States. This means that the recipe is both far quicker to make, and far easier – especially for beginning cooks. The recipe here resembles in some ways the ricotta cheesecakes from Italy I mentioned earlier, and in some ways the quark-based Käsekuchen or sernik common in Germany and Poland. Perhaps it also resembles the cheesecakes of pre-war, pre-Holocaust Lithuania – Fania Lewando’s recipe also uses farmer’s cheese (tsvorekh). The innovation I made is using an almond base. Not only does this provide a wonderful nutty counterpart to the light, sweet cheese – with which the almonds meld wonderfully – but also makes the cake gluten-free. Feel free to make a dough or biscuit crust, like that in the Baked Apple Pudding, but the almonds really do work.

Ricotta and Quark Cheesecake with an Almond Base

Almond base:

1/3 cup whole, raw almonds, soaked in water

1 tbsp butter

2 tbsp sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

 

Cheesecake:

1 1/2-2 cups fresh ricotta

1-1 1/2 cups fresh quark cheese (you can also use ricotta only, it should add up to three cups of cheese)

5 eggs

1 cup white sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

 

Butter for greasing the pan.

 

  1. In a food processor, blend the almonds, butter, sugar, and cinnamon until you have a thick paste. You do not need to peel them.
  2. Preheat your oven to 400F. Grease the bottom of a 9″ round pan. You can use a springform pan for easier cutting or a normal deep round cake or casserole pan for easy transport.
  3. Press the almond base into the bottom of your pan. Your almond base should be pretty soft and a bit of a paste, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. The almond mix should be evenly distributed.

(Author note: for a thicker base, use 1/2 cup of almonds and a tad more butter and sugar.)
If you are using a dough base, cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of dough of about ½ an inch thickness.

  1. Mix together all of the cheesecake ingredients until you have a batter of medium thickness.
  2. Pour the cheesecake batter into the pan over the almond base. Make sure the batter is level on top.
  3. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the cheesecake is set (meaning it no longer jiggles when moved) and the top is browned. Let cool before serving.

The author would like to thank Sara and Lisa Wolovick for assisting in the User Acceptance Testing for this recipe, and Gabi Kirk for User Acceptance Testing, photography, and helping me make this year’s Shavuot cheesecakes.

Shavuot I: Make Your Own Cheese

Shavuot is fast upon us! For those of you who don’t know, Shavuot celebrates the revelation of the Torah unto Israel, and the time of the Biblical wheat harvest. Though oft-forgotten in secular American Jewish culture, Shavuot is one of the holiest holidays in the Jewish calendar, and was one of the three Pilgrimage festivals – along with Pesach and Sukkot. Many traditions exist for Shavuot, including pulling an all-nighter of Jewish study, the tikkun leil, decorating the house and synagogue with flowers, and eating copious amounts of dairy food. It is absolutely my favorite Jewish holiday, not least because my favorite prayer and favorite Biblical text are both read in the holiday’s ritual.

But this blog is about food, not archaic Aramaic prayers or the Biblical injunction against slut-shaming, so let’s return to our topic at hand: dairy. Now, multiple explanations exist for why we eat milk products on Shavuot. Some say it is because the Torah is like G-d’s way of giving to Jews what a mother’s milk gives to her child. The Song of Songs does call the Torah “honey and milk” that “are under Your (G-d’s) tongue” (4:11). Others argue that it comes from the fact that Mount Sinai is Har haGavnunim in Hebrew, the name of which is similar to gvina – cheese. I prefer a more practical explanation: before modern times, Shavuot was soon after the time of year most cows gave birth to calves, and milk would have been in most plentiful supply at this time in most Jewish societies across the world.

Most Jewish communities, other than those of Yemen and Ethiopia, have various dairy-eating traditions on Shavuot. These tend to revolve around the various forms of cheese and milk products each Jewish cuisine uses. Cheesecake, a very Jewish dish whose history will be discussed in the next post, is common across many Ashkenazi, Italian, and Sephardi communities, and is taken as synonymous with Shavuot in the American Jewish community. Other delights include blintzes in the  Ashkenazi sphere, rice pudding (sütlaç) among Sephardim, and qatayef – very sweet fried and syrup-soaked pancakes – among Syrians. All of these are delicious, and many often involve local forms of soft cheese.

