EATING WITH RELISH
By Gil Marks
In the parsah of Vayigash, Joseph arranged for Jacob to be reunited with him in Egypt. The text stresses, “to his father he (Joseph) sent like this: ten male donkeys laden me’tov (usually translated as "from the best") of Egypt and ten female donkeys laden with bar (grains) and lechem (bread) and mahzon for his father for the journey (Genesis 45:23).”
What items, or categories of items, did Joseph send to his father and why specifically these? Rashi explained the phrase me’tov, “We have found in the Gemorah that he (Joseph) sent vintage wine, for the minds of the elderly are calmed by it.” Rashi added a difference of opinion by the Midrash Aggadah that it was “crushed pul (dried fava beans).” Bereishit Rabbah (94:2) explained, “Crushed fava beans have a calming effect.”
Egypt served for many centuries as the paramount superpower of its day, the ancient world's military, scientific, economic, and social leader. Its royal court featured the most elegant and sophisticated cuisine of the time. Fine wine, a delicacy that contemporary gourmands still prize, we can understand being included as "from the best." Fava beans, however, might at first glance seem an inappropriate object to be considered "me'tov" of what Egypt had to offer.
Pul (Vicia faba), called fava or broad beans in English, are the most ancient of beans, consisting of 5- to 8-inch long pods containing 5 to 6 beans that look like large, round lima beans. Before Columbus' voyage to the New World, the primary bean throughout the Middle East and Europe was the fava. The arrival of the various haricot beans (including kidney, black, white, red, pinto, green, and lima beans) from South America in the early 16th century following the Spanish conquest, however, relegated the fava to a distinct secondary position. With the subsequent advent of the soybean, the primary bean in the Far East for more than 4,000 years, the fava bean slipped even further in popularity. Although in much of the West today, the fava bean is, with the exception of a few ethnic cuisines, practically nonexistent, it remains an important food source in the Middle East and among many Sephardim.
The longstanding significance of these beans to Sephardim may be seen from its Spanish name, judia, which is also the Spanish word for Jewess. Many Sephardim still use them to make hamin (stew) and other Shabbat dishes. Recalling that fava beans were a mainstay of the Jews’ diet during their stay in Egypt, fava bean dishes -– most notably soups (called bissara in the Maghreb), rice with fresh fava beans, and kubba/kobeba (filled dumplings) cooked with fresh fava beans and artichoke hearts -- became popular Sephardic Passover dishes. (Many Sephardim eat only fresh and not dried legumes on Passover.) In the Maghreb, fava beans (fèves fraîches) were served over buttery couscous on Shavuot. Bean soups and stews are common during the Nine Days before Tisha b’Av, a source of protein during this meatless period. On Purim, Sephardim, as well as some Ashkenazim, eat fava beans and chickpeas, alluding to a tradition that Esther ate only vegetables while living in the king's palace.
The Fava bean, a diuretic, has a long history as a folk remedy, commonly used to treat edema and diarrhea. Beyond any anecdotal claims, there now exists empirical evidence to substantiate the Aggadah's contention that fava beans produce a calming effect. Modern scientific research revealed that all brain activity is facilitated by the neurotransmitter Dopamine, including energy, memory, and sense of well being. As people age, the level of Dopamine in their brain cells declines, impairing brain functions. Pointedly, fava beans contain naturally occurring L-dopa, an amino acid that is a chemical neurotransmitter, which has demonstrated results in preventing and easing the effects of Parkinson's Disease. Thus the nebulous term me'tov infers a group of foods possessing the chemical attributes to help calm an understandably anxious elderly man during a long trip to see a favored child thought dead for two decades.
(NOTE – Fava beans, especially in the raw form, contain vicine, a toxin that can produce a deleterious or even lethal effect among some Jews with G6PD deficiency as well as other people of Mediterranean and Central Asian ancestry. This toxin can even pass to babies through mother's milk. If you need to avoid this problem, substitute large lima beans or large white beans.)
In addition to the me’tov, the Torah related that Joseph also sent “bar” and “lechem,” which Rashi noted were “as their usual translation.” Therefore in this instance, “lechem” specifically denoted bread and not the generic term for food, for which it is sometimes used. By the time that the bread reached Jacob, however, it would already be several days old and greatly deteriorated and, therefore, he also sent a large quantity of bar. Although the Torah usually employed the term dagan for grain, here it used the word “bar,” from the word meaning “to clear/select,” conveying a specific connotation of sifted grains. Thus Joseph provided bread for the beginning of the trip and processed grains to more easily make fresh bread during the lengthy journey.
