Sukkot: Tasting the Joy of the Season

Tasting the diversity of the Jewish journey

Chiles rellenos de picadillo con crema de tehina. It’s my Sephardic Jewish take on blending the flavors of a most famous traditional Mexican dish, chiles en nogada; roasted poblano chiles filled with spiced meat and dried fruits. Though this new recipe of mine is swapping out the nogada walnut cream sauce for a tasty parve (non-dairy) tehina sauce made of toasted sesame seeds. This dish has all the flavors of Mexico, with a Middle Eastern twist!

In the fall season the Jewish calendar is filled with many Jewish holy days. We begin with Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year; the calendar begins with us wishing each other a sweet new year. In order to carry the theme of us hoping for sweet blessing in the year to come, the world over our festival meals are sweetened with the flavors of apples and honey.

And now we find ourselves in the middle of one of my favorite holidays; the week-long festival of Sukkot, also known as the “festival of booths” or “feast of the tabernacles” in English. It is a biblical festival going back to ancient times. It commemorates our ancestors exodus from Egyptian bondage, and their dwelling in temporary shelters as migrants in the desert wilderness.

The festival which takes place during the fall harvest season, it also recalls our agrarian past in the land of Israel and the greater Levant; and so like our ancestors of old we make temporary booths in our fields, which we symbolically dwell in and host festive meals.

A Sukkah party at Beth Shalom of Whittier

A Sukkah party at Beth Shalom of Whittier

And that is the real thrill of the festival of Sukkot. It is a major mitzvah to invite people to your Sukkah, and likewise it is a great honor to be invited as a guest to festive meals in someone else’s sukkah.

Now I want I want to ask you a couple of questions. What dishes do you expect to see at a meal in a Sukkah? And what are the flavors from your culture which you think best fit on the festival table?

The topic of holiday food is fresh on my mind. Recently I was talking with friends of mine about how much joy I get out of cooking for the holidays. When someone asked what my mom makes for the holidays. Now my mother is Mexican-American and isn’t religiously observant of Judaism, however, being that she does catering for a major gourmet supermarket in the Los Angeles area she makes Jewish holiday dinners for thousands of families every year.

Though being that the majority of mom’s customers are Ashkenazi Jews – Jews whose ancestors once lived as migrants in lands stretching from the Rhineland through Central and Eastern Europe – she mostly makes comforting dishes drawn from those traditions.

So I do know and appreciate Ashekanzi holiday food. And so I’m not entirely joking when I say someone’s Rosh HaShanah caramelized brisket and sweet tzimmes isn’t quite an good as my mom’s!

However, being that we are descendants of Sephardic Jews – Jews from Spain and the Mediterranean and stretching through the Middle East, who made their way as refugees to the Americas – we have our own flavors. And I have tried over the years to set a table which through taste tells the journey of my ancestors and the story of my landsmen.

Recently I was sharing with my community about the Sephardic traditions and flavors of the Jewish new year. So naturally people have now asked: What foods do I recommend for the holiday of Sukkot?

The flavors of the holiday of Sukkot are supposed to follow certain themes. Remember, we are still in the midst of the holy days, the high point of our joy before the gates are closed; for this reason it is called the zman simchatein – the season of our joy. Just like Rosh haShanah, we want to continue to wish each other a sweet year with plenty of sweet foods.

Though the foods of Sukkot are often have two additional points of symbolism and themes to bear in mind:

  • First, Sukkot foods are supposed to be representative of the bounty of the fall harvest; foods that are stuffed and overflowing are favored.

  • Second, being that during this festival week we will also celebrate the holy day of Simchat Torah – when we renew the annual Torah reading cycle, when we end the Torah scroll and start it over it from the beginning – there is a tradition to eat food which are shaped like Torah scrolls. Foods which are rolled-up or cylindrical shapes like scrolls are ideal.

As Jews have settled all over the world, Sephardim have learned and adapted many regional dishes from the cultures around us. We will present just a few of these today. And also present a few favorite dishes from my family tradition which have become part of my festival meals.