Soft cheese is a very traditionally Jewish thing. Quark cheeses, called tvarog in Russian,  tsvorekh in Yiddish, and gvina levana in Hebrew, is a curd cheese that is often confused with ricotta. It is soft, sweet-tart and slightly tangy, and quite tasty. The cheese comes at various levels of hardness and sweetness – I tend to prefer a softer, tangier quark. Tsvorekh is traditionally used in kugels, blintzes, and on bread. In fact, quark on black bread was one of the most common meals of poor Jews in Lithuania and Poland for centuries. [The same cheese was used for Shavuot.]

Ricotta, that famous soft Italian cheese, is a frequent ingredient in Italian Jewish dishes. Ricotta – which means “twice cooked” in Italian – is actually made from the whey left over from making other cheeses. When you make cheese, it separates into curds – the white stuff that we eat – and whey, the acidic component. (Think of the nursery rhyme.) Whey is cooked again to separate out the curds, and then the curds are strained out and sometimes played around with. Italian Jews traditionally used ricotta both for Hanukkah cheese pancakes, cheesecakes for Shavuot, and with bread year-round.

Both cheeses are ridiculously easy to make and taste quite good. In fact, you can make them both at the same time, as I shall show you below. It’s not an everyday thing, but certainly a fun thing to do when you get the chance. This is how you do it:

How to Make Two Cheeses at Once 

Makes one pound quark cheese (tvarog/tsvorekh/gvina levana), one pound ricotta, and about four cups whey

Refer to pictures at the beginning of the post for parts of the process.

You will need:

Ingredients

1/2 gallon/2 liters milk

1 pint/500 ml heavy cream

1/2 tsp salt

Juice of 2 large lemons

1/2 tsp white vinegar

Equipment

A big soup pot

Two colanders – one should be quite big

A giant bowl

Cheesecloth

Big wooden spoons

  1. Line one of your colanders – the big one – with cheesecloth, and then place over the bowl so that there is a good two-three inches between the bowl floor and the bottom of your colander.
  2. Pour all the milk and all the cream into the pot. Add the salt and stir in.
  3. Bring the milk mixture to a low boil. When the milk begins to froth, start stirring rapidly to prevent it boiling over.
  4. When the milk is boiling, add the juice of the two large lemons, and stir rapidly in. Simmer for one minute.
  5. You should notice the milk start to curdle. This is the curds separating from the whey. The curds are the cheesy bit. The whey is the leftovers* from which we will make more cheese.
  6. Turn off the heat and let the mixture sit for five minutes. It will look weird – white clumps and white fluid. This is how we make cheese, do not worry one bit!
  7. Pour the entire mixture into your big, lined colander. Then let sit and have the whey drip out for anything between fifteen minutes and two hours – the longer it sits, the harder your cheese. I go for 30-40 minutes since I like my cheese super soft.
  8. When your time is up, scoop up the cheese in the colander and put into a container, and refrigerate. Don’t throw the whey (liquid below) away! Congratulations! You have made quark cheese! It keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
  9. Now it’s time to make the ricotta. Pour your whey – you should have about six cups – back into the pot, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  10. When the whey is boiling, turn off the heat and quickly stir in the 1/2 tsp of vinegar.* Then leave alone for ten minutes.
  11. You should have a lot of green mixture (whey) and then more white curds clumped around!
  12. Pour the mixture through a colander, preferably a fine-meshed one – with a bowl underneath if you want to save your whey. The curds should collect in the colander right away. Scoop them out into a container and refrigerate. Congratulations! You have made ricotta! It keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
  13. You can save your whey – it is really great for making hearty breads and baked goods when you use it instead of water.

*Traditionally many cooks allow their whey to sit for a few hours to allow it to acidify, which negates the need for additional vinegar. However, this can be a rather smelly process that is not conducive to relaxing cheese-making.

