A Persian Purim Feast From The Non-Persian Bride

— by Ronit Treatman

Have you ever wondered how Persian Jews celebrate Purim?  What do they serve to rejoice over their salvation from Haman?  After all, their ancestors were directly affected.  Up to this point, I could only wonder, because the Persian Jewish community is very insular, and recipes are a closely guarded family secret.  Now, it is possible to learn about these Jewish Persian customs from Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love, whose author, Reyna Simnegar, has a lot in common with Queen Esther.

More after the jump.
Reyna Simnegar, whose first name means “queen,” was born in Venezuela to a Catholic family.  She attended Catholic school, and thought she was like every other Venezuelan Catholic she grew up with.  But there were hints in her family that they were different.  For example, there were paintings of Saint Esther in the family home.  Saint Esther carries special symbolism for families of anusim (forced converts).  Esther represents a Jew who hid her identity until it was safe to reemerge.  The anusim transformed her into a Catholic saint.   This was a covert way for them to keep her as a beacon of hope that some day they could return to being openly Jewish.  At about age fifteen, Reyna’s Aunt Sarah whispered the truth to her.  “Our family if of Jewish origin,” she was told.  

Reyna Simnegar decided to return to her roots.  She underwent an orthodox conversion.  She then proceeded to marry a Jewish Persian man.  Her mother in law, Mrs. Shahla Simnegar, invited Reyna into the kitchen, and taught her all about the family’s secret recipes and customs.  Reyna has published these in a sumptuous new cookbook.  This book is not just about Persian food and recipes, but also about Jewish Persian customs.  On page 343, Reyna maps out the menu of a Persian Purim feast, from appetizers to desserts.  On this menu are such exotic dishes as Chelo (Persian rice) on page 186, and Persian Halvah on page 299.

My family had a lot of fun discovering something completely different to prepare for Purim in this book.  We call it Queen Esther’s Ice Cream.  On page 301, Reyna Simnegar has a recipe for Bastani, or Saffron Ice Cream.  We transformed this recipe into an activity.

Queen Esther’s Ice Cream

  • 3 scoops vanilla ice cream (dairy or pareve)
  • Rose water
  • Saffron threads
  • Pistachio nuts

Each person was served three scoops of vanilla ice cream.  We went with premium dairy ice cream.  

When Rosa Damascena rose petals are steamed to extract rose oil (used for perfume), what is left behind is called rose water.   Rose water has been used in Persian cuisine since ancient times.  It imparts a distinctive flavor and aroma to the food.  It contains no alcohol.  We passed the bottle of rose water around for everyone to smell. We each put a little bit of rose water in our ice cream.

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world!  Saffron spice is made from the stigmas (or threads) of the Crocus sativus flower, which are individually handpicked and then dried.  Saffron gives a golden hue to foods, a special aroma, and sweet flavor.  We purchased a small sachet of saffron threads.  Every family member crumbled a little bit of the beautiful, scarlet dried crocus threads into our ice cream.

Pistachio nuts originated in Persia.  They are widely used in Persian recipes.  We peeled some unsalted, roasted pistachios (tasting some as we worked of course!).  All of us added some to our bowl.  Reyna Simnegar’s recipe calls for slivered pistachios, but we were not so refined!  We just threw them in whole.

We mixed all the ingredients together, and tasted the ice cream.  I wasn’t sure that my children would like the rose water flavor.  This is a condiment I never cook with.  The resulting ice cream was creamy and crunchy.  The flavors of the rose water, vanilla, saffron, and pistachio perfectly balanced each other.  This truly felt like an exotic dish from a foreign place to us.  It is so delicious; it is genuinely worthy of a queen’s banquet!

Buying Reyna Simnegar’s book, Persian Food from the Non-persian Bridee, is not an exercise in self-indulgence.  All proceeds go to charity.  She has donated to Chabad houses, where she has been invited to give talks.  “My charity of choice is Tomchei Shabbat (feeding the poor for Shabbat) and I also want to support Achnasa Kallah (helping brides to start their life),” she writes in response to my query about her charitable giving.  So go ahead and treat yourself to this book.  It’s a mitzvah!
 

