Snapshots of Jewish Cuisine in the Indian Ocean

I originally wanted to write a comprehensive post about the history of Jewish cuisine in the Indian Ocean. I realized that would need to be the length of a book. So I tried to do a shorter version. I ran into a similar problem. Instead, I have decided to do something a tad simpler. Rather than go into a drone, I will look at a few foods or things that show the influence of Indian Ocean trade routes on Jewish cooking. Though we do not think about the Indian Ocean much in Jewish history or Western history, it is important that we do so.

A sailing dhow on blue waters
A dhow – one of the many traditional ships used for trade and transit across the region. (Photo CC/Steve Monty)

As many scholars have pointed out before, the Indian Ocean was the center of world trade for a thousand years, and much of that had to do with food. The flow of spices from Indonesia to India to Arabia and Africa to Europe – and within and between those places – set the stage for much of early global trade. Cloves and pepper were already traded across vast distances in Biblical times – and sugar would follow by the Roman period. After Islam came about and spread with seafarers, the region gained a common language – Arabic – and an even bigger network of traders, based in what is now Oman and Yemen. Meanwhile, Tamil emperors ruled for lengthy periods over South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. Later, the region would be a patchwork of kingdoms and empires which built their own powers on trade and maritime prowess. From there, spices, minerals, and people moved from Ethiopia to India to Malaysia to Arabia to Iran to China. Europe dealt with this world through intermediaries – and it was Portuguese and Spanish ambitions to enter this trade that influenced Columbus’ voyage to the Americas and the start of European imperialism. Nowhere was this more apparent than food. Spices were an attainable goal, and often these were spices native to faraway lands along the ocean’s shores. Cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, and cloves were items that tinged local cuisines across the basin and beyond. Dishes from traders were common from Zanzibar to Timor. Merchants from Portugal to Japan craved the same tinge of pepper.

Jewish cuisine the world over was influenced by this trade. In some cases, Jews were living on the trade routes themselves: in Egypt, Ethiopia, Yemen, India, Iran, Iraq, and Burma. In other cases, as was true of Ottoman, Venetian, and Ukrainian Jews, trade with other communities connected them to the ocean. For all these communities, the spices and foods, recipes and ideas, methods and knowledge that travelled on the seas transformed their kitchens. For examples, I will look at a snack, a spice, and a method.

Samosas 

Samosas around a green dip
(Photo Sean Choe via Flickr/CC)

A few years ago, I wrote about sambusak, a savory, filled Iraqi pastry, and its ties to triangular pastries elsewhere. The snack started its journey as a triangular pastry in Central Asia, and first became popular in the Persian-speaking world. From there, it travelled with soldiers, merchants, and migrants to India, the Middle East, and North Africa, where it sometimes went by different names. Eventually, it reached Greece and the Balkans as the boreka – named after a different Turkish pastry, the börek, which is made with boiled dough. It also reached Spain, and later the Americas, as the empanada. Jewish communities not only partook in sambusak and empanadas, but adapted them to Jewish holidays. In many communities, pastries like these are common on Shavuot.

The samosa was a seafarer, too, and became popular in the Indian Ocean region. From India, the recipe travelled eastwards to Southeast Asia, where it is still extremely popular in Indonesia. In Burma, too, it became popular – and the Baghdadi Jewish community would often serve their recipe on Shabbat. That version mixed flavors of three samosas: the local Burmese one, a Bengali one, and the sambusak recipe from Iraq. (If anyone has the recipe, please let me know!) Westward, the samosa made its way across the sea to Yemen, which already had a different version that probably came from the Gulf. There, Jewish writings mention triangle pastries as a delicacy enjoyed in urban areas like Sana’a. From Yemen, or via what is now Somalia, it hopped over to today’s Ethiopia and Eritrea, where Jewish communities also adapted the dish to local ingredients. Today’s Ethiopian Jews have brought their version of the recipe – filled with delicious lentils – to Israel and Chicago. It is also a plot device in a wonderful film about a Jewish boy named Solomon in the Ethiopian highlands, called Lamb. Later Jewish communities would also bring their own triangle pastries to the Indian Ocean shores. Portuguese Jews in Cochin mixed local samosas with empanadas, and Jews from Rhodes made borekas in the colonial cities on the African coast they went to in the early 20th century.

