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Jerusalem - A New Book On The Famed Jewish Food 'Cholent'

Published on: December 12, 2008 10:31 AM
By: Haaretz
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 Tscholent (Hamin) a new book By Sherry Ansky describes the love of cholent shabbas food by Jews 175 pages published on 2008“Hamin” (“Cholent”) by Sherry Ansky, Keter Books (Hebrew), 180 pages, NIS 119

During 2,000 years of exile, cholent, the quintessential Jewish food, was “extolled and glorified, honored and adored” as it wandered amid the myriad Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Cholent, hamin in Hebrew, has been prepared in countless variations, has taken on new aromas and meanings, brought back memories and been a source of consolation.

Now, long after the rumor began circulating that Sherry Ansky - the high priestess of cholent - was researching and writing a book devoted to the Jewish soul food, we can finally recite the blessing thanking God for having allowed us to live to see this day. Ansky’s book arrived at my house at exactly the right moment, on a cold and rainy morning marking the onset of winter. Right away, I hopped into bed with it. There are some cookbooks that one can, and should, read them before taking them into the kitchen.
After several hours of reading this gripping, moving, sometimes painfully funny and even wrenching-to-the-point-of-tears book; of devouring every word, every recipe and tip, every historical metamorphosis and gastronomic development of cholent, every quote, anecdote and personal story, of which there are many; of experiencing Ansky’s linguistic love affair with her cookery and her readers - the fragrance of this universal Sabbath dish almost permeates the bedroom. The bedding and down blanket have absorbed its taste, and a pleasurable drowsiness takes over, similar to the sensation that spreads through the limbs after eating the dish, as one slowly sinks into a sweet stupor, dreaming of browned potatoes, Jerusalem bread patties, kukla (dumplings) and haminados (eggs) to the tune of Heinrich Heine’s rhapsody: “Cholent, ray of light immortal! Cholent, daughter of Elysium! So had Schiller’s song resounded, had he ever tasted Cholent, for this Cholent is the very food of heaven, which on Sinai, God himself instructed Moses in the secret of preparing.”

You can buy the book here 


“Out of 10 measures of happiness brought to the world by food, nine are taken by cholent,” writes Ansky, paraphrasing the Talmudic saying about the beauty of Jerusalem. To me, it seems that out of 10 measures of happiness brought to the world by food writers, she takes all 10. When it comes to writing about nostalgia - of which no food is more symbolic than cholent - she is unrivaled.

Ansky succeeds in blending very personal writing, minus the ego trip but with astounding knowledge that is the product of serious research, which has taken her to distant realms - to the court records of the Spanish Inquisition, documenting the trials of women who were burned at the stake for preparing this Sabbath dish; to the legacy of women cooks who lived 100 years ago; and to an elderly woman in an ultra-Orthodox old-age home in Jerusalem - in the effort to track down the cholent recipe Heinrich Heine loved so much. She refers to the writings of Rabbi Yitzhak of Vienna, which mention the first Ashkenazi cholent in 1180; to 13th-century Syrian cookbooks that describe a dish similar to Tel Aviv chef Haim Cohen’s macaroni cholent; to a Muslim cemetery in Lod and a synagogue in Budapest; to Claudia Roden, the high priestess of Jewish cookery; and to countless other chefs and amateur cooks. Ansky has learned much from all of them, and as a “professional recipe restorer,” she is overflowing with gratitude to them all.

The book also contains personal journeys that the author unflinchingly invites readers to join. In the chapter preceding a recipe for cholent made of lamb and potato, she describes a chilling visit to a makeshift cemetery where her brother, who was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, had been buried along with others interred without a funeral. She writes about the macabre bus ride to the cemetery as the bereaved stuffed themselves and others with flaky pastries and other foods, “but I didn’t eat; I only ate my heart out. On that bus I learned that the most practical and effective weapon to fortify yourself against death is food.”

On a journey to other provinces of death, preceded by a recipe for goose and matza-ball cholent, she takes us to the birthplace of her mother in the Carpathian Mountains, a village wiped out of existence, “because the war took everything - the Jews, the houses, the chickens, the horses and the smoked geese ... They took the featherbeds stuffed with goose down and the scent of the plum jam and the love I could have received from my grandmother and grandfather.” There, in the spiky pine forests, Ansky remembers the day when her mother, to whom the book is dedicated, taught her to pluck goose feathers and prepare mashed potatoes with crispy, crackling grivalach. “In the wake of my mother’s inconsolable longing for the foods of her childhood, I grew up to be a professional restorer of recipes,” she writes.

The entire history of the tormented Jewish soul is laid out in this trek to discover the historical metamorphoses of Ashkenazi cholent and Sephardi hamin, but in Ansky’s book, there are no tears without laughter. In the introduction to the section on chicken-based cholent recipes, including the wonderful Iraqi tebit, she confesses her love for chicken and her sense of kinship with the hen: “I, too, stand proud, with a ponytail like a cockscomb and a prominent behind. Just like a hen, I peck and eat, a little here, a little there, but without stopping.”

With delightful candor, she describes a harebrained scheme to spy on her son on his way to the army recruitment center in Jerusalem, “hiding behind cars and slipping into doorways so he would not see his impossible, worried, drama-queen mother secretly stalking him.” In the end, she felt pathetic, weak and helpless, but her descriptions make the book a reading delight. Because after this momentary setback, she marches through the alleyways of the city and buys Yemenite jahnun at Shlomo’s falafel stand in the Bukharan neighborhood, and out of an urgent desire to be in control of things and show that she can even get the better of herself, she thrusts the rolls of dough into a cholent of smoked goose legs, cabanos sausage and dates, which turns out to be an unusual but marvelous concoction.

