By Gil Marks
In agricultural-based ancient Israel, Tu b’Shevat—the traditional new year for trees—was a meaningful occasion celebrated with singing and dancing. Sephardim, who primarily lived in warm locales near the Mediterranean, long manifested a deep devotion to this festival, which they call Las Frutas (The Fruit). On the day of Tu b’Shevat, Sephardic families customarily visit relatives, where they are served a feast. The children, who are given off from school for the day, are encouraged to not only partake of the spread, but to take bolsas de frutas (bags of fruit) home with them. Among Ashkenazim, on the other hand, Tu b’Shevat was only marginally celebrated, primarily because it falls in the dead of winter in northern climates and the variety of fruit trees available was far more limited.
The community of kabbalists, who made their home in sixteenth-century Safed, maintained a profound regard for this minor holiday and developed a new liturgy and rituals for it. An expanded version of these prayers was collected in an eighteenth-century work appropriately called Peri Etz Hadar (“Fruit of the Goodly Tree”), which describes the Tu b’Shevat seder (ceremonial meal). This ceremony contains rituals such as drinking four cups of wine—each wine a different type—and sampling at least 12 fruits and nuts; others increase the number to 15, corresponding to the numerical value of tu. Iraqi Jews further expanded on the concept, increasing the number to a minimum of 100 fruits, nuts, grains, and vegetables.
There is a widespread custom to eat foods containing the sheva minim, the seven species for which the Land of Israel is praised in Deuteronomy 8:8–wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.
(Persian Carrot Omelets)
Yields about twelve 3-inch omelets/ 3 to 4 servings
This recipe can also be prepared as a single large omelet and cut into bite-sized pieces. These slightly sweet omelets are served as a side dish or dessert. The fruit makes havij edjeh traditional for Tu b’Shevat.
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 medium onions, chopped
12 ounces (about 2 cups) grated carrots
½ cup chopped pitted dates
1/3 cup dried currants or raisins
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
About ½ teaspoon salt
Butter or margarine for frying
Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and carrots and sauté until softened, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the dates, currants, and lemon juice. Stir into the eggs. Add the salt. Heat the butter or margarine in a large skillet over medium heat. In batches, drop the egg mixture by about 1½ tablespoons to form thin patties. Fry until the edges turn golden brown, about 2 minutes. Turn and fry until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm or at room temperature and if desired, accompanied with yogurt or jam.
(Bukharan Vegetable and Fruit Stew)
Yields 5 to 6 servings
In the flat, semiarid land of central Asia, crops must generally be coaxed out of the soil by means of a series of ancient irrigation canals. The result is an assortment of fruit, generally of immense proportions, and a medley of vegetables. Bukharans commonly cook vegetables and fruits together.
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 large onions, chopped
2 medium carrots, thickly sliced
2 medium potatoes, peeled, and diced
1 medium turnip, peeled and diced
2 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 large quince, peeled, cored, and coarsely chopped
1 large tart apple, peeled, cored, and coarsely chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup chopped cilantro
Salt to taste
About 2 cups water
2 tablespoons each additional chopped parsley and cilantro for garnish
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the carrots, potatoes, and turnip and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, quince, apple, parsley, cilantro, and salt. Add enough water to cover the mixture. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until tender, about 45 minutes. Serve with rice or noodles. Sprinkle with the additional parsley.
Zeitoon bi Hamod er Rummaan
(Syrian Sweet-and-Sour Olives)
Yields 1½ cups; about 24 olives
Olives are a ubiquitous component of Middle Eastern mezes (appetizer tables) and many meals.
1½ cups (about 8 ounces) small to medium brine-cured green or yellow olives, rinsed, drained, and lightly crushed or scored
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup hamod er rummaan (pomegranate concentrate)
1/3 cup water
1 small onion, sliced
1 tablespoon brown sugar
10 whole black peppercorns
Combine all the ingredients in a 1-pint jar. Cover and let stand in the refrigerator for at least 3 days and up to 3 months. Serve at room temperature.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and The World of Jewish Desserts.
Photo: James Poster