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!

Glimpses of the Jewish Kitchen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Just like many nerdy New Yorkers, I spend a fair amount of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are so many beautiful things to see and histories to learn there. Anyway, since apparently I cannot stop thinking about Jewish food at any point, I decided to spot some Jewish ties with various objects throughout the museum on a recent visit. Many of the things we consider “high art” today once had functional purposes – especially the ceramic, metal, and glass ware we now peer at through glass protective cases. These functions were, of course, largely for the upper crust of society – and in this case I will be generally referring to wealthier Jews. It should be noted that we do find plenty of “ordinary people” pottery and cookware in archaeological sites – they just do not make the vaunted cases of the world’s great museums.

Let us go take a look.

Brass ewer for wine or sherbets, 13th-century Iran

Brass ewer with harpies and astrological signs and a fluted neck

The object: A brass ewer with detailed mural-like inlays of silver and other compounds. The complex design includes medallion vines with rabbit heads, zodiacs with the planets, and harpies and astrological imagery. All of these were considered highly auspicious in the context of 13th-century Iran, and may be considered akin to similar decorative work on Kiddush cups today. (Jews, too, are superstitious.)

The Jewishness: Ewers and jugs like this would have been used for ritual purposes in many wealthier homes – especially for Kiddush wine. In addition, silver and silverwork was commonly a Jewish industry in many cities.

Iznik plates, Ottoman Empire, 16th century

A floral plate from Iznik with a bird and flowers and plants, blue pattern on the rim.
(Image public domain via Metropolitan Museum)

The objects: A circular stonepaste plate with a colorful pattern of flowers and birds. The plate was made in the late 16th century in Iznik, which was the center of the Ottoman pottery industry. Iznik ware was popular across the empire and abroad, and was influenced by prior Arab and Persian practices, as well as Chinese porcelain traded along the Silk Road.

The Jewishness: Iznik had a thriving Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire, many of whom would have traded these wares to other centers in Thessaloniki, Izmir, and abroad. Later, plates like this would become a “template” for early Zionists to use for serving “new Israeli cuisine.”

Porcelain teapots from China and Japan, and the German, English, French, and Dutch factories that imitated them, 18th century

12 porcelain teapots, some from China and Japan and some European imitations, in a glass case. Several are blue and have floral patterns.

The objects: This display compares imported Chinese and Japanese teapots with the European factories that imitated them in the 18th century. Porcelain was a luxury good, and the method for making it was originally invented in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), and a significant industry developed in modern-day Jiangxi province during the Song (960-1279 CE) and Ming (1368-1644) Dynasties. The technique spread to Korea in the medieval era and then to Japan in the 17th century. From there, the Dutch East India Company took porcelain wares back to Europe, where they met incredible demand from the élite of the day. A decades-long process began to establish porcelain manufacture in Europe, which was finally started in Meissen in Saxony in 1710. From there, porcelain spread across Europe – though it was still heavily imported from China and Japan as well. In this age, European élites underwent both a culinary revolution and an aesthetic one. First, they began to drink tea – newly imported in the 17th century – in larger quantities. In addition, Orientalism took hold as Europeans sought to imitate a rather paternalistic fantasy of “the East.” As a result, European factories plagiarized or imitated Chinese and Japanese imports to meet this dual demand.

The Jewishness: Tea is consumed traditionally in dozens of Jewish communities, and the consumption of tea greatly expanded in the 17th century among Russian and Sephardi Jews. Jewish communities in Uzbekistan and Georgia were involved in the Silk Road trade and many Jews in maritime and overland trade with Asia, including that of porcelain.

French porcelain partial tea service used in 18th-century America

French porcelain teapot, cup and saucer with a gold and black pattern

The object: This is a beautifully decorated porcelain teapot, cup, and saucer, from an 18th-century French factory, with a gold-and-back floral theme sparsely laid on a white background. Such examples come from the aforementioned European porcelain industry, which moved from “Chinoiserie” Orientalist designs to more localized European examples through the 18th century. These pieces are examples of the latter. This particular group belonged to the Loyalist Verplanck family in New York in the late 18th century, who was given the full tea service by the British commander of forces in New York, Sir William Howe.