P’titim and How We Do Food History

I have a particular love for small doughy pastas. Growing up, orzo was by far my favorite kind of pasta; the mere mention of couscous can send me into an excited tizzy. I once tried and failed at making farfel from scratch – the traditional grated dough of Ashkenazi cuisine is not friendly to sticky-phobic hands – but I have scarfed many a plate thereof. In a recent conversation on the topic of this pasta, a friend of mine asked if I could write a post about “Israeli couscous” – p’titim – and where it came from. I do wish to point out that part of this post’s purpose stems from my reaction:

“Did you mean maftoul?”

Stewed meatballs with eggplant and fruit, served with maftoul.
Stewed meatballs with eggplant and fruit, served with maftoul. The maftoul is covering the biggest piece of eggplant from the pot! Photo mine, May 2016.

In Israel, p’titim are attributed to a particular origin. The tale is as follows: In the years after the formation of the state in 1948, food shortages were rampant throughout the country – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Rice was in short supply throughout the country, and the Israeli government commissioned food companies to create a substitute based on wheat, which was in better supply in the early State. The Osem food company – famous for its bouillon-esque “soup powder” (avqat maraq) – developed a substitute by toasting tiny balls of wheat paste in an oven. The p’titim – nicknamed Ben-Gurion rice – became popular, and remained so after austerity ended. Today, they are considered a children’s food in Israel. Here in the United States, however, they are popular across age groups.

Here’s the thing: Palestinians were already eating something pretty close, called maftoul or mugrabiyeh. This pasta – technically a coated couscous – came about after Moroccan migrants brought couscous to the area in the early modern period. Maftoul developed as Palestinians adapted the pasta from semolina (used in Morocco) to the more common bulgur. For the past century and a half, maftoul has been a traditional holiday or festive food in Palestine and across the Levant generally. Many families continue to make maftoul at home. In Lebanon and Syria, maftoul are called mugrabiyeh – literally “that from Morocco.”

P'titim
P’titim. (Photo NSaum75, from English wikipedia via Creative Commons)

Purists will point out the difference in the pastas. Maftoul is a couscous, p’titim are made from a dried paste. Maftoul are largely uniform in shape; p’titim are now made in more than one shape. The Wikipedia article on p’titim maintains that considering the pastas the same is a common mistake. But I would like to respond with a question: is it a mistake? Or is it simply politically inconvenient? In other cases, we seem to be only too happy to acknowledge the similarities in different foods – be it the Jewish origins of the very porky Spanish cocido or the common love for pickled fish shared across Ashkenazi and Christian cuisines in Eastern Europe. Yet here – and I admit that maftoul and p’titim are slightly different – we are urged to distinguish between the two. Yet the fact is that before the Nakba, Zionists settlers were probably exposed to Palestinians – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish – eating maftoul. I sincerely doubt that there was no crossover.

Maftoul with chicken and chickpeas
Maftoul with chicken and chickpeas. (Photo Ebushnaq via English Wikipedia and Creative Commons)

What’s so scary about acknowledging the Palestinian and Moroccan origins of an “Israeli” food? Some of it is that we don’t get to be as particularist as we like, or particularist in a certain way. But there’s also a very real power dynamic at play here: once you acknowledge the little things that come from Arab cultures, you have to acknowledge the wider dynamics of the occupation and how Zionism plays into that. And for many, that’s a very uncomfortable conversation.


I don’t want to leave this post on a completely sad note, so here are five ways to serve your p’titim/maftoul/mugrabiyeh:

  1. Serve p’titim with a good meat stew – from this blog you can serve either the Beef with Eggplant, Apricots, and Dates or Stewed Meatballs with Eggplant and Fruit;
  2. This recipe for mugrabiyeh with lamb by Kano at Syrian Foodie is divine.
  3. Kitchen of Palestine has an awesome recipe for chicken and maftoul that shows you how to make homemade
  4. Taste of Palestine has a Maftoul and Lentil Salad similar to something I’ve made for myself before.
  5. Liz Steinberg has a recipe for leek and pumpkin p’titim that looks like an excellent recipe for the autumn.

Stewed Meatballs with Eggplant and Fruit

Stewed meatballs with eggplant and fruit, served with maftoul.
Stewed meatballs with eggplant and fruit, served with maftoul. The maftoul is covering the biggest piece of eggplant from the pot! Photo mine, May 2016.

