July 22, 2024
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Ancient Jewish Dish Becomes Melting Pot of Israeli Cuisine

Moshe Genzler lifts the lid off a huge aluminium pot, thrusts in a massive spoon and dishes out a steaming portion of beans, potatoes and beef.

It is a Thursday evening at Maadaniat Chef, a small restaurant in the central Israeli, ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak specializing in traditional Eastern European Jewish food.

The gefilte fish and potato kugel pale next to the warm brown glow of the eatery’s crowning glory—hamin—also known as cholent.

Consumed by Jews for Saturday lunch since antiquity, the rich stew is enjoying a renaissance in Israel.

While ultra-Orthodox local residents sit at the few tables enjoying their steaming fare, three elderly women and a man, all secular, enter to inquire about the food.

The four are from the nearby cities of Givatayim and Ramat Gan and hope to celebrate a birthday with food from their childhood.

“We wanted to try something different,” said one of the women.

A bus drops off a group of senior citizens from Kfar Daniel, a village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with their guide, Yair Landsberg.

“A dish you ate in your childhood is memories,” he said. “It’s enough that you smell it and you’re full of memories, of nostalgia.”

Genzler—the young son-in-law of the restaurant’s owners—says eating hamin before the Sabbath has become trendy.

“You have people from all walks of life—ultra-Orthodox, secular, all kinds of religious people,” he said. “Groups arrive here as part of a tour of Bnei Brak and enter to see and feel an authentic Jewish experience.”

Hamin, meaning “hot things” in Hebrew, can be traced back to the Mishna, the early oral interpretation of the Torah, as part of the discussion on how food might be kept warm on the Sabbath.

Jewish religious law prohibits cooking on Saturday, “but you can prepare something that will begin cooking before the Sabbath and continue to cook or retain its heat during the Sabbath,” noted Shmil Holand, a chef and expert on Jewish culture and food.

“That’s what created this dish.”

The Jews expelled from the land of Israel some 2,000 years ago were split into two parallel routes, one via Babylon to North Africa, Spain, the Balkans and what became the Muslim world.

The other group went to Rome, France and eventually Central and Eastern Europe.

Over time, each Jewish diaspora created its own variation of the dish, based on the climate and available ingredients, according to Holand.

“Together something new came into being,” he said from the spacious kitchen of his Jerusalem home.

European Jews, who were eventually called Ashkenazim, referred to their hamin as cholent, derived from the French words for hot (chaud) and slow (lent).

And while other people around the world make variations of the dish, hamin stands out for the unusual length of its preparation—normally at least 12 hours, Holand said.

The religious significance of the dish is still its most important aspect for Genzler.

“Hamin is something that represents the Sabbath for a Jew,” he said.

“It’s been like this for thousands of years and will always remain Jewish food,” he insisted.

Bruce Lax, a technician from Ramat Gan who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, says Maadaniat Chef’s hamin was the “taste of childhood.”

“It reminds you of places, people, flavors,” said Lax, who, like most hamin fans, makes his own too.

By Israel 21c Staff


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