Why was the samosa popular? After all, cooking oil was expensive until the modern era, and samosas are often fried. (Though some are baked, steamed, or cooked in a Dutch oven-type way.) They are also surprisingly annoying to make, with thin dough and a habit of breaking at the worst possible moments. On the other hand, they are delicious. The carb-forward softness of the dough – substantial and yielding – gives way to a filling that can be spiced to almost any specification. They are most easily made in bulk, which makes them ideal for celebrations or anything in which people may be social. The effort required – even with our modern pre-made wrappers and equipment – makes the pastries special for occasions, and easily incorporated into the many Jewish traditions of elaborate foods for Sabbaths and holidays. More broadly, they are also the perfect street food.

Given that they are best made in bulk, and that frying was quite dangerous in homes until recently, samosas were, like other fried foods, a thing eaten outside the house in urban areas. Sellers, enterprising vendors, or housewives needing another line of income set up samosa stands in markets as early as the 12th and 13th centuries in Persia, and later elsewhere. The samosa joined a long line of other fried foods – doughnuts, fritters, dumplings, and so on – that extended back to the early days of Islam. Though many Jewish communities eschewed eating outside the community – and though many other communities had similar rules – Jews were likely in the markets, eating samosas, and picking up those ideas. Perhaps, they were selling them too – and giving other communities a taste for new things that Jews brought with them, from wherever they came. Like cinnamon.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon
Photo CC/Public domain

Cinnamon is the unlikely star of Ashkenazi holiday food. It is strange, when you think about it, that the bark of a tree native to Sri Lanka and Indonesia would be so frequent in the festive cooking of an Eastern European minority thousands of miles away. And yet – Tzimmes mit Flanken is not quite the same for some without the cinnamon to accompany the carrots; Mandelbroyt gain a zing with it; red cabbage with apples is spruced up with a touch of cinnamon; some enterprising cooks even add them to their matzoh balls. In Lithuania, a tradition arose of stuffing matzoh balls and Kreplach with onions fried with … cinnamon. How did this community, so far from where cinnamon is grown, come to add it to their food?

Lithuania, Poland, and the Ukraine were tied through long spurs to the Indian Ocean trade networks thousands of miles away. The trade routes shifted over time, but in the 17th century, they looked something like this: Spices from Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent were bought and sold in Cochin and other ports in Kerala, from where they were shipped to what is now Oman, Iraq, and Yemen. From there, they went over land, river, and sea to Istanbul and other Ottoman centers in Anatolia and the Balkans. From there, another round of buying and selling would happen, and traders – often Jewish – would bring the spices from there, by land or sea, to what is now the Ukraine. Then, well-worn paths would carry the spices to the centers of Poland and Lithuania. Many of the communities on these paths were Jewish, and were already trading other things as well – etrogim for Sukkot, books and halachic literature, cloth, and goods. Spices were always a mainstay. Ideas spread too – not just recipes, which flowed back and forth, but also religious ones. The heresy of the false Messiah Shabtai Zvi spread from the Ottoman Empire elsewhere on these very circuits. Contrary to the Ashkenormative and, honestly, rather twee history spun of homely Ashkenazi communities hewing to some sort of tradition that they themselves would have found laughable. Our ancestors were aware of an extraordinary world – even if they were usually too poor to access its fruits. They took what they could, and made it their own. Cinnamon was one of them.

It started, like black pepper and ginger, as a luxury good in the Middle Ages. But increased trade – especially after the Dutch and Portuguese used colonization, genocide, and slavery to monopolize the market – made the spices cheaper in Europe. Now, the trade networks flowed from Amsterdam and Lisbon through Germany to Eastern Europe, and in much greater supply. By the 16th century, Martin Luther mixed his anti-Semitism with complaints about peasants becoming addled and lascivious on black pepper. Thus cinnamon went from a luxury good for a few Jews to a luxury good for many Jews. Soon, it began popping up in many goods. Later, when sugar became more common after the introduction of the sugar beet in Eastern Europe, cinnamon became a mainstay of Ashkenazi sweet foods, and substantial foods that were sweet but often served as a meal or holiday dish, like noodle kugel. The availability of cinnamon for a comparatively cheap price from the 19th century on also made cinnamon far more common in day-to-day cooking, just like other former luxuries like sugar, meat, and white bread. Even today, much of the cinnamon we consume comes from Indian Ocean countries like Sri Lanka. One reason cinnamon became cheaper, in fact, was the reduced shipping cost of spices to Europe after the opening of the Suez Canal.

