Tu biShvat, Dates, and the Occupation

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The easiest/lazy option is to just simply not buy dates at all.
  2. Another option that is “easy” or “lazy” is to not buy “Israeli” dates at all. You can buy Californian dates, Tunisian dates, and Moroccan dates fairly easily across the United States. Note that these may not be certified as “kosher.”
  3. If you do wish to buy Israeli dates, or no others are available, I find that one trick that works is to check the city of the hashgacha, or kosher seal, on the package. (This requires some Hebrew and geography knowledge.) Kosher seals are usually geographically based, and certain ones tend to be on settlement products more often than others. I do not buy products with any settlement indicator, and generally will also not buy products with hashgachot from Jerusalem, since many of them are sourced in the West Bank. Ashdod and Ashkelon are generally “safe” bets. I use this trick for Israeli products generally.
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Corn Kugel or Pashtidat Tiras? Or, Jewish Cuisine Meets The 1950s

A slice of corn kugel-pashtida on a white plate
It’s not the prettiest, but it is delicious! Photo mine, December 2015.

Since starting this blog, I’ve been asked at least ten times when I will be making kugel. (The answer has always been “soon.”) Kugel, for those who are uninitiated, is a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish carbohydrate casserole made of potatoes, noodles, or root vegetables. Recipes for kugel date back to the Middle Ages, and are incredibly varied. Traditionally cooked in a spherical bowl within the Saturday cholent, it is now more frequently baked. The dense pudding is a fixture of American Ashkenazi cuisine – and a delicious one at that. We argue over our recipes, over our preferences, over the fat we use in the kugel. Even Martha Stewart, the goyish-est goy that ever goyed, has a kugel recipe. Kugels matter.

There is also a dish related to kugel: the pashtida. Imagine a quiche, but perhaps a bit eggier and a lot less cheesy. (Still just as wobbly.) Then, take away the crust – and you basically have a pashtida. In Israel and some parts of the Diaspora, the pashtida is an extremely common dish: be it out of zucchini, eggplant, or cauliflower. Many, in fact, consider the pashtida the hallmark of so-called “Israeli” cuisine – there is even a book you can buy in Israel simply called “Pashtidot.” But is it really Israeli?

Pashtida is a dish that actually has a surprisingly long history – almost as long as that of the kugel. Rashi, the great medieval French rabbi-cum-blacksmith-cum-scholar, mentions a dish called “pashtida” in his legal commentaries (link in French), and food historians think that pashtida likely derives from the Italian pasticcio (link in Hebrew). Various forms of casseroles and “pies” were consumed by Jews in France, Italy, and Germany – and throughout the Old World – from the medieval era, and such a dish was likely popular for special occasions and Shabbat meals alike. Since for a very long time kugels were far more common in Northern and Eastern Europe, the dishes only interacted in certain areas – and even then, a kugel was more often than not cooked within the Saturday cholent.

In Palestine and Israel, the dishes intermingled further. The Hebrew Academy, on its hell-bent mission to eliminate Yiddish from the mouths of Hebrew speakers, suggested that pashtida become the replacement for kugel as early as 1912. Pashtida became, for the largely Ashkenazi Zionists, the “replacement kugel,” especially after the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. Yet both kugels and pashtidot are popular in the State of Israel today – and are largely treated as separate dishes. Kugel, meanwhile, became a mainstay of American Jewish cuisine, far more frequently baked in large quantities than cooked within a Saturday lunchtime cholent. In South Africa, the kugel was so popular that it soon became a slang term for a materialistic Jewish woman.

Both dishes changed significantly in the 1950s, in Israel and America. In the latter country, Ashkenazi Jews had not only become more affluent and prosperous, but also desired more to be integrated into mainstream white suburban culture. Dishes like kugel now needed to meet both “American” tastes and reflect a certain sort of middle-class propriety. Meanwhile, in Israel, food rationing followed by a growth in industrial foodstuffs, combined with a homogenization of cuisine, meant that pashtidot became more common and began to include new ingredients. In both Israel and the United States, dishes with canned corn became quite popular – including corn kugel and pashtidat tiras (corn pashtida). In the 1950s, a time obsessed with convenience and industrial foods, a can of corn was quite a “natural” ingredient to include. Canned corn had become popular a few decades earlier, but a more Americanized (in the US) or Westernized (in Israel) population embraced the food to include in “traditional” dishes. In any case, canned corn is a rather delicious addition to Jewish cuisine.

