Symbolic Sephardic Foods For Rosh Hashanah

— by Ronit Treatman

The Sephardic communtiy has a unique mystical tradition for Rosh Hashanah.  Symbolic foods are served at a Rosh Hashanah Seder.  Some of these foods are also puns, and are called “simanim,” or “signs.”  Special blessings starting Yehi ratzone, Hebrew for “May it be God’s will,” are chanted over these dishes.  Here are some of them, and the traditions associated with them.

Pomegranate

Pomegranates are said to have 613 seeds, the same number as mitzvot in the Torah.  On Rosh Hashanah we eat a fresh pomegranate preceded by the blessing:

“Yehi Ratzon Mil’fa’necha, Adonai Eloheinu She nirbeh zechuyot ke rimon.”
“May if be your will Adonai our God That our merits increase like the seeds of a pomegranate.”

Recipes and more blessings after the jump.
Black-Eyed Peas And Fenugreek

Black-eyed peas are called “ruvia” in Aramaic.  “Ruvia” is like the Hebrew word “rov” which means most or many.  Fenugreek is also referred to as “ruvia” which may connote “irbu” or “will increase.” The blessing before eating it is:

“Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu Sheh’yirbu ze’chu-yo-taynu.”
“May it be your will Eternal God that our merits increase.”


Black-eyed peas and fenugreek are stewed with veal.  This dish is called Lubiya.   Here is a recipe adapted from Gilda Angel’s Sephardic Holiday Cooking.

  • 1/2 lb. cubed veal
  • 1 can black-eyed peas
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • olive oil
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • salt, to taste
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. dried fenugreek leaves

Cut up the onion and garlic.  Saute them in 3 tablespoons of olive oil.  Add the veal cubes.  When the veal has browned add all the other ingredients.  Bring to a boil, and then lower the heat.  Let the casserole simmer for at least one hour.  Serve hot.

No Nuts!

The word for “nut” in Hebrew is “egoz.”  Its gematria or numerical value is “chet” which means “transgression.”  In order to avoid transgressions during the new year, even foods that carry the suggestion of a transgression are avoided.

Fish Or No Fish!

The word for “fish” in Hebrew is “dag.”  It sounds a lot like “daagah,” which means “worry.”  There are people who avoid eating fish on Rosh Hashanah in order to avoid a year full of worries.  Other sephardic communities do have the tradition of eating fish as a symbol of fertility for the new year.  The yehi ratzon blessing for fish is:

“Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu She nifre ve nirbe ke dagim.”
“May it be your will Eternal God That we be fruitful and multiply like fish.”

It is traditional to serve chraime for this course.  Chraime is a fish and vegetable casserole.  I found this recipe on Wikia.

  • 2 Lbs. flounder
  • 2 large potatoes
  • 3 large tomatoes
  • 2 red peppers
  • 1 jalapeno pepper
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 1 cup minced cilantro
  • 1 tbsp. ground paprika
  • salt
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup of water

Cut up all the vegetables and place in a pot.  Lay the fish on top of the vegetables.  Sprinkle with salt and paprika to taste.  Drizzle with olive oil.  Add the water.  Cover the pot tightly and bring to a boil.  Allow to simmer for 30 minutes.  May be served at any temperature.

Sugar For Dipping The Bread

Some Sephardic families avoid consuming honey during Rosh Hashanah.  In Ancient Israel, honey would render the incense used in the Temple impure if it was added to it.

For a pure and sweet Rosh Hashanah, they dip their bread in sugar.

Moroccan Couscous With Seven Vegetables

It is customary to wish for a year with as many blessings as there are grains of couscous in a bowl.  Seven appears many times in the Torah.  It epitomizes blessings, good luck, and Creation.  Here is a recipe adapted from Christine Benlafquih.

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 1 lb. couscous
  • 2 red onions, diced
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • 4 carrots, diced
  • 2 zucchini, diced
  • 2 cups of pumpkin, diced
  • 2 cups of cabbage, chopped up
  • 4 stalks of celery, diced
  • 1 cup cilantro, minced
  • Ground ginger
  • Ground turmeric
  • Ground cumin
  • Ground coriander
  • salt
  • pepper

In a heavy pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame.  Add the onions.  Cook the onions until they are translucent.  Add the turmeric, ginger, cumin, and coriander.  Stir well.  Add the tomatoes, celery, carrots, cabbage, zucchini, and pumpkin.  Drain the chickpeas, and add.  Pour in the water, and bring to a boil.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Lower the heat, and allow to simmer for 20 minutes.