Of course, cinnamon is frequent in the Jewish cuisines of the Indian Ocean itself. The spice makes frequent appearances in Indian Jewish curries and soups, and it is sometimes included in Ethiopian spice mixtures. It is also used with some frequency by Jewish communities in Iran, especially with fruit-heavy dishes.

Stuffed Chickens

A series of serving plates with vegetables
All separate, all able to go into a chicken. (Photo CC)

When Jews migrated across the ocean basin, they brought their cuisines with them. Sometimes it was a taste for a spice or a way of serving bread. And sometimes it was the habit of stuffing a chicken to near-capacity with delicious things.

This recipe started in Iraq. Medieval Arabic cookbooks from Baghdad record poultry stuffed with bread or rice as a festival dish, or a frequent dish on the tables of nobility and the wealthy. (Among other delicacies that, sadly, did not stay popular.) Jews probably picked up this dish there, and adapted it for cooking on the Sabbath and the restriction rabbinic Jews follow on not mixing dairy and poultry. (Most Islamic schools of thought allow that combination.) The dish stayed a local delicacy for a few centuries.

Then, starting as early as the 17th century, but especially in the 18th and 19th century, Iraqi Jews migrated in large numbers to India, Burma, and Malaya – which were then under British rule. The cuisine came with them, and as these communities became established as traders, merchants, and doctors, so too the cuisines began to change. The stuffed chicken gained new versions as spices were changed, fillings were changed, or even the method was changed. (Instead of roasting, say, baking in a covered pot.) As a result, many varied versions of the recipe now exist that we have a record of.

As Jews migrated in the past across the Indian Ocean basin, other recipes probably went through similar shifts. We are lucky to have a sense of it with stuffed chicken – and the copious writing of Baghdadi Jews across the region to tell us about it. Here, we can see an example of how a recipe might have travelled. Now, too, though those Jewish communities are mostly elsewhere, other recipes travel among those countries’ majorities too. Whereas in the 19th century, it was a stuffed chicken, now, it is noodle dishes with vegetables – brought from Southeast Asia through South Asia to become popular in the Middle East. Perhaps the noodles could be a chicken filling?

If you want to read more about the Indian Ocean trading economy, Dan Brockett’s Twitter thread is an incredible place to start. I also talked about this last year in a post about Southeast Asian ingredients in Jewish cooking.

For samosas: on Netflix, there is a cute Indian series called Itihaas ki Thali se, with short animated films on the history of various South Asian delicacies. It is in Hindi with English subtitles. There is a really fun samosa episode, that makes for a perfect break between episodes on a Netflix binge, before you realize that you should make some food – or get some prepared food.

For cinnamon, see my book recommendations for unlearning myths about Medieval Jewish cuisine.

For stuffed chickens, Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food has a recipe. I have not had the time or energy to try it yet – to say the least, it is not a recipe one simply walks into the kitchen to make. So, here, I leave you to the trusted care of Queen Claudia, who I trust with all my heart to guide you like the captain of a ship on calm waters.

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Fun at Cheburechnaya, a Bukharan Jewish Restaurant

Shurpa soup in a bowl - there are vegetables, herbs, meat, and broth

Hanukkah is not my favorite holiday, but to mark the holiday, I thought I would talk about one of my better fried food experiences recently. It was at one of my favorite restaurants in New York, Cheburechnaya, which serves Bukharan Jewish cuisine from Uzbekistan.

“There are Jews in Uzbekistan?” one may ask. Indeed, there is a Jewish community, based largely in the city of Bukhara – hence the name Bukharan Jews. Jews migrated to Central Asia from Persia in antiquity with their religion and the Persian language, which Bukharan Jews call Bukhori. Jews lived in various conditions under Muslim rule for six hundred years, and then Russian rule from 1876 to 1991. Jews were in Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand, Khiva, and in Dushanbe in neighboring Tajikistan.  The cuisine and culture of Bukharan Jews is particularly distinct among Jewish communities, both for its Persian-based language and for its frequent use of meat. Most Bukharan Jews left during the Soviet years, and settled in Tel Aviv and New York, where the Forest Hills and Rego Park neighborhoods have large Bukharan communities. Several Bukharan restaurants are found in these neighborhoods, which serve a mix of Central Asian food and Russian dishes picked up during the century of Russian rule. Though strictly kosher and owned by Jews, many Muslim Uzbeks work at these restaurants.

