The Vegetarian Queen

Photo by Kotoviski https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Kotoviski

Photo by Kotoviski

Purim is a week away but I have already rolled, stuffed and pinched too many circles of dough into cookies, called hamantaschens, that sort of resemble Haman’s three-cornered hat. I will bake many more batches to fulfill one of the four Purim mitzvot — distributing mishloach manot (gifts of food) to friends and family. I might even get to the point of “cheating” and fill my goody bags with store-bought (gasp!) hamantaschens. This year, perhaps in support of my family’s effort to decrease our sugar intake, I’d rather sidestep the dessert and celebrate Purim with a healthy, savory dish.

The story of Purim, as written in the “Megillat Esther,” focuses on the Jewish woman Esther and her fight to save her people from the annihilation planned by Haman, the Persian King Ahasuerus’ right-hand-man.

It began with a six month long party, celebrating King Ahasuerus and his hold on the region. In a drunken fit, King Ahasuerus ordered the banishment of his Queen Vashti who refused his summons to appear before him and his entourage. Thus, he needed a new wife. Esther, because of her beauty, was chosen as the lucky bride-to-be. Rumor had it that to keep her religious identity hidden, during her time residing in the royal court, Esther avoided treif, or non-kosher foods, by eating a vegetarian diet consisting of fruits, grains, nuts and breads. Some say that she even followed a raw and vegan diet in order to avoid eating anything that was cooked in a non-kosher kitchen.

I admire her religious conviction but what a pity not to be able to enjoy Persian delicacies such as chelow kabob (meat kabobs on rice) and kuku (an egg soufflé). In our contemporary world we have easy access to Persian, albeit not kosher, restaurants. In Philadelphia, check out The Persian Grill in Lafayette Hill and Mediterranean Grill in Bryn Mawr. For those who follow kosher rules, home cooking, like this Persian-style eggplant dish stuffed with chickpeas and pomegranates and spiced with advieh, a Persian spice blend, might be the best bet.

To celebrate Esther at my Purim dinner I’ll serve this savory dish with a side of basmati rice. Interestingly, basmati rice is a staple in today’s Persian dishes but this type of rice was not available in Persia during Esther’s time. The dish is stuffed following the tradition of eating “hidden foods,” symbolic of Esther’s secret Jewish identity and the masquerades of Purim celebrations. The chickpea, included in Purim recipes by many Ashkenazi Jews, pays homage to Esther’s vegetarian diet. Gil Marks, in his comprehensive Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, details the linguistic and geographic path of the humble, but protein-packed legume by explaining that the Yiddish word for chickpeas, nahit, is related to the Turkish word not and the Farsi word niched. Pomegranates are mentioned in the Bible as one of the seven holy agricultural products produced in Israel. The berry might have originated in Persia and was probably included as fresh or dried berries or as a syrup in the dishes of both the feasts of King Ahasuerus and of Queen Esther.

Flash forward to present day Persia, or Iran, where approximately 9,000 Jews live in Tehran, the capital. Some Jewish leaders in Iran claim that this number might be between 18,000 to 20,000. Previously, some 80,000 to 100,000 Jews lived in Iran prior to 1979. Upon the Shah’s overthrow most immigrated to the United States or Israel. Many members of this tiny population will gather in Tehran’s synagogue to fulfill the third mitzvah of reading the “Megillah,” when they will hiss at Haman and cheer for Esther and Mordecai. They might collect some rial, or Iranian money, to fulfill the fourth mitzvah of giving tzedakah, or charity. Then they will have their own modern-day feast, perhaps with these same ingredients — the eggplant, the chickpea and the pomegranate — and celebrate the survival of the Jews and Purim, or what the Muslims call the Sugar Holiday or Id-al-Sukkar.

Photo by PROStijn Nieuwendijk https://www.flickr.com/photos/stijnnieuwendijk/

Photo by PROStijn Nieuwendijk

Persian-style Eggplant stuffed with Chickpeas

  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 eggplants
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 cups of diced butternut squash
  • 2 cups of pomegranate seeds
  • 1 can of chickpeas
  • 2 tablespoons of advieh spice blend*
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • kosher salt
  • pepper, to taste
  • 6 cups of cooked basmati rice

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Wash two eggplants, cut the stem off and slice it in half lengthwise. Place face up on baking tray and brush it with olive oil. Sprinkle it with kosher salt.

Bake the eggplants about 25 minutes or until the flesh is soft. Let the eggplants cool for about ten minutes and then cut the flesh away from the skin. Be careful not to cut the skin. Scoop out the flesh, mash it in a bowl and set it aside. Place the skin in a baking casserole.

Lower the temperature of the oven to 350 degrees.

While the eggplants are cooking, make the stuffing. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a pan on medium heat. Add diced onion and sauté until golden. Add diced butternut squash, stir it multiple times and place the top of the pan over it. Cook for seven minutes, stirring every so often, until the butternut squash is semi-soft. If the butternut squash it sticking to the pan, add one tablespoon of olive oil. Stir in mashed eggplant and cook for three minutes. Add chickpeas, advieh, salt and pepper to taste, stirring for three minutes. Take the pan off the heat and stir in the pomegranate seeds.

Spoon the stuffing mixture onto the eggplant skins.

In a separate bowl, mix the juice of one lemon with the water. Pour it into the baking pan so that it is under the eggplant skin. Do not pour it onto the stuffing. Cover the baking casserole with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes.

Serve the stuffed eggplant with chickpeas and pomegranates with a side of basmati rice. Have a nice meal — or befarma’id as they say in Iran or be’te-avon as they say in Israel.

* You can make your own advieh, which is a blend of four spices and rose petals, by following this recipe on My Persian Kitchen website or purchase it online on the Persian cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij’s website.

Abby Krain Contract is the creator of Phoodhistory.

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