Jerusalem's Bounty

The ancient city offers flavors from many cultures and inspiration for Rosh Hashana feasts.

September 12, 2001|By Louise Jacobsen Fisher | By Louise Jacobsen Fisher,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JERUSALEM - "Charif, charif," calls the spice seller in the ancient open-air Machaneh Yehudah or Jewish Market in Jerusalem. "Spicy, spicy," he repeats to passers-by laden with plastic bags of fresh produce, fish, meat and flowers in preparation for Rosh Hashana, the feasts of the Jewish New Year. Beginning Monday evening, Jews in Jerusalem and around the world will welcome the year 5762 with feasting and celebration.

Beside the spice seller loom 3-foot-tall stalagmites of vibrant red paprika proclaiming the freshness and intensity of the spices he sells from his closet-sized store. Nod, and he shaves the paprika into a shiny copper pot and pops it on a tarnished green brass scale that over the years has probably weighed a ton of red paprika.

Jerusalem is more than a city on a hill. It was a prize for three major religions, the apex of trade routes used by merchants coming from the East and heading to the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Caesarea. Its rich history makes the city a food encyclopedia of the Middle East, Europe, North Africa and the Far East.

As Rosh Hashana approaches, traditional foods of Jerusalem come not only to mind, but to all the senses as well. Walk through Jerusalem neighborhoods, and you can smell the aromas of history emanating from cooking pots and bread ovens.

From Romans and Persians to Muslims and Crusaders, many people and their cultures have left their mark on Jerusalem and its foods. Conquerors and their occupying entourages would take hold of Jerusalem for a few years or centuries, adopting local food and spices as their own.

Crusaders of the 11th and 12th centuries used flatbread as plates to serve their primary food: roasted meat and fowl. Arabs now eat a similar dish called Mussakhan. Roasted chicken is placed on doughy pita bread, covered with sautM-ied onions, pine nuts and herbs and baked again. It is served piping hot from the oven with no plates required.

The Turks get credit for introducing stuffed grape leaves to the area. But the Persians and Armenians brought their own version - grape leaves with lentils. When the Greeks arrived, their grape leaves contained primarily meat, while other traditions used only goat cheese.

In recent years, immigrants, not armies, have made Jerusalem a culinary center. Each group, each street cooks its traditional foods such as Ma'aleubeh, or meat rice pot, for Arab holidays or cholent stews for Jewish Shabbat. Go down one street and smell the frying kibbeh and falafel; on another block, the air carries the aroma of freshly baked flatbreads and cheese pastries.

In the 1940s and 1950s, large groups of Jews from Eastern and Western Europe arrived in Jerusalem and the rest of Israel, bringing their traditional recipes for pickled fish, dark rye bread, potatoes and cabbage. Meanwhile, Jews from the Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia and Northern Africa brought sweet and spicy dishes of lamb, pumpkin and yams served with couscous.

Persian and Iraqi Jews came with kebabs and flavorful, delicate koresh stews as well as intricate rice dishes. The Cochin, Jews from India, contributed their spicy stuffed breads, curries and stuffed vegetables. Some of the most delicious food and unusual customs came with the Yemenite Jews, who have a different bread for each life-cycle ceremony.

Russian Jews are the most recent large group of immigrants to Israel. With them comes their passion for sweets and pastries. Almost every bakery in Jerusalem features flaky, puffed borekas, meat- and vegetable-filled pastries baked golden brown.

Rosh Hashana in Jerusalem means traditional family cooking for many Jews. The sweet, flavorful red paprika for sale in Jerusalem's Jewish Market is perfect for the Rosh Hashana Tunisian and Moroccan dishes of lamb and fish. These North African Sephardic entrees, as well as the sweet harvest vegetables of squash, pumpkin and yams, are infused with the savory spice mixtures of cumin, saffron, cardamom, cinnamon and an array of varying heats from dried ground red chili peppers.

Even though lamb and fish have been traditional Rosh Hashana dishes for many Jewish families, Tunisian and Moroccan Jews serve a flavorful stew of chickpeas, squash and sweet potatoes over couscous as a substantial vegetarian main dish.

The people of Tunisia and Morocco consider couscous a national dish and so do the Jews originating from these countries. Couscous is a type of pasta made from hard wheat rolled until it turns into fine, sandlike grains. When the Roman Empire occupied North Africa, the Romans ordered their subjects to send their best wheat to Rome. The small dregs or leftovers became couscous, a dish refined over generations.

"We must have couscous for it to be Shabbat dinner," says Linoy Kadosh of Bet She'an, Israel, whose grandmother is Tunisian. Besides its buttery taste and fluffy texture, couscous has another great quality - it is easy to cook. Couscous is available in the pasta-and-rice aisle in almost every supermarket.

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