The Jewishness: As mentioned above, tea consumption spiked in the 17th century among Jewish communities. By the 18th century, a small minority of Jews was wealthy enough to drink tea like the Christian élites they partly assimilated into. This sort of tea service would easily have appeared at the table of the Nathans or other wealthy Jewish families in 18th-century New York.

Pennsylvania Redware, 18th century

A large case with about 20 pieces of Pennsylvania redware dishware

The objects: German immigrants in 18th-century Pennsylvania began manufacturing practical ceramic wares from local red clay found throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, which soon gave rise to a local style now known as “Pennsylvania Redware.” These plates, bowls, and cups often utilized a technique known elsewhere as sgraffito, which involves scratching through one level of clay slip to reveal a lower level of slip. The ceramics were largely made for a local American market, which was readily receptive. Though these plates are from the 18th century, the industry’s golden age was in the early 19th century after American independence.

The Jewishness: The same wealthy families that might have owned the French tea service would have easily possessed some Pennsylvania Redware for everyday use – and middle-class families may have served their Shabbat and weekday meals on plates like these as well.

Spanish inlaid plates and bowls, 14th century

The objects: Inlaid plates and bowls with decorative patterns from Southern Spain in the 14th century, when the region was still under Almohad rule. The style of pottery is now known as Hispano-Moresque, and utilizes detailed patterning, tin glazes, and often a metallic after-glaze. In its era it was already a luxury good, and these wares influenced Italian styles that later became known as maiolica in the 16th century.

The Jewishness: The 14th century was the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry – and not only were some Spanish Jews wealthy enough to have owned such plates and bowls, but many more were involved in the production of such wares. Pottery and ceramics have been a Jewish industry since ancient times, and medieval Spain was no exception.

Farissol Haggadah, 16th century

A man holding maror in the Farissol Haggadah with Hebrew text on parchment
Image JTS via Forward.

The object: This is an incredible illuminated Haggadah from 15th-century Italy. The order of the Passover (Pesakh) Seder ritual is not only written, but accompanied by gilded and painted images from the story of the Exodus and of the Passover ritual foods. The margins also contain micrographic illustrations.

The Jewishness is obvious.

Images all mine, July 2017, unless otherwise noted.

Chickpea and Pumpkin Stew with Collard Greens

First, a note of housekeeping: there will be a brief hiatus of blog post for the next three weeks, due to the onslaught of Jewish holidays. I will continue to link holiday-appropriate recipes on the Facebook page for Flavors of Diaspora, the Instagram page, and my personal Twitter. I wish all readers a shana tova u-metukah – a Happy and Sweet New Year.
Here is a stew, filled with the flavors of autumn, that is Jewish in character but somewhat of my own creation – and it makes for both a delicious weeknight dinner and a Rosh HaShanah centerpiece! Moreover, it is that rare combination: vegan and gluten-free. Thus I present a Chickpea and Pumpkin Stew, interspersed with the lush color of collard greens.
This recipe comes from requests from several readers. Adele M. in Oxford has requested more vegan-friendly recipes for a vegan member of the family, and Amram A. in New York requested additional pumpkin recipes. Emmett T. in Toronto also requested more gluten-free recipes – a sometimes difficult task in the gluten-heavy world of Jewish cuisines. This recipe is for all of you. Though it is my own creation, it is based on several ingredients and recipes common to Jewish and non-Jewish traditions in Turkey: collard greens (karalahana) has been grown in the Black Sea region since ancient times, and chickpeas (nohut*) have been eaten throughout the country for millennia too. Pumpkin (kabak) became a hit across the Mediterranean after it was introduced from the New World in the 16th century. Italian Jews called it zucca barucca – a Hebrew-Italian mishmash meaning “holy squash” – and Turkish Jews made fritters from the squash. Even today, a delicious pumpkin halva is popular in Turkey. This is an inauthentic combination of familiar ingredients.
img_7142
Chickpea and pumpkin stew with collard greens on a bed of rice. (Photo mine via Instagram, September 2016.)
 

