If you were asked to pick the quintessential Jewish food, what would you choose?
Chicken soup or gefilte fish, maybe? Certainly, bagels and lox would also vie for the title — for Americans, at least. But there is truly only one dish that is absolutely, positively, no-mistake-made Jewish — and that's cholent.
For those not in the know, cholent (known as hamin or dafina, or a variety of other names in the Sephardi kitchen) is a slow-cooked, flavorful stew-type dish served at the Shabbat lunch meal in traditional Jewish communities.
Because igniting a flame and scratch-cooking is not allowed on Shabbat, cholent is pre-cooked, and put in the oven or on a blech (a piece of tin covering a gas flame on the stovetop) before the start of Shabbat and left to simmer all night. Years ago, in Europe — and not too long ago in Israel — cholent pots were left overnight in the local baker's oven; today, as often as not they are made in crockpots or spend the night on an electric Shabbat warming tray. The aroma just can't be beat.
There are as many kinds of cholent as there are Jews hail-ing from different ethnic backgrounds, but cholent usually contains some combination of beef or chicken; potatoes, rice or whole-wheat berries; or beans or chickpeas.
Ashkenazi cholent often contains kishke or helzel — a sausage casing or a chicken-neck skin stuffed with a flour-based mixture.
Sephardi cholents are often spiced with combinations of turmeric, cumin and cinnamon, while Ashkenazis usually prefer salt, pepper, paprika and garlic. Many Sephardim will add huevos haminados — whole eggs in the shell, which develop a creamy texture and turn brown overnight.
Cholent is a big-deal, serious proposition in Jerusalem — so much so that the take-out restaurants sell huge pots of it, starting Thursday night, when both pareve and meat versions are offered. Both yeshiva boys and local residents line up for a portion of hot cholent to get into the Shabbos mood. A Shabbat-morning kiddush in Jerusalem, of course, is incomplete without piping hot portions of cholent being ladled out.
Each cholent is unique, and the same recipe often comes out different from week to week. The saying is that it's as good as the guests. Now, I don't want to brag, but my son makes a cholent that has guests begging for more.
Of course, there are vegetarian and low-fat versions. The same recipe can be made with less oil and with lower-fat skinless turkey or chicken. Those sticking to a low-carb regime can add prepared vegetables in a cooking bag to the pot.
And don't forget that a Shabbos nap is de rigueur following a heavy cholent meal.
Aryeh Leib's Cholent
4 Tbsps. canola oil
3 medium onions, sliced
1 Tbsp. sugar
2/3 cup sorted, dried chick peas or navy beans, soaked overnight (you may substitute canned)
2/3 cup pearl barley, rinsed
1-2 tsps. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
5 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp. hot paprika
1 tsp. sweet paprika
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. cumin
2 lb. short ribs, either whole or 1-inch cubes
4 medium potatoes
Heat oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat.
Sauté onions, stirring constantly, for about 7 minutes, until barely golden.
Add the sugar, and keep stirring until onions are caramelized. Top with beans and barley.
Stir in 4 cups boiling water and salt, pepper, garlic and one of the spice options, mixing well.
Place meat on top; then arrange potatoes on top of meat.
Add water to almost cover the potatoes (this is a very important step).
Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 2 hours.
Place on a Shabbat warming tray or in a preheated 200° oven to cook overnight
Serves 4 to 6.
Rivka Tal is a writer living in Jerusalem.