Exterior of Cheburechnaya
(Photo Kate S. on Yelp)

These Bukharan restaurants have a cult following among many non-Bukharan Jews in New York, for the delicious food and their general affordability and good service. (The latter two are unfortunately rare among kosher restaurants in New York.) In addition, many Russian Jewish immigrants come for a taste of home. Central Asian food, including shashlik (kebabs), chebureki (triangular fried pastries), and samsa/samcy (triangular filled buns), became popular throughout the Soviet Union after World War II, and for many Russian Jews “going out for Central Asian” is the equivalent of the American “going out for Chinese.” The menus at Bukharan restaurants are uniformly bilingual in English and Russian.

Traditional Bukharan Jewish food, like all Central Asian food, is meat heavy. There is meat in the soup, meat in the pastries, meat in the rice, and meat generally everywhere. (Vegetarianism is, to say the least, uncommon.) Historically the Jews of Bukhara and Samarkand were one of the few Jewish communities that regularly consumed meat – not just because it was plentiful and cheap, but also because the Jewish community had a regularly available supply of cattle, sheep, and poultry. This matches the generally meat-based diet of the surrounding region, which is desert and not particularly given to vegetable agriculture. It should be noted that this was both unusual for Jewish communities, which reserved meat for more special occasions, and also usual in that this was eating what the neighbors did.

Cheburechnaya is located near the center of Rego Park, on an unassuming side street in Queens. It is close to other Jewish businesses, including two other Bukharan restaurants, a kosher butcher, a kosher supermarket, and a number of other kosher restaurants. Russian, Bukhori, and Hebrew can be heard along the street – alongside Chinese, Spanish, Uzbek, and Arabic. The crowd is a hearty mix: there are Bukharans and Russians, the traditional clientele, along with observant Jews from all over the New York area and foodies from all traditions. At one table, you might have a Bukharan family going out; at another table, some Ashkenazi “bros” reminiscing about their exploits in their college AEPi; at a third, a nerdy civil servant and his friends. Few restaurants in New York, in my experience, are as fun for people-watching.

IMG_2003

This is a cheburek, which is a deep-fried pastry filled with minced meat. It’s incredibly luscious, and the dill often placed in the meat filling provides a lovely balance both to the meat and the heavy fried dough surrounding it. Chebureks are common across the Former Soviet Union, and are especially popular among Tatars. The pastry has a Turkish origin.

 

Here are three soups: shurpa, lagman, and pelmeni. Shurpa is the traditional vegetable-and-meat soup – it has hearty root vegetables and a big chunk of meat inside! Shurpa comes from the common Turkic word for soups – in Turkish, soup is çorba. Shurpa is delicious. Lagman comes from the other direction, and is a derivative of the Chinese lamian. The Bukharan Jewish version involves noodles in a savory, tomato- and cilantro-laden broth with chunks of beef giving the soup body and a wonderful heartiness. The Forward once rated lagman the best Jewish soup. The last one is the Russian pelmeni, soup with dumplings. Thanks to two centuries of colonization, many parts of Bukharan cuisine and Central Asian food generally are Russian-influenced. The dumplings, however, are derived from those made in Central Asia, where they are called manti.

 

Here is plov, a rice-and-meat pilaf that makes up for the bulk of Bukharan Jewish festive cuisine. This one is a green plov cooked with many types of herbs. A wide range of plov varieties and recipes exist – I particularly like this sweetish recipe. We also had some meat kebabs, or shashlik, which are also traditional. They were delicious.

Noni - stacked circular breads on platters

Here is noni, the pan-cooked bread of Uzbekistan, eaten by Jews and Muslims alike. The rounds are huge, and torn and shared. The stacks are very attractive and the bread itself is surprisingly soft and pleasant. Not all Jewish breads are like challah!

