This recipe absolutely fascinates me! It isn't often that a recipe gives you a glimpse into the ancient Jewish kitchen and traditions, yet by tracing this recipe and it's history, that is exactly what we can do. This dish provides an anthropological history of the wandering Jew and a direct cause and effect relationship of how these global travels affected other cultures kitchens and traditions. This dish started out as a traditional Jewish Rosh Hashanah meal and over the centuries it developed into a secular New Year dish eaten by many Americans, especially those that live in the South.
The Seder for Rosh Hashanah is first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud lists foods that should be eaten on the New Year, connecting their Hebrew name to a bracha which is recited as a means to ensure good fortune.for the coming year. These symbols include the apple, pomegranate and fish head (or sheeps head), all of which are still to be found on the Ashkenazi Rosh Hashanah table, but there is also a wide variety of foods which are not. These other food symbols include pumpkins, dates, leeks, black-eyed peas, and beet leaves, all of which remain part of the traditional Sephardic Rosh Hashanah menu as stated in the Talmud.
In Israel, with time, and with more integration of the Sephardic and Ashkenazi cultures, it is common to find Ashkenazi families who are including this wider variety of simanim, (food symbols) in their Rosh Hashanah Seder. The recipe below includes four of the symbolic foods from this list; pumpkin (butternut squash)-kara, black-eyed peas-rubiya, beets (or beet leaves)-salka, and leeks-karti.
Other than that this recipe includes so many of the Rosh Hashanah simanim (symbols), what fascinates me about this dish is its history. Following the development of this dish shows how foods and culture merge, travel, and develop their own symbolism and traditions. This dish, once a uniquely Jewish New Year tradition is now a meal that is commonly served at midnight December 31, the start of the secular New Year, and it is becoming part of mainstream American culture. One study traces this development of this tradition to the Caribbean Jewish community. The African slave population in the Caribbean noted that this is a dish that the Jews would eat on their New Years holiday, and they emulated the Jewish tradition but reformulated it to their own New Year holiday celebration which takes place on the eve of January 1, December 31.
From the Caribbean slave population, it then traveled to the United States where the slave population in the South continued to celebrate the New Year with this dish where it stilled retained the symbolic connection to their new year. The change was however that instead of retaining the hebrew language meaning of the symbols and thus their qualifying attributes, these same ingredients were given a whole new symbolism, while still retaining the idea that these foods were indicators of good luck for the coming year. The new tradition has the beans representing coins and the greens representing the American dollar bills, the intent being that eating this dish should bring a blessing for prosperity for the coming year. Apparently, the general population of the USA has either found this dish to be delicious, or else they enjoy the symbolism and tradition of eating a special New Years dish because with time this dish has spread from being a tradition of the African American population to a multi-cultural tradition throughout the United States. And what is fascinating to me is that probably none of them know the ancient Jewish source for this tradition.
I love to serve this dish on Rosh Hashanah. Besides the fact that it is absolutely delicious and an easy one pot meal which is always a welcome thing for a holiday, the symbolism of this dish brings me a deeper connection to our roots and our history. I have a blended family, I am of Ashkenazi descent, moving to Israel from America, and my husband came from France and is Sephardic. Needless to say we have many different traditions and we live far away from the traditions of the countries of our births. For me, serving this dish involves a sense of Jewish nationalism and pride along with a feeling that it encapsulates our own personal history as well as the larger history of our people. I feel like when I prepare and serve this dish that I am reclaiming an ancient tradition, which had been lost to the Ashkenazi world, as well as acknowledging our long exile where the “wandering Jew” spread Jewish traditions throughout the world, ironically even as the local Jews weren't even aware that their own ancient tradition was now being observed by the local culture. The bonus is that it is quick and easy to prepare and can feed a lot of people rather inexpensively.
There are two options below, a vegan option which uses mushrooms or the more traditional meat recipe which uses lamb.
- sesame oil (my favorite cooking oil)
- 1/2 cup black-eyed peas, soaked overnight and drained
- 1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into large cubes
- 1 bunch of beet greens or spinach, roughly chopped
- 1 leek, diced
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 cloves pressed garlic
- 1/ inch/2 cm grated ginger
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 bunch of finely chopped coriander
- 1/2 kilo shitake mushrooms OR 1/2 kilo shoulder of lamb, cubed
- salt and pepper
- 1/4 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1/4 tsp cardammom
- 1/4 tsp Persian allspice
Heat the oil in a large heavy pot, I like to use a dutch oven. Add the onion, leek, garlic, ginger and spices (the salt gets added at the end) and saute for 1-2 minutes being careful not to burn the spices. Add the mushrooms/lamb and saute for five minutes more. Add the greens and sweat them until they are limp. Add 2 cups water, the black-eyed peas, squash and the coriander. Cover the pot and bring the stew to a boil. Simmer closed for 30 minutes, and then uncover the pot and add the salt. Continue to simmer on a low flame for another 45 minutes or until most of the water has evaporated and you are left with a thick stew.
Serve warm on a bed of rice. Serves 6-8.