In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings about tradition (Tradition!) being the backbone of the Jewish people. No offense to the famed milkman, but sometimes culinary traditions need to be turned on their head. (Really, no one needs to eat another meal of brown fare and gray gefilte fish). But is Rosh Hashanah the time to abandon your great grandmother's brisket recipe? As the granddaughter of two Jewish bubbies, trust me, I understand the hesitation—and the heaping serving of guilt.
So this year, I'm planning to meet Tevye—and my grandmothers—halfway by borrowing recipes and customs from Jewish New Year celebrations around the globe. While most of us are familiar with the Ashkenazi staples of gefilte fish, tzimmes and apples and honey, there's no biblical mandate to eat these foods on Rosh Hashanah—like Tevye says, it's tradition!
These dishes grew out of the idea of eating foods that symbolize a prosperous and sweet year ahead. Here's a look at how Jews around the world have taken these ideas and adapted them to local customs and ingredients. Feel free to borrow elements from here and there to create your feast.
A Turkish Feast
For Turkish Jews (and many Sephardic communities) Rosh Hashanah dinner is all about cognates. Many of the foods that are the centerpiece of the Turkish holiday table have Hebrew or Aramaic names sound like words associated with a good year. (For example, the Aramaic word for fenugreek is similar to the world to multiply.)
In this custom, pumpkin is believed to ward off evil decrees, leeks bring luck and sesame seeds represent prosperity. They all conveniently provide the basis for the delicious menu below. The dinner is wrapped up with a Tishpishti cake, a unique twist on a honey cake made with nuts, like baklava but without the pastry.
- Pan De Calabaza (Turkish Pumpkin Bread)
- Keftes de Prasa (Turkish Leek Croquettes)
- Pollo Con Susam (Turkish Sesame Seed Chicken)
- Tishpishti (Turkish Honey-Nut Cake)
Exploring the Persian Table
The end of Ramadan and the Jewish New Year often lay close to one another on the calendar. Many Jews in Iran borrowed recipes from their neighbors celebrating iftar and served kosher renditions of classic Persian fare like the tangy chicken dish fesenjan and verdant herb rice speckled with pistachios.
- Fesenjan (Chicken in Pomegranate Walnut Sauce)
- Chicken Soup with Gondi (Dumplings)
- Green Rice
- Chickpea Cakes with Lime Honey Dipping Sauce
- Poached Apples and Pears in Orange Blossom Water
An Indian Fete
The Jewish community of India is largely unknown, but the B'nai Israel of Mumbai are believed to be descendents of one of the lost tribes of Israel. While much of the community relocated to Israel, elaborate Indian dishes like lamb biryani remained the centerpiece of Rosh Hashanah dinners. Over time, that tradition has blended with Israeli custom, so try rounding out the meal with a selection of homemade mezze.
- Lamb Biryani
- Baingan Bharta (Eggplant Curry)
- Spiced Carrot Salad
- Apple Sabzi (Apple Cooked in Mild Spices With Coconut)
Dipping Into Syrian FareIf you're from the south, you are likely already familiar with the custom of eating Hoppin' John (a dish of black eyed peas) on New Years day. The little beans suggest a year of wealth. Syrian Jews kick off the New Year with a kosher take on the same dish as part of an elaborate feast that features nine symbolic foods. Try serving it, as the Syrians do, along side platters of fresh dates.
About the author: Devra Ferst is the food editor of the Forward newspaper. She is also a frequent contributor to Grub Street and when she isn't at her computer writing, she can be found in her kitchen cooking up something delicious. You can follow her at @devraferst.