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When people think of Sukkot and Simchat Torah food, the first item that comes to mind are stuffed cabbage rolls; filled with meat and rice. Though these are considered a staple of Ashkenazi Jewish-deli food; and in many regions were popularly known just as “Jewish stuffed cabbage rolls.”

Interestingly, stuffed cabbage rolls are believed to have been introduced to the Levant and entered Jewish diet about 2,000 years ago; probably during the Roman era.

Over the ages there have developed several interesting variations across many regions of Europe. For instance, Romanian and northern Polish Jews prefer a savory sauce, while Jews from Galicia and Ukraine favor a sweet-and-sour. The latter style recipe being influenced by exchange with the Ottoman empire and also new world traders resulting in the development of one the most famous variations; cabbage rolls smothered in sweetened tomato sauce.

Though the original recipe for cabbage rolls is probably more like the ones Sephardic Jews of Egyptian decent make to this day; stuffed and rolled over, though un-tucked and left open at the ends. They are delicious and easy to make!

Also in the theme of the holiday and making good use of seasonal produce are the other interesting stuffed dishes from the Sephardic tradition:

  • Stuffed Zucchini. These abundantly available summer vegetables can be either hollowed from one end or cut in half into two boats, then stuffed with the meat and rice mixture, and finally cooked until tender. In the Syrian Jewish tradition, which is one of the largest Jewish communities in Mexico, these stuffed vegetables are known as mechshie.

  • Roasted Stuffed Eggplant; filled with cooked meat flavored with cinnamon and dried fruit. In the Middle East these are called sheikh mahshi in Arabic, which basically means they are stuffed in a style which is good enough for royalty; stuffed egglant are a fine addition to a middle-eastern themed Sukkot dinner.

  • Kofte (Turkish) / Kibbeh (Arabic). Kofte is a Levantine dish made of bulgur wheat, minced onions, and finely ground lean beef, lamb or goat meat with Middle Eastern spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice.

  • Stuffed Peppers. Roasted peppers split and filled until they overflow with a kibbeh mixture of spiced ground meat, bulgur wheat, onion and pine nuts.

  • Stuffed grape leaves. Stuffed with rice, dried currants and pine nuts; dressed with lemon, fresh mint and olive oil; they a favorite dish throughout Greece, Turkey, and the entire Middle East; they are widely known as dolmas. In Turkish they are also called yaprak; and so in the Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino they are known as yaprakes finos.

  • Bourekahs. Made from paper-thin filo dough, they can be filled with cooked lamb and in-season butternut squash, and baked into savory puff pastries. They can also be made with potato filling. And instead of their common triangle form, during this season it is very festive to make them into rolls, reminiscent of the Torah scrolls.

  • Baklavah. A rich and sweet desert pastry made from layers of paper-thin filo dough filled with chopped nuts, favored with rose-water, and sweetened and held together by honey.

These are all fine dishes, which take us on a flavorful journey through the regions of the Sephardic world.

Sephardic Sukkot Dishes

From Left to Right; Upper row, Dried crabapples, potato borekas, stuffed zuchinni; Second row, peppers stuffed with kibbeh and pine nuts, roasted eggplant stuffed with meat and candied fruit, stuffed grape leaves; Bottom row, meat filled kibbeh, Mexican cheese chiles rellenos, and nut filled and rose water flavored baklava covered in honey.

Though over the years I have also adapted these in various ways according to our local varieties of seasonal produce we have available to us and inspired by our local cultural flavors. There are certain festival dishes of the Mexican cultural experience of our region which have become part of my family tradition.

Chiles rellenos de queso, cheese filled roasted chile peppers (left); Chiles rellenos de picadillo, filled with spiced meat and dried fruits. (right).

I have even blended the flavors of the old an new world to come up with unique take on a Mexican dish. I have come up with my own chile rellenos de picadillo. Made much like the seasonal red, white and green dish reminiscent of the Mexican flag, the famous dish known as chiles en nogada; which is the most tradition dish on Mexican Independence day.

