Inevitably, at some point over the next month, Jewish women all over the world will panic. They will all be repeating a mantra that will probably sound something like, “The holidays are coming, all those meals, all the company coming, what on earth should I make?” The best way to avoid this panic is to plan ahead.
This article is the first of the Elul series that will focus on foods for Rosh Hashanah, with the intent of helping all of my readers to plan ahead. I am introducing this series with a dish that is both delicious and historically fascinating. This dish started out as a traditional Jewish Rosh Hashanah meal and over the centuries it developed into a secular New Year dish eaten by many Americans, especially in the South.
The Seder for Rosh Hashanah is first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud lists foods that should be eaten on the New Year citing their ability bring good fortune. These include the apple, pomegranate and fish head (or sheep head) found on the Ashkenazi table still as well as pumpkins, dates, leeks, black-eyed peas, and beets which are also still found on the Sephardic table.
In Israel, more and more Ashkenazi families are including this wider variety of symbols in their Rosh Hashanah Seder. The recipe below includes four of the symbolic foods from this list; pumpkin (butternut squash)-kara, black-eyed peas-rubiya, beets (or beet leaves)-salka, and leeks-karti.
Other than that this recipe includes so many of the Rosh Hashanah simanim (symbols), what fascinates me about this dish is its history. Following the development of this dish shows how foods and culture merge, travel, and develop their own symbolisms and traditions. This dish, once a uniquely Jewish New Year tradition is now commonly eaten at midnight December 31, and is becoming part of mainstream American culture. One study traces this development to the Caribbean Jewish community. The African slave population in the Carribeans copied the Jewish practice of eating this dish on Rosh Hashanah and would eat it instead on the secular new year, January 1.
From the Caribbean slave population, it then moved to the slave population in the South where it stilled retained the symbolic connection to their new year. Instead of the traditional Jewish blessings however, the food was given a new symbolism, the beans representing coins and the greens representing the American dollar bills. Apparently, the general population has either found this dish to be too delicious or the symbolism to meaningful, because over the years this tradition has spread throughout the United States and has become multi-cultural.
For me, an Ashkenazi Jew married to a Sephardic Jew, serving this dish involves a sense of Jewish nationalism and pride. I am reclaiming an ancient tradition as well as acknowledging our long exile where the “wandering Jew” spread Jewish traditions throughout the world. The bonus is that it is quick and easy to prepare and can feed a lot of people rather inexpensively.
There are two options below, a vegetarian option which uses mushrooms or a meat recipe which uses lamb.
Use the olive oil to coat the bottom of a large pot. Add the onion, leek, garlic, ginger and spices and saute for 1-2 minutes being careful not to burn the spices. Add the mushrooms/lamb and saute for five minutes more. Add the beet greens and sweat them until they are limp. Add 2 cups water, the black-eyed peas, the squash and the coriander. Cover the pot and bring the stew to a boil. Simmer closed for 30 minutes, and then uncover the pot and then continue to simmer on a low flame for another 45 minutes or until most of the water has evaporated and you are left with a thick stew.
Serve warm on a bed of rice. Serves 6-8.