Potato kugel in a cast-iron skillet
A more traditional potato kugel, made by Amy Ross. (See the bottom of the post for a link attribution.) Photo Amy Ross, distributed under Creative Commons.

We often ignore the 1950s in our relentless pursuit of “authenticity,” without remembering that it was those who grew up with the “authentic” that created the food of the 1950s. Things like pashtida and canned corn were seen not as “invasions” of “real Jewish cuisine,” but rather as “progress” and…something delicious, something easy to make, something to feed a family. I mean, Jewish cuisine has always evolved over the ages – there was a time when p’tcha was newfangled, a time when kneidlach were newfangled, a time when rugelach were newfangled. The 1950s with its corn kugels and Osem soup powders were simply another part of the evolution of Jewish cuisine. And a corn casserole is not the worst fate for a cuisine.

The difference between a pashtida and a kugel is hard to suss out sometimes, and with corn this problem is certainly apparent. Is the casserole too eggy to be a kugel? Is it too solid to be a pashtida? Is it a pashtida and a kugel? If anything, it is reflective of the changing language – and changing nature – of Jewish food. One person’s “authentic” kugel is another’s “modern” pashtida is another’s “kugel when meat and pashtida when dairy.” To a certain extent, I am tempted to say here: “f**k nuance, and pass the casserole.”

Though I myself would probably say a pashtida before a kugel for the following recipe – I think of kugels as more solid. I promise an “unequivocally kugel” recipe in the near future.

A baked corn pashtida, very puffy
The finished pashtida, fresh out of the oven. Notice the puffiness! Photo mine, December 2015.

I created the following recipe myself – I found the pashtida recipes to be too cheesy or complex for a dish meant to be a simple weeknight dinner; the kugels, on the other hand, did not offer the unapologetically eggy texture of a good pashtida. If you want a richer product, add some more sour cream or, if you’re feeling a bit more classy, ricotta. For a thicker kugel, add more flour. I do wonder: would this dish work with an addition of chili peppers? If you try it out, let me know!

This dish is delightfully simple to make and is particularly good for those of you out there who are beginner cooks, or just becoming accustomed to the life of the kitchen.

Corn Kugel/Pashtida

6 eggs, beaten

1 cup sour cream

3 cups cooked corn kernels, canned, fresh, or frozen (two cans)

1 tbsp salt

1.5 tsp black pepper

1 tsp dried rosemary

2/3 cup flour

Butter, to grease the pan

  1. Grease a 9-inch pie pan with butter. Preheat the oven to 400 F/200 C.
  2. Mix the eggs and sour cream together until well combined.
  3. Add the corn kernels and mix again until the kernels are evenly distributed throughout the mixture.
  4. Add the flour, salt, black pepper, and rosemary. Mix again so that you have a thick batter.
  5. Pour the batter into the pan and spread out so that the distribution is even.
  6. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the pashtida/kugel is puffed up and set, and the top is a crisp golden brown.

Many thanks to Aaron Rubin and Matthew Gurevitch, who conducted the “user acceptance testing” for this recipe.

See Amy Ross’ Flickr for more yummy food, like the potato kugel referenced above.

Shakshouka – Tunisian-Jewish Comfort Food (by Reader Request)

Shakshouka with bread

We have our first reader contribution! JD Hammond, a friend and urban planner extraordinaire, had some questions about shakshouka, a North African dish imported to Israel by Tunisian Jews in the 1950s. It comprises a vegetable ragout in which eggs are poached. Specifically, JD wants to know (paraphrased):

  1. How do we make it? He has made it before, but wants to know another recipe.
  2. How do we make it so pretty – specifically, regarding the eggs?
  3. How did this dish with this “remarkable intensity” of flavors evolve?
Tunisian shakshouka in a pan
Tunisian chakchouka, served in a pan with cilantro as garnish. (Gideon Tsang, Creative Commons via Wikimedia)

Shakshouka, celebrated in Israel as a “breakfast of champions,” has its origins in North Africa. The word comes from a Tamazight word for “vegetable sauce,” and eggs were added later by the Arab populations of North Africa. The dish later spread across the Arab world – from Iraq to Morocco – and became popular among the Jews of the region as well. In fact, shakshouka is still considered quintessential home cooking in Tunisia today. As this article states (in French), “try to tell a Tunisian at your risk and peril that shakshouka is an Israeli or American dish!” Yet it has come in many minds to be associated with Israel.

