TORONTO — It might not look so appetizing, but it tastes delicious. Cholent has been a staple of Jewish food around the world for hundreds of years. That is the reason why Project Tish, a grassroots organization dedicated to giving young Jews a Shabbat experience, chose to hold a cholent cook-off that would crown the creator of Toronto’s best cholent.
“It sort of started from a conversation about who in Project Tish makes the best cholent,” said Yonatan Oliver, the organization’s vice-president and a fourth year cognitive science student at York University.
Project Tish, named for the traditional festive gatherings after Shabbat dinners, has been active for the last five years. The organizers host Shabbat dinners, often in their homes, for the university-aged Jewish community, regardless of levels of religious observance. Each dinner attracts 20 to 30 guests, and cholent is often on the menu.
“Cholent is probably the quintessential Jewish food,” Oliver said of the thick chili-like dish, traditionally made from barley, beans potatoes and meat, and left to cook on the stove over Shabbat.
The cook-off brought in 10 competitors, some entered as individuals, and others as organizations, including the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee, Hillel, Hasbara at York and B’nai Brith on Campus, among others.
Oliver said organizing the event, which was held on Dec. 1 at the B’nai Brith building, took time, planning and, sometimes a bit of convincing. “Most of the people I called thought that it was a really funny new idea that was a bit quirky, but sounded interesting,” he added.
But once the competition began, the teams took their recipes and their mission to make the best cholent seriously. Each competing team was provided with base ingredients and cooked their creations in the Taam Tov catering kitchen, to ensure kashrut was observed. Participants were able to add their own ingredients as well, some chefs adding beer and even Sprite to the mix.
The cooks watched as guests sampled the cholents, and voted for the ones they liked the best. At the end of the night, three judges, one from Hillel, one from B’nai Brith and a guest judge, Gail Gordon Oliver, editor and publisher of Edible Toronto magazine, gave the three most popular cholents a thorough taste test to determine first, second and third place.
The verdict, they declared, was unanimous. The best cholent was awarded to 25-year-old Yaakov Freedman, the president of Project Tish. He entered his recipe independently, for some friendly competition with other student groups, including his colleagues at Project Tish.
“I’m kind of ecstatic. I did not honestly expect to win,” said Freedman, whose trademark ingredient is simple: “meat – lots of meat.” He emphasized the importance of cooking as a part of hachnasat orchim, or showing hospitality to guests, a concept at the core of Project Tish.
All the proceeds from the cholent cook-off will go towards expanding and improving the work of Project Tish.