Samsa - a baked triangular bun topped with seeds
Samsa. (Photo from Uzbekistan Travel)

On past visits, I gobbled them down too quickly to take a picture, so here is another picture of samsa, a beautiful baked and sometimes fried triangular pastry filled with meat or vegetables. The samsa comes from the same origin as the samosa and the sambusak, and filled breads span from empanadas in Spain and Latin America to baozi in China. The pumpkin and meat rendition often served in Bukharan establishments is particularly delicious and irresistible, and if you have any room in your stomach I urge you to try it.

If you want to visit Cheburechnaya, it is located at 9209 63 Drive in Rego Park, Queens. They are certified kosher by an Orthodox rabbi, and closed on Shabbat.

Thank you to Amy Estersohn and Laura Macaddino for accompanying me to have fun at Cheburechnaya most recently! Thanks to Aaron Kaiser-Chen for catching a typo/mistake!

Pumpkin Spice, But Jewish

Pumpkins on wooden shelves arranged in rows
(Photo Petr Kratochvil – Public Domain)

Here is a historical oddity for you: “pumpkin spice” is sometimes Jewish.

“What?” you might say. “Isn’t pumpkin spice a thing for ‘basic bitches’? Isn’t that, like, so late-capitalism-2017?” In fact, pumpkins served sweet with spices have a long history.

The oddly metallic and rather lackluster syrup at Starbucks – and the much better versions at bakeries across North America – is simply a mass-market rendition of a long American and European tradition. This spicing is a hangover from a medieval trend of heavily spicing sweet goods with cinnamon, cloves, and other seasonings from afar. This practice was still normal in the 17th and 18th century, when Old World seasoning met the New World pumpkin, which melded in the desserts and stews of Colonial America. It certainly helps that Massachusetts and New York a major shipment center for spices, fish, and sugar – and thus exposed to all sorts of spicing. From the dessert tradition of New England – which gave us both well-spiced pumpkin pie and apple cider doughnuts – we can then go forwards, to the pumpkin spice lattes of today, and backwards, to the Jewish and indigenous influences that are melded in pumpkin spice – and reflected elsewhere. Pumpkin desserts were popular beyond American shores as well.

Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Pumpkin, next to some older Jewish foods – challah and etrog (Photo mine, October 2016.)

When the squash arrived from Mexico in the Mediterranean on Spanish ships in the late 16th century, it was a hit among Jews and non-Jews alike. Pumpkins and zucchini – which are both types of squash – were delicious, easy to grow in a Mediterranean climate, and lower-maintenance than other vegetables. The starchiness of the fruit stretched grains that were often too thin, while the elegance of squash fruit and flowers found its way onto the tables of the wealthy. Squash spread across the Mediterranean, including to Jewish communities, which hitherto had been using bottle gourds (dela’at in the Talmud) and muskmelons. The squash largely replaced those melons – though the related cucumber remained popular. As zucchini, squash found itself on Sephardic Shabbat tables in fried rounds, stuffed, or cooked with eggs in quajadas and frittatas. As pumpkin, squash found itself in tagines, stewed with meat, and sweets. Among these was a preparation of pumpkin that imitated the other ways of preparing quinces, apples, and nuts: in dulces, or thick and syrup-laden preserves. Dulce de calabasa, or candied pumpkin, became a venerable tradition for Rosh HaShanah and Hanukkah – and blended Old World preparation with New World crops.

Candied pumpkin, served with slivered almonds in the Sephardic style
Candied pumpkin, served with slivered almonds in the Sephardic style. (Photo mine, November 2017)

The methods used to candy pumpkins, quinces, and other fruits in pastes and purées probably came from Spain, where they were introduced with sugar cane by the Almoravids by the 11th century. From Spain, Sephardim took this method wherever they went – to the Netherlands, where it was new, or to the Ottoman Empire, which already employed similar methods. So too other “Spanish” but Moorish methods travelled, such as pickling in vinegar, salted fish, and the use of lemons. These Sephardic cooking methods influenced Dutch cooking (link in Dutch), which itself influenced the cooking of the Puritans and New Amsterdam. Though the cooking of the Netherlands in the 17th century was heavily influenced by the spice trade, many of the methods and flavors that became and remain common in Dutch cooking: the cloves, the cinnamon, and the sweet-savory combinations. The wealth and power of the Netherlands made it influential in Northern Europe – and especially for the Puritans who came to the Netherlands en route to America. The culinary influence they picked up there, and also gained from nearby New Netherland, influenced the sweets and cooking of Colonial America. And there, pumpkin was preponderant too. Thus Sephardim in Turkey and Pilgrims in Taunton both candied their pumpkin.