There is also a place in the book for her father, Bible scholar Haim Gvaryahu, from whom she learned respect for human beings and imbibed the sacred Jewish legacy of hosting guests. This cozy family atmosphere, which fits so well for a book about cholent, is complemented by the exquisite photographs of Ansky’s life partner, Haaretz photographer Alex Levac, an Israel Prize laureate. Ansky knows that Levac is perhaps the only person who can capture on film the world of emotion she invests in food, while adding a sensitive interpretation of his own. He is certainly the only one to whom she would give free range in her home kitchen to snap pictures of her dressed informally, holding a mile-long piece of kishke (intestine) in her hands, with a big smile on her face and her eyes closed. She knows that only through Levac’s lens could such material be transformed into the substance of love. Cholent is imbued with soul, and so is Ansky. These two souls unite in Levac’s beautiful photography.

The book, designed with charming simplicity by the studio of Shuki Duchovni, is a pleasure to read and cook from. The recipes are written in a highly professional manner, everything carefully measured and numbered, and printed in a large, easy-to-read typeface. Presented in a straightforward way, they are accessible to both experienced cooks and the cholent greenhorn. Also included are introductory chapters on which pots and cuts of meat to use, a brilliant treatise on kishke, learned explanations about the haminados, tips for neutralizing the gas produced by eating beans, the alcoholic beverages that go best with cholent, the most appropriate salads to go with it - and even desserts for those who still have room.

All that is missing is enough Sabbaths to prepare winter cholent, summer cholent, chicken cholent, beef cholent, vegetarian cholent, cholent without beans, fish cholent, macaroni cholent, and even millet cholent, which is traditionally served on Hanukkah in Djerba, Tunisia, when the millet season is at its peak.

“Cholent is a relationship, not just a food,” writes Ansky in a chapter entitled “Eier mit tzibel” (Yiddish for “eggs and onion”), where she describes her father, bent over the kitchen counter, mashing hard-boiled eggs with a fork, adding chopped onion, oil and coarse salt, trying to “find the right taste that would take him back to his childhood, to the fleeting moments of safety in his mother’s arms.” Until today she has tried, unsuccessfully, to recreate the taste of the salad prepared by her father, but as she writes, certain things have dawned on her about the proper way of preserving the past in the kitchen of the present - especially the realization that the taste of nostalgia is ultimately unconquerable. Love always means longing.

When Ansky, whose writing is a rare blend of achingly true love of mankind and enviable love and knowledge about food, writes a book about a Jewish nostalgia food par excellence, love is guaranteed. Buy it and you, too, will enjoy the comforting magic of going home again.


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Read Comments (10)  —  Post Yours »


 Dec 12, 2008 at 10:53 AM Yank Says:

someboidy should translate this asap! I need to spice up my Sat morning meal!


 Dec 12, 2008 at 11:06 AM Anonymous Says:

Tums and Beano included with order?


 Dec 12, 2008 at 11:57 AM GottaHaveEmunah Says:

"Cholent is a relationship, not just a food," writes Ansky.
Sometimes it's a love/hate relationship.


 Dec 12, 2008 at 12:27 PM Anonymous Says:

Chulent has mystical power also if you go into the mikveh after a plate of chulent you fell like a motorboat


 Dec 12, 2008 at 11:40 AM robroy560 Says:

This is cool. My sister-in-law comes from a Sephardic home. They have an awesome version of cholent. I've had some nice ashkenazic Israeli verisons too at various hotels in Jerusalem. Even the vegatarian versions I had were very tasty.

This is one great dish that has bridged the gap through all of our cultures and minhagim.

#1 - I agree. I can't wait for th English verison.


 Dec 12, 2008 at 02:07 PM Anonymous Says:

I am in a drs waiting room. I laughed so hard
I cracked a rib


 Dec 12, 2008 at 02:04 PM Anonymous Says:

Cholent don't have a recipe, it depends on the heart of the BALBUSTAH.


 Dec 13, 2008 at 09:01 PM SamTheManBocaRatonFlorida Says:

Reply to #7  
Anonymous Says:

Cholent don't have a recipe, it depends on the heart of the BALBUSTAH.

I 2nd that remark !


 Dec 14, 2008 at 06:47 AM Anonymous Says:

I was once asked why we come to shul for Shabbos Mincha wearing a different bekeshe from our more formal one which we wear Friday night and Shabbos morning.

I tried to explain, "Do you know the cost of dry cleaning a bekeshe today? If I wore the regular, heavier, more formal bekeshe for mincha, we would need to have it dry cleaned every week. This would mean no money for next Shabbos's chulent.

So, we wear that special one for Mincha. It has flowers on it, so one may imagine its aroma is one of flowers, and not pay attention to that the scent which matches that of everyone else who ate chulent a few hours ago.

So, this floral-patterned tish bekeshe keeps the more formal ones "fresher" from week to week. The floral-patterned one does not need weekly cleaning for the flowers take care of that.

To help those flowers, and protect the other clothing, it does not get hung up with the other clothes. It spends the week in that hanger in the garage where it gives off its accumulated gifts all week long, helping to keep out intruders, until it is ready to be worn again Shabbos afternoon.


 Dec 14, 2008 at 11:12 PM Chavah Says:

Can't wait for English. Any plans? When might we Hebrew challenged Jews enjoy these wonderful secrets?


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