Here is a recipe I made for my mother on Mother’s Day. It is similar to the Beef with Eggplant, Dates, and Apricots I made last month for the Pesach of Colors series, but recalls two other dishes from separate Sephardic traditions: the Balkan albondigas, or meatballs with eggplant, and lamb tagine with prunes, a traditional Moroccan-Sephardic meal for Jewish holidays. I kind of made up this recipe on the spot, but will almost certainly make it again. This dish is somewhat complex in terms of ingredients and preparation, so save it for special occasions – like Mother’s Day.

I served the stew with maftoul or moghrabiyyeh, commonly called Pearled Couscous, or ptitim in Israel. Though the preparation method common in Israel differs slightly from maftoul (it is a paste that is molded in Israel, and a coated couscous elsewhere), the product is essentially identical, despite some Israeli efforts to say otherwise. Maftoul/ptitim are delicious and will be the topic of an upcoming blog post.

Stewed Meatballs with Eggplants and Dried Fruit
Serves 6-8
 
Stew
2 medium eggplants, peeled and chopped into 1-inch chunks
salt, for preparing eggplant
Two medium onions, diced
Two cloves garlic, finely diced
1 1/2 tbsp table salt
1 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsps white pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp thyme
1/2 tsp ground oregano
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 1/4 cups chopped dried dates
1 1/4 cups dried prunes, pitted and chopped
2 cups sweet red wine (yes, I used Manischewitz), split into 1/2 cup and 1 1/2 cup amounts
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup honey
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
4 tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
water
2-3 tbsp olive oil
Meatballs
2 lbs ground beef
3 eggs
3/4 cup matzah meal
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1. Place the eggplant pieces into a colander and salt heavily. Set aside for 30 minutes, during which time the eggplant will “sweat.” (This is oxalic acid escaping the eggplant, which means the pieces will be less bitter in the final product.) Afterwards, rinse the eggplant pieces and set aside.
2. Heat a wide, deep pan or Dutch oven. Add olive oil when the pan is hot – the amount should be enough to coat the bottom of the pan.
3. Add the onions and garlic and saute.
4. When the onions begin to soften, add the salt, sugar, paprika, pepper, turmeric, thyme, oregano, and nutmeg, and mix in thoroughly. Saute for another minute.
5. Add the dried dates and prunes and mix in thoroughly. Then, add 1/2 cup wine.
6. Saute until the dates have slightly softened, about three minutes.
7. Add the eggplant pieces, bay leaves, and honey, and mix in thoroughly. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups of wine. Then, add enough water to cover the entire mixture by about 1.5cm/1/2 an inch – this should be between four and six cups of water.
8. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30-45 minutes.
9. Now is the time to make the meatballs. Mix all the ingredients for the meatballs in a large bowl, until the ingredients are thoroughly combined.
10. With your hands, use the mixture to make walnut sized balls (about 4-5cm/1 1/2 inches). You should be able to make 20-25 meatballs.
11. When the eggplant has softened somewhat, add the meatballs and submerge in the mixture. Bring back to a boil, then simmer for another 30-45 minutes.
12. The eggplant will be very soft and the fruit completely mushy when the stew is done. Serve with your favorite carbohydrate.

“It Gives Flavor, It’s Good!” – Samneh, Diaspora, and the Memory of Yemeni Tel Aviv  

"Atzel Nekhama" - in comfort - and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv.
“Etzel Nekhama” – “At Nekhama’s” – and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv. Photo mine, April 2016.

It’s my last evening in Israel, and my friend Tom and I are walking through the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Kerem ha-Teimanim, the Yemenite Quarter. The district was founded in 1906 by Yemenite immigrants to the Holy Land, who chose to settle in an area near Jaffa. Founded before the “original” start of the (European, Ashkenazi) city of Tel Aviv in 1906, Kerem ha-Teimanim was the center for a growing Yemenite immigrant community in the Holy Land. The Yemenite Jews who came were and still are excluded from the state-sponsored history of Zionism and Israel: they spoke Arabic, brought traditions from Yemen rather than Europe, and integrated and cooperated with Jaffa’s Palestinian population. The migration was not under the auspices of European organization, but rather as residents of the Ottoman Empire’s farthest-flung province moving to the major centers of Jaffa and Jerusalem. This, if it was Zionism, was a very different kind of Zionism. Later, Kerem ha-Teimanim was the poorer dumping ground for some of the thousands of Yemenite Jews who arrived in Israel after 1948. Even today, the neighborhood has a strong Yemenite population; streets and public art commemorate both the area’s Yemenites and the communities of the homeland, like Aden, Sana’a, and Ta’izz. However, gentrification – and the occupation of the neighborhood by Ashkenazim with money – is changing the character of Kerem ha-Teimanim. It is still, however, a center of Yemenite-Jewish culture in a Tel Aviv known for erasing all that is not secular and Ashkenazi.