Now the original dish is known as being made of minced pork, simmered with a mixture of fresh and dried fruits, and covered in a creamed walnut sauce and garnished with red pomegranate seeds and fresh parsley.

Though in my kosher version, one can use beef or dark turkey meat as a perfect substitute without loosing any flavor. But what about substituting the cream sauce, in keeping with the kosher traditions of not mixing meat and milk?

Though the cream sauce is usually made of walnuts, milk and queso fresco blended into a sauce; I known some people who make a wonderful vegan walnut sauce made with toasted walnuts, almond milk, and thickened with toasted bolillo.

However, this year I am experimenting with another non-dairy version; stuffed chiles covered with light tehina sauce, a tasty Middle Eastern inspired sauce made from sesame seed paste. In the Mexican tradition ground sesame seeds are also often used to flavor moles, as well. The use of tehina sauce brings that nutty taste and bite; blending both the old world and new world flavors.

Chiles de Picadillo en Crema de Tehina

This is my version of Mexican inspired dish, though one that is filled with so many familiar Sephardic flavors that you would swear it comes directly from the Middle East.

You can download my recipe from, right here!

One of the other great additions to the holiday, to finish of the meal on the theme of sweetness and also of harvest bounty, are dried and candied fruits. I like to head over to one of the best places for finding all our Mexican ingredients, the famous Mercadito in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles; where you will find perfectly crystallized camote (sweet potato), pumpkin, figs, pineapple, oranges, apples and quinces; just to name a few favorites.

DriedandCandiedFruit.jpg

This year while I’m at the mercadito I’m going to also pick-up extra ingredients for a special treat this year.

Though in Southern California and the greater southwest the autumn days might be warm, the evenings are getting just a bit of a nip in air. So that got me thinking, what type of warm Mexican drink would be perfect for cool nights spent outside and that keeps with a fall harvest theme?

I have the perfect idea: Ponche.

Mexican Ponche is a popular drink for special occasions. It is a warm punch made from hibiscus flowers; and sweetened with dried and fresh fruit, spices and piloncillo (cones of unrefined brown sugar); and the topped off with liquor, it is a comforting seasonal drink.

Mexican Ponche

A warm and fruity drink that is traditionally part of the seasonal festivities; including Día de los Muertos and Christmas. This warm drink, which is often topped with warming liquors, can be a great comfort on chilly nights out in the Sukkah.

In the Catholic tradition of Mexico, ponche is best known for being the drink of choice during the Christmas season, and especially during the holidays when people are engaging in posadas – religious processions going from door-to-door retelling the nativity.

Ponche is also considered a traditional drink during the Aztec, Mayan and Catholic influenced holiday of Día de los Muertos – the day of honoring one’s deceased ancestors by building altars in memory of them and visiting their gravesites at the cemetery, traditionally done in the evening.

As both of these are outside events taking place during the cool of the night, ponche is considered a warm and soothing part of the seasonal festivities.

Now it should be noted that ponche, even though it is has become part of the Mexican Catholic tradition, its origins are actually rooted in the orient. The name is actually derived from a Persian loanword; panj, meaning five; a drink that was originally made with only five ingredients being alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and tea or spices.

The drink was later brought to Europe and subsequently the Americas, by way of India. Along the way acquiring many of the fruit and spice flavors we know today.

Now what makes for a good ponche?

Ponche is best when made with a mixture of fresh seasonal fruits; including apples, oranges and guavas. It also most often includes tastes of both the ancient old world. Quinces which originate in the ancient Middle East. As well as tejocotes, their name derived from the native Nahuatl word texocotl which means “stone fruit,” also called the Mexican Hawthorn, they are a tasty seasonal fruit from Mexico and Guatemala that are reminiscent of a crabapple and are used in many of the same fashions; cooked, candied and even used to make festival decorations.

Ponche is a most pleasing drink when spiced with whole cinnamon sticks and cloves, sweetened with raw sugar cane and piloncillo cones, and jeweled with dried prunes. This simmered punch makes for a most delightful drink during the autumn and winter months.

