A Guide to Not Being Averse to Aversions

On readers’ request, I am starting off 2019 with something very practical: a guide to avoiding common aversions.

Food aversions are a real and serious thing. More than a dislike, an aversion is to a taste or texture. Exposure can throw one’s senses and function out of whack. Sometimes, a food aversion can make someone feel violently ill. This reaction happens famously to pregnant women, but really can occur to anyone. The reaction also happens without an allergy. Other times, an aversion can leave a sticking sense of anxiety or discomfort – as happens with me when I accidentally consume a marshmallow. Many people get raised heart rates, jitters, or nausea from aversions.

It's a fish head on a board!
Fish is a common aversion. (Photo Toby Dylan, CC)

Aversions are difficult to shake. Doing so takes time, effort, and most importantly, the person’s consent. (It is a painfully slow process.) It is not your job to “help” someone lose an aversion as a host or cook, unless you are explicitly told so by the person. You would not consent to someone making you anxious, jittery, or ill because they felt like it. So do not do it to your guests, friends, or family! Believe your guest or friend, and cook something that they can eat.

As it happens, substitutes are a venerated part of the Jewish culinary tradition. Meats have been replaced with fish and beans for dairy dishes. Kosher animals replaced pork in meat dishes that imitated whatever neighbors ate. An entire world of dairy-free, pareve desserts exists for serving at meat meals. Vegetable shortening was first marketed among American Jews as a pareve substitute for butter. (Gil Marks discussed this extensively in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.)

Medieval illumination of noblemen in traditional tunics and boots around tables eating meats and breads under trees and drinking. Dogs are drinking at a creek in the foreground. The trees are tall and in full foliage, the image has red and blue illuminated borders.
Some of these noblemen probably had aversions, though they were probably identified as something else in 15th century France. (Image from Le Livre de chasse de Gaston Phébus, 15th century.)

I mean to say:  there is no shame in swapping. We are lucky to live in a time when we have the ability to do so. We have historically unprecedented access to good, safe, and varied food products. We can take advantage of this plenty to better accommodate aversions. Not that aversions did not exist through history – they most certainly have. More that we can now better identify and address them.

This list is meant to help. I have listed some common aversions and substitutes. Try different things! Sometimes, though, you need to avoid the recipe. This is particularly the case when there is an aversion to a broad category of food, like fruit, or flavor combinations, like sweet and savory. (Or specific aversions, like my friend’s aversion to “cold, wet kitniyot.”) There are many delicious foods and I am sure you will find something for your guest to eat that you can enjoy too.

This chart is for when you only need to substitute one ingredient, and is aimed to common aversions rather than common allergens – which are different! Please do not “try to get someone to like X.” That is rude, and forcing people to eat abominable food goes against Jewish tradition and basic decency. This chart is meant to help you be a nice host, and make something good for everyone!

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables: not just a life saver, but also a good place to find substitutes. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)
Cause of aversion Good substitutions
Onions I find that leeks and scallions tend to work well if you need something to replace the texture. If the flavor is okay, a half teaspoon to a teaspoon of onion powder (depending on brand) for each onion. You can also ramp up the garlic. Raw onion can be replaced with cabbage and fennel, but keep in mind that it changes the flavor.
Garlic Garlic has a very distinctive, pungent flavor, so it is difficult to replace. I would enhance the flavors of other spices, or add some more onion or scallions. Asafetida, fenugreek, and celeriac root serve as good substitutes for pungency. Celery is a good substitute for body and aroma.
Tomato (raw or cooked) Raw tomato is usually fairly easy to leave out of things like salad. For cooked tomato, I suggest using tomatillos or eggplants to substitute in sauces, though keep in mind that the sauce will be far thicker. If the texture aversion has to do with seeds, remove the seeds and cook with just the flesh of the tomato. The seeds are hard to use alone but are very good for compost.
Bell pepper Tomato flesh can be used in most places as a substitute for bell pepper.
Mushrooms Depending on the type of mushroom and consistency, you can replace them with marinated tofu, eggplant, zucchini, or turnips.
Squashes Mushroom is a pretty solid replacement for zucchini. For pumpkin or butternut squash, using sweet potato is a time-honored American tradition.
Eggplant Zucchini is a fairly solid replacement for eggplant in dishes that do not require long cooking. Mushrooms with a strong acidic counterpart work well for longer cooking.
Fish Tofu, seitan, or mushrooms tend to work quite well. There is an Ashkenazi tradition of making “false fish” with chicken, but I have never had this and cannot confirm the effectiveness.
Cabbage or Brussel sprouts For some things, broccoli (which is ironically the same species) works very well in my experience. This is particularly true for slaws and quickly cooked dishes. For pickled and raw dishes, dark lettuces also work very well. For longer-cooked dishes, fennel is a good substitute, but keep in mind that the flavor will change.
Eggs If you are just trying to make a cake moist, applesauce is by far the best. Eggs are hard to replace in some dishes – for those, use an egg replacer or common baking combination. Where the egg is eaten in egg form, soft tofu or mushrooms.
Mayonnaise Greek yogurt works very well, as does any non-dairy yogurt.
Beets Very difficult to replace, but I have had moderate result with harder varieties of squash, like butternut. The color is inimitable.
Cilantro Parsley or the Mexican herb epazote tend to work quite well.
Visible seeds, like poppy or sesame seeds 99% of the time, you can leave them out. If you really want the flavor, add some ground poppy or sesame seed into the batter or dough of what you are making.
Raisins 99% of the time, you can leave them out. For a flavor substitute, just add a bit of sugar.
Caraway seeds Fennel or dill seeds.
Fennel seeds Caraway seeds
Fennel The flavor is going to change, but for texture and approximation, leeks and caraway seed.
Mustard For dry mustard, horseradish powder or more black pepper and vinegar. Add a bit of yogurt or mayonnaise if it’s for wet mustard.