Mix the dry couscous with 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a bowl.  Pour 2 cups of boiling water into the bowl.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap.  Allow the couscous to steam for 15 minutes.

To serve:

Fluff the couscous with a fork.  Spoon it into a bowl.  Place some of the vegetable mixture with sauce over the couscous.  Sprinkle some minced cilantro on it.

Candied Quince

Quinces are native to the Caucasus.  They are from the same family as apples and pears.  Moroccan Jews have the custom of reciting the shehechiyanu and “Yehi Ratzon” blessings over a candied quince.  Here is a recipe for making your own candied quince.  I adapted it from Simply Quince by Barbara Ghazarian.

  • 1 fresh quince
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups water

Core and peel the quince.  Cut it into thin slices.  Pour the water and sugar into a heavy pot.  Cook over medium heat while stirring until the sugar completely dissolves into the water.  Add the quince and simmer for 45 minutes.  The quince slices will be soft and have a rich golden red color.

Squash or Gourd

Squash or gourd is called “qara” in Aramaic and Hebrew.  “Qara” has two meanings.  It can mean “to read, or to call out.”  It can also mean “to rip or tear up.”    The following prayer is recited over the gourd:

“Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu she yeekorah g’zar dee’neinu ve yeekaroo lefahnecha zechuyoteinu.”
“May it be your will Adonai our God that our harsh decrees are torn up and our merits are proclaimed before You.”

Spaghetti squash and pumpkin are thought to be “qara.”  Here is a traditional Rosh Hashanah recipe for Tirshi (Pumpkin Salad) adapted from Copeland Marks’ book, Sephardic Cooking.

  • 1 cup pureed pumpkin
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 1 lemon
  • salt to taste
  • 1 tblsp. olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground paprika

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl.  Check the seasoning.  Chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

Round Flatbreads

Saying the blessing over a challah is a tradition acquired in Germany, which spread to all of the Eastern European Jewish communities.  In the Sephardic tradition, the blessing over the bread is chanted over flatbreads.  The round shape of the flatbread connotes the same symbols as the round shape of the Rosh Hashanah challah.  It symbolizes the never-ending circle of life and the yearly cycle.  It helps us express our wish for a good year, which will bring blessings, peace, prosperity, and sweetness.  Twelve flatbreads are baked and arranged in the same pattern as the showbread used in the Temple.  The two flatbreads on the top are held together for the blessing.

“Baruch ata Adonai Eloeinu melech haolam Ha motzi lechem min haaretz.”

“Blessed are you God, King of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.”

Here is a recipe for Homemade Pita Bread adapted from Saad Fayed.

  • 3 cups of unbleached flour
  • 1 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water (105 degress Fahrenheit)

Mix the warm water, sugar, and yeast in a bowl.  Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, and let stand for 15 minutes.  Add the flour and salt.  Mix everything together.  Sprinkle some flour on your kitchen counter, and turn the dough out onto it.  Knead the dough with your hands for about 15 minutes.  Oil a bowl with olive oil.  Place the dough in bowl, turning it over to coat it with oil on all sides.  Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel.  Let it rest in a warm place, away from drafts for 3 hours.

Preheat your oven and cookie sheet to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Take out the dough and roll it into a thick rope.  Slice it into 10 pieces.  Roll each piece into a ball, and then flatten it with a rolling pin.

To bake, place each disc of dough on the hot cookie sheet.  Let it sit in the oven for 4 minutes.  Flip it over and let it bake for another 2 minutes.  When you remove it, the pita bread will be puffed up.

Keftes De Prasa or Leek Fritters

Leeks are called “karsi” in Aramaic, which is related to the Hebrew “karet” which means “sever, destroy, or cut off.”  They are accompanied by a prayer to God to cut off our enemies.  The traditional way to serve leeks is to prepare leek fritters.

Adapted from Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck.

  • 1 Lb. leeks
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup of olive oil
  • 3 tbsp. unbleached flour
  • salt
  • black pepper or chili pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. allspice
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon

Slice the leeks and saute them in olive oil.  Set aside to cool.