I highly recommend the warm, festival ponche for you Sukkah party this season.

TRY ONE OF THESE RECIPES FOR HOLIDAY PONCHE FOR YOU SUKKAH PARTY:

And so this is how I spend the holiday season; looking into my cultural heritage and towards our regional traditions for festive foods to include in our Jewish holiday tradition.

I’d love to hear from all of you out there about what holiday foods from your culture and region taste like the Jewish holidays for you!

National Tamale Day

March 23rd is National Tamale Day – At one times the tamal – and its closely related north of the border variation known officially as the tamale – were a treat as all-American as the hot dog and hamburger, and could be found on street corners across the entire country by the end of the 19th century.

This is “The Tamale” in East Los Angeles, which opened in 1928. It is shaped in the popular shape of tamales at the time.

TheTamaleEastLosAngeles

EAST LOS ANGELES- “The Tamale” was built in 1928. It’s an example of programmatic architecture – where buildings are made to attract customers, often looking like what they sell inside. This building is no longer a restaurant. It has changed hands many times, and has been used as a hair salon and even a dental office. It was recently up for sale. Sadly, it is not landmarked for preservation and there are limited protections because of its location outside of the City of Los Angeles, located in unincorporated Los Angeles County.

The shape and wrapping of this tamale was a result of the process becoming automated by the California Chicken Tamale Co. in 1892; giving rise to the San Francisco style tamale. The automation of tamale making would also give an interesting uniform shape to our local XLNT brand tamales, founded in 1894, which had a plant located off of Washington Blvd. in Los Angeles.

This machine-made process not just made them easier to make, it also made it possible to produce and sell across the country.

In 1892 the founder of California Chicken Tamale Co. would take his product first to Chicago, where it would be met with great success. And eventually make their world debut during the 1893 World Columbian Fair in Chicago, and would proliferate as a craze across the country.

And in Chicago a new tamale recipe would also be popularized and take the market by storm, the corn meal style tamale filled with chili con carne; which seems to be inspired by Southern and Mississippi Delta related ingredients and flavors African-Americans brought with them as they migrated. And maybe even influenced by similar dishes and recipies from the delta region. These style tamales would also be popularized by African-Americans, and sold in mass on corners across the country. [See: “The unique Chicago tamale, a tuneful mystery.”]

Now back in Los Angeles tamale carts managed by street vendors had existed as far back as anyone can remember, the presence of tamales here stretching back to the Spanish-Mexican settlement of the area. And by the start of the 1890s in the American-era, even before they had become well-known elsewhere, tamale carts had already begun to take their place at the old Placita.

As Los Angeles Times once recounted the story:

“They dominated downtown by the 1890s, specifically from the old plaza near what is today Olvera Street southwest toward 6th Street, between Temple and Main, blocks that attracted itinerant men, new residents and laborers looking to waste their week’s earnings in the many saloons. As dusk fell, an army of 2-by-4 pushcarts and wagons wheeled their way through this Tamale Row, setting up shop until last call and beyond.”

These tamale carts were essential to laborers, residents, migrants… and even the frequenters of saloon nightlife, they depended upon them. In time they even came to service the local working-class anarchists and socialists who held meetings close by. This certainly made them a target by local business owners and politicians. And eventually tamale carts were banned from the Placita in 1924.

XLNT Tamale Cart – One of the original tamale carts of Los Angeles. Founded in 1894, they have been using the same recipe since 1906.

Then just a few years later in 1928, in a wide and open stretch of what is today known as Whittier Blvd., in the unincorporated territory of East Los Angeles, this tamale structure in the tradition of programmatic architecture arose. Offering a diner-like experience in which to enjoy tamales.

Now notice the items that they are serving here in the tamale cafe.

They are serving tamales; as well as chile con carne. Most likely both of them were provided by XLNT, one of original tamale carts which started a successful tamale empire in Los Angeles; making the tamales and the brick chile base. In the style of the time, the tamales were often served unwrapped and with chile con carne spooned over the top as a sauce. This “hot tamale” style is still a popular favorite with some old school Angelenos to this day.