Chickpea and Pumpkin Stew with Collard Greens

Serves 5-10
1 medium onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon table salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons za’atar
1 teaspoon ground sumac
1 teaspoon oregano
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar (any white vinegar should do)
3 cups chopped collard greens, both leaves and stems (about 300 grams/10 ounces – you can also use another green, leafy vegetable)
2 cups cooked pumpkin, chopped (you can also used canned pumpkin, which changes the final texture)
2 cups cooked chickpeas (this is one drained 400 gram/15-oz can)
2 cups diced tomatoes (also, one 400 gram/15-oz can)
1 tablespoon ground kuzu root, arrowroot starch, or cornstarch mixed in 3 tablespoons water
3 cups water, separated into one cup and two cups
Olive oil for sautéing
Salt and pepper for final garnish
1. Heat a deep saucepan, paella pan, or wok over a high flame. Add the oil, then the onions and garlic. Saute for one minute or until the onions begin to soften.
2. Add the salt, pepper, za’atar,  and mix in thoroughly with the onions and garlic. Continue sauteeing for another minute or until the onions are becoming translucent under the spices.
3. Add the chopped collard greens and mix in thoroughly. Then, add the vinegar and one cup of water.
4. Cook, stirring frequently, for two minutes, or until the collard greens have begun to wilt.
5. Add the pumpkin, chickpeas, tomatoes, and remaining two cups of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes. Stir every few minutes.
6. When the collard green stems are soft to the fork, the leaves are wilted, and the liquid has reduced, it is time to add the starch. Mix the starch with water, and then mix in thoroughly with the entire stew. Simmer for 2 more minutes.
7. The sauce should now be thicker and hang longer on a spoon held sideways. Season the stew with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with your preferred carbohydrate. For the non-vegans, the stew goes well with a dollop of fresh ricotta, fromage frais, queso fresco, or tsvorekh.
*The Turkish word nohut is the source of the Yiddish word for chickpea, nahit.

Lentils With Okra

In much of the Jewish world, the Rosh HaShanah menu tends to skew heavily towards meat. Among Ashkenazim, brisket and tzimmes cooked with meat are almost de rigueur – and are sometimes combined into one dish. In Morocco, a delicious tagine with prunes is the custom; among Persian Jews, there is even a tradition to eat cow’s lung.  Then, of course, there are also all of the traditions with fish: the fish’s head for a good “head of the year,” gefilte fish and forshmak (chopped herring) among Ashkenazim as appetizers, or spicy hraime in the Libyan and Tunisian traditions. Suffice it to say that Rosh HaShanah is not the most vegetarian-friendly of holidays.

Assembling the ingredients - lentils, okra, onions, spices.
Assembling the ingredients – lentils, okra, onions, spices. (Photo mine, August 2016)
So, what to cook for your vegetarian friends and relatives – or yourself, if you are vegetarian? There are, of course, many options, but I am going to suggest this very simple adaptation of a Indian recipe: lentils with okra. Both lentils and okra are traditional in many Jewish cuisines, and both have that wonderful ability of being very easy to cook, yet tasting like something very complex indeed. I make a simpler version of this recipe quite regularly for guests, and the contrast of the green okra chunks against the brown lentils can, with a bit of arrangement, be beautiful. The original recipe I used many years ago had a completely different spice mixture; for this recipe I used a more Middle Eastern combination with sumac and paprika.
Cooked lentils and okra close-up with cilantro
The final product – the bright green is cilantro. (Photo mine, August 2016)
Lentils symbolize plenty to some, but unlike other beans in some Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, they are not actually a traditional Rosh HaShanah food. Instead, many consider the lentil to be a food of mourning, and eat lentils both during the shiva for a deceased relative, and at the traditional meal preceding the fast of Tisha b’Av. However, lentils also can and do show up on the table at joyous occasions – and perhaps, with this recipe, at yours as well.

Lentils with Okra

1 medium white onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound okra, chopped into chunks*

2 tsp table salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp turmeric

1 tsp cumin

½ tsp ground sumac (optional)

½ tsp ground thyme

1 tbsp white wine or rice vinegar

1½ cups dried lentils

3 cups water or vegetable stock

 

Olive or vegetable oil

Fresh cilantro (for garnish)

  1. Heat a deep saucepan, then coat the bottom with oil. Add the onions and garlic and begin to sauté.
  2. When the onions begin to soften, add the okra and mix thoroughly while sautéing.
  3. After the okra is mixed in thoroughly, add and mix in the salt, pepper, paprika, turmeric, cumin, sumac, and thyme. Sauté for two minutes.
  4. When the onions are significantly softer (beginning to brown under the spices), and the spices are sticking to the okra and onions, add the vinegar. Sauté for another two minutes, or until the okra begins to “look” and feel slightly softer against your mixing implement.
  5. Add the lentils and mix in, then add the water.
  6. Bring the mixture to a boil. Then, simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the lentils have absorbed most of the water and are soft, and the okra is soft. Stir every few minutes. (If the lentils and okra are very soft, and you still have some water left over, you can add 1 teaspoon of cornstarch or ground kuzu root to thicken the sauce.)
  7. Garnish with plenty of cilantro. Serve hot.

