Traditional Dishes to Celebrate the Jewish Festival of Purim
Purim is one of the most joyous and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar.
Purim commemorates Esther, a Jewess plucked from the royal harem and married to the King of Persia in the 5th century BC, who outwitted a plot by the evil Persian Prime Minister Haman, who had decreed death for all Jews in the kingdom. Esther is said to have arranged a dazzling two day feast for the king before disclosing her Jewish heritage and telling him of the plot against her people. By daybreak, the PM had been hanged and the freedom of the Jews assured.
By extension Purim commemorates all the times Jews have escaped persecution in history and and seems particularly poignant at present amid the Ukrainian crisis. The message is as relevant now as it was in Esther’s day: the importance of standing up to tyranny.
The meal is preceded by visiting neighbours, friends and family to exchange special biscuits and pastries associated with the festival.
Chief among the symbolic foods are hamantaschen pastries shaped to resemble the hated Haman’s three-cornered hat or pockets. The traditional Ashkenazi (East European) recipe uses a yeast dough fashioned into triangles, which are filled with poppy seeds to commemorate Esther’s fast whilst she was praying to God for the decree against the Jews to be overturned.
Esther allegedly ate only seeds at night when she broke her fast. An alternative savoury hamentaschen is made with flaky pastry, spring herbs, spinach and cheese, rather reminiscent of Israeli bourekas. Sephardic Jews favour orejas de aman, made out of puff pastry and drenched in syrup that are said to resemble Haman’s ears. Hungary's preference is for poppy seed strudel.
According to tradition, whilst Queen Esther lived in the court of King Ahasuerus, the King of Persia, she followed a vegetarian diet consisting largely of beans, nuts and seeds so that she would not break the Jewish dietary laws. Iraqi Jews celebrate Purim with sambusak el tawa: flaky turnovers filled with chickpeas (they are also representative of the intrigues and secret plots of the Purim story)
There’s a Sephardic (Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Jewish) tradition of eating giant hand-rolled couscous, especially in Morocco. The couscous is served with milk and cream at Purim, which Claudia Roden, the renowed author of The Book of Jewish Food, recalls eating as a child in Egypt too.
Sephardic Jews often serve Chraimi, white fish cooked in a sweet, tangy tomato, smoked paprika, ground ginger and smoky cumin sauce. Cooking fish with saffron, its bright colour signifying joy, is another tradition.
Kreplach are little dumplings made from a flour, water and egg dough rolled ultra thin and filled either with minced meat or vegetables. They are very similar to Ukrainian and Polish uszka. They are usually served in chicken soup but can sometimes be fried. At Purim, kreplach with vegetarian fillings are eaten to remember the “hidden” nature of the Purim victory against the oppressor of the Jews.
These crescent pastries with a Yiddish name, which means little twists, are made with a cream cheese pastry which is mesmerisingly moreish. Rugelach originated in Jewish communities in Poland but is now hugely popular in Israel. Popular fillings include raisins, cinnamon, chocolate, apricots and walnuts. Israeli bakeries hold competitions to come up with the most creative fillings.
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