Rhubarb: The Savory Vegetable of the Jews of the East

Photo by RhubarbFarmer

Most Philadelphians associate rhubarb with pie. Rhubarb is a vegetable, yet it is treated as a fruit in our cuisine. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews cook rhubarb as a vegetable, adding a sour note to fish and lamb dishes. The first local crops of rhubarb are ripening now, so it is a good time to experiment with someone else’s grandmother’s recipe.

Rhubarb originated in China over 3,000 years ago. The Chinese used it as a medicine to treat constipation. Islamic traders brought it west over the Silk Road beginning in the 8th Century. In the 14th Century, Rhubarb traveled to the ports of Aleppo and Smyrna, and from there it was exported to Europe. It was so highly prized that it was much more expensive than saffron, cinnamon, and opium. The first place where rhubarb was cultivated in the United States was Philadelphia, in John Bartram’s garden. It was nicknamed the “pie plant” since the most common method of preparation was to mix it with sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and flour and bake it in a piecrust.

One of the more ancient savory recipes for rhubarb is from Persia. In Farsi rhubarb is called reevas. Here is a recipe for a lamb stew with rhubarb that was served to cleanse the blood and purify the body.

Photo by Mariam

Khoresht-E-Reevas: Rhubarb Stew
Adapted from Middle Eastern Kitchen by Ghillie Basan

  • 1 lb. cubed lamb
  • 2 lb. rhubarb, sliced
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1 bunch fresh mint, chopped
  • 1 bunch fresh Italian parsley, chopped
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • salt
  • black pepper
  1. Heat 2 tbsp. of oil in a heavy pot.
  2. Add the onions, stirring until they are golden-brown.
  3. Stir in the meat.
  4. When the meat is brown, pour in enough water to cover it.
  5. Cover the pot and simmer the meat for 30 minutes.
  6. Heat 1 tbsp. of oil in a frying pan.
  7. Saute the mint and parsley.
  8. Add the sauteed herbs to the meat.
  9. Cook for 50 minutes.
  10. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
  11. Add the rhubarb slices.
  12. Cook for about 10 minutes, until heated through.
  13. Serve with rice.


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