Saved by Cholent
After the dish rescued my family from a robbery, I traveled the world searching for new ways to cook it
My mother’s family was one of the last Jewish households to leave Detroit for the suburbs in the white flight of the 1960s. One year on Sukkot, often a chilly holiday in Michigan, the family was huddled in the sukkah on a Friday night, eating bowls of warm cholent, a slow-simmering stew of meat, potatoes, and beans. Suddenly, two men with guns burst in demanding money, an increasingly common occurrence in Detroit at the time. My mother and her family, having no money with them because it was Shabbat and a chag, just stared at the men, unsure of what to do next. As the men stared back, one looked at his companion and said, “I don’t think these people have anything. They’re sitting in a hut eating beans! They’ve got less than we do!” And with that, they left, leaving my mother and her family stunned, grateful, and then laughing at how cholent had saved the day.
Cholent, simmered overnight and usually eaten on Shabbat day, has been a part of my family’s tradition for generations. My father’s great-grandmother owned a kosher bakery in the town of Ivenitz, Russia, in the early 1900s. Every Friday, her fellow shtetl-dwellers would arrive with their pots of cholent, ready to be put in the bakery’s oven and cooked over a low heat overnight. After synagogue on Shabbat morning, they would return to the bakery to retrieve their hot cholent to eat for lunch, something that wasn’t unusual in many shtetls of Eastern Europe.
Given my family’s long history with the dish, it’s not surprising that my love affair with cholent started at a young age. I grew up eating my mother’s cholent every Shabbat, even in the summer. I was a picky eater as a child, but cholent was one thing I always liked. When I was 5, having one of my first sleepovers at a friend’s, her mother called mine in a panic at dinnertime: “Devorah says she only wants to eat cholent. It’s Wednesday night; I don’t have any!”
As a child, I knew only the most traditional Ashkenazi version of the dish. But as an adult, my taste buds were turned on to a whole new range of possibilities when I tried a very different Moroccan recipe at my sister’s in-law’s in Israel. Since that moment, I’ve set out to sample cholents from around the world. And I’ve found a huge variety of flavors, each representative of its local cuisine but all connected as a quintessentially Jewish meal.
The word cholent likely comes from the French chaud-lent, meaning “warm slowly.” Joan Nathan said the original dish probably started in ancient Israel as chamim, where it was cooked with lamb and chickpeas, and then migrated to France and the rest of Europe. “When the Jews left Spain [during the Inquisition] and went to Eastern Europe,” she told me, “this dish was changed from lamb and goat to beef and barley, and eventually potato replaced the chickpeas, and cholent as we know it was born.” Because my ancestors are from Eastern Europe, our family’s cholent, like many Ashkenazis’, consists of beans, barley, meat, and potatoes flavored with salt and pepper.
Cholent is one of a small number of dishes that are intrinsically Jewish. Because Jews have been scattered all over the world for generations, however, there is no single recipe: The flavors have been refined according to each region’s tastes, resulting in a large variety of cholents.
I never knew these other types of cholent existed when I was growing up (other than those who blasphemously added ketchup or barbecue sauce). I got my first taste of a non-Ashkenazic cholent when my sister married a Morcoccan-Israeli and our family went to his parents’ house in Yerucham, in the south of Israel, for Shabbat. We were served his grandmother’s Moroccan schena or sk’eena, a delicious cholent consisting of meat, chickpeas, beans, dates, and whole eggs, cooked with wheat berries and rice. My curiosity was piqued.
A couple years later, my husband and I moved to Mumbai, India, for several months. One Shabbat we went to the gigantic and beautiful Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue downtown. After davening, the small group of attendees was ushered into a separate room for Kiddush and a sit-down lunch, which featured Indian hamin, a cholent made with chicken instead of red meat and rice instead of barley. It was deliciously flavored with classic Indian spices like turmeric, cardamom, ginger, and cloves. (I later learned from my Iraqi-Israeli father-in-law that Iraqi hamin, or tebit—also a long-cooking stew typically served on Shabbat—is similarly made with chicken and rice.)
With my palate whetted, I began researching cholents and hamins from all over the world. They have a variety of names related to their country of provenance, but because of the fact that they are cooked overnight and eaten on Shabbat day they are all variations of cholent. Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America notes that Bukharian cholent is called bokla, which features eggs and potatoes cooked on top of beans, chickpeas, and lamb shanks, or osevo/osh savo, which it’s called when it’s made with rice and sometimes fruit, like prunes. Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food explores the history of adafina (in Arabic it means “buried/covered,” which refers to how the stew was kept warm—buried underground with hot rocks over it), a cholent originally made by Spanish Jews in the 15th century. Records from the Spanish Inquisition show that a Converso (a Jew who converted to Christianity under duress but still practiced Judaism in secret) could be discovered as continuing to keep Jewish laws by someone, often their maid, seeing them make adafina for Shabbat. The penalty? Death. Inquisition reports “list the ingredient for adafinas, including chickpeas, fava beans, fatty meat, onions, garlic, and cumin,” Marks writes. After the Jews were expelled, adafina resurfaced in Morocco (where the name changed to schena or sk’eena, as my brother in-law’s family calls it) and in Tunisia and Algeria, where it is known as tafina. Tunisians often add lamb’s feet and cardoons, a relative of the artichoke, to their tafina.
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