The final item sent by Joseph proves a bit more problematic to translate. Mahzon, from the verb zon (“to support” or “nourish”), usually means food or sustenance, incorporating all food except water and salt (Berachot 35b). In this vein, Targum Onkelos viewed mahzon as meaning general provisions. Ibn Ezra followed this stance, “Mahzon is split peas, fava beans, lentils, millet, spelt, figs, raisins, and dates; everything is considered mahzon except for wheat and barley,” the latter two being the staples of the diet and subsumed under the category of bar.
Rashi, emulating Bereishit Rabbah, explained mahzon specifically as “leaftan” (relish), a specific type of food, and not as a synonym for the normative usage of mahzon as victuals. The Hebrew term leaftan (relish) was derived from the word lefet (turnip), which itself came from lahfaht (“to twist” or “turn”), for the way one harvests a root vegetable like a turnip is to twist it from the ground. Understanding the meaning and importance of leaftan is not only revealing of ancient gastronomical practices, but explains Bereishit Rabbah and Rashi and its connection to Joseph's other food presents. To do so, it is necessary to cite the Talmud (Berachot 40a), “Rava bar Shmuel reported in the name of Rav Chiya: ‘One is not permitted to recite the blessing and break bread before salt or leaftan (relish) is placed before each and every one (of the diners).” The Gemorah then proceeded with a seeming contradiction, as the very same “Rava bar Shmuel visited the home of the Reish Geluta (Exilarch, the head of the semi-autonomous government of the Jews of Babylonia and Persia). They brought out bread and he (Rava bar Shmuel) broke bread immediately (without waiting for relish). They (his students) said to him (Rava bar Shmuel), ‘Did master retract his teaching?’ He replied to them, ‘This bread does not require any waiting (for salt or relish).” As Rashi there explained, “This bread was made from highly refined flour and did not require relish.”
To discover the connection between relish and turnips and, therefore, Rashi, it is necessary to go back to before the popularization of the potato, a native of South America, in Europe in the late 1700s. The potato supplanted the previous staple of the diet, the turnip, and thus few people today recognize the latter's true import throughout much of human history. Turnips (Brassica rapa), a member of the cabbage family whose root possess a sharp flavor and coarse texture, was one of the earliest cultivated foods, dating back more than 5,000 years. Turnips soon spread far and wide from its home in Western Asia. Cave paintings in France depict prehistoric man boiling these roots in clay pots and evidence of turnips has been found in Chinese caves from the same period. One of the world's first recorded recipes, imprinted in cuneiform on a 4,000-year-old Sumerian tablet, involved the cooking turnips, stating, "No meat is needed. Turnips. Boil water. Throw fat in. Add onion, dorsal thorn (an unknown seasoning), coriander, cumin, and kanasu (a legume). Squeeze leek and garlic and spread juice over dish. Add onion and mint." Since such preserved recipes were intended for the upper class, turnips were then considered a choice food. Later however, because of its commonness, turnips were sometimes considered the food of the poor and disdained by the elite. Even well before Roman times, turnips along with barley served as the staple of the European diet. Turnips were eaten raw as well as boiled, roasted, and pickled.
During the Talmudic period, the word lefet was sometimes used generically to mean vegetables, since turnip was then the most common vegetable. In this vein, leaftan, the term for pickled turnips as well as the most prevalent form of pickled vegetables in the Middle East, was sometimes applied to all relishes.
If you consider pickles to be a trifling matter, try to imagine what life was like before this century and the advent of now indispensable inventions, such as the refrigerator, freezer, and dinner reservations. Produce generally had to be scratched out of the soil, in the words of Genesis (3:19), "From the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread." In most places, the diet consisted overwhelmingly of coarse bread, gruels, and other starches. Seasonal produce was just that, generally limited to rather short periods and necessary to use rather quickly or risk losing it to spoilage. Thus, it was vital for people to find ways to preserve foods. One of the most popular and widespread of these ancient keeping methods is pickling (a term derived from pokel, a German word for salt), a process of preserving food in a salt brine.
Pickles and relishes served as a fundamental part of the ancient world's diet. Relishes are similar to pickles except the ingredients, sometimes a combination of produce, is cut into small pieces. Second century CE Rome imported pickles from Spain (these pickles were later adapted into Sephardic cuisine). At the same time, the Chinese court maintained 62 chefs in the royal kitchen just to prepare pickles and sauces. Not only the elite, but even more the impoverished masses relied on pickles and relishes. For the Jews of Eastern Europe, various forms of pickled cucumbers, cabbages, and beets played the same role that relishes did for their Middle Eastern ancestors, enlivening a diet comprised primarily of black bread, buckwheat, and, until the mid-1800s, turnips.