This building is an interesting look at a fascinating period in Los Angeles history, indeed American history. I hope that one day The Tamale is historically landmarked and preserved!


HOW ABOUT THAT:

In Los Angeles street vending has had a big influence on our local food fare. Many immigrants made ends meet by food vending, not just Mexicans; but Shiks, Pakistanis, and African-Americans as well. And by the end of the 19th century tamales were already one of the hottest selling items across the country.

In the classic film “War of the Worlds” in 1953, one of the most important scenes is when the townsfolk notice the smoking crater which is concealing the space ship. Crowds of residents, journalist and officials all come out to see the spectacle. And with all these people waiting around the local entrepreneurs talk about making it into a tourist attraction. One of the characters, a Mexican man with an accent, suggest they can sell to the visitors: “…tamales, enchiladas and hot dogs.”

Now what can be more American than that, and also more Southern Californian?

Oh and by the way, the actor who played the Mexican pulled off the part, he had the look and accent down, almost like he had come from the barrio himself. The part was actually played by a Canadian born Jewish actor named Jack Kruschen.

Related articles:

The Racial Politics of Americanizing the Barrio Diet (1920s)

Is what you eat political? Do you accept the claim that your food choices determine your social order in this world? And do you accept that conforming to white American norms in eating is important in transforming people of color into better citizens? Will assimilating ones food choices make people of color less prone to crime and revolutionary tendencies?

AmericanizationThroughHomeMakingPearlEllis

Believe it or not, this is something that has been explored and well discussed in our communities for over a century.

In the 1920s in Southern California there were social reformers who were sent on transform the eating choices made by the public, especially among the immigrant working-class.

One of the most notable reformers to arise in this era was a lady by the name of Pearl Idelia Ellis, of the Department of Americanization and Homemaking, of Covina City Elementary Schools. She was the author the guide “Americanization though Homemaking” which was published in 1929, detailing her work.

Ellis’ work was based in Southern California, which put her in contact with local Mexican American homemakers. Where she would set an agenda for transforming their food choices into ones which made them more like the Anglo Americans they were expected to model.

In 1915 the California state legislature had passed the Home Teacher Act, which would allow school districts to employ teachers “to work in the homes of the pupils, instructing children and adults in matters related to school attendance,… in sanitation, in English language, in household duties,… and in fundamental principles of the American system of government and the rights and duties of citizenship.” This legislation was largely born out of an Americanist panic which arose at that time, as nativists insisted that society demanded that these so-called uncultured immigrants be Americanized.

This legislation enabled reformers like Pearl Ellis to take her work directly into the homes of the people she was trying to effect, with the official authority of state and local government behind her. While the work of Ellis extended into modeling almost every form of homemaking, she took special attention to food. She spent much time and energy with special concern for the nutrition of families and trying to influence their food choices.

PearlEllisPrefaceShe would encourage certain food choices for Mexican American mothers: giving up tortillas, and replacing them with sandwiches on store-bought white bread, made with mayonnaise and “commercial spreads,” and minced meats. They were further encouraged to give up essential staples of their diets like beans, and replaced them with lettuce and mixed salads (example: boiled spinach with mayonnaise, mixed fruit with mayonnaise, cherry-topped banana with mayonnaise, and even “pineapple and avocado salad with mayonnaise to carry out the color scheme”.)

In this manner she instructed mothers in making what she determined to be affordable and suitable food choices. She even went as far as to provide menus for their school lunch choices: “One glass of milk; one cheese sandwich; one lettuce sandwich; one graham cracker sandwich; one apple or pear; one cooky [sic]”.

She would set for people a top-down approach in how to transform Mexican homes into Americanized homes, starting with their choice for a child’s lunch. And based on the assumption that the dietary issues of the community was not based on a lack of food, but rooted in their poor choices of foods.