Other fruits are more common now among many Sephardic communities, but candied pumpkin remains popular in Turkey. There, you can find kabak tatlısı served with the clotted cream kaymak and a variety of nut-based pastries. Turkish and Greek Jewish communities still serve dulce de calabasa in Israel. I have also seen Israeli recipes that add tehina to the candied pumpkin. In Mexico, similar preserves are also prepared.

And, of course, the heritage is alive here in the United States, in pumpkin spice.


I made this rendition of dulce de calabasa on the request of my friend Jay, who asked for it in advance during a stay in the hospital, during which he could not eat and resultantly seemed to fantasize about food! I kept it on my mind until the pumpkins and squashes here in New York were at their best, and then made it from cobbling three recipes together. Jay was pleased with the result, and I hope you are too.

Candied Pumpkin (Dulce de Calabasa/Kabak Tatlısı)

Based on the recipes by Claudia Roden, Elia Tabuenca (in Spanish) and Hamarat Abla (in Turkish)

Note: The amounts per ingredient vary by the quantity of pumpkin you cook. The number of servings also varies. For one pound/500 g of pumpkin flesh, you get about 10 servings.

Fresh pie pumpkin, kabocha, acorn squash, or other winter squash

White sugar

Water

Ground cinnamon

Ground nutmeg

Cloves

Star anise

  1. Cut the top and bottom off the pumpkin, then cut into quarters. Peel each quarter, and remove the seeds and stringy stuff around the seeds. Discard the tops, bottoms, peels, and seeds. (You can save the seeds for roasting.)
  2. Cut the pieces of pumpkin flesh into chunks. Then, weigh the chunks if you have a scale. If you do not have a scale, then you can make a calculation. Take the weight of the pumpkin you started with and divide by five, then multiply by four. (The peels and seeds account for about 20% of a pumpkin’s weight.)
  3. Put the pumpkin chunks into a large bowl.
  4. Over the pumpkin, pour an amount of white sugar that is half of the weight of the pumpkin flesh. One cup of white sugar weighs 200g or 7oz. So, for 1lb/500g of pumpkin flesh, you would pour over 250g of sugar, or 1¼ cups. Mix the sugar between the pumpkin flesh.
  5. Cover the bowl and let sit for an hour. During this time, the sugar will draw the juice out of the pumpkin flesh and will become somewhat wet.
  6. After an hour, pour the pumpkin-sugar mixture into a pot, and add water to just cover the pumpkin. For each pound/500g of pumpkin, add: 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, 4 dried cloves. You only need one star anise for anything less than 3kg/7lb.
  7. Put the pot on a high flame and bring to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, uncovered, or until the pumpkin is very soft to the spoon. Stir every few minutes.
  8. Remove the star anise from the pot. Then, use a potato masher or another implement to mash the pumpkin in the pot until the pumpkin is thoroughly puréed under the “sauce.”
  9. Simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the mixture is thicker. It should be sweet and pumpkin-y to the taste.
  10. Remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm, or cold with soft, sweet cheese, pancakes, custard, ice cream, or rice pudding. It is traditional in many communities to mix in roasted walnuts, hazelnuts, or slivered almonds. Some also add pistachios. Keep refrigerated for up to ten days, or frozen for up to four months.

Thank you to Jay Stanton, Naomi Barnett, Sara Liss, Robbie Berg, Kate Herzlin, and Ben Wohl for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe. Thank you to my fellow group members on Writing the Kitchen for spicing suggestions. Thank you to Amram Altzman and Tory Cross for encouraging me in all things pumpkin.

May It Be The Divine Will: Auspicious Foods for Rosh HaShanah

Anyada buena, dulse, i alegre! A gut gebentsht yahr! Rosh HaShanah is fast upon us, and despite the sugary delight of nostalgia, I am more than happy to see the ridiculous year of 5777 end. And, of course, I hope that 5778 is at least … less basic. As the year passes, I will also continue a long Jewish tradition of eating special foods in honor of Rosh HaShanah.

