Jews have lived in the Central Asian city of Bukhara since the reign of King David. One of their unique Purim specialties is an intricately decorated flatbread called Kulchi Ravghaniy. Flatbreads have been baked in Bukhara for over 12,000 years, and are described in one of the world’s oldest written stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In Bukhara bread symbolizes life. Jews celebrate the life of Queen Esther and the Jewish community by serving these festive loaves during the Purim feast. [Read more…]
Sumalak being made in a Kazan.
“First, fetch your cauldron,” the recipe instructed me. I have always wanted to prepare a dish that begins with these words! I legitimately get to, not because I am a witch, but because I am part Bukharian.
Bukhara is a city located on the Silk Road, in present-day Uzbekistan. Jews have lived there since the times of King David. One of the indispensable implements of a Bukharian kitchen is the kazan. A kazan is a type of cauldron or Dutch oven. It is used to prepare pilaf (rice in seasoned broth), one of Bukhara’s signature dishes.
More after the jump.
Once the meal is cooked, the food packets are fished out with a stick. (Photo: David Treatman.)
My great grandmother Cassia owned a kazan. Hers was the last generation to use it in my family. She brought it with her to Palestine when she left Bukhara in 1914. We never cooked or ate Bukharian food when I was growing up, so I really wanted to learn about this part of my heritage.
The first thing I needed to do was purchase a kazan. I called several kosher restaurants and convenience stores in Little Bukhara in Queens, New York for advice. The people I spoke to became very emotional when I explained why I wanted a kazan, and an instant bond formed between us. They suggested that I come to New York to buy it in the neighborhood. In the end, I found what I was looking for on Amazon.
The kazan is ubiquitous throughout Central Asia and Russia. It is shaped like a wok, with two or four handles. Kazans were historically used by traders traveling along the Silk Road.
Before they set out on their journey, they (or their wives) would place uncooked basmati rice, raw pieces of beef or lamb, and chopped fresh vegetables and herbs in the center of a square piece of cotton cloth. The four corners of the cloth would be tied together to form a bundle.
This package was added to the rest of their provisions. A member of the group would bring a kazan along. When the intrepid voyagers would stop to camp out at night, they would dig a trench in the ground. The men would scrounge around for some firewood, and light a fire in the excavated area. They would place the kazan over the fire, wedged between the two edges of the trench. Some of them would fill the pot with water from a nearby stream. The water would be brought to a boil.
According to Amnun Kimyagarov, author of Classic Central Asian (Bukharian) Jewish Cuisine and Customs, each person would draw a distinct mark on his cotton food bag. All the bags were placed in the pot. Once the meal was cooked, the food packets were fished out with a stick.
Sometimes, one person would get another’s bag by mistake. It was traditional to say “bakhshidam” in Buhkori (Judeo-Persian), with means, “I forgive the mistake.” All the fellow travelers would share the hot broth.
My kazan arrived from Russia, packed in a box covered with Cyrillic writing. I decided to cook one of the most traditional Bukharian Jewish recipes, called Bakhshi Khaltagiy, or green pilaf in a bag.
Bakhshi Khaltagiy: Green Pilaf in a Bag
Adapted from Classic Central Asian (Bukharian) Jewish Cuisine and Customs by Amnun Kimyagarov, Ph.D.
- 1 lb. beef chuck-eye steak, cubed
- 1 cup basmati rice
- 1 lb. fresh cilantro
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- Cotton mesh cooking bag
It is a delicious and nourishing Bukharian treat. (Photo: David Treatman.)
- Cut the meat into very small cubes (1/8 in.).
- Mince the cilantro finely.
- Place the meat, rice, and cilantro in a large bowl.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Fill 3/4 of a kazan or Dutch oven with water.
- Bring the water to a boil.
- Stuff the meat mixture into the cotton bag, leaving some room at the top.
- Tie the bag shut.
- Put the bag in the boiling water, making sure that it is completely immersed.
- Bring the water to a boil again.
- Lower the heat.
- Simmer for 3-4 hours, making sure that the bag is covered by water at all times.
- Taste the broth and correct the seasoning.
