Bean stew makes a hearty Hanukkah Cholent: Slow-cooked dish has simmered through Jewish history for centuries.

December 04, 1996|By Joan Nathan | Joan Nathan,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

On Friday afternoons at the turn of the century on New York's Lower East Side, young Jewish boys would take their mother's freshly assembled Sabbath stew -- cholent -- to nearby bakeries to be cooked overnight.

Each Friday, Meyer Lansky's mother would give him a nickel to pay the baker for this task. His route went by Delancey Street, where crap games were being played. When he was about 12 years old, the budding mobster decided to toss in his mother's nickel and play the game. He lost, and returned with an uncooked cholent for the Sabbath. The next week he played again, and won. He returned with a cooked cholent. Thus began his successful gambling career. He never had to fear again that he wouldn't bring home the cholent.

Fortunately, there are not too many stories like Meyer Lansky's.

Yet cholent is enjoying a rebirth for the nonreligious as well as the religious. And what better time to serve this robust bean stew than at a gathering for Hanukkah, which begins tomorrow evening.

Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean victory over Antiochus of Syria some 21 centuries ago. While going to cleanse and rededicate the Temple, the Maccabees found only enough sacred oil to light the menorah for one day. But a miracle occurred, and one day's supply lasted eight.

For each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, therefore, an additional candle is inserted, from right to left, and lighted by the shamas (or helper), from left to right, until an eight-candled menorah is aglow.

Whether it is called hamin, cholent or adafina, this Sabbath luncheon stew has distinguished Jewish cooking since at least the 4th century. Rabbis of the period explained in their written doctrinehow they created hamin, a hot food. The name of the dish is related to the Hebrew word for heat. On late Friday, the dish was to be covered and left in the hot oven so that the prohibition against lighting fires on the Sabbath would not be broken.

When Jews left Spain's Iberian peninsula because of the persecution during the Inquisition, they took with them the tradition of these slowly simmering Sabbath stews, kept hot throughout the night in embers.

For centuries, on Friday mornings, they would assemble a combination of fava beans or garbanzo beans, onions, garlic and meat, sometimes marrow bones, in a pot with water. The dish was covered with a cloth or a mixture of flour and water to form a crust. It would start cooking on Friday before sunset and be left to warm all night over coals in a hot oven, one often sealed with lime to preserve heat. The next day, after synagogue service, they would open the pot for lunch.

Every wave of Jewish immigration to the Americas had its own form of cholent. Also, American sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries, enslaved by Barbary pirates off the coast of North Africa, may have brought a similar dish back with them after they were freed. In one account, sailors wrote that the Jews' "Sunday" dinner was made of peas baked in an oven for nearly 24 hours. Substituting native kidney beans for Old World garbanzo beans and fava beans, and pork fat for the beef marrow bones served in this predominantly Muslim part of the world, the returning sailors probably added molasses to create a unique American stew.

In Israel, cholent is taking on a new character as a result of marriages between Jews from more than 70 different nations.

"My sister-in-law, who is Jerusalem Sephardic, makes a different cholent from ours," said Nitza Ben Elissar, wife of the new Israeli ambassador to the United States. "So I have added her Sephardic koklas [a savory pudding with meat] and haminadavos [hard-cooked eggs] to mine. This is what Israel is all about, a give-and-take between the ethnic groups."

Today in America, opinion differs as to the best cholent. Cholent purists think that only meat, onions and beans will do. Others make chicken cholents, crock-pot ones or vegetarian cholents with Indian spices.

Even superstar chefs like Allen Susser of Chef Allen's in Miami are stirring up new versions, such as his red bean and dried fruit rendition. Salsa and ketchup have been added as flavorings, and leftovers are great for tortilla fillings. In some areas with an Orthodox Jewish population, kosher supermarkets try to offer a cholent meat special every Friday.

Cholent is also a perfect excuse for a Hanukkah centerpiece for a large crowd. Play around with this dish. Depending on your tastes, add more potatoes and reduce the number of beans. Never stir the cholent, something you cannot do on the Sabbath anyway. Eat it slowly, with light red wine, beer or schnapps. Serve with sour pickles, a large green salad and a compote for dessert. And for Hanukkah, make sure you serve a plate of sufganiyot -- Israeli jelly doughnuts -- for dessert.

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