Relishes and pickles were not, however, merely a luxury or useful condiment but rather a necessity. Most of the bread consumed before the Industrial Revolution was made from barley, whole-wheat, or maslin (a rye-wheat mixture) and contained little or no eggs or fat. Those coarse, dry, hard loaves, very different from the refined breads of the modern world, required a relish to make them palatable. This is clearly supported by the Mishnah (Negaim 13:9), "they are pure until he lingers long enough to eat a peras (the minimum amount that constitutes a basic meal, an amount of bread the size of 3 or 4 very large eggs) -- wheat bread, not barley, reclining, and eating with leaftan (a relish)." All three of those qualifications allowed a person to consume the bread more quickly and comfortably.
In the ancient Middle East, the most common accompaniment to bread was relish (Betzah 16a), primarily made from turnips, still a ubiquitous sight on many contemporary Middle Eastern tables. Thus the Talmudic mandate to have relish on the table before blessing and breaking bread. Interestingly, tradition viewed the poor quality of bread as a temporary state attributable to mankind's failure, as Bereishit Rabbah (94:2) concluded, “Before Adam transgressed a fully seasoned bread grew out of the ground and no relish was required. And in the Messianic Age, bread will no longer require relish.”
Rashi’s view of mahzon as relish complements that of Joseph's other presents -- me’tov (calming foods), plenty of bread, and processed grains, all intended to facilitate his father's trip as much as possible under the difficult circumstances. Remember, in those days people could not simply hop on a plane or car and be at their destination in a few hours, all the while cooled with air conditioning. The trip from Canaan to Egypt was a long and uncomfortable one, especially for an elderly person. And the region was then in the midst of a protracted drought. Good wine certainly would help. In the words of Song of Songs (7:10), “and the roof of your mouth like the best wine, which goes down sweetly for my beloved, causing the sleeper’s lips to murmur.” In addition, perhaps Joseph felt that good wine would help revive his father spirits (45:27), effecting the return of his direct communication with God, which did follow shortly thereafter.
Thus mahzon was not just any type of provisions, but specifically intended to complement the bread and grains that Joseph sent, making them easier and more enjoyable to eat. All of these interconnected foods, reflecting the love and concern of a long lost son, were calculated at making the descent to Egypt a little more palatable. Ultimately, however, it was the reassurance of God "to fear not to go down into Egypt (46:3)" that provided the most comfort to Jacob. But some pickles certainly helped.
About 2 quarts
Pickled turnips, called mkhelal lifet in Arabic and navets sales in the Maghreb, are a mainstay of mezes. They are also pickled with assorted mixed seasonal vegetables. Beets are commonly added to impart a light pink color.
1. Combine the turnips, beets, garlic, and, if using, chili. Place in a sterilized 2-quart jar.
2. To make the brine: Bring the water, vinegar, and salt in a medium saucepan to a boil and stir until dissolved. Pour over the turnips to cover. If desired, drizzle the oil over top to seal. Let cool, then tightly cover. Place in a cool place for at least 10 days. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Turshi de Culupidia (Middle
Eastern Pickled Cauliflower): Substitute 1 large head (about 2 pounds)
cauliflower cut into florets for the turnips.
Turshi Khodar (Middle Eastern
Pickled Mixed Vegetables): Reduce the turnips to ½ pound and add ¾ pound
sliced carrots, ½ pound cauliflower cut into florets, ½ pound sliced koosa
(Middle Eastern squash) or zucchini, 1 or 2 seeded and sliced green or red
bell peppers, 2 to 3 sliced stalks celery, and 1 cup (about 4 ounces)
shredded cabbage or 5 to 6 small kirby cucumbers.
About 4 quarts
There are two primary methods of brining: Long-brine and short-brine (or fresh pack). In the latter, the vegetables are cured in salt for only a few hours, then preserved in vinegar. Long-brine vegetables are cured in salt in a method that requires an extended soaking period and controlled conditions. Salt plays many roles in pickling: It enhances the taste by removing raw flavors; deters bacteria; and extracts water from the vegetables, which not only keeps the vegetables crisp, but also keeps the water from seeping out later and diluting the preservative effect of the vinegar. Use uniodized salt; iodized salt darkens the vegetables and turns garlic blue. Fruits are not brined, which would extract their acid needed in preservation, but instead they are lightly cooked before pickling.
