Bagels with a schmear, kugel, whitefish salad, cured herring: To many Jews in America, that’s the standard lineup for a buffet at the end of Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days of the year, which begins at sundown Oct. 3. After 24-plus hours of prayer and contemplation, without food or drink or even a good tooth scrubbing, a meal crafted with a tender stomach and sodium recovery in mind becomes a blessing for all.
With a more global nod to tradition, though, they could augment the break-fast’s restorative powers. Sephardic Jews (of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean descent) integrate energy-boosting, digestive and medicinal herbs and seeds into their break-fast noshes and dishes. Warm, sweet drinks and a spread of confections are followed by soups and heavier meals, such as Indian chicken curry with basmati rice and North African couscous with beef and quinces.
Moroccans start with a sweet bite or drink and might have a shot of arak, an anise-y digestif, or biscotti-like fennel cookies with quince jam and sweetened herbal tea before they sit down to harira, traditionally a meat-based, legume-rich soup most famously served to break the fast during Ramadan. Turkish and Bulgarian Jewish communities make what’s known as dulce de membrillo, or sweet quince paste.
Indian Jews have adapted dishes for the occasion from their Hindu neighbors. The 2,000-year-old B’nai Israel Indian Jewish community, originally from in and around Mumbai, breaks the fast with classic, deep-fried, laminated pastries filled with coconut, almond, pistachios and semolina. Such hand pies are made during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights celebration, during the fall.
Yemeni Jews’ break-fast rituals begin with caffeinated white coffee and hawaij, a spice blend akin to garam masala that the coffee grounds are boiled with, much like Turkish coffee. Joel Finkelstein of Qualia Coffee in Petworth says white coffee is a light roast of coffee beans; in the Washington area, it’s available at Harrar Coffee and Roastery on Georgia Avenue NW.
The Yemeni Jews then move on to a little-known dairy soup or savory porridge, made with buttermilk or sour cream, thickened with flour and garnished with schug, a spicy, chimichurri-like condiment made of hot peppers, coriander and garlic.
Hailing from the same region are the Persian Jews, who break the fast with crushed ice in orange flower water or rose syrup. The confection is similar to Asian shaved ice, but it’s topped with matchsticks of apples for the Jewish holiday. (It’s also similar to the traditional Persian falooda, a slushy drink made with flavored simple syrup, ice and vermicelli noodles.) Greek and Turkish Jewish communities take the time to make a chilled melon-seed-and-almond-milk drink for their break-fast; it involves soaking, crushing and straining the ingredients through cheesecloth.
Italian and Libyan Jews serve bulo, a sweet yeast raisin bread, with tea. It is similar to the more aromatic, baking powder-based Tunisian bulo, made with fennel and orange zest. It perfumes the house as it bakes.
One of the more widely shared foods of the Jewish High Holidays (and the Jewish festivals of Purim and Simchat Torah) is savory, not sweet: kreplach, a.k.a. Jewish tortellini. Roman blogger Jasmine Guetta writes in Italian on her site, Labna — Amore in cucina, of how her grandmother’s handwritten recipes came to Rome as many Libyan Jews were fleeing their country in 1967. Guetta’s mother now uses leftover Rosh Hashanah brisket for the pasta filling; she freezes the kreplach, to be cooked and served in a glistening, golden chicken broth at the Yom Kippur break-fast.
In her 1996 “The Book of Jewish Food,” Egyptian-born Claudia Roden wrote that Jews were making pasta in the ghettos of Germany through contact with their brethren in Italy, with whom they had trade and rabbinical connections, in the early 14th century.
Ashkenazi and Sephardic weave and intersect in Roden’s story of how sweetened cheese-filled pasta reached Polish Jewry: “Pasta came to Poland as a result of Italian presence at the royal courts and also by way of Central Asia. That may be why the cheese kreplach, sauced with sour cream, owes more to Turkish-Mongolian manti with yogurt poured over than to Italian ravioli or cappelletti.”
Making kreplach takes time, and holiday-appropriate contemplation. The rhythmic kneading, rolling and shaping of this curious, water-free dough is meditative. Kreplach’s charms become apparent with the rolling of dough that must be paper-thin, in keeping the work surface well floured. With enough practice, one can avoid possible mishaps in the folding and pinching required to form the small dumplings. With patience, you can create small works of art.
Yet even meat-filled kreplach, such as the accompanying chicken-liver variation, are light enough to serve at a break-fast — and they’re much more elegant than bagels.
Madnick is an Israeli-born Washington area food and travel writer and recipe developer. She blogs at foodwanderings.com.
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