Mix the all the remaining ingredients except the olive oil in a bowl.  Incorporate the leeks into the mixture.

Heat the rest of the olive oil in a heavy pan over a medium flame.  Spoon the leek batter into the hot oil.  Turn the fritters over.  They are ready when they are a golden-brown color.

The blessing we say over the leek fritters is:

“Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu she yeekartu soneinu.”
“May it be your will Adonai Our God that our enemies will be cut off.”


Dates

Dates are called “tamri” in Aramaic.  “Tamri” means “to finish.”  The blessing over dates experesses the hope that our enemies will end their enmity.

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu she yitamu oyevenu.”
“May it be your will Eternal God that our enemies will be finished.”

Fresh dates from Israel, unadorned, are delicious with this blessing.  Some families have the tradition of dipping their dates in a mixture of anise seeds, sesame seeds, and powdered sugar.

Roasted Beet Salad

The Aramaic for beets is “silka” which sounds like the Hebrew word “siluk.”  “Siluk” means removal.  We pray that our enemies will be removed.

“Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloeinu she istalku oyevenu.”

“May it be your will Eternal God that our enemies will be removed.”

Here is a recipe inspired by Joan Nathan.

Brush beets with olive oil.  Wrap them in aluminum foil.  Place them in a 400 degree oven for one hour.  Remove and peel the beets.  Dice them.  Place the diced beets in a bowl and mix in:

  • 2 tbsp. finely chopped onion
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 2 lemons, squeezed
  • 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Chill for one hour before serving.

Apples

The traditional way to serve apples in the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah table is called mansanada.  Mansanada is a type of apple compote.

This recipe is adapted from Midrash Ben Ish Hai.

  • 1 tsp. ground cloves or cardamom
  • 2 1/2 tbsp. granulated refined sugar
  • 6 apples which are good for cooking such as Stayman, York Imperial, Rome Beauty, Rhode Island Greening, Lady, Jonathan, and Gravenstein
  • 1/2 cup water

Core and quarter the apples.  Peel and slice them.  Arrange the slices in a pot.  Sprinkle the sugar and ground cloves or cardamom over them.  Pour the water into the pot.  Bring to a boil, and then simmer for about 10 minutes.  Remove the apple slices with a slotted spoon.  Allow the liquid to continue cooking until it is transformed into a syrup.  Pour the sauce over the apples.

The yehi ratzon blessing over the apple is:

“Yehi Ratzon Mil’fa’necha, Adonai Eloheinu She techadesh aleinu shana tova u’metuka.”
“May if be your will Adonai our God to renew us for a good and sweet year.”

Head Of A Ram, Fish, Or Rooster

It is a very ancient tradition to bake and present at the table the head of a ram.  This is done to symbolize a desire for the Rosh Hashanah celebrants to be leaders, not followers.  This symbol helps us remember that God allowed Abraham to replace his son Isaac with a sheep when making his sacrifice as commanded.  The head of a fish or rooster symbolized this hope in some of the Sephardic communities.  The blessing is:

“Yehi Ratzon Mil’fa’necha, Adonai Eloheinu She niyeh ke rosh velo ke zanav.”

“May if be your will Adonai our God That we will be the head and not the tail.”

I like to serve a whole, smoked fish, like a mackerel.  It is very elegant with its beautiful golden color.

As there are protective amulets, so there are protective foods.  Long standing traditions dictate that the new year must be welcomed with the proper foods and blessings to merit life, sustenance, and the opportunity to perform mitzvot.  Yehi ratzon!  Shana tova.  

For more hands-on Rosh Hashanah ideas please visit my new blog.

Rosh Hashanah Wishes Bundled In A Grape Leaf


Whole Fish Baked in Grapevine Leaves

–by Ronit Treatman

In Ancient Israel, the fall harvest was still being gathered as preparations for Rosh Hashanah were under way. One of the most important crops was the grape vine. Our modern festive Rosh Hashanah meal is the perfect opportunity to showcase an often-overlooked part of this member of the Seven Species, its leaves. There is an old Sephardic tradition of serving stuffed vegetables for Rosh Hashanah. These cornucopiae connote a year filled with blessings and abundance. This year, recall Ancient Israel’s fall harvest, and imbue your dishes with symbolism, by preparing various delicacies encased in grape leaves.

