Nine Vegetarian Days

— by Ronit Treatman

The verse, “Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord,” (Psalms 130:1) perfectly captures the essence of Tisha B’Av. The fast day, which begins at sundown on Monday, July 15 this year, is one of the most solemn days in the Jewish calendar. It memorializes the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The Sephardic community also mourns the issuing of the Alhambra Decree, or Edict of Expulsion. This dictum, ordering the banishment of the Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, was announced on Tisha B’Av in 1492.

The three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av are known as Bein HaMetzarim (“between the straits”). They begin on the 17th day of Tammuz (June 25 this year) and end on Tisha B’Av. This is a time of mourning the destruction of the Temples and the exiles of the Jews from the land of Israel. Historically, these three weeks have been a time of danger for the Jewish community. It is customary to avoid hazardous situations during those three weeks. Many Jews eschew lawsuits, surgical procedures, or travels during this time. The Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 551:9-11) mentions a Jewish tradition to refrain from eating meat and drinking wine during the week of Tisha b’Av or even (for some at that time) the entire three weeks.

Out of these days of despair have emerged some of the most creative vegetarian recipes of the Jewish kitchen. Mejedra, a crown jewel of the Syrian Jewish kitchen, is such a dish.

Recipe for Mejedra follows the jump.
Mejedra is a rice, lentil, and onion pilaf.  It is a very ancient recipe, first recorded in 1226 in Kitab al-Tabikh (“The Cook’s Book”). Mejedra is a traditional dish of mourning, based on the stew that Jacob prepared when Abraham died (Genesis 25: 29-34). Traditionally, “Esau’s favorite” was cooked with rice and green or brown lentils. Here is a recipe adapted from Gilda Angel’s Sephardic Holiday Cooking:

Mejedra

  • 2 cups brown lentils
  • 2 cups Basmati rice
  • 1 large Spanish onion
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 cups water
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil

  1. Pour the lentils into a bowl, and cover them with cold water.
  2. Allow the lentils to soak for two hours.
  3. Thinly slice the onion.
  4. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy pot.
  5. Add the onion, and fry until caramelized to a golden-brown color.
  6. Drain the lentils.
  7. Sautee the rice and lentils with the onion.
  8. Pour in the water, and season with salt and pepper.
  9. Cover the pot, and bring its contents to a boil.
  10. Simmer for about 30 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed.
  11. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan.
  12. Brown the pine nuts in the pan.
  13. Sprinkle the pine nuts over the mejedra.

You may serve the mejedra with warm pita bread, an Israeli salad, and some plain yogurt on the side.