 

 

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Chickpeas with Baby Kale

There is another post with a more complicated recipe coming up – a delightful and bizarre treat called, I kid you not, “stuffed monkey.” In the meanwhile, allow me to share a very simple chickpea recipe that works wonderfully for a crowd. I served this to great success at a sheva berachot for my friends. Chickpeas have a long history in Jewish food going back to ancient times, and have been served to huge crowds for almost as long – be it as a snack in Lithuania (where yes, people ate chickpeas) or as the protein of choice in Medieval Egypt. This recipe uses baby kale, but any leafy green will do.

Chickpeas with kale in a bowl in a black and white image

Chickpeas with Baby Kale

1 15oz. can chickpeas, drained

1 lb baby kale, thoroughly washed

2 tbsp soy sauce

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp date honey (silan)

Oil for roasting

Water for blanching.

  1. If you want, roast the chickpeas for a few minutes in a hot oven (above 200C/400F) on a greased pan, until they are darker.
  2. Boil 1 liter/4 cups water, then pour over the baby kale in a bowl. Leave the kale for three minutes, then drain.
  3. Mix the kale with the chickpeas.
  4. Mix the soy sauce, vinegar, oil, and date honey, and mix with the chickpeas and kale. Let sit for one hour. Serve at room temperature.

 

 

A Soup for Weekends

Soup with squash, beans, and noodles garnished with sour cream in a bowl

So when I was in Mexico a few months ago, I had one of the best soups of my life at a restaurant in Tula de Allende that served comida casera – roughly speaking, “home-style cooking” – but entirely vegetarian. I asked the proprietor, Cristina, for the recipe, which she roughly described in the telegraphic style of home cooks everywhere. A bit of this, a bit of that, and a good dose of black beans. Unfortunately, I left the scrap of paper with my notes on the bus back to Mexico City. However, with some experimentation over the winter, I was able to roughly recreate the soup with ingredients readily available in the United States.

The soup is chock-full of ingredients beloved by Jewish communities: beans, garlic, tomatoes, squash, and peppers among them. Though some would tell you that this is a “weeknight” dish, I would consider this soup better for languorous weekend cooking, when you have the time to spare a while to cook a big hearty soup. Eat leftovers during the week, when the myth of so-called “easy” home cooking is most apparent.

Sopa de Frijoles y Calabaza con Fideos

Serves 6-12

1 large onion, diced

7 cloves white garlic, minced

2 dried ancho chilies, broken apart into small pieces (keep the seeds if you want it spicy)

1 tablespoon table salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon white or apple cider vinegar

1 15-oz can crushed tomatoes

1 large kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped into chunks

1 8oz/225g can corn kernels, drained (or 1 cup cooked corn)

2 15-oz/425g cans black beans, drained (or 4 cups soaked black beans)

2 sprigs dried epazote (optional)

8 cups water or stock + more as needed + more for noodles

1 package thin noodles (any shape you wish)

3 fistfuls fresh spinach, chopped

 

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

 

Sour cream, chili sauce, and cilantro for garnish

  1. Heat a soup pot or Dutch oven over a high flame. Add oil.
  2. Add the onions, garlic, and chili and saute for 2-3 minutes, or until the onions begin to soften.
  3. Add the salt, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, and nutmeg. Saute for another minute, or until the onions are translucent. Then, add the vinegar and saute for one more minute.
  4. Add the crushed tomatoes and mix well. Saute for another minute, or until the juices are bubbling.
  5. Add the squash, corn, and black beans,  then add water and/or stock. If the water and stock do not cover, add a bit more. Bring to a boil. Add epazote if using.
  6. Simmer for 45 minutes covered, or until the squash is completely cooked.
  7. While the soup is simmering, prepare the noodles in a separate pot according to package directions.
  8. Once the squash is cooked, add the spinach and stir in such that it is cooked. Remove from heat. You can add the noodles if you want, although I prefer to store the noodles separately.
  9. Serve the soup with a helping of noodles and sour cream, chili sauce, and/or cilantro as a garnish. The soup keeps well for at least a week.

Es improbable que ella lea esto, pero mil gracias a Cristina en Tula de Allende por su receta excelente, y me disculpo si haya olvido algunos aspectos importantes.