For Your Indian Cooking Adventure: International Foods & Spices

by Ronit Treatman

Where can you find tamarind, sour mango powder, and jaggery in Philadelphia?  I found out serendipitously the other day when I got lost.  As I drove past the intersection of 42nd and Walnut Street I noticed a store called International Foods & Spices.  It intrigued me, so I decided to take a detour and see what it was.

More after the jump.
The shop’s unassuming front gave no indication of the treasures within.  As I opened the door and stepped inside, I was greeted by huge sacks of Basmati rice, imported from India.  Sitar music played subtly in the background.  As I strolled around the store, overhearing conversations, I realized that its name is very appropriate.  I introduced myself to the other customers and met people from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Ethiopia.  Residents from Center City and students and faculty residing in University City were also shopping there.  All of them raved about the quality of the spices.  Every imaginable type of dried bark, seed, root, fruit, nut, and herb is available here.  There are whole spices and ground spices, most of which are imported from India.  The essentials of Indian cuisine such as ginger, cardamom, star anise, turmeric, coriander, cumin, allspice, and peppercorns are on the shelf.  Cinnamon is available; ground, in stick form, or as pieces of bark, which really take us to its source, the Cinnamon tree.  Tamarind and sour mango powder are for sale, “to add tartness to curries.”  Jaggery, a molded cake of unrefined sugar dried from the sap of date palms or sugarcane, is on the shelf, to be used in both sweet and savory dishes.  I saw bags of exotic dried spices, with no name on them.  Mr. Singh, the proprietor of the store, explained that they are for chewing, like gum.  There are also curry and masala spice mixtures for sale, ranging in color from gold to crimson.  One of the Indian customers I chatted with told me that no self-respecting Indian would ever cook with that.  “We mix our own,” she sniffed.  The dried fruit, of superior quality, is imported from Israel.  Especially delicious were the natural dried dates still on the branch.  The most exotic were the small, brown Persian dried limes.  I asked the Iranian customer I met there, ” What do you cook with that?”  “We add them to stews,” she told me.  “To add just a touch of sour.”

The Indian lady I chatted with encouraged me to purchase a block of compressed tamarind to prepare a different, refreshing summer drink.  Tamarind is a tart, reddish-brown fruit.  Indigenous to Africa, it grows on a tree.  The tamarind fruit is a pod, with a hard, brown peel.  It is very healthy, full of vitamin B and calcium.  Tamarind is a common ingredient in chutneys and other condiments.  This woman makes a restorative summer drink with it.  She generously shared her Southern Indian recipe with me.

Refreshing Tamarind Cooler

  • 1 block of compressed tamarind
  • 1-½ cups boiling water
  • 1-quart cold water
  • Sugar or jaggery to taste
  • Pinch of salt

    Soak the block of compressed tamarind in the hot water for half an hour.

    Pour the water and tamarind into a blender and mix well.

    Add the cold water.

    Sweeten to taste.  If desired, add a pinch of salt.  It should have a sweet-tangy flavor.

    Serve chilled over ice.  Garnish with a fresh mint leaf.

    The products in this store inspired me to try cooking some authentic Jewish Indian recipes.  I decided to cook a fish dish from the Bene Israel community of Mumbai, India.  The Bene Israel are descendants of Galilean Jews who escaped from the Romans in the 2nd Century BCE.  They were sailing away from Israel when they were shipwrecked.  The survivors made it to Mumbai.  This community remained completely disconnected from other Jews until Baghdadi Jewish traders rediscovered them in the 18th Century CE.

    Fish Curry
    Adapted from Claudia Roden

  • 1 ½ pound flounder
  • Salt to taste
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • 1-teaspoon cumin
  • 1 cup toasted, shredded coconut
  • ½ cup coconut milk
  • 3 tablespoon Toasted Sesame oil
  • 1 green chili pepper
  • 2 cups cilantro
  • 1 lime
  • 7 garlic cloves, minced

    Blend the cilantro, cumin, turmeric, chili pepper, coconut milk, and shredded coconut in a food processor.  Sautee the garlic in the sesame oil.  Add the coconut paste and stir until hot.  Add two cups of water, some salt, and squeeze in some lime.  Stir, bringing the mixture to a boil.  Add the fish, and simmer for fifteen minutes.