Professor George Sanchez of USC sheds some light on this for us:

“Food and diet management became tools in a system of social control intended to construct a well-behaved citizenry. A healthy diet was seen not only as an essential for proper health but as fundamental for creating productive members of society. In the eyes of reformers, the typical noon lunch of the Mexican child, thought to consist of “a folded tortilla with no filling,” became the first step in a life of crime. With “no milk or fruit to whet the appetite,” the child would become lazy and subsequently “take food from the lunch boxes of more fortunate children” in order to appease her or her hunger. “Thus,” reformers alleged, “the initial step in a life of thieving is taken.” Teaching immigrant women proper food values would keep the head of the family out of jail, the rest of the family off the charity list, and save taxpayers a great amount of money.”

(Mothers and Motherhood: Readings In American History; “Go After the Women: Americanization and the Mexican Immigrant Woman, 1915-1929)

The ideas of Americanization would not just be taught to mothers, but it would carry over into the education of girls in the school system. As young Mexican American girls were taught these values in order to model them for the home. With the idea that gradually one could transform the tastes of the family into more Americanized ones; which was further reinforced by the school lunch system.

The very table and every meal plate thus became battlefields for cultural assimilation.

Though make no mistake about it, their proposed model American-style diet was even intended to do nothing less than help maintain social order itself.

In her work titled “Americanization though Homemaking,” published in 1929, Pearl Ellis contended:

“The old adage, ‘ As a man thinketh so is he,’ might be easily translated to, ‘As a man eatest, so is he,’ for his thinking is controlled to a greater extent. Than we are wont to realize by his eating and digestive processes… Employers maintain that the man with a home and family is more dependable and less revolutionary in his tendencies. Thus the influence of the home extends to labor problems and to many other problems in the social regime. The homekeeper creates the atmosphere, whether it be one of harmony and cooperation or of dissatisfaction and revolt. It is to be remembered that the dispositions, one angelic, become very much marred with incorrect diet and resultant digestive disturbances.”

Yeah… how about that take on dietary pseudo-science based in classism.

Now think about that, vato, next time you find yourself eating your bologna and mayo, on white bread, that somehow found its way into your face!

And seriously, I also hope people give this all some real good consideration before you even listen to some politicians suggest replacing a big part of our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with “Blue Apron” type meals sent down to us from a government-based central planning, developed by the current administration and rolled-out by private corporate contractors. Think of how bad it could go, if our food is directly chosen for us by them; with food being sent to us regardless of our specific dietary needs and cultural customs.

History tell us that people who lack cultural sensitivity take the reins, they do more damage than just make culturally inappropriate food choices. They also tend to want to change our diets as a form of maintaining the social order.

Topics of further discussion:

  • The social pressure to Americanize ones diet was also experienced by other immigrants as well, especially among the Jews in the “corn beef belt” of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles. The dietary choices of Ashkenazi Jews from the east were often considered too exotic and rich; they were expected to conform to a more Americanized diet. In some cases Jewish social service organizations even encouraged what they considered cheaper and more mainstream treif (non-kosher, religiously inappropriate) foods. When the Los Angeles Council of Jewish Women in 1928 published their “Helpful Hints for Jewish Housewives,” they included recipes for Virginia ham, pork chops, oysters and other non-kosher recipes as well as advertisements for Best Foods Mayonnaise, Maxwell House Coffee, and branded canned vegetables and other processed foods.

  • Lunchtime social pressure to assimilate. In Fred Okrand’s interview for the UCLA Center for Oral History Research, “Forty Years Defending the Constitution, Oral History Interview” Tape 1 side 2 – Feb. 4th, 1982, Okrand speaks of his classmates at Lorena Street School in Boyle Heights: “… The kids would make fun of me…because they would be eating sandwiches on white bread, on what we would call kvachehdikeh, soft white bread. But my mother was a Jewish woman; she would go to the varshehveh bakery on Brooklyn Avenue and get good Jewish rye bread. And I remember being ashamed somehow, that I was eating rye bread and the other kids weren’t….” He was shamed for eating cheaper and darker Jewish rye bread, instead of grocery store-bought white bread.