Shakshouka with bread
Shakshouka with bread, September 2014. Photo mine.

In the 1950s, Tunisian Jews brought the dish to the Israel which they immigrated to – and were, by and large, unwelcome in. (As it happens, a variant of the dish is also popular among Palestinians.) Shakshouka spread from the peripheral towns into Israeli cities, where – like other Arab Jewish and Arab dishes – it was appropriated and adopted into an Israeli national icon. Rather than admit the origins of the dish, a new etymology for the dish’s name, as originating from the Hebrew leshaqsheq (to shake), emerged. North Africans – Jews and Muslims alike – continue to make this dish in their own way, separate from the Israeli adaptation. Meanwhile, as more Israelis moved abroad in the 1980s, the dish became popular in the United States and Canada, and became the hipster breakfast du jour in recent years.

Chopped green bell peppers and habanero chilis
Peppers – bell and chili – chopped and awaiting their shakshouka fate. November 2015. Photo mine.

Of course, the way the dish has become popular is less than appealing – Ashkenazi Israelis “borrowing” the dishes of North African Jews and Palestinians whose cultures they sought to erase, then calling it their own. In addition, many argue that those such as myself who are post-Zionist should eschew the “Israeli” for the “diasporan.” Yet shakshouka is also a very clear example of how diaspora works, and how diaspora affects what we eat. Firstly, I would like to note that this dish was consumed in the Jewish diaspora for centuries before the state of Israel was even imagined – how is shakshouka not a food of “diaspora”? Secondly, I do not think that we can run away from Israel or misdeeds there if we are to explore Jewish food and its history – given that Israel, like it or not, looms large over Jewish life around the world. Finally, I think we can still enjoy the remarkable mix of flavors shakshouka provides while acknowledging its North African origins.

Tomatoes, peppers and chilis, onions, and spices laid out for cooking.
Tomatoes, peppers and chilis, onions, and spices laid out for cooking. November 2015, photo mine.

Indeed, shakshouka is versatile, intense, and remarkable. The vegetables’ softness and peppers’ spice meld against the egg yolk and firm whites to create an experience that seems simple but is so very complex: no two bites are the same. It is also versatile: the variations are legion, from the simple varieties encouraged on Tunisian expatriate forums to the complex, cheese-laden ones that have become popular on certain upscale food blogs. My friend David, who was familiar with the latter, found the recipe I used “lazy” – but in a good way, in that it is simple. Indeed, shakshouka can be and often is simple. That is key to its beauty – and it is what drew JD into wanting to make it.

Onions and spices frying in the pan
Onions and spices – key in the flavor base of the shakshouka. November 2015, photo mine.

JD’s biggest question was “how can you poach the eggs and keep them intact, without babysitting them?” I have bad news: you do really need to “babysit them.” Eggs are fragile and finicky creatures, and if you are attached to having a delightfully runny yolk and/or an aesthetic shakshouka, you will need to keep an eye on them. I advise that you make a well in the sauce, crack the egg in, and then carefully fold the whites into the sauce. You need to watch to make sure the eggs don’t overcook, and that they get in in the first place. Practice makes perfect! See the recipe for more information.