The gherkin is the most common variety of cucumber used for pickling. There are three basic types of pickles: Sour, half sour, and sweet. Sour pickles are fully fermented cucumbers, while half sours are partially fermented in a salt brine for two to four weeks. Europeans never added vinegar to the brine, but it has become popular in America to prevent the growth of bacteria. The addition of garlic makes a pickle a kosher dill. Cucumbers pickled within 24 hours of harvest have the best flavor and texture; older cucumbers produce hollow centers.
1. Soak the cucumbers in cold water to cover for at least 1 and up to 8 hours. Drain. Snip off the tip of the stem ends (it contains an enzyme that causes bitterness) and remove any blossoms (which will produce soft pickles).
2. Meanwhile, bring the 2 quarts water and salt to a boil. If using, add the vinegar. Let cool.
3. Sterilize four 1-quart jars. Into each jar place 3 to 4 dill sprigs or 2 dill heads, 2 cloves garlic, 1 teaspoon pickling spice, 4 peppercorns, 1 bay leaf, and, if using, 1 chili or ¼ teaspoon mustard seeds. Pack about 6 cucumbers, without squashing, in an upright position into each jar.
Pour the salt water over the cucumbers to cover, leaving a ½-inch
headspace (to allow for expansion during processing).
Seal the jars and shake well. Let
stand in a cool place for at least 2 to 3 weeks for half-sours; 5 to 6 weeks
for sour dills. After opening
the jar, discard the garlic and store in the refrigerator.
Vinegar-Solution: Reduce the
water to 3½ cups water and add 2½ cups white vinegar (bring it to a boil
with the water and salt).
About 2 cups
For millennium, Middle Easterners have been making spreads from legumes. Although most Westerners are familiar with a chickpea mixture called hummus, bean spreads are also common throughout the region. Indeed, some Middle Eastern hummus mixtures contain a little fava beans as well, producing an averse reaction in those who are allergic to the latter legume.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until lightly colored but not burnt. Add the beans, cayenne, lemon juice, and salt and cook until the mixture is dry, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Spoon into a bowl or crock and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 2 days. If desired, invert onto a serving plate and sprinkle with the paprika. Serve with pita bread or crackers.
(Moroccan Bean Spread): Add 2 teaspoons ground cumin.
Bakla Ezmesi (Turkish Bean Spread): Add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill.
10 to 12 servings
The reason this recipe seems similar to falafel it that the latter and better-known dish is a direct descendent of this Egyptian fritter. Tamiya’s roots stretch back to ancient Egypt. Over the centuries, it was lightened in texture, the spices varied, and milder-flavored chickpeas frequently substituted for part or all of the beans. Beginning in the 1950s, Yemenite immigrants in Israel took up falafel making to earn a livelihood, utilizing the chickpea version common in the Levant, and transformed this ancient treat into the Israeli national food. These fritters were commonly stuffed into a pita with salad and accompanied with tahina and the nontraditional z’chug (chili sauce). Iraqi Jews offered a different strategy by enwrapping the falafel in their lavash-like bread, but the pita version remained the more popular. Today, these spicy croquettes, the Middle Eastern equivalent of fast food, are peddled by street vendors and kiosks throughout the area. Professional tamiya and falafel makers use a special scooping device with a plunger to mold the 1-inch balls, but they are also easily formed by hand.
1. Soak the beans in water to cover overnight. Drain. If skinless beans are unavailable, rub to loosen the skins, then discard the skins. Pat the beans dry with a towel.
2. Grind the beans in a food mill or meat grinder. If neither appliance is available, process them in a food processor but only until the beans form a paste. If blended too smoothly, the batter tends to fall apart during cooking. Add the scallions, garlic, cilantro, cumin, baking powder, cayenne, salt, pepper, and coriander, if using. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
3. Shape the bean mixture into 1-inch balls. Flatten slightly and coat with flour.
4. Heat at least 1½-inches of oil over medium heat to 365 degrees.
5. Fry the patties in batches, turning once, until golden brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove with a wire mesh skimmer or slotted spoon. Serve as part of a meze or in pita bread with tomato-cucumber salad and tahina sauce.
Falafel (Middle Eastern Chickpea Fritters): Substitute 1 pound soaked chickpeas for the fava beans and, if desired, add 1 large egg.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and The World of Jewish Desserts. Send comments and requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.