Few dishes are more deeply rooted in the traditions of Jewish cuisine than stew. From the frozen wastes of Russia to the deserts of the Middle East, cooks have for centuries perfected the art of slow cooking, using a variety of vegetables, spices and meat.
To find the origins of the hearty kosher stew it is probably necessary to go back to the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, when a plate of stewed lentils changed the course of Jewish history.
As the story goes, Jacob offered him a bowl full in exchange for his birthright, making it one of the most expensive meals in history.
Although Genesis gives few details of the exact ingredients of Jacob’s celebrated potage, it was certainly coloured red and, to this day, there are a number of dishes using red lentils still being cooked in the Middle East.
Some historians have come up with this suggested recipe but whether its contents would be recognised by Jacob we will never know. It calls for olive oil, onions, carrots, celery, garlic, paprika, flour, chicken broth and red lentils.
The cooking method also requires utensils unlikely to have been around during the time of the Patriarchs.
First, heat the oil in a large, heavy saucepan over a medium heat. Then stir in the onions, carrots, celery and garlic. Sauté until softened.
Next, stir in the paprika (or cumin) and add the broth, lentils, a bay leaf and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover and place over a low heat. Simmer until the lentils are tender, then puree the mixture, return to the pot, add flour and simmer until thickened.
Another Jewish concoction known for its colour is crypto-Jewish Brazilian yellow stew, which was cooked by Jews who fled to Brazil in the 16th century at the time of the Inquisition.
According to the book A Drizzle of Honey: The Life and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews, by David M. Girlitz and Linda Kay Davidson, the recipe was discovered in the testimony of servants who denounced the descendants of a converted (therefore crypto) Jewish family.
It includes beef, chilli, garlic, olive oil, bulgar wheat, saffron and a host of other ingredients. The colour of the meat was enhanced by the inclusion of sliced mango.
Many Jewish women lost their lives for cooking this stew. Preparing a meat dish with olive oil was seen by the Inquisition as “Judaising” because most Christians used rendered fat or lard.
In Algeria, stews and slow cooked dishes are a distinctive element of Jewish cuisine and are usually prepared on festive occasions. For instance, the Jews of Oran on the coast of western Algeria celebrate the first night of Passover with a stew comprising beef or lamb, cabbage, beans, zucchini, tomato, chilli pepper and coriander seeds.
Another, known as tabikha, is designed to ensure that Algerian-Jewish women do not go hungry on their wedding day. A dish of beef, onions, tomatoes, and red chillies, it is cooked for several hours on an enclosed fire and presented to the bride after her wedding-eve visit to the mikvah. The only vegetable in the dish is the onion, which, strangely, symbolises the sweetness of the marriage.
When it comes to “sweet” stews, the Ashkenazim rule the roost. Nothing can be as lip smackingly delicious as tsimmes. It is a great way to show off the sweet qualities of the humble carrot.
To serve 12 guests, tsimmes requires 10 to 12 peeled carrots cut into large chunks, two large potatoes, and three sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed, on medium diced onion, two stalks of celery, two garlic cloves, 18 large pitted prunes cut in half, a quarter cup of honey, one-and-half apples unpeeled but cubed, a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of black pepper, two-and-a-half cups of orange juice and one and a half teaspoons of cinnamon.
Place all ingredients in a pot, cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about an hour, not forgetting to stir frequently. Continue cooking until carrots are soft but not mushy. Tsimmes should then have the consistency of a thick stew.