Food of Sorrow: Jewish Culinary Traditions For Mourning
What do Jews eat when in mourning?
“The rite observed by the pious of the earlier generations was as follows: A person would sit alone between the oven and the cooking range. Others would bring him dried bread and salt. He would dip it in water and drink a pitcher of water while worried, forlorn, and in tears, as one whose dead was lying before him.”
This moving description of grief, as described by the great medieval Jewish sage Maimonides, lays out the rules for observing Tisha B’Av, a day commemorating the destruction of the two Jewish Temples in Jerusalem. And it may sound somewhat familiar for any member of the Jewish community who has ever mourned a loved one. Jewish traditions, especially culinary ones, connect personal and national grief and have very similar symbolic dishes and eating customs.
The nine days starting at the beginning of the Jewish month of Av and ending on the Fast of Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of Av) make up a period of mourning where most communities refrain from eating meat or drinking wine. Instead, Jews traditionally eat dairy dishes and parve meals, as well as fish, which was allowed in some Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish homes.
Lentils, which are considered to be mourner’s food, are commonly served throughout the nine day period. The first lentil stew for a mourning family, according to the French medieval sage Rashi, was the one that the patriarch Jacob made after his grandfather, Abraham, died. That was the lentil stew he ended up selling to Esau for his birthright. Unlike legumes, lentils are perfect spheres and have no dent to them, which, according to Jewish tradition, resembles having no mouth, just like the mourner who cannot speak out and voice his deep sorrow.
Both Maimonides and The Code of Jewish Law talk about serving only cooked food, made of only one ingredient, on the eve of Tisha B’Av. But in most Middle Eastern communities, a dish of lentils and rice or bulgar became most associated with mourning. (My Iraqi-Jewish family used to serve Kichri, a stew of lentils and rice topped with yogurt (leben in Hebrew and Arabic) during the nine days before Tisha B’Av and for the Seudah Mafseket (the separation meal, the last meal before the fast begins.) A similar but more elaborated dish, called Kishari, is served in the Egyptian-Jewish community. It’s a layered dish of lentil and rice, topped with noodles, fava and chickpeas, then smothered with tomato sauce. Jewish communities from the Levant serve Mujadara, a lentil and rice or bulgar dish, Persians will have Adas Polo (rice with lentils.) Indian Jews make Birde (In Israel it is called Bidde) out of field beans called Vaal that they sprout in water overnight. Sometimes an egg is added to the dish of lentils, as egg is another symbolic mourner’s food (more on that below.)
Tunisian, Algerian and Libyan Jews prepare a special elongated couscous dish called Kh’lalem in Tunisia and Algeria and Dewida in Libya. To make this special couscous you mix flour or farina with a little oil, water and salt to a dough and then shape it into very small elongated pasta, similar to orzo. The Khlalem is then dried in the open air and cooked as needed before serving. It is cooked in a spicy stew of hot peppers, tomato, fava and chickpea. The Libyan stew is milder and consists of tomatoes, garlic and paprika.
Although meat is not permitted during the nine days, some North African Jews serve dried meat and sausages. The rationale behind this tradition is that meat that was slaughtered more than three days before consuming, is not considered good meat and therefore is allowed on a sad day. Tunisians and Libyans make Merguez sausages in the weeks leading to the fast, using ground meat and lamb fat, harissa sauce (in Tunisia) and spices like coriander seed. The Merguez were hanged to air dry and served during the nine days.
Libyan Jews make dried meat known as Kaddid (it is called khli by Moroccan Jews, who refer to it as spoiled meat, or gueddid) using lamb shoulder. The meat is cut into thin strips, covered in oil, and sun dried for a few days. Moroccans add ground spices to coat the meat.
Yemeni Jews do eat meat throughout the nine days, but refrain from serving meat dishes on the meal before the beginning of the Tisha B’Av fast. This meal, in Jewish Yemeni tradition, will usually consist of Fatut, pieces of flat bread cooked in a dairy soup made with milk and Samneh (clarified butter,) occasionally served with eggs.
The Meal of Separation, before the fast, also has strict rules. According to the Code of Jewish Law, people should sit on a low chair or on the ground, no more than one cooked dish is allowed, and it is customary to dip an egg in ashes. No meat or wine are served.
Eggs are common mourners’ food. Not only are they round, symbolizing the cycle of life, but they also mark new life and hope. Ashkenazi Jews serve for the Meal of Separation a hard boiled egg, sometimes dipped in ashes meant to remind diners of the destruction of the Temple.
Moroccan Jews eat nothing but a hard boiled egg and black olives on the separating meal.
Hard boiled eggs are also served during Seudat Havra’ah (Meal of Recovery in Hebrew,) a meal prepared by friends and neighbors after the burial of a family member. The meal will usually consist of only the egg and bread, either a bagel, a roll, or Ka’ak.
Bread plays an important part on the mourners menu, as described by Maimonides above. When it comes to Shiva fare and breaking the fast, it is common to serve round shaped breads that remind us of the life cycle. For American Jews this means, of course, a variety of bagels, served to the mourners with a nice spread of schmears. Ashkenazi Jews in Israel serve a similar but crustier bagel, sometimes called beigaleh. Middle Eastern Jews will usually go for the ka’ak, a bagel shaped bread spiced with a mix called hawayej or sprinkled with sesame seeds.
To end the fast, Algerian, Tunisian and Libyan Jews traditionally serve Merguez, a spicy sausage, in a stew of homemade short pasta. According to Israeli food historian and writer Pascal Peretz-Rubin, the short pasta is called Chlalam and is prepared with tomatoes, sweet and spicy peppers, and chickpea or fava beans. In Libya the pasta is called Dwida and the dish is usually not as spicy, and sometimes served like a soup.
Moroccan Jews break the fast with a vegetarian wheat hamin called Areesa, made simply with oil, onion and a little sugar and spices. They also prepare cookies known as Halwa del ajin - small dough balls, shaped like hazelnuts, that are fried and cooked in caramel. The concoction is spread on a flat surface, and when dry, it is broken into small pieces and served. Since it is believed that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av, it is always a good idea to end the day on a sweet note.