Cracking eggs into shakshouka
Right after dropping the eggs in – the ones dropped first are beginning to cook but this is where folding and “babysitting” are key! There is no lazy way with eggs in shakshouka. November 2015, photo mine. [Apologies for the rather ugly quality of this photo.]
Spicing and vegetable chopping are also frequent questions with shakshouka. Different regions have different textures for chopping vegetables and length of time the ragout is cooked, which affects the “softness” of the sauce. Some add peppers, some do not. Some use very piquant and hot spices, whereas others prefer a milder dish. In Tunisian recipes, the ragout tends to rely on more roughly chopped fresh vegetables and sinus-destroying spice, whereas Israeli and Palestinian adaptations tend to be finer. I stick with a fiery, rough shakshouka, but JD himself has globalized the recipe with a variant involving Sriracha chili sauce and cayenne pepper.

Eating the shakshouka with pita. Photo in black and white.
Eating the shakshouka – I had already dug in before Amram reminded me to take a picture for you guys! The bread is a typical pita. November 2015, photo mine.

The shakshouka here is closer to the variant common in Tunisia than that common in Israel.  One common ingredient in an Israeli shakshouka is tomato paste (the canned stuff), an ingredient I abhor in most circumstances, which often tends to become quite globby in the frying process. Tunisian shakshouka relies largely on fresh tomatoes (or canned, but not paste), and often uses a wonderfully larger amount of cilantro – my favorite spice. My recipe is based on two Tunisian recipes and one by Einat Admony, the Israeli genius-chef behind Balaboosta, one of New York’s most fantastic restaurants.

 

Shakshouka

Based on an amalgam of the recipes of Orly Olivier, Marmiton (French), and Einat Admony. I make several variations of this recipe.

Serves 2-6, depending on your hunger level and stomach size

1 large onion, diced

3 bell peppers, seeded and chopped into one-two inch rectangles or squares

1-3 small hot chili peppers, seeded and finely chopped – the amount you use depends on the spice level of the pepper and your own tolerance; I tend to stick with three smaller habaneros

4 plum tomatoes, diced or chopped

1-2 tbsp olive or vegetable oil (olive is better)

1 tbsp vinegar (many vinegars work)

1 tbsp salt

1 tbsp dried cilantro

1.5 tsp ground cumin

1.5 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp ground oregano

1 tsp thyme

1 tsp dried rosemary

1 tbsp garlic powder or 1 clove crushed fresh garlic

2/3 cup water

6 large eggs

 

Bread for serving (optional)

 

  1. Chop up your vegetables. I am including this as a separate step for this recipe because this is very important factor to budget into your time.
  2. Heat a large frying pan, shallow wide saucepan, or similar pan, and add the oil. Then, add the onions and sauté until soft.
  3. Add the peppers (bell and chili) and continue sautéing. If you are using fresh garlic, add it here.
  4. When the peppers begin to soften, add the salt, cilantro, cumin, turmeric, oregano, thyme, and rosemary and mix in thoroughly. Keep sautéing.
  5. After a minute or so, add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute.
  6. Add the tomatoes and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for a few minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to soften. Add the water and simmer until the tomatoes are soft, and the skin has separated from the tomatoes’ fleshy part. The water should have mostly cooked down by this point.
  7. When the tomatoes and peppers are cooked until soft, it is time to add the eggs. Make six wells in the tomato-pepper mixture and crack an egg into each one. Then carefully tuck the whites of the eggs into the surrounding tomato-pepper mixture, being careful to leave the yolk alone. If you want your eggs to be super pretty, I would suggest cracking them first into a cup or several cups individually, then putting them in the shakshouka. You will need to “babysit” your eggs – the whites can be finicky. If you want your yolks solid, crack the yolk *after* folding in the whites. If your wells are deep enough, folding should be fairly simple – just push the tomato-pepper mix over the whites!
Raw eggs in cups pre-cooking
Cracking the eggs into cups to put into the shakshouka – thus they retain their integrity and the yolks can stay unbroken! November 2015, photo mine.

You should still have a little white visible on top, because…

  1. When the whites are cooked through and solid, your shakshouka is ready. Remove from the heat and serve as soon as possible. Serving in the pan and having folks dig in and help themselves is the easiest, but a wide spoon does the trick and keeps the eggs intact. I prefer to serve shakshouka with warm bread.

 

Author’s note: if you have leftover chili peppers, I heartily recommend trying the A Fiery Law cocktail, a brilliant creation by my friend, the “Kiddush Club President” of Tippling Through The Torah.