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.

Simplifying is Good: Eggplant with Leeks and Pomegranate

Sometimes it pays off to simplify a recipe.

My elegant aunt Dalia was visiting from Israel over the holidays, and she gave me a special Rosh HaShanah copy of the Israeli cooking magazine Al HaShulkhan (“At the Table”). I opened it to a beautiful picture of an eggplant covered in leeks and pomegranate seeds, and immediately said, “I am making this.” I showed the recipe to my roommate Alex – who said “that looks beautiful but … complicated.”

Indeed, Alex was right. The original recipe was not actually complicated in technique, but in serving. A whole roasted eggplant carefully stuffed with leeks and pomegranate is lovely to look at, but a lot of work to serve and eat. So I decided to simplify matters by chopping the eggplant like a salad – thus putting the work on the cook, and not the end line consumer. The end result was as beautiful as it was delicious.

Eggplant, leeks, and pomegranates all have long Jewish histories stretching back to the Ancient Near East. I’ve discussed each in prior posts. The combination may seem a tad unorthodox, but trust me: this salad is delicious.

Eggplant salad with parsley leeks and pomegranate with bread

Eggplant with Leeks and Pomegranate

Based on a recipe by Erez Golko and Shlomi Navon in “Al HaShulkhan,” September 2017 (in Hebrew)

 

4 medium-sized eggplants, cut in half lengthwise

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 medium-sized leeks, washed, diced, and washed again

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Seeds of one pomegranate

1 fistful fresh parsley, chopped

Salt, ground black pepper, and lemon juice to taste

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C.
  2. Spread the eggplants apart on a cookie sheet, with the cut side facing up. Drizzle the vegetable oil over the eggplant.
  3. Roast the eggplant for 40-50 minutes, or until the outside is browned and the eggplants are soft to the fork. Remove the eggplants from the oven and let them cool.
  4. While the eggplant is cooling, heat a pan. Add the oil, and then add the leeks. Saute the leeks for 5-7 minutes, or until the leeks have softened and are beginning to brown.
  5. Once the leeks are cooked, add the vinegar and stir rapidly through the leeks. Then, remove the leeks from the heat. Reserve the oil and the vinegar in the pan.
  6. Once the eggplant is cool, remove the peels from the eggplant flesh. Chop the eggplant flesh roughly, then place the flesh in a large bowl.
  7. Pour the leeks, oil, and vinegar over the eggplant.
  8. Add the pomegranate seeds and parsley. Mix everything together.
  9. Season with salt, ground black pepper, and a bit of lemon juice to taste. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold. The eggplant goes particularly well with bread or rice.

Thank you to Avi Garelick, Madeline Richer, Akiva Lichtenberg, Amram Altzman, and Jamie Weisbach for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Pashtidat Qishuim (Zucchini Pashtida)

A shorter post this time, which features one of my favorite recipes. I wrote about pashtidot – eggy casseroles – two years ago when I made a corn version, pashtidat tiras, for the blogs. These casseroles have a long history in Jewish cooking, from medieval meat pies through 1950s Israeli cuisine. One of the most popular versions today is pashtidat qishuim – zucchini casserole; this particular dish is found throughout Israel. I grew up with this pashtida, and it is a childhood favorite.

My pashtidat qishuim is a little unorthodox – I add a small turnip to the mix, which gives the pashtida a nice body and a slightly meatier note in the flavor. Others add cauliflower or a grated potato, reminiscent of a kugel. Like many people, I add some cheese to the pashtida as well – but you can always replace the cheese with more zucchini and another egg if you are making a pareve version for a meat meal. Enjoy!

Zucchini Pashtida (Pashtidat Qishuim)

Based on the recipes by Kobi Bar (Hebrew) and Natalie Aviv (video in Hebrew)

4 medium zucchini, grated

1 small white onion, diced finely

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small turnip, grated

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes

1 cup cottage cheese or farmer’s cheese (I far prefer cottage cheese)

1 teaspoon table salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

3 eggs, beaten

⅓ cup/80 mL vegetable oil

⅔ cup/85g white flour

  1. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C. Grease a baking dish with vegetable oil – you can use different dishes, depending on the desired thickness. I use a 7”x10” (18cm x 25cm) deep casserole pan, but generally any medium-sized baking pan should do.
  2. Squeeze any remaining water out of the zucchini with your hands. Then, place the zucchini in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Add the onion, garlic, turnip, parsley, cheese, salt, and pepper. Mix to combine.
  4. Add the eggs and oil. Mix to combine.
  5. Add the flour. Mix to combine. You should have a thick batter mixed in with the zucchini, onion, and turnip.
  6. Pour your mixture into the greased pan.
  7. Bake for 40-60 minutes, depending on the depth of the pan. The pashtida should be brown on top and set when it is done. If you stick in a knife or a chopstick, only a residual zucchini piece should come out, otherwise it should be clean.
  8. Remove from oven. Serve hot or at room temperature.

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!