But back to the walk Tom and I were taking. We had walked from Tom’s home in the north of Tel Aviv all the way down to Kerem ha-Teimanim. It was a quiet Shabbat afternoon, and the neighborhood was mostly silent. We saw the public art scattered throughout Kerem ha-Teimanim that commemorates the Yemenite Jewish people of Tel Aviv and the balad – homeland – of Yemen. On this walk, we passed by a homespun sign for an eatery that sold traditional Yemenite Jewish foods. These include the breads lakhukh, jakhnun, and malawwakh, soups, and other savory goods. The eatery itself was closed for Pesach and Shabbat, but Tom – whose ancestry is Syrian and Sephardic – and I, the consummate Litvak, busied ourselves with discussing the foods on the menu. Our eyes then turned to the bottom of the sign, which read – and here is my annotated translation:

To take away:

Lakhukh – a spongey flatbread made from a yeasted, fermented batter. It is not unlike the injera consumed in Eritrea and Ethiopia, and has the same soft, bouncy texture. Across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen in Somalia, the same recipe is called canjeero. When my mother was a teenager in Israel in the 1970’s, this was one of her favorite foods, along with another Yemenite bread – the fried, oily malawwakh.

Skhug or sahawiq – a deliciously spicy hot sauce made from fresh red or green chilies, augmented with cilantro, garlic, and cumin. Sometimes tomatoes are added too. Skhug is delicious and is also pretty easily found in Israel.

Hilbeh – this is a spread or a dip made from the raw seeds of the fenugreek plant. Those of you familiar with South Asian, Turkish, or Ethiopian cooking are probably familiar with this pungent spice. The spread is made by grinding the seeds and adding water and spices, which creates a thick sauce. If you have access to fenugreek seeds, it is quite easy to make at home – here is a good recipe.

Samneh

Here, Tom and I were a bit confused. What was “samneh?” Tom and I scratched our heads. Clearly, it was something that went on the lakhukh, but what was it? “I haven’t heard this word before,” Tom offered. Then, we heard a voice with behind us. “What are you wondering about?”

An older lady, conservatively dressed, stood behind us. We responded:

“Oh we were just wondering what samneh was.” She smiled.

“You know ghee? It’s like ghee, and it gives flavor.” And then she began to explain how she made it, by melting and straining the butter, and then adding fenugreek (hilbeh) for a smokier, tangier flavor. She was visibly happy as she explained it. “I eat it with the lakhukh and the hilbeh and the skhug, and I use it to cook sometimes too!” We thanked her for her explanation, and then she asked us a few questions before wishing us a shabbat shalom. Later, we figured out that she may well have been the Nekhama whose name is mentioned in the eatery’s name.

From later research, I learned that samneh is a clarified, fermented butter common across the Arab world – where it is also known as smen. The butter is sometimes salted after it is melted, boiled, and strained, and thyme is often added to provide a type of yeast. The result? A smoky, flavorful, fatty samneh. It seems that our passerby prepared a version that is particularly traditional to the Jews of Yemen (link in Hebrew). It sounds pretty good.

This type of encounter renews my interest in Jewish food cultures. It is all well and good to make the broad statements of who likes what, what “Yiddish” or “Sephardi” food mean, or that the younger generations “aren’t” eating your definition of traditional Jewish food. It is all well and good to buy expensive cookbooks and go to restaurants that make expensive reinventions of Jewish food. But the food ultimately comes from the people, and the way they engage with it and remember it. It is this – not any notion of authenticity or tradition – that makes Jewish food worth writing about, and I am grateful to this passerby that took the time to tell us about her samneh.