 

* The starch in the lentils naturally offsets the “slimy” part of the okra. If you want to know how to prepare okra to be less slimy, go to my bamia con limon recipe from January.

Great Books: The Book of Jewish Food, by Claudia Roden

Fenugreek seeds
Fenugreek seeds, which are common in Yemeni, Ethiopian, and Indian Jewish cooking, and Palestinian cuisine as well. Roden gives several recipes involving fenugreek. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons via CC Open Domain, undated)

This book is the grand monarch of all Jewish cookbooks, for The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, by the Egyptian-British Claudia Roden, is enormous. And amazing. The book contains 800 recipes from across the Jewish world – and neatly flips the demographics of the Jewish world too. Though the majority of Jews are Ashkenazi – and what we in the United States think of as “Jewish food” is often Ashkenazi – the book is only one-third Ashkenazi recipes, and two-thirds from the Sephardi and Mizrahi worlds. One Israeli reviewer called the Book “the Sephardim’s revenge.”

The book itself is well-written, if a bit romantic at times. But the real reason to acquire this book is that it is almost encyclopedic – it has everything from the Ashkenazi p’tcha (underrated!) to the curious Almond and Spinach Dessert of Florence. The only Jewish cuisine not covered is Ethiopian. But beyond that one short-coming there are recipes from most of the Jewish world for every major food ingredient in Jewish cuisines. I’m currently hankering after a turnips in date syrup recipe from Iraq after reading this book.

Claudia Roden herself is one of the greatest living food writers today. Born to an Egyptian family in Cairo, she has dedicated her life to researching the food cultures of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Jewish world. Her books on Middle Eastern and Jewish food are now considered standard in English-speaking kitchens, and it is well worth your time and money to invest in several of her volumes.

The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, by Claudia Roden. New York, Knopf: 1998.

Author’s note: this book goes very well alongside Joan Nathan’s Jewish Food in America, which I wrote about back in February. Roden’s book is far more Sephardi- and Mizrahi-centric, whereas Joan Nathan is more interested in Ashkenazi cuisine in the United States.

Pesach of Colors VI: Keftes de Prasa (Black)

Khag kasher ve-sameakh – a happy and kosher Passover! I’m posting this from Israel, where I will be spending the holiday with my grandparents, who live in a seniors’ home for South Africans in the town of Herzliyya. Wherever you are, I wish you a happy holiday.

Keftes de prasa
Keftes de prasa – I’ve put them on a paper towel to suck up some of the oil. Photo mine, April 2016

I want to end our Pesach series with a very simple and tasty Passover dish – the traditional Sephardic Balkan keftes de prasa, or leek fritters – whose black bits of crispy fried goodness are the final color.  These treats are traditional Passover fare among the Sephardic communities of the Balkans – Serbia, Turkey, and Greece above all – but also have been served for other holidays as well. I first tried them at an event for Hanukkah – when, like latkes and doughnuts, a leek patty fried in oil would be most seasonal. Yet it is for Pesach that these crispy vegetable patties are now popular.

Leeks themselves have a lengthy Jewish history. The vegetable is mentioned in the Biblical Book of Numbers as one the Jews yearn for from their time of slavery in Egypt, for they “were wont to eat…the leeks, and the onions.” Regardless, the vegetable was probably prominent in ancient Israelite cooking, and was spread by the Romans throughout the Mediterranean region. German Ashkenazim indeed would later use the vegetable, and it saw limited use in Eastern Europe, but this infrequent use paled in comparison to the leek’s appearance on the tables of Sephardim. Gil Marks remarked that the leek was the “single most important vegetable” of Sephardic cooking in the Ottoman Empire, and ended up in everything – soups, stews, patties, and pastries. The keftes de prasa are attested from the Ottoman period – and indeed, their name reflect the Turkish köfte (patty) and Ladino and Greek prasa (leek). These treats, however, are enjoyed by all.