Quinces on a tree
Quinces on a tree. (Photo Hans Braxmeier via Pixabay/Creative Commons)

Some of these foods, all Ashkenazi, are ingrained into the common American Jewish narrative: apples and honey, sweet cakes, and tzimmes among them. These signify the desire for a sweet and happy year. But there are traditions beyond this particular interpretation of the Ashkenazi tradition. The Sephardic tradition of the yehi ratzones – blessings to which the response is ken yehi ratzon, or “may it be the Divine Will” – includes up to fourteen different foods. Many Ashkenazim follow a similar practice, as do the various Jewish communities of North Africa. It might seem strange to pair these very metaphysical prayers with the deeply physical world of eating: and yet, as we walk through each hope, the foods make sense.

Apples on a tree
Apples in Upstate New York – some of which were made into a cake for Rosh HaShanah 5777. (Photo mine, September 2016)

That the year is sweet: and so we eat apples and quinces. As I have noted in prior posts, the quince occupies an honored place in Jewish cuisine. Not only is it a frequent guest in many festival dishes across North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, but candied quinces have long been a traditional treat of welcome and festivity in Sephardic and Iranian tradition. The sweet smell of quinces also recalls the idea of G-d as lover found in the Song of Songs. Meanwhile, the apple became, in medieval Europe, a symbol of the fertile yet complex relationship between G-d and Israel. They were also the available sweet substance across much of Europe – and befitting the greeting that became common in the 7th century, “a good and sweet year.” Hence apples and quinces became symbolic of the sweet year we want, and the sweet side of G-d we want to see.

Cooking beets
Cooking beets. (Photo mine, November 2016)

That enmity to us and G-d should end: and so we eat spinach and beets. The word in Hebrew for beets – seleq – and the word in Aramaic for spinach – silka both sound like the word to “remove” in Hebrewlesaleq. One hopes that in the New Year, enmity and adversity towards us and G-d are removed from the earth, as called for by several of the Biblical prophets, who themselves are quoted in many of the Rosh HaShanah prayers. Some scholars hold that spinach was the original food for this tradition, and beets followed in Iran, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe as a more readily available vegetable in those colder climates. For similar reasons, some Jews often eat dates on Rosh HaShanah – the word for “date,” tamar, sounds like the word for “end,” tam.

Zucchini with za'atar, black and white
Zucchini with za’atar (Photo mine, January 2017)

That a decree of death is torn: and thus we eat pumpkins and zucchini. This is a pun, for the word for “to tear” (qar’a) in Hebrew sounds like the words for “squash” in Aramaic (qarah) and Ladino (kalavasa). Hence many Sephardic communities began to cook pumpkins and zucchini during the High Holidays after their introduction from the New World. Recipes include fried zucchini, pumpkin salad, and roasted pumpkin seeds.

Pomegranates on a tree in an orchard
Pomegranates on a tree. (Photo Bharji/Wikimedia Commons via CC)

That our offspring be plentiful and that our families be prosperous: and thus we eat pomegranates and black-eyed peas. Pomegranates are a symbol of fertility throughout the Tanakh – be it human virility as in the Song of Songs or agrarian fertility as in the description of the land in the Book of Numbers. Meanwhile, the Aramaic word for the black-eyed pea is “lubya” – which sounds like “rubya,” or plenty. African-Americans, Jews and non-Jews among them, meanwhile point out that the peas’ swelling when cooked should be mirrored by our own swelling of prosperity. The pomegranate, too, is also a symbol of prosperity for the numerous seeds it holds.

A school of herring.
A school of herring, as many as our merits. (Photo Arild Finne Nyboe via Creative Commons)

That we may be at the front of our destiny: and thus we eat fish heads. Rosh HaShanah literally means “head of the year” – and since ancient times, the consumption of a fish or lamb head has been traditional to the holiday. Nowadays, many Americans are a bit squeamish about the head, but other communities eat fish heads far more often than just Rosh HaShanah! My own South African grandmother baked them, Iraqi Jews grill them, and Dutch Jews stew them. They are a good sign of staying ahead of the game. And there is a second fish blessing: That we may be found meritorious: and so we eat the rest of the fish too. The idea is that just as schools of fish seem to multiply quickly and expand and become visible, so too may our good deeds and merits become visible before G-d as She completes the Book of Life. And so fish reminds us to be good.

