Cholent, the Ashkenazi slow-baked stew of meat, beans and potatoes that is simmered overnight for stress-free Sabbath dining, is really supposed to be eaten on Saturday.
But this was Sunday morning, and we were taste-testing some eight different kinds of cholent and hamin, the Middle Eastern version of the slow-cooked stew.
The purpose of all this bean-laden insanity, bringing together a handful of cooks and their versions of bean-and-meat stews, was to mark the start of a Hamin Festival, to be held over the course of three weekends in January at Tel Aviv’s North Market, a fairly bland neighborhood of high-tech companies and offices.
Most of the eating that gets done around here is during the week, around lunchtime and dinner, when the workers get hungry and come to the market, an upscale food court, for Indian and Thai fare, as well as burgers, fish and chips and other sweet and savory treats.
During January 2020, however, they can dive into plates of cholent or hamin on Thursdays and Fridays.
There will be a wide variety of stews to buy, from the traditional Ashkenazi version with potato, bean and kishke (stuffed intestines), sweetened slightly with honey, to a chicken version, stuffed with dried cherry-studded rice and delicately flavored with cinnamon.
At this tasting, a rich Ashkenazi cholent was served — along with shots of Scotch — by Yossi Vitriol and Oshri Nagar, whose Beit Shemesh company, Zusha, serves up cholent every Thursday night, in a kind of alternative cholent beer garden. They make two kinds, lamb and asado, in a combination of Ashkenazi and Mizrachi flavors, served with beers on tap.
The Beit Shemesh version has a slight sweetness, as does Zammy Shreiber’s classic cholent at his Levinsky Market restaurant Sender, where the same recipe has been served since 1948, when his father, a partisan, would steal meat from the British.
“I was basically born at the restaurant,” said Shreiber, adding that the restaurant was named for Alexander, his father’s partner. “They would feed me cholent as a baby.”
The restaurant wasn’t certified as kosher back in the day, because his father didn’t agree with the religious establishment. When Shreiber married his wife, Yael, a religiously observant Israeli of Iraqi origins, she insisted that the restaurant be kosher, and they now provide the weekly kiddush meal of cholent, kugel and gefilte fish served at Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue on Shabbat mornings..
“She’s been Ashkenazified,” said Shreiber, although she does make tbit, an Iraqi recipe of slow-cooked chicken and rice, at home on Shabbat afternoon..
Every Friday afternoon, however, before they close for the weekend, the couple and their three kids sit down for a bowl of cholent.
“Cholent needs personal attention,” said Shreiber. “It has to be from the soul to come out well. You put it in the oven, and you don’t know what’s going to come out, every time.”
The family origins of each cholent or hamin recipe weigh heavily in this hefty stew.
Down the proverbial road from Sender is Eli Ben Menachem’s Vienna restaurant, where he serves his grandmother Bella Ehrenberg’s cholent, continuing a 75-year-old tradition.
His grandmother came from Poland after World War II, and bought the restaurant, keeping the name Vienna from the previous Austrian owner. Her cholent, a traditional mix of beans, potatoes and meat, has a slightly more Mediterranean flavor now, thanks to the additions of hard-boiled eggs, and often gets eaten by tourists, said Ben Menachem.
One of the hamin dishes served was tbit, the Iraqi cholent, made by Ahuva Avraham, a 75-year-old Iraqi Israeli from Petach Tikva, who centers her tbit with a dried cherry and tomato-stuffed chicken, surrounded by rice. Each week, she makes one version for a local restaurant that sells it to customers, and another one for her family, serving it on Friday afternoons, when everyone comes over.
“I get up around 2 am and finish by 6 am,” said Avraham. “That’s when I have a cup of coffee.”
There was also a Persian version of tbit from Avi Neeman, of the Edna restaurant in Ramat Hasharon, who placed baseball-sized balls of rice that were mixed with ground chicken, along with beans, more rice and balls of dried lime, softened by the liquids in the dish.
“I learned it all from my mother,” said Neeman, who took his mother’s roadside kiosk, and turned it into sit-down restaurant. “I haven’t made this in a while, but you never forget.”