Keftes de Prasa

Makes 12-20 Fritters

A Passover adaptation from the Jewish Women’s Archive

 

Two large leeks, thoroughly washed and chopped

1 cup matzah meal

3 eggs

1 tbsp salt

1 tsp pepper

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp nutmeg

 

Water

Olive oil for frying

 

  1. A note: you really should make sure your leeks are thoroughly washed before you chop. Consult this guide to learn how to have clean leeks! Then chop.
  2. Boil the chopped leeks in water for five minutes, or until somewhat soft, but with some solidity. Drain the leeks and set aside. Let cool.
  3. Mix the boiled leeks and the ingredients other than the oil in a bowl until you have a thick, thoroughly mixed batter.
  4. Heat a pan, then add the oil. Then, spoon in large clumps of batter, one at a time, evenly in the oil.
  5. Fry for 2-4 minutes, or until brown on the done side, and flip to fry the other side. When both sides are brown, remove from the pan. Repeat until you are done with the batter.
  6. Serve hot – some folks serve straight from the pan – or warm. I’ve never tested these after reheating – they have been eaten quickly.

 

The author would like to thank Jeremy Swack for being part of the User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

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.

Great Books: Jewish Food in America, by Joan Nathan

Dried salmon hanging on hooks
Dried salmon on display at London’s Jewish food festival, Gefiltefest. Photo mine, June 2015.

Sometimes, those TV books are really awesome. This is one of them.

Joan Nathan – balabusta extraordinaire and America’s top Jewish food public figure– wrote Jewish Cooking in America back in the early 1990’s. The thick book – filled with history and food – won so much attention that it then got turned into a wildly successful PBS series. (I strongly urge that you find a way to watch the series, because it is awesome.) Then the book got updated to serve as a companion to the show with somehow more recipes. 

Yes, it is a “TV book.” It is also packed to the brim with recipes, popular and unpopular. You have the “classics” of various culinary traditions – kneidlach from Eastern Europe, bourekas from the Sephardi world, Yemenite soups, and challah from many traditions. You also have the less popular things – the p’tcha, calf’s foot aspic, and hilbeh – that’s Yemenite fenugreek spread – and rhubarb soups. (I have had all three and they are all delicious.) And then there are the more labor intensive ones – directions to pickle your own herring (yes, yes, yes, yes, yes), and make fish gelatin molds (please no), and to make your own gefilte fish (yes). In short, it’s…a great compendium.

Admittedly this book sometimes falls a bit too far down the authenticity rabbit hole for my tastes – there is much stock placed in the “real recipe” and Jewish “traditions” here. That said, the book is very much a product of the 1990’s, which was perhaps the era of peak “authentic.” Yet Nathan also questions authenticity throughout the book – she notes where Jews have made substitutions for spices or flavors, or added their own twists, or adopted local cuisines. Georgian-Jewish Southern Fried Chicken might be the best recipe title I’ve ever read. And the book is filled with stories of real people from throughout American history – ordinary and extraordinary Jews who cooked, ate, and rejoiced.

A link to the book on Amazon is at the bottom of this post, and I strongly urge you to look at Nathan’s writing at Tablet (the only thing from Tablet I make sure to read) and The New York  TimesBut first, let me leave you with two choice quotes from material in the book. The first is her own writing; the second is the best historical food quote I’ve seen on Judaism.

“For second- and third-generation American Jews, what was once daily subsistence became a special occasion food. In Europe, knishes, like kugels and latkes, were a way of varying the daily monotony of potatoes for the poor. Here during the sweatshop era, knishes, a portable food like pasties … were eaten for lunch every day. Thereafter these foods disappeared as daily fare. Now they are in vogue again, having reappeared in miniature form as hors d’oeuvres at weddings and other ceremonial events, and as fast-food snacks.” (Nathan 2011:4)

The shade!

“‘You wrote to me some time agoe (sic) you was asked at my brother Asher’s to a fish dinner but you did not go. I desire you will never eat anything with him unless it be bread and butter nor noe where else where there is the last doubt of things not done after our strict Judiacall method.’ – A letter from Abigail Franks of Philadelphia to her son Naphtali in London, 1733.” (Franks 1733 in Nathan 2011:131)

Nathan, Joan. Jewish Cooking in America. New York, Knopf: 1994, 1998, 2011.