More after the jump.
Wild grapes were first domesticated in Central Asia. The fruit was eaten fresh off the vine. Grapes were pressed to make juice. Naturally occurring yeasts on the skins of the grapes converted some of this juice into an alcoholic beverage. The discovery of the art of wine making quickly followed, flourishing in Greece, Phoenicia, and Ancient Rome. Wine that sat for a long time was transformed into vinegar. After the grapes were pressed for wine, the skins and seeds remained. Grape seed oil was extracted from these grape seeds. Grapes that were not eaten fresh or turned into wine were dried in the sun, becoming raisins. Even the grapes that did not have time to ripen were not wasted. A very acidic juice was squeezed out of them and stored. This juice was called verjuice. Verjuice added a sour note to any dish it was incorporated into. Grape leaves were discovered to be edible, and became very popular in Near Eastern and Balkan cuisine.

Stuffed grape leaves are said to have originated during the reign of Alexander the Great. When Thebes was under siege by the troops of Alexander, the city was running out of food. The Thebans were very creative in adding nutrition to their diets. They cut up what little meat they had and rolled it up in the grape leaves growing all around them. This was a very good idea since grape leaves are very salubrious. They are high in vitamin A and vitamin K, and contain calcium, iron, and vitamin C. The Byzantines continued this tradition, stuffing leaves from fig, mulberry, and hazelnut tress, in addition to grape leaves.

Grape leaves need a little preparation for cooking. If you are using fresh grape leaves, make sure that they have not been sprayed with insecticides. Pick light green, medium sized, tender leaves. Wash them with cold water. Cut off the stems. Place the leaves in a clean pan, and cover with boiling water. Let blanch for about five minutes. You may begin by preparing one of the most traditional dishes in Greek cuisine: Dolmathakia. Dolmathakia are grape leaves wrapped around a variety of fillings such as rice, fresh herbs, cheese, and pine nuts. A tutorial of how to stuff a grape leaf is available at this link.

Dolmathakia (Stuffed Grape Leaves) With Goat Cheese And Couscous
Adapted from Nancy Gaifyllia

  • 35 blanched or jarred grape leaves
  • 35 1-inch pieces of goat cheese
  • ¼ cup of couscous
  • ¼ cup of boiling water
  • 1 tomato
  • 2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro
  • Ground cumin
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon

Place the couscous in a bowl. Add one teaspoon of ground cumin, salt and pepper to taste, and ¼ cup of boiling water to it. Wait about five minutes for the couscous to soften. Chop up the tomato and add to the couscous. Add the cilantro, one tablespoon of olive oil, and the juice of one lemon. Mix well.

To assemble the Dolmathakia:
Put a grape leaf on a plate. Place one teaspoon of couscous and one piece of cheese on the leaf. Roll the leaf shut, sealing it with olive oil.

You may coat the dolmathakia with olive oil and grill over coals, or sauté in olive oil.

Serve immediately.

Yaprakes de Parra are vegetarian stuffed grape leaves beloved by Sephardic Jews. Traditionally, they are assembled in advance for Shabbat, and served cold. Here is a pareve recipe.

Yaprakes De Parra, Stuffed Grape Leaves
Adapted from Joyce Goldstein’s Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean.

  • 35 grape leaves, blanched or jarred in brine
  • 1 cup white rice
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 2 onions
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • ¼ cup dry currants
  • ¼ cup pine nuts
  • 1 tomato
  • Fresh mint
  • Fresh cilantro
  • Fresh fennel leaves
  • 2 lemons
  1. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan. Cut up two onions and 3 cloves of garlic. Add them to the olive oil and stir over medium heat, until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the rice. Dice the tomato and place it in the mix. Mince the fennel, mint, and cilantro leaves. Add them to the pan. Toss in the pine nuts and currants. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Place a grape leaf on a clean plate, fill a teaspoon with some filling, and deposit it on the leaf. Roll up the grape leaf around the filling, and arrange in a clean pan.
  3. When all the leaves have been rolled up in this fashion, you may add about one tablespoon of olive oil to the pan. Squeeze the lemons into the pan as well. Cover the stuffed grape leaves with water, and place a plate over them to help them keep their shape while cooking. Cover the grape leaves with water, put a lid on the pot, and bring everything to a boil. Lower the heat, and allow the stuffed grape leaves to simmer for about 40 minutes.
  4. Remove the lid and plate from the pot. Allow the stuffed grape leaves to cool down to room temperature. Place in an airtight container, and refrigerate. To serve, arrange the stuffed grape leaves on a platter. Garnish with fresh lemon slices.

