Tasting the diversity of the Jewish journey
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.
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 are 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.
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. Just like my Mexican American grandmother’s recipe; whole roasted mild green pepper, filled with cheese and dipped in a light egg batter, and fried until golden brown. Served with a warm and comforting tomato salsa poured over the top.
Chiles rellenos de picadillo. During the winter months I also make a traditional Mexican version of this dish with roasted pobalano chiles, filled with a picadillo of minced beef; served either savory filled with diced vegetables, or sweet with dried fruits and chopped nuts.
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 traditional dish on Mexican Independence day in Septermber.
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 losing 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 pan 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.
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.
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.
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 new and ancient old world. Quinces which originate in the ancient Middle East. As well as American 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:
- How to make ponche, the traditional Mexican Christmas punch (The Mija Chronicles)
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!