Cholent is a good example of function over form.
Steamy but never sexy, it may not look pretty nor have pretensions of nouvelle cuisine grandeur, but it serves the purpose for which it was evolved — a low cost and minimal-effort meal that will be hot and ready to go for Shabbat lunch.
All the hard work takes place on Friday or earlier in the week, leaving the meat, grains and vegetables to stew in a low oven into melting tenderness for next day’s lunch.
Love it or hate it, it has endured for centuries, the basic recipe adopted and adapted by Ashkenazim and Sephardim across the globe.
And far from being confined to old-fashioned recipe books, with dishes like the deeply unpalatable sounding forshmak and plov, it continues to retain a place in our hearts, and stomachs.
The Cambridge University Jewish Society (CUJS) pay a weekly tribute with its Cholent Society. The group meets each Saturday afternoon for cholent and whisky — a meal presided over by a Ladle Master and, more recently — after a mini-emancipation — Ladle Mistress.
And it does not stop there. Next Thursday, January 17, 10 teams — one including a past CUJS Ladle Master — will enter Cholent Fest — a competition to make the best version of the dish. Another team boasts food blogger Anthony Silverbrow and Gefiltefest founder Michael Leventhal.
The event has been organised by American Josh Zaitschek, a chef who learned his craft in the kitchen of his New York yeshivah. He spent two years cooking all sorts of food. “It was great experience” he smiles, “we produced 350 meals a day”.
Zaitschek moved to London and now works for the United Synagogue as education programmes director for Hampstead Synagogue. He is responsible for building the shul’s community of twenty- and thirtysomethings and hit upon Cholent Fest as a fun event. “I wanted a cook-off of a traditional dish. Cholent fits that bill, as well as being just a little funny and totally adaptable. I also had to actually enjoy eating whatever it was that they were going to be cooking,” he laughs.
He admits his mother’s recipe is his winner, but also cooks his own version. “I include fresh garlic, soy sauce, HP sauce, ketchup, a whole onion, red kidney beans and barley,” he says.
The teams contesting the cook-off will be given an hour the night before to prepare their kosher ingredients, says Zaitschek. “Their slow cookers — brand-new to ensure kashrut — will be turned on and the doors locked until the next evening.”
The next day the doors will be opened to the public and a panel of judges including Zaitschek himself, Denise Phillips and Jack Bendahan of the north London food chain, Kosher Deli. The winners will get £200 and a trophy.
Judge Denise Phillips agrees that everyone will have a different take on the perfect cholent. “There are many variations, all influenced by history and geography as well as the laws of Shabbat. No two recipes were ever the same, with secret ingredients such as honey, tomato ketchup or golden syrup used to sweeten them, and coffee was even used to give it a glossy appearance.”
According to Phillips, the essence of the dish is that, as far as possible, it uses store cupboard ingredients and so recipes reflect their indigenous influence.
“Cinnamon, saffron, black pepper and cumin are popular in the Sephardi version, hamin,” she explains, “while garlic, onions, paprika are favoured by Ashkenazim in traditional cholent. Tebit, the Iraqi hot Shabbat meal, often includes whole chicken stuffed with rice and fresh herbs.”
Denise Phillips's top tips for the perfect cholent
Take care to choose appropriately sized cuts of meat, either in large pieces or on the bone.
All joints of meat include a substantial amount of water and long slow cooking will shrink them considerably.
Over-season and include a high liquid content as this will guarantee succulent meat and good flavour.
If you cook your cholent in the oven or on a low “Shabbat setting”, cover with two layers of foil to give it good insulation.
If you include potatoes, keep the skins on to prevent them falling apart.
Try a Wonderbag — a new slow cooking device. Food is heated in a pot on the stove before being placed in the Wonderbag to complete the cooking process. The fabric bag allows food to finish cooking without the use of additional energy.