A Star of David, a shank bone, a pomegranate: These are some of the symbols that our Jewish community uses to signify what words alone cannot express. We grasp these symbols literally and emotionally because they give us a sense of belonging, of identity.
Symbols are on display on our seder plates at Passover. In the Sephardic and Mizrachi Jewish communities, symbols also play a part on Rosh HaShanah (which begins at sundown on Sunday, Sept. 29), as families gather around the table for a “seder yehi ratzon” (“may it be God’s will”) to usher in the New Year holiday.
“We serve foods that grow abundantly because they show our hopes and wishes for abundant blessings in the year to come,” says Rahel Musleah, journalist, musician, educator, tour leader and author of several books, including “Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah” (which explains how Sephardic Rosh HaShanah seders are observed throughout the world).
Musleah, who was born in Calcutta to a Baghdadi family that settled in India in 1820, explains that foods such as leeks, dates, beans, pumpkins, apples and beet greens (or spinach) are always included before the main meal, and before each one of them is eaten, a special prayer is offered. Some of the prayers contain puns on an ingredient’s Hebrew name: for scallions or leeks, for example (karti in Hebrew, which sounds like the Hebrew word kartu, “to cut off”), the prayer becomes “may it be your will, God, to cut off our enemies.” Other symbolic foods offer visual clues. “According to Rabbinic teachings, pomegranates are filled with as many seeds as there are mitzvot,” Musleah says, adding that she once actually counted the seeds and got one shy of 613! Before eating a pomegranate, she adds, “we pray that our lives are filled with as many mitzvot as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.”
Despite their very different backgrounds, Ruth Fox and Vicky Cohen serve many of the same foods and recite similar blessings at their Rosh HaShanah seders. The two sisters, co-authors of “Tahini and Turmeric: 101 Middle Eastern Classics – Made Irresistibly Vegan,” grew up in Spain but their family has origins in Lebanon and Syria. At their Rosh HaShanah seder they give each guest a small plate that contains a sample of each symbolic food: zucchini, leeks, spinach, dates, apples and pomegranates. They eat many of the ingredients as is, but also include some in the dishes they serve at the meal. Dinner usually features leek soup, zucchini frittata, spinach with pine nuts and raisins, stuffed dates and baked apples.
Although Fox and Cohen are vegetarians, others in their family are not, and so they also continue an old Sephardic tradition of including another symbolic ingredient: a “head” of a fish. “Once in a while growing up our father would get the head of a lamb for our Rosh HaShanah table, but mostly we had a cooked head of fish. Which is what we do now,” they said.
Musleah mentioned that her family discontinued the tradition of the fish head because its Hebrew name, dag, sounded too much like the Hebrew word for worry (d’agah). She suggested that families who wish to carry on the tradition of using a “head” to symbolize leadership might want to substitute “a head of lettuce.”
There’s always fish — with its head — at Einat Admony’s Rosh HaShanah seder. She grew up in Israel and was a chef in the Israeli army, but most of the dishes are the traditional ones her mom always cooked. “My mom, she’s such a balaboosta!” says Admony, chef-owner of New York’s famed restaurants Balaboosta, Taïm and Kish-Kash. “She was a working mom, but always had time to cook delicious food. And because my mom’s family is Persian, and my Dad’s is Yemenite, and also our neighbor was Moroccan,” she said, “there were lots of different types of foods at the table for Rosh HaShanah.”
The fish dish, a family favorite, is made with carrots, bell peppers and Middle Eastern spices. It is one of many courses at the festive meal that also includes Yemenite soup seasoned with fragrant hawaij spices. “We also serve Persian rice, because it is so special, sweet and colorful,” and “we have lamb too.”
But the most beloved Rosh HaShanah food at her family seder is fasenjan, a traditional Persian dish of chicken braised with pomegranate jam and crushed walnuts. “When we were kids we waited all year for this dish. We call it ‘Black Chicken,’” says Admony, who added that her father would get cases of pomegranates and everyone in the family would pick out the seeds; her mom used to cook a fabulously flavorful pomegranate preserve. “It is such a special dish. My mom wanted to spoil us so she would use lots of walnuts and my sister and I would fight over the nuts because we loved them so much!
“So this is still our menu,” she says, even though Admony now lives in New York with her husband and children. She says she has altered the flavors and seasonings, just a bit, but “it’s basically the same food.”
Chef Admony’s newest cookbook, “Shuk,” has just been released; but she has provided us with the recipe for fasenjan from her cookbook “Balaboosta.” Rahel Musleah offers a simple, but splendid dessert: Apple Maraba.
Fasenjan (Einat Admony)
2 lbs. chicken thighs
1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. ground black pepper
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground turmeric
3 tbsp. canola oil
1-1/4 cups pomegranate confiture (see recipe below)
2 cups toasted walnuts
Pinch of saffron threads
Place a large pot over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. While the pot is heating, pat the chicken dry and season with the salt, pepper, cumin and turmeric. Add the oil to the pot and brown the chicken on all sides. Overcrowding the pot will steam the chicken instead of searing it. Add the pomegranate confiture and stir in the walnuts and saffron. Place a lid on the pot and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer for 45 minutes. Uncover and reduce the sauce for another 45 minutes. Remove from the heat and take the pot straight to the table for a family-style meal.
Makes 4-6 servings
6 cups pomegranate seeds
(from about 10 medium
6 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
Place the seeds, sugar and water in a medium saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook until thick, like syrup, about 35 minutes. Stir the mixture regularly to prevent the bottom from burning. Remove from the heat and, using a china cup or ladle, strain and discard any excess seeds. Let cool completely.
Makes about 2 cups
* If, for some crazy reason, you can manage to live without pomegranate confiture you can make a substitute for it by whisking together 1/2 cup of pomegranate molasses, 1/2 cup of pomegranate juice, and 1/4 cup of honey.
Apple Maraba (Rahel Musleah)
4 slightly tart apples
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup brown sugar
8-12 whole cloves
1 tbsp. rose water
2 drops natural red food coloring
Peel and core apples. Cut into eights (or quarters if apples are small). Set aside. Pour water and sugar into a wide-based cooking pot, bring to a boil and simmer until sugar dissolves. Insert cloves into some of the apple pieces. Add apples, rose water and food coloring (optional; it tints the apples a pinkish color). Bring to a boil and simmer covered (about 10 minutes). Shake the apples in the pan from time to time. Apples should be soft but retain their shape. Cook uncovered 2-5 minutes longer until liquid evaporates. Apples should not completely dissolve into applesauce. Remove from heat and cool. Remove cloves if desired. Double the recipe for more servings.
Makes 4 servings
Ronnie Fein is a cookbook author, food writer and cooking teacher in Stamford. She is the author of “The Modern Kosher Kitchen” and “Hip Kosher.” Visit her food blog, Kitchen Vignettes, at www.ronniefein.com, friend on Facebook at RonnieVailFein, Twitter at @RonnieVFein, Instagram at RonnieVFein.