by Oded Schwartz
A Roman Emperor asked Rabbi Joshua Ben Chananya (80-110 AD) why Sabbath dishes had such a fragrance. The Rabbi answered that the Jews used a special spice called Sabbath. When the Emperor asked for some, the Rabbi retorted that the spice is only effective for those who keep the Sabbath.
But what is Sabbath food? We have very few clues as to how Shabbat was celebrated in Biblical time, except for a remark in the book of Nehemiah (8:10) that on Sabbath, the Jews should
eat fat and drink sweet (liquids) - and celebrate the day with charity and joy. Although it captures the mood
of the day it is a very elusive clue to a day which, among the Orthodox, is still celebrated with 3 meals - an opening meal on Friday night after the Synagogue service; followed by early lunch on Saturday - after the morning service, and then Se'udah Shlishit - a third meal eaten on Saturday afternoon.
Some communities also serve a fourth meal Melave Malka - (escorting Queen Shabbat) on Saturday evening. One of the popular explanations for the frequency and amount of food is that on the Sabbath every Jew gets 'neshama yetera' - an extra soul that descends from heaven and that this soul needs feeding too.
As no work is allowed on the Sabbath, preparing this gargantuan amount of food created a huge logistical problem - how to serve a hot dish on a day when cooking and heating are not allowed. The universal solution was Hamin, probably the only ancient Jewish dish that is still eaten today
Jews eat Hamin all over the world. The name might differ but the basic technique remains the same. The Ashkenazi call it Chulent, cholent, or shalet. Sephardi Jews call it Hamin (Hebrew), Haminado (Jedismo), Matphonia (Kurdistan), Shahina and Deffina (North Africa), Haris (Yemenite) or Tabit (Iraqi). Some of the names indicate a technique Deffina and Matphonia come from the Hebrew root 'd-f-n' which means, "to press to the wall".
This alludes to the technique of sealing plastering the opening of the oven with wet clay. Most of the other names originate from the Hebrew word for hot (cham). The words Chulent or Shalet are probably derivations from the old French word chald - in modern French chaud, warm or hot.
There is a charming if unlikely theory that the word cholent comes from the Yiddish shul (synagogue) ende indicating the time the dish was served, at the end of the synagogue service, Saturday lunch.
The exact origin of the dish, which the German poet Heine calls divine, is unknown, though some say that its history goes as far back as ancient Egypt, which is very likely. The same
kind of technique is used all over the world for it is based on a sound peasant logic which stems from profound knowledge of how to use food and energy resources properly. One uses
a short burst of high heat to bring the dish to boil, after which the cooking is done by the energy that remains in the oven after the fire has been extinguished. Alternatively the
boiling dish is covered with an insulating layer, which keeps it at a constant temperature - the same technique is still
used in hay cooking.
The word Hamin is mentioned a few times in the Mishna and can mean either hot water or hot food. A whole chapter (Shabbat 4) is dedicated to a detailed discussion considering which
materials are allowed for use as cover - dung, lime & peat are not allowed because they produce heat, while wool, feathers and pigeon wings are allowed. But for a clue of what Hamin
contains we have
to go to Nedarim (6:5). In this chapter the sages discuses what makes a dish meaty - is it only the meat that was cooked in the stew, or are the eggs, onion and the gravy also considered meat? I would like to believe that the described stew is the forbearer of today's Hamin.
The dish we eat today is basically a slow cooked stew of meat, legumes and grain. To this basic formula a fascinating array of delicious puddings and dumplings are added. These are added to starch the dish and make it as substantial as possible. Although these can be rather heavy, part of the charm of Hamin is its ability to give a warm, satisfying sleep inducing 'Saturday after lunch feeling' (Shabes nach tish).
Pascal Perez-Rubin in here book 'Israeli Flavours' (Pascal Perez Rubin, Israeli Flavor, Ruth Sirkis, Israel 1987) observes that the main difference between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Hamin
is that in Europe the pulses used are mainly beans (Bebalach) such as lima, navy or haricot beans, while
in the Sephardi Hamin chickpeas are used. Generally, this observation is sound, yet some Ashkenazi communities especially in the Balkan countries, Romania and southern Russia - where the Sephardi influence was present, also used chickpeas in their Hamin. There are two more broad differences: the Sephardi kitchen uses mostly whole-wheat grain and rice while the in
the Ashkenazi pearl and pot barley are customary.
As for the meats - the Ashkenazi use beef, duck, goose and schmaltz (fat), the Sephardi - beef, mutton, chicken, mutton fat and oil. Because of the length and genteelness of cooking, the meat used is cheap, gelatinous and tough.
Yet the most favoured 'extensions', both in the East and the West, are the numerous dumplings, stuffing and savoury croquets which are added to the Hamin. Kurdish Jews prepare a special
cracked wheat and semolina dumpling stuffed with beef. The Moroccan Jews serve a wonderfully fragrant large dumpling made with a mixture of ground nuts, mince meat - lamb, beef
bread crumbs, favoured with sugar, black pepper, mace, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg.
There is no doubt that the most popular addition is a pudding made in a beef casing (Derma) or stomach - the Jewish Haggis. In the East it is usually filled with mincemeat and rice,
flavoured with spices. In Central and Eastern Europethe pudding is known as kishke and traditionally stuffed with a mixture of flour, bread crumbs (matzo meal in Pesach), potatoes and raw
goose or duck fat. It is usually flavoured only with salt and pepper although parsley and dill are sometimes added. The same pudding is made from the neck skin of chickens, duck or geese, in which case it is known as Helzel (neck in Yiddish).
The inclusion of eggs, which is also mentioned in the Mishna, is essential in Eastern and especially in Mediterranean Hamins. The eggs are supposed to symbolize the continuous mourning for the destruction of the Temple.
Symbols apart, they were included to stretch the stew when meat was scarce. The eggs are added raw and cook slowly, absorbing the flavour of the stew and become brown and fragrant with a soft melting texture. They are so good that there is a technique of making Huevos Haminados, not as a part of the Hamin, but by slowly simmering eggs for few hours, preferably overnight with onion skins, coffee grounds and oil. These are served by the Sephardi community for Saturday, or during the week for breakfast, warm, accompanied by pastries filled with cheese or spinach (borekas).
Oded who is the author of seven books is best known for his hugely popular cookery and food-related writing. Oded's first book 'In Search of Plenty - a history of Jewish food' (1992) was short-listed for the British Andre' Simon award and won a special mention in the international "Lenghe Ceretto Prize" for food and wine culture. He now lives in Cape Town and contributes occasionally to Al'Hashulchan (a leading Israeli food & dining magazine). He is still researching and writing about the history and culture of Israeli & Jewish food.