Cholent: The Truest of All Jewish Foods

By | Jan 05, 2012

Proust had his madeleine, the buttery, tea-moistened crumbs that brought back a torrent of childhood memories for the narrator of In Search of Lost Time. German poet Heinrich Heine, known for his complicated relationship with Judaism, had cholent, that steaming Sabbath stew that he exalts in an 1851 poem entitled Princess Sabbath. “This schalet’s pure ambrosia,” Heine writes, using the German word for the dish, “Of the true and only God / Paradisal bread of rapture.” Behold, cholent: nectar of the gods?

Cholent as we know it today—a slow-cooking stew most commonly comprised of potatoes, barley, beans and beef—likely got its start in the late 12th or early 13th century, according to Gil Marks, author of Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. It was then that Jews from Spain migrated to Provence, taking with them their Sabbath dish of lamb, fava beans and Mediterranean spices such as cumin. The French iteration lost the cumin, which doesn’t grow in France, and incorporated beef or goose instead of lamb. However, it was banished by medieval French bishops who forbade, among other Jewish practices, the consumption of long-simmered bean stews. As a result, cholent traveled east to Germany and Eastern Europe, where it picked up potatoes and barley. In the 16th century, the exploding popularity of kidney, red, white, pinto and lima beans expanded the options of Jewish cooks.

Served for Shabbat lunch and defined by its long cooking time, cholent has the distinction of being one of the few uniquely Jewish dishes. Much of what we think of as Jewish cuisine is not original to the Jewish community but is, instead, part of a gastronomic tradition of neighborly adoption and adaptation. “Jews will pick up a dish, tweak it to the Jewish taste and then introduce it to a new community,” Marks says.

Cholent, though, is a product not of geography, but of religious mandate. The halachic prohibition on kindling a fire on Shabbat means that Sabbath food is either served cold or—fulfilling a rabbinic decree that Jews must eat hot food on Shabbat—simmers throughout the day. Cholent, cooked overnight over a low fire or, in modern times, on a blech (a thin sheet of metal that covers a heat source) or, often, in a crockpot, provides a warm, hearty meal without violating the rules of Shabbat, which further decree that the mixture be at least half-cooked before Friday nightfall.

The word cholent, according to Marks, probably comes from chald, the Old French word for “warm,” though some maintain that its origin is chald-de-lit, meaning “warmth of the bed.” Others say that it is a variation on the Spanish escallento, also meaning “warm,” and still others believe it is derived from the Yiddish shul ende, conveying that the dish would be eaten when services were over. The earliest known use of the word tsolnt was in the mid-13th century, when Rabbi Isaac ben Moses, in his religious guide Or Zarua, wrote of the difference between how the dish was prepared in his native Bohemia and his temporary home of Paris.

Because cholent is a dish primarily of function—the need to withstand a long simmer—rather than form, ingredients vary widely based on availability and personal taste: The only common denominator is that they are impervious to overcooking. Romanian cholent often has chickpeas, a holdover from the Ottoman reign; German versions may use spelt for the grain component; Sephardic variations, known as hamin or dafina, sometimes include cinnamon and browned eggs, a tradition Marks says comes from the egg-centric culture of Spain. Hungarians prefer a soupy cholent, Poles a thicker one. Vered Guttman, a chef and caterer in Washington, DC, describes an Iraqi version called tebit, chicken stuffed with a mixture of chicken innards and rice, then cooked in a casserole dish until even the bones are soft. And today, cholent can tilt toward the trendy: Marks has made a mole cholent with turkey, chocolate and Tex-Mex spices, and demand for vegetarian cholents is burgeoning.

Jews are not the only ones to appreciate the appeal of a filling, slow-cooked meal. The French cassoulet, a mixture of beans and various meats, is, according to Marks, almost certainly a twist on cholent. And he suspects the Tex-Mex staple chili con carne may be a direct descendant of the Shabbat classic, a result of Jewish conversos moving to the area north of the Rio Grande. “A lot of research showed that a sizable number of the Spanish who worked in the American Southwest had Jewish DNA, and they have many other Jewish dishes,” says Marks. “My theory is they came up there and took the local meat chunks with beans and put in cumin if they had it, but the primary spice they had was chili, and they used that.”

Within the Jewish community, cholent can inspire cult-like adulation among those who eat it frequently—a group composed primarily of Orthodox Jews. Some cleave to family recipes or swear allegiance to a particular secret ingredient. Online discussion boards are rife with comments declaring the superiority of Dr. Pepper, beer, cream of wheat, instant oats, chocolate syrup, vanilla or cherry Coca-Cola, maple syrup, ginger ale or prunes.

Cholent is no longer confined to the Shabbat lunch table. In Kazimierz, the newly reinvigorated Jewish quarter of Krakow, the restaurant Klezmer Hois serves cholent along with other traditional Eastern European dishes. Max and Mina’s Ice Cream in New York occasionally offers a cholent flavor made of four beans, a spinoff of a red-bean ice cream made for Japanese clients. And Epicure Games produces a card game—named, appropriately, Cholent, The Game!—in which each player cooks up a cholent recipe by acquiring ingredients from the game’s market.

Cholent’s lasting power may transcend religion. A dish that binds the present to the ever-receding past, “it’s maybe the nicest Jewish cooking tradition there is,” says Guttman. “There’s nothing more comforting and homey. You don’t need to change it. How can you argue with hundreds of years?” Or, as Heine wrote, “A dish / That in very truth divine is / Thou shalt eat today of schalet / Schalet, ray of light immortal!”

Gil Marks’s Mole Poblano Cholent

6 to 8 servings

About 4 cups turkey or chicken stock
½ cup blanched almonds
¼ cup pumpkin seeds or sesame seeds
¼ cup raisins
1 slice dry bread or 2 corn tortillas, torn
¼ cup minced yellow onion
2 green bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and chopped
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 to 2 ground red chilies and/or 1 to 4 tablespoons ground chilies
1 ounce grated unsweetened chocolate or ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 (6-pound) turkey or turkey parts, cut up

1. To make sauce: In a blender, puree the stock, almonds, seeds, raisins, bread, onion, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, flour, salt, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, chilies and chocolate. Strain.

2. In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the turkey and brown on all sides. Add the sauce, adding a little more stock if necessary to cover the turkey.

3. Cover tightly and place in a 200°F oven and cook overnight.

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