    You can serve this dish with steamed basmati rice, or you can choose from the large selection of frozen specialty Indian breads, such as naan and paratha, for sale here.  Also in the freezer, you can find all natural tamarind, tomato, cilantro, and coconut, and mint chutneys.  They defrost quickly, and are the perfect accompaniment to the curried fish.

    If you don’t have the time or the patience to cook with these delicious spices, this store is a great source of Kosher, vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free prepared foods. They are imported from India.  Some of them come vacuum-sealed, and will keep indefinitely without refrigeration. Many of them are kosher, with a seal from the Kosher Inspection Service of India, based in Mumbai. In the frozen foods section, one freezer is dedicated only to vegetarian foods.  One really exotic appetizer that I discovered is Patra leaf roulades.  Patra leaf is the leaf of the Taro root plant.  The leaves are sautéed and flavored with coconut and coriander.  There are a variety of Pakoras, seasoned Indian vegetable fritters, and Muthia, steamed cabbage dumplings, seasoned with peppers and sesame seeds.  From Southern India, there are Mendu Vada, “crispy, golden lentil fritters.” There is a whole aisle of jarred Indian pickles and preserves to choose from that would go well with any of these dishes.

    One of my favorite discoveries in International Foods is Nashta.  Known as “Indian snick snacks” in our family, Nashta is a blend of nuts, pulses, puffed Basmati rice, dried noodles, and sun dried potato chips.  This is flavored with different spice combinations, ranging from mild to really spicy.  I serve them at get togethers instead of chips.  These mixtures also add an unexpectedly crunchy, spicy kick to my grandmother’s chicken soup.  

    To conclude your meal, you can choose from the refrigerated case of Mithai, or Indian desserts.  They are made with coconut, cardamom, almonds, raisins, pistachio, and cashew.  There are also exotic mango, pistachio, saffron, and rose water ice creams for sale.  

    I wanted to prepare my own dessert, so I tried another Bene Israel recipe called Kheer.  It is a type of coconut rice pudding.  This is a dairy free, gluten free dessert.

    Rose Kheer
    Adapted from Chef Sanjeev Kapoor

  • 2 tablespoons Chopped Pistachios
  • 2 tablespoons Slivered Almonds
  • 1/2 teaspoon green cardamom powder
  • 2 tablespoons Rose syrup
  • 2 tablespoons jaggery
  • 1 cup Water
  • ¾ cup Rice flour
  • 3-¾ cup Coconut milk

    Slowly bring the coconut milk to a boil.  Mix the rice flour and water in a bowl, and then add the paste to the boiling coconut milk.  Stir until the paste is incorporated into the coconut milk.  When the mixture has thickened, add the jaggery and green cardamom powder.  Set aside to cool.  Mix in the rose syrup.  Pour the pudding into a serving dish.  Decorate with the pistachios and almonds.  Refrigerate for two hours.

    Mr. Singh is a chef from Punjab, and owned a restaurant before he opened International Foods & Spices.  When I felt ready to create my own Indian specialties, his help and advice were invaluable to a novice like me!  How did my dishes turn out?  The Bene Israel curried fish was rich and velvety in its voluptuous coconut sauce.  The tamarind cooler, which we served with lots of ice, was tart and refreshing on a hot summer evening.  The rose kheer was very exotic and different.  I loved its nutty crunchiness.  When I garnished it with fresh rose buds and petals, I felt like I was serving the dessert of the Rajas.    

    International Foods & Spices

    4203 Walnut Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19104

    Tel:  (215) 222-4480

    Fax: (215) 222-5912

    Email:  [email protected]

    Website: http://intlfoodsandspices.com/…

    Business Hours

    11 am to 8 pm
    Closed on Tuesdays