Sambusak

Sambusak on a colored plate
Sambusak, about to be consumed. They are little pockets of yummy! Photo mine, March 2016.

Firstly, apologies to the regular readers of this blog for the recent “Ashkenormative” trend in our coverage. Between reader requests and the recent holiday of Purim, I got taken over by the (admittedly delicious) tradition of my Lithuanian ancestors. I promised some Sephardi and Mizrahi friends that I would not stick to Ashkenazi food alone when I began this blog, and now I need to live up to that.

In all my discussions of Ashkenazi food, I have been very keen to point out that the Jewish food traditions of Eastern Europe did not evolve in a vacuum or narrative of purity, but rather took and borrowed from and contributed to the cuisine of their neighbors. These same ideas and trends apply equally to the various Sephardic, Middle Eastern, and North African Jewish food – as I have also noted before. Many foods come from the neighbors of Jewish communities in the Mediterranean basin – and from the peoples that they traded with.

The sambusak is one such example. Also eaten by non-Jews in the Middle East, these tiny pastries – neither unlike nor unrelated to the Spanish and Latin American empanada (link in Spanish) – originated in medieval times in Central Asia with the sanbosag. Trade across the Indian Ocean, Arabian Peninsula, and Mediterranean spread these pastries across the Islamic world – the famous South Asian samosa arrived in what is now India in the 13th century, and empanadas were made in Spain shortly thereafter. By the early modern period, pockets of filled dough were eaten regularly from Lisbon to Samarqand, Dar Es Salaam to Vilnius – where Karaite Jews of Tatar descent introduced kibinai.

Sambusak with poppy seeds
Sambusak are sometimes covered in poppy seeds, too! Photo Chris Dorward via Flickr/CC

The Iraqi sambusak is just part of this tradition. Though the pastries are made year-round, their frequent triangular shape means that they, like hamantaschen in Ashkenazi communities, are traditional for Purim – when they are reminiscent of the villain Haman’s three-cornered hat. Iraqi Jews in Israel have also made the food common across the country’s Jewish population as a snack food alongside the larger, phyllo-laden boureka; Palestinian communities, meanwhile, have their own delicious, smaller version of the sambusak.

Sambusak come in many varieties. In Israel and Palestine, cheese-filled sambusak are common – especially because they are so common among non-Jewish Palestinians. Meat sambusak are traditional among many Iraqi and Syrian Jews for Shabbat, and I feel that spinach-filled sambusak have also become common. But the most common filling today among Iraqi Jews in Israel – or at least based on the number of posts on the Hebrew food internet – is a chickpea-based filling not unlike the hummus common across the region. In fact, the name for this kind of sambusak is sambusak hummus – and it is this kind for which I provide a recipe.

Sambusak Hummus (Sambusak with Chickpeas)

Based on recipes by Pascal Perez-Rubin (in Hebrew) and Liz Steinberg

Makes 30-40 Sambusak

Dough

5 ½ cups flour

1 cup water

2/3 cup vegetable oil (I use sunflower seed oil)

1 packet dry instant yeast

1 tbsp salt

2 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried basil

½ tsp ground black pepper

Chickpea Filling

1¼ cups cooked chickpeas, drained

Six large cloves fresh garlic, chopped

One dried red chili pepper, chopped

2 tsp salt

1 tsp turmeric

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried thyme

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp ground cumin

2 tbsp sunflower seed oil

  1. Mix the dry ingredients for the dough together until well combined.
  2. Cut the oil and water into the dry ingredients until you have a thick, solid, and blended dough that does not stick to your fingers. You can use a fork or a pastry blender to cut the wet ingredients into the dry. If your dough is very dry, add a touch of water, if it is wet, add a touch of flour.
  3. Cover the dough and let sit at room temperature for one hour, or overnight in the fridge. Note: it is easier to work with if it is cold.
  4. In the meantime, begin making the filling. In a small saucepan, sauté the garlic and pepper in the oil until soft. Then, add the spices and mix in thoroughly. Let cool.
  5. Blend the cooked chickpeas and garlic-oil mixture in a food processor. (Or with a mortar and pestle if you’re old-fashioned, I guess – note that food processors are beloved in the Jewish world.) When you have a thick, orange-brown mixture, set aside.
  6. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C.
  7. It is now time to make the sambusak. Look at the pictures for directions.
    1. Roll out your dough to about ¼ in/7mm thickness (you may need to do this in several batches).
    2. Cut the dough into circles of about 3in/7.5cm diameter, and push down on the circle to squish it a little.
    3. Add about a half-teaspoon of filling into the middle part of the upper half of the circle.
    4. Fold the lower half of the circle over the filling so that the edges of the lower half and upper half meet.
    5. Use a fork or your fingers to push the edges into each other to seal the pouch. I recommend using a fork since it creates a pretty pattern.
  8. Place the finished sambusak on a greased or non-stick cookie sheet or pan. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the pastries are golden brown.

