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.

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“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!)

Sambusak

Sambusak on a colored plate
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.

Hamantaschen with Poppy Seed Filling

We never celebrated Purim much when I was a child. On years when there is only one month of Adar – the month that Purim is in, which is repeated in leap years – it was the yahrzeit, or death anniversary, of my maternal grandmother. That said, even without the somber occasion, Purim was a bit too…gaudy for my understated parents. The holiday celebrates the redemption of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire from the machinations of the evil Haman, as narrated in the biblical Book of Esther – named after the heroine of the tale. Historically, this has been a day of much celebration and much drinking. Yet this has somehow morphed in the modern era to a day of mandatory fun masked as chaos, complete with costumes and a lot of yellow. My father hated chaos, my mother hated yellow. Purim was not really a thing in our house.

One memory does stand out from Purim though: poppy seed hamantaschen. Fluffy, triangular cookies, sweet – but filled with the nuttiest, most beguiling poppy seed filling on the inside. I was hooked. Even as my peers went for chocolate chip, apricot, or sprinkle-flavored hamantaschen, I stayed loyal to the poppy seeds. Which, in some ways, is in keeping with history.

hamantash
Two poppy seed hamantaschen and a quince one. Photo mine (March 2016).

Hamantaschen  come from the intersection of Jewish folklore and European pastry. On the one hand, filled cookies – and especially those with poppy seeds – were common in the medieval Europe where Ashkenazi cuisine developed. On the other hand, there is the command to simultaneously obliterate the name of the evil Haman (and, metaphorically, Amaleq) while remembering what he did! At some point, the cookies, which may have been called Mohntaschen in German (poppy-pockets) became Haman-tashen, Yiddish for Haman’s pockets. And thus the humble hamantasch was born.

I have attached two recipes here: one for my poppy seed filling (the mohn), and one for the hamantaschen more generally. You can, of course, also fill your hamantaschen with other things: apricot, prune, and berry jams are traditional fillings, and I have been known to make Nutella ones. (This year, I’m making quince hamantaschen with the jam I made this past November.) The poppy seed filling goes very well in a cake. Do note that this poppy seed filling is especially strong.

 

Poppy Seed Filling (Mohn)

Makes about two cups (I usually make a double batch)

 

3 tbsp butter

1 cup milk

One egg, beaten

2 tbsp shlivovitz or other brandy

5/8 cup white sugar

¼ tsp cinnamon

1 ½ tsp cornstarch dissolved in 1 tbsp water

¾ cup poppy seeds*

 

  1. In a small or medium saucepan, melt the butter.
  2. When the butter is melted, add the milk and bring to a boil.
  3. When the milk is boiling, reduce the flame. Take a bit of hot milk out of the pan and mix into the beaten egg to temper it. Then, add the egg, shlivovitz, sugar, and cinnamon to the pan and mix in thoroughly.
  4. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring continuously to prevent the mixture from burning.
  5. Once the mixture is boiling, add the cornstarch and water and mix in thoroughly. Boil until the mixture is thick.
  6. Add the poppy seeds and mix in thoroughly, or until the mixture is dark. Remove from heat and allow to cool and set, preferably refrigerated.

 

*Author’s note: though it is traditional to grind the poppy seeds, I actually prefer to leave them whole – it adds a wonderful nutty flavor to the filling.

 

Hamantaschen

 

Dough

 

5 1/2 cups white flour (sifted)

1 tbsp baking powder

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 tsp salt

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2/3 cup water

 

Filling

Have some filling on hand – look above for a mohn recipe. I also recommend a good, thick jam. Such as my quince jam!

 

  1. Mix the dry ingredients together until thoroughly mixed.
  2. Cut the water and oil into the dry ingredients and mix together – with your hands, a big fork, or a pastry cutter – until you get a dense dough. Cover and set aside for a while – I recommend refrigerating the dough overnight.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C.
  4. When you are ready to make your hamantaschen, roll out your dough to between 1/8” and ¼” of an inch thick (about 4-7mm thick) – I recommend a slightly thicker hamantasch. Cut the hamantaschen into circles of about 3 inches/7cm in diameter.
  5. Place no more than a teaspoon of filling into the center of each Then fold the edges of the circle over the center of the filling to make and seal the triangle. I recommend this order:
    1. Lift the left-hand flap of the cookie and fold over the filling.
    2. Then, fold the right hand flap over the filling, and push down a bit over where the right hand flap overlaps the left-hand one.
    3. Now, fold over the bottom flap. Have it fold over the right hand flap, but under the left hand one, and push down on the overlaps. This seals the cookie.
    4. (For a demonstration of excellent hamantaschen technique, visit Tori Avey’s blog.)
  6. Place, evenly spaced, on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the cookies are golden.