After three hours, I lifted the lid off my kazan and a tantalizing aroma arose with the steam. The pot was filled with a rich, dark broth. I pulled the cotton bag out with some tongs, cut it open with a sharp knife, and emptied its contents onto a serving platter. The meat and rice were flecked with specks of green from the cilantro. I spooned some of the filling into a soup bowl, and then ladled some hot broth on top of it. The potage melted in my mouth. This soup was no witch’s brew. It was a delicious and nourishing Bukharian treat.
One of my earliest memories of Rosh Hashanah is that of my grandfather Ben Zion’s homemade grape juice. He would wake up at the crack of dawn so he could be the first customer at the Carmel Market. He had his first choice from the crates of grapes that had been picked earlier that morning in the vineyards surrounding Tel Aviv. Saba Ben Zion would haul his crate home, and press the grapes by hand. Then he would filter the juice through a cheesecloth. The clarified liquid was poured into a glass bottle. He liked to add a few grape peels for added flavor. Then he would stop up the bottle and chill it overnight.
More after the jump.
Saba Ben Zion brought this tradition with him from Bukhara. Bukhara was an oasis on the Silk Road in Central Asia. Over time it was transformed into one of the most important centers of trade, culture, scholarship, and religion of modern day Uzbekistan. Islam has been the dominant faith in Bukhara for over one thousand years. Alcohol is haram, forbidden, under the Islamic rules of halal. In order to be able to comply with the requirement to recite the blessing over the fruit of the vine, the Jews of Bukhara made their own sacramental wine. They pressed their own grape juice for the children.
Three years ago, I decided to revive this tradition with my own family. I planted a Concord grape vine in my garden. This year I am expecting a large crop. Pressing our own grape juice will be the perfect way to reconnect with nature and participate in the late fall harvest, which was part of the Rosh Hashanah tradition in Ancient Israel.
You can enjoy being outside with your family in the beautiful fall weather when you pick your own grapes. If you or anyone you know has a grapevine, you can help pick the ripe grapes at the end of their season. If you and your friends don’t have grapevines growing in your gardens, take a trip to a vineyard. Peace Valley Winery in Chalfont invites you to pick your own grapes. Several varieties of grapes are cultivated here that you will never find in a supermarket or farmer’s market. If you have never done this, then you are in for a treat! Nothing can compare to the experience of being in a vineyard on a beautiful, crisp fall day. The intoxicating smell of the earth and plants is everywhere. The buzzing of insects is a serenade. The vines are heavy with ripe and juicy grapes, just inviting you to bite into them. It is time for the fall harvest.
Once you have picked your grapes, you are ready to participate in one of the most enjoyable Rosh Hashanah family activities. Juice pressing! Everyone can help rinse the grapes with clean, cold water. Each person can start removing the grapes from the stems and squeezing them with their fingers into a large pot. If pressing your own grape juice becomes a tradition, you may want to invest in a manual grape press to make this easier. Then the juice needs to be filtered through a colander lined with cheesecloth. When there is enough liquid, it can be poured into a clean glass bottle or jar. I picked three pounds of grapes. They produced three cups of juice. You can add a few grape peels to the juice for more flavor. Be sure to wash your hands well when you are through. The grape peels can irritate some people’s skin. Now, you should refrigerate your juice in a sealed glass bottle.
Opening the bottle and drinking home pressed grape juice is a unique experience. I pressed a batch of ripe Concord grapes from my garden today to see what would happen. My juice had a rich magenta color. When I inhaled its aroma, I could smell the fruit and flowers of my vineyard. My first sip of this chilled delicacy carried the special sweet and tart flavor of the grapes. I could taste its unique terroir, the particular place where these grapes were grown.
A rabbi once explained to me that it is not appropriate to say the blessing for the fruit of the vine over a grape. “It needs to have been processed, to have required work,” he explained. “This blessing is only appropriate for wine and grape juice.” This Rosh Hashanah, when it is time to say the blessing over the fruit of the vine, your home pressed juice will mean a lot more to you than the finest purchased wine ever could. It will be the result of your own labor, produced with laughter and joy. To me, a bottle of home pressed grape juice, such as the one that my Saba would make especially for me, is a bottle full of love.
The blessing over the wine:
BA-RUCH A-TAH A-DO-NOI
ELO-HAI-NU ME-LECH HA-O-LAM
BO-RAI PRI HA-GA-FEN.
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the
Universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.