Shabbat cholent: the ultimate slow food

Cholent takes hours to cook and puts you to sleep for the afternoon. But Saturday would not be the same without it.

By Bernard Josephs, March 12, 2009

The French have a passion for cassoulet, Lancastrians revel in hot pot and the Irish enthuse about their stew, but none of these holds a light to a hearty, steaming bowl of cholent. That, at least, is my opinion, although I accept that it can be an acquired taste.

Picky sophisticates are unlikely to appreciate its heady aroma or its thick consistency. Indeed, to get the best out of it, an appreciation of basic folk-lore food and a big appetite is required.

One fan of the dish was the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine. He was so impressed that he penned a poem expressing his passion for its qualities. Cholent, he wrote, was “a ray of light immortal, the very food of heaven which on Sinai, God himself instructed Moses in the secret of preparing”.

Now whether Moses actually cooked a cholent is perhaps a matter for debate but certainly its roots are ancient and deep. The Ashkenazi-style version was, according to one expert fresser, first mentioned in 1180 by the epicurean Rabbi Yitzhak of Vienna and some say its history can be traced to Second Temple times. Today it remains as popular as ever and is considered to be not just a food but a tasty tradition beloved by balabustas around the world.

One such is Sadie Hirshorn of Wanstead, East London. Now in her 90s, she vividly recalls how in her East End childhood she would take a pot of cholent to the local baker on a Friday morning and, for tuppence, he would cook it in his oven overnight, ready to be taken home piping hot after shul.

Mrs Hirshorn still cooks cholent for her family, who are all enthusiasts. She uses a recipe handed down by her mother, which can be served either as a vegetarian or meat version. It is based on stock, into which are poured carrots, butter beans, barley, onions, potatoes, flour, margarine, brown sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Added to this is a big piece of kugel and, if it is the meaty version, brisket or top rib of beef.

Simmered for hours, Mrs Hirshorn’s cholent is a joy to behold. It is also, she says, a fine substitute for sleeping pills. “After a plate or two of cholent all the men dozed off for a Shabbat shluff.”

Cholent is becoming positively fashionable in Israel where connoisseurs have taken to frequenting restaurants specialising in “Jewish” food. Even the Israeli Foreign Ministry carries a cholent recipe on its website. Highly popular in Israel is the Sephardi version known as Hamin, the Hebrew word for “hot”. This is a reference both to its temperature and its flavour.

Cumin and hot peppers add zing to the pot along with eggplant and zucchini stuffed with ground beef, rice, chickpeas and meat or chicken.

Hamin typically includes unshelled eggs which turn brown as they are cooked on top of the mixture.

The flavour of Hamin varies widely. For instance, Iraqi Jews make a version with a whole chicken stuffed with rice. Moroccan and Spanish Jews use a wide range of spices including garlic, cinnamon, ginger and pepper.

While the health and safety police occasionally question it — one critic has described cholent as an artery-blocker — demand shows no sign of fading. Many kosher butchers even sell it in frozen blocks and it has also gained recognition outside the Jewish community.

Celebrity chef John Torode, the star of MasterChef, together with the cooking duo the Jewish Princesses, have produced a fine recipe that serves eight.

It calls for 2kg of stewing beef cut into cubes, six large potatoes, six onions, 175g of pearl barley, 2 bay leaves, 235g of canned cannelloni beans, 235g of canned butter beans, 235g of canned borlotti beans, a 400g tin of chopped tomatoes, a pinch of black pepper, two teaspoons of salt, two teaspoons of brown sugar, three chopped carrots, two beef stock cubes and two eggs.

Preheat the oven to 200˚C and put the ingredients into a heavy, oven proof dish with the beef in the centre and the unshelled eggs on top. Add enough water to cover and cook in the preheated oven for one hour.

Finally reduce the heat to 150˚C or gas mark 2 and leave in the oven for seven hours — or even longer at a lower heat. Enjoy!

Last updated: 12:08pm, March 12 2009