In his book Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi, Chef Yotam Ottolenghi brings one of the most creative grape leaf dishes to life from the cuisine of Turkey. Here is a gluten-free version.

Grape Leaf, Labaneh, and Herb Pie

  • 35 fresh or jarred grape leaves
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon
  • 4 shallots
  • ¼ cup pine nuts
  • Fresh tarragon
  • Fresh cilantro
  • Fresh dill
  • Fresh mint
  • Labaneh or Greek yogurt
  • ½ cup rice flour
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Dice the shallots, and sauté them in olive oil until they turn a golden brown. Set aside.
  3. Take a deep baking dish (preferably porcelain) and cover its interior with grape leaves. Brush the grape leaves with olive oil.
  4. In a bowl, mix the sautéed shallots with the labaneh and pine nuts. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Finely mince the mint, dill, cilantro, and tarragon. Add to the yogurt mixture.
  6. Grate the skin of one lemon, and throw the zest into the mixture. Then squeeze the juice from this lemon into the pie filling as well.
  7. Pour the rice flour into the yogurt and mix it well to form a paste.
  8. Spread the paste over the grape leaves in the porcelain baking dish. Cover the filling with more grape leaves, and brush them with olive oil.
  9. Bake in the oven for 40 minutes. Remove the pie from the oven, and allow to cool to room temperature. Serve with fresh labaneh.


It is traditional to serve a whole fish during Rosh Hashanah, so we may go into the year “with the head, and not with the tail.” Here is a recipe adapted from Vilma Liacouras Chatiles from her book Food of Greece.

Whole Fish Baked In Grapevine Leaves

  • 35 fresh or jarred grape leaves
  • Whole fish, such as flounder or red snapper, with the head intact, cleaned by the fishmonger
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon
  • Fresh cilantro
  • Fresh fennel
  • Fresh thyme
  • One can of anchovy fillets
  1. Wash the fish, then pat dry with paper towels.
  2. In a glass bowl, mix a marinade of 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, 1 tablespoon each of finely minced fresh cilantro, fennel, and thyme. Squeeze the juice of one lemon and add to the mixture. Stir well and add the fish. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for two hours.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  4. Take a deep porcelain baking dish.
  5. Mash the canned anchovies.
  6. Cover the baking dish with grape leaves.
  7. Place the marinated fish on the grape leaves.
  8. Spread some anchovy paste on the fish.
  9. Wrap the fish with the grape leaves.
  10. Bake for 30 minutes.
  11. Garnish with lemon slices and fennel leaves.
  12. Serve hot.

Stuffed grape leaves can be substantial enough to be served for the main course. Below is a recipe from Lebanon that may be prepared with either beef or lamb.

Warak Einab, Stuffed Grape Leaves From Lebanon
Adapted from Saad Fayed

  • 35 grape leaves
  • 2 Lbs. ground beef or lamb
  • 2 cups white rice
  • 1 lemon
  • 3 cups diced tomatoes
  • ½ cup minced cilantro
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  1. In a bowl, mix the beef or lamb, rice, tomatoes, and cilantro. Add salt and pepper to taste, and squeeze in the juice of one lemon.
  2. Stuff the grape leaves, and arrange them in the bottom of a pot. Cover the stuffed grape leaves with a heavy porcelain plate. Add water to the pot, covering the grape leaves. Bring the pot to a boil, and then simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. Serve hot, with salad and rice.

Preparing a Rosh Hashanah feast from the bounties of the fall harvest is a way to be thankful for the generosity of the earth. It is an opportunity to represent your good wishes for your family and guests in the foods you prepare. The leaves of the grape liana provide the perfect medium to do this. Grape leaves can be transformed into symbolic packets of good wishes for the New Year. May we exhibit the toughness and resiliency of the grape liana, and thrive in environments as poor as the soil if grows in. May we be blessed with its longevity. May we extract as much life and utility out of our year as we do of our grapevines. Shana tova!

You are invited to join the brainstorm for hands-on Rosh Hashanah ideas at this link.