Author’s note: if you are making the sambusak with another filling, the filling directions still apply.

Special thanks to Joel Hart, Ilana Newman, and Abdossalam Madkhali for linguistic assistance.

Tu biShvat, Dates, and the Occupation

A pile of dates
Dates in a market in Spain. They are traditional for Tu BiShvat. Photo Hans Hillewaert/CC.

Greetings from a blizzard-bound New York! Though it is hard to think about green trees when this city is being given up to seventy centimeters of snow, Sunday night and Monday mark Tu biShvat, commonly called the “New Year for Trees.” The holiday originates in halakha (Jewish law): certain trees’ fruits cannot be eaten for the tree’s first three years of life. Those years are counted from Tu biShvat, thus it is the “New Year” for trees: Rosh Hashanah 2.0. As a New Year, it is a time of at least a little celebration. The Sephardic kabbalists of the medieval era developed a seder for the day, in which the seven species and other fruits of the soil are consumed and discussed. The theological component is that the ceremony and the holiday are an opportunity to strengthen the Etz Khayyim – the Tree of Life – the Kabbalistic metaphor for the nature of G-d and His/Her/Hir Creation. In modern times, however, the holiday has become increasingly associated with environmental causes – a sort of Jewish Arbor Day. Many foods are traditional for Tu BiShvat, but the “Seven Species” are the most common. These plants, identified in Deuteronomy 8, are those associated closely with the biblical land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.

My favorite is the humble date. Sweet and intense, sticky and nutty: the date is quite the fruit. So I am quite happy that the Tu biShvat tradition includes date consumption – plain, in muffins, in pilafs…eating a date becomes slightly sanctified. But buying a packet of dates is not always a holy act.

See, many of the dates sold in the United States and Europe – and especially those sold in areas with large Jewish populations – are marked as “grown in Israel,” but are actually sourced from illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Many of these farms are built on expropriated Palestinian land. Many use child labor. All of them benefit from an occupying régime that abuses the Palestinian population it de facto governs, limits their movements, and violates international law. So for those of us who oppose what is wrought in the West Bank and Gaza in our name as Jews, buying agricultural products from the settlements is  … problematic. Some folks, like myself, try our utmost to not buy them – not necessarily in terms of a boycott, more that…we do not want the current situation to continue. But in an environment when so many products in the Jewish world come from settlements, or you’re not sure where they come from – it’s not as easy as it seems. “Israeli” dates and other warm-weather fruits are particularly likely to come from these areas.

Some of you may be wondering: how can I avoid funneling my money into the Occupation? Let’s start with buying dates for Tu BiShvat (or anytime), since that is a temporally topical problem. Here’s how to find dates without financially supporting the theft of Palestinian land.

  1. The easiest/lazy option is to just simply not buy dates at all.
  2. Another option that is “easy” or “lazy” is to not buy “Israeli” dates at all. You can buy Californian dates, Tunisian dates, and Moroccan dates fairly easily across the United States. Note that these may not be certified as “kosher.”
  3. If you do wish to buy Israeli dates, or no others are available, I find that one trick that works is to check the city of the hashgacha, or kosher seal, on the package. (This requires some Hebrew and geography knowledge.) Kosher seals are usually geographically based, and certain ones tend to be on settlement products more often than others. I do not buy products with any settlement indicator, and generally will also not buy products with hashgachot from Jerusalem, since many of them are sourced in the West Bank. Ashdod and Ashkelon are generally “safe” bets. I use this trick for Israeli products generally.