And a final prayer: may it be the will of the Divine that all the readers of this blog have a year filled with blessing, nourishment, and sweetness. Ken yehi ratzon.

Shana tova!

Eggplant Salad

Eggplant salad with peppers and garlic
Eggplant salad with peppers and garlic. Photo mine, April 2017.

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.

White, five-petaled flower of a wild eggplant, with little green fruit behind.
Flower of a wild eggplant. (Photo Michael Khor/CC-Flickr)

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’alouk with 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.

Eggplant pieces
Delicious eggplant, before cooking. (Photo mine, March 2016.)

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.

Fried Eggplant Salad (Salat Khatzilim Metuganim)

2 small-to-medium eggplants, chopped into 1cm/ 1/3 inch slices (optionally salted)

1 bell pepper, finely chopped

1 chili pepper, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tbsp lemon juice

Salt, to taste

Olive or vegetable oil

  1. Heat a wide skillet or pan, then add about 2cm/1 inch of oil. Fry the eggplant in the oil until soft and darkened on both sides, flipping as necessary.
  2. Remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil in the pan. Set the eggplant aside to cool.
  3. In the same oil, sauté the peppers and garlic until the pepper begins to soften and the garlic is thoroughly browned. Remove, with the oil, from the heat. Set aside to cool.
  4. Mix the leftover oil-garlic-pepper mixture with the lemon juice. Then, pour this “dressing” over the eggplant, and mix well.
  5. Add salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Simple Chickpeas for Purim

Purim is soon upon us; in true Leibowitzian fashion, Purim is quite possibly my least favorite holiday in the Jewish calendar. The noise! The gaudiness! The drunken shenanigans! I am perhaps too serious to truly appreciate Purim as anything other than a day for calmly reading the story of Esther and eating some delicious traditional foods. The famous food here in the United States is hamantaschen, for which I gave a recipe last year – delicious cookies that really should be consumed whenever it is not Passover or a fast day. (Including Hanukkah.)

A chickpea field in Israel with a hill in the background
A chickpea field in Israel – notice the luscious green of the leaves! (Photo Eitan F via Wikimedia commons)

But other food traditions exist too – among them, eating beans. It is said in Talmud and Midrash that Esther ate legumes whilst in the palace of King Ahasuerus so as not to ingest food that was not kosher. Hence many Jewish communities choose to eat beans and nuts on Purim in commemoration of the Purim heroine. Among those beans are chickpeas – a legume that has been part of the Jewish diet for thousands of years – as I wrote five months ago for another recipe. From the agriculture of the Second Temple Period to medieval Spain, from 19th-century Eastern Europe to today’s stylish Jewish restaurants in Buenos Aires, chickpeas have a long and storied history on the Jewish table. In the context of Purim, chickpeas have long been specifically associated with Esther herself as the food that she ate while in the palace – and have thus been considered traditional to Purim in Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities for centuries.

Chickpeas in a tomato sauce in a Pyrex bowl
The chickpeas – completed. I prefer to chop the onions very roughly; you can dice them if you would like. (Photo mine, March 2017)

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*)

Olive oil

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Zucchini with Za’atar

A quick recipe this week for a delicious item I tried for the first time in a Palestinian restaurant many years ago – fried zucchini with the tart thyme-based, sesame-laced spice blend za’atar. The recipe is Palestinian in origin, but is similar to many zucchini-based dishes that come from Greek and Turkish Jewish communities. Like other Palestinian foods, fried vegetables with za’atar have been appropriated and reworked by Israeli culture in the past fifty years.

Zucchini with za'atar, black and white
Zucchini with za’atar (Photo mine, January 2017)

Two large zucchini, chopped into thin medallions of about ½cm/1/5” inch

Olive, coconut, or vegetable oil

1 tsp salt

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp za’atar

Heat a skillet and add about 3 tbsp of oil. Then, add the zucchini flat on top of the oil in the pan – you may need to fry multiple batches. Fry on each side for two minutes, or until browned, then remove from heat and lay out on a plate. Mix your spices together and sprinkle liberally over the zucchini pieces. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Thank you to Jay Stanton, Daniel Moscoe, and Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.