Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bon Appetit: Jewish Food for Henna Parties Around the World

I am in the middle of writing another blogpost, but I was shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Rabbi Gil Marks, a prominent scholar of Jewish food history, in Jerusalem this past Friday. 

Gil Marks receiving the James Beard Award, 2005.
His books have not only enriched my own cooking, but have inspired me to think about how to combine scholarship, public outreach, and active practice in my own academic work — his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food in particular is a model for the kind of book I dream of writing about Jewish culture. In his memory I decided to devote this post to some of the food associated with Jewish henna ceremonies.

Around the world, Jewish communities developed a rich culinary tradition that braided together Jewish values and practices around cooking and eating with local foodways and ingredients, along with those acquired along their migrational history (this same dynamic, by the way, is at play with Jewish henna traditions as well!). Of course henna ceremonies, being significant lifecycle moments and community celebrations, were accompanied by food — sometimes a whole meal, sometimes just snacks and sweets. Here are a few recipes that might have appeared at a Jewish henna ceremony a century or so ago:

Seksu Tfaya — Couscous with Caramelized Onions and Squash

In Morocco, no celebration would be complete without couscous, seksu in Arabic, the steamed semolina dish beloved of Muslims and Jews alike. Couscous featured on Moroccan menus on a variety of occasions: Fridays (afternoons for Muslims, evenings for Jews); holidays (Rosh haShana features a special couscous with seven kinds of vegetables); and lifecycle celebrations (which include circumcisions, bar mitzvah celebrations, and more).

Jewish family at festival meal, Fes, 1930. The couscous would
be in the tagine, the tall conical dish in the centre.

At happy occasions, the couscous is often served not as a savoury dish but sweetened with cinnamon and dried fruit, known as seksu hilu, “sweet couscous.” It's also sometimes served with sugar and milk, like a sort of sweet rice pudding. One sweet couscous often served at henna ceremonies is called seksu tfaya — couscous served with a delicious mixture of caramelized onions, raisins, chickpeas, and fried almonds. While it’s normally served topped with lamb, I attended one Moroccan henna ceremony in Israel where it was served with cubes of roasted squash on top, which is how I make it now.

Although, as Gil Marks writes, Moroccan cooks “insist on making their own couscous from scratch, considering it a disgrace to buy it in a store,” I would recommend trying it first with dried couscous and then working your way up to the hand-made kind. Baby steps…

Preparing couscous by hand. Tinted photochrome,
Algeria, late 19th century.

1 package couscous (or handmade)
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp butter

4 large onions, sliced
¼ cup butter
1 cup raisins
1 cup chickpeas (cooked or canned)
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp cumin
1 tsp grated ginger
½ tsp turmeric
¼ tsp salt
½ cup whole almonds

1 small orange squash (butternut, acorn, etc.) or 2 medium sweet potatoes
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp cayenne pepper


If using storebought couscous, rehydrate by covering with boiling water and let it sit covered for five minutes. Fluff with fork and add salt and butter.
Cook onions in butter over medium-low heat until very soft and deep yellow colour. Add raisins, chickpeas, and spices. Continue to cook until everything is caramelized.
In a separate pan, fry almonds in oil or butter and set aside.
Slice squash or yams into cubes, rub with oil and spices, and roast at 400 degrees until soft.
To serve, spoon couscous into a large serving dish and shape into a low mound. Cover top with onion mixture and then squash. Decorate with fried almonds and extra cinnamon if desired.

Sholeh Zard — Saffron Rice Pudding

In Central Asian Jewish communities (including Iran, Afghanistan, and Bukhara), the henna was brought into the room on a special “henna table” (khanche-ye hana) loaded with food and drink. The menu varied by season, including fried fish, a rice pilaf with mutton, fresh fruit, nuts, sweets, and sherbet, as well as a large sugar cone specially decorated with ribbons and gold leaf.

Jewish couple at the henna table, Herat, mid-20th century.
Note the decorated sugar cone behind the bottle.

This recipe, for a sweet saffron rice pudding, was given to me by a dear Persian Jewish friend whom I met while researching henna in Israel. The first time we made it, we were using the quantities her mother told her, so we ended up making enough for a whole henna ceremony — and it was just the two of us! It’s been scaled down here to serve 4 or 5.

1 ¼ cup rice
2 cups sugar
1 tsp saffron, ground
2 tbsp rosewater
2 tsp ground cardamom
½ cup slivered or sliced almonds
2 tbsp crushed pistachios
2 tbsp crushed almonds
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Rinse rice a few times, add twice as much water, and cook until soft. Add sugar and stir well.
Dissolve ground saffron in ½ cup hot water and add to rice with rosewater and cardamom.
Cook over medium low heat, stirring constantly. Add sliced almonds and stir well.
Cover and let sit on low heat for 20 minutes.
To serve, spoon rice into a large bowl. Decorate with crushed nuts and cinnamon (you can make a pattern on top, or just sprinkle randomly).

Hajji Bada — Cardamom Almond Cookies

The Jewish community of Iraq was famed not only for its music, but also its sweet tooth. From nougat to halva, baqlava, candied fruits, jams, sugared nuts, flaky turnovers stuffed with dates, and more, no Iraqi Jewish celebration was complete without a sweet table, and henna ceremonies were no exception. In fact, there was even an unusual Baghdadi custom to cover each of the bride’s hennaed fingertips with a little lump of halqoon (Turkish Delight) before wrapping them up, to ensure a extra sweet life for the new couple.

Jewish henna party, Baghdad, mid-20th century.

One popular sweet served at henna parties was called hajji bada (or hadgi badah), a lightly-spiced round cookie usually with an almond or pistachio on top. It was also served at Purim and to break the fast after Yom Kippur, and a special flourless version was made for Passover. The recipe here comes from Gil Mark’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.

Sweets table for the henna party of Esperance and Moshe Hakham,
Baghdad, mid-20th century.

2 ¼ cups all purpose flour
1 tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp baking powder
1 1/3 cups sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups ground blanched almonds
About 48 whole blanched almonds or pistachios (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or grease the baking sheets.
In a small bowl, sift together the flour, cardamom, salt and baking powder. In a large bowl, beat together the sugar and eggs until light and creamy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the flour mixture, then the ground almonds.
Moisten your hands with rose water or orange blossom water, if desired, and form the dough into 1-inch ball (I used a tablespoon to scoop the dough out of the bowl so they would be even in size). Place on the prepared baking sheets and flatten slightly. If using, press a whole almond or pistachio into the center of each cookie.
Bake until lightly browned, about 10-12 minutes. Let the cookies stand until firm, about 1 minute, then transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.

I hope you enjoy! What do you normally eat at henna ceremonies? Leave your memories — and recipes! — in the comments. Bon appetit, buen provecho, befarmaid, bsaha, and beteavon!


AgnesAnne said...

Noam, I was wondering what the recipe for flourless hadgi badah might be. I tried Googling but have had no luck except for a couple sites you need to have a membership for.

Emily said...

Exceptional post. Thanks for all the recipes.

Noam Sienna said...

Gail, for flourless hajji bada it basically becomes more like a nut macaroon. Here's a recipe:
4 cups finely ground almonds
1 cup finely ground walnuts
2 cups sugar
5 egg whites
1 egg yolk
1 tsp cardamom
Beat egg whites with sugar until foamy, add ground nuts, yolk, and cardamom. Mix well and let rest in fridge. Form into balls, press nut on top, and bake for 15 minutes or until golden.

Drew Watts said...
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