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Traditional foods celebrate Purim’s fun and mystery

Tags: Food
Photo from Fast and Festive Meals for the Jewish Holiday (William Morrow & Co.)

Every Jewish school child knows the characters:  Achashverosh, the foolish king; Vashti, the spurned wife; Haman, the wicked first minister (sound your graggers now!); Esther, the brave and beautiful maiden; and Mordechai, her honourable protector. Their tale of intrigue is told in the Scroll of Esther (Megillah) as an annihilation plot is foiled and our people saved.

Purim, Feb. 24 this year, is the holiday of merriment, mirth and trickery.

To celebrate our deliverance, sweets are the order of the day. Gifts of cakes and fruit (mishloach manot) are exchanged. For Ashkenazim, no Purim celebration would be complete without three-cornered hamantashen, traditionally filled with poppy seeds, while Sephardim enjoy honeyed pastries called oznei Haman (Haman’s ears).

Bulletin! Tashen means “pockets,” and Haman never wore a three-cornered hat! (You just can’t believe anything you hear these days.)

Matthew Goodman, the Food Maven columnist of the Forward, says in Jewish Food: The World at Table that these Purim sweets were originally called mohntashen, meaning “poppy seed pockets.” Over the years, the word morphed into hamantashen (“Haman’s pockets”), which supposedly held the lots (purim) he cast in order to choose the date for the slaughter of the Jews.

According to chef, rabbi, historian and Jewish cooking expert Gil Marks, the association of Haman with a three-cornered hat didn’t arise until the late 17th century.

Pockets, hat, whatever – eat and enjoy! Marlena Spieler offers hamantashen with three fillings in her latest cookbook Recipes From My Jewish Grandmother (Lorenz Books), apricot, poppy seed and prune.

What is it about Purim and poppy seeds anyway? András Koerner says in A Taste of the Past: Daily Life and Cooking of a 19th-Century Hungarian Jewish Homemaker that although poppy seeds have long been associated with the holiday, they were used during Purim well before the baking of hamantashen. A religious 12th-century poem by Abraham Ibn Ezra, Koerner says, recorded the eating of poppy seeds and honey for the holiday. Marks explains further in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Wiley) that the tradition arose because the Yiddish word for poppy seeds, mohn, is similar to the name Haman.

On Purim we also eat dishes with a filling, “alluding to the many intrigues, secrets and surprises unfolding in the Purim story,” Marks writes.

In addition, he says, there is a tradition that “Esther, in order to keep kosher, ate only vegetarian foods while living in the king’s palace.”

Marlena Spieler’s Sephardi Stuffed Onions, Potatoes and Zucchini, a vegetarian stuffed dish, is therefore doubly appropriate for the holiday. “The vegetarian filling of these vegetables is tomato-red, Yemenite-spiced and accented with the tart taste of lemon,” she writes. “They are good served as an appetizer as well as a main course.”

Spieler, author of more than 50 cookbooks, includes informative chapters on the history of Jewish cuisine, the holidays, and kashrut, as well as general guides to the preparation of all foods Jewish.

She fondly remembers Sundays in her grandmother's kitchen, her early inspiration. “My grandmother ran a law firm and worked until a few days before she died at 93,” said the California native on a recent visit to San Francisco from her home in London. “Well, she had to cut back a little – she only worked from nine to five then! But on Sunday morning, people would start coming, and she would start cooking. I couldn't say they'd come for breakfast, lunch or dinner, because it was all one meal. We would smell the chicken soup as we went off to synagogue school, and by the time we got home, she’d have matzah brei and kasha varnishkes and meat patties with onions. This went on until late evening. Bachi really gave me the love of cooking.”

Spieler travelled widely as a young adult, lived in Israel for a year, and was working as an artist in Greece when she started including recipes with her drawings of food. A publisher offered to publish the recipes (minus the drawings!) launching her career as a food writer, broadcaster and columnist.

These days Spieler divides her time between San Francisco and London, where she is a frequent guest on the BBC. Her column, The Roving Feast, is carried by the New York Times syndicate and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Recipes From My Jewish Grandmother is a truly international culmination of Spieler’s curiosity about our people and our food. “I love meeting Jews from different cultures and hearing their stories, and find it really exciting that people with such different backgrounds share the same heritage and holidays.”




4 potatoes, peeled

4 onions, peeled

4 zucchini, halved widthwise

2-4 garlic cloves, chopped

3-4 tbsp. olive oil

3-4 tbsp. tomato paste

1/4 tsp. ras al hanout or curry powder

large pinch of ground allspice

seeds of 2-3 cardamom pods

juice of 1/2 lemon

2-3 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

6-8 tbsp. vegetable stock

salt and ground black pepper

salad to serve (optional)


Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil. Add potatoes, then onions, then zucchini to boiling water and cook until almost tender but not cooked through (about 10 minutes for potatoes, 8 minutes for onions and 4-6 minutes for zucchini). Remove vegetables from pan and cool.

Hollow out cooled vegetables. Preheat oven to 375.

Finely chop cut-out vegetable flesh and put in bowl. Add garlic, half the olive oil, tomato paste, ras al hanout or curry powder, allspice, cardamom seeds, lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper and mix well. Fill hollowed vegetables with stuffing mixture.

Arrange stuffed vegetables in baking pan and drizzle with stock and remaining oil. Roast 35-40 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm or cold with salad, if desired.



Source: Recipes From My Jewish Grandmother by Marlena Spieler


1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 tbsp. milk

1 large egg, beaten

1 tsp. vanilla or almond extract

pinch of salt

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)

generous 1 cup dried apricots

1 cinnamon stick

3 tbsp. sugar


Poppy seed filling:

1 cup poppy seeds, coarsely ground

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup golden raisins, roughly chopped

3-4 tbsp. sugar

2 tbsp. light corn syrup

1-2 tsp. grated lemon rind

1 tsp.vanilla extract


Prune filling

generous 1 cup pitted prunes

hot, freshly brewed tea or water, to cover

1/4 cup plum jam


In large bowl, cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.

In separate bowl, combine milk, egg, extract and salt. Sift flour into third bowl.

Beat butter mixture with 1/3 of flour, Gradually add remaining flour in 3 batches alternately with milk mixture. Dough should be consistency of loose shortbread dough. If too stiff, add a little milk. Cover and chill at least 1 hour.

Apricot filling: Put apricots, cinnamon stick and sugar in pan with water to cover. Simmer 15 minutes or until apricots are tender and most of liquid has evaporated. Remove cinnamon stick and purée apricots in food processor or blender with a little cooking liquid until consistency of thick jam.

Poppy seed filling: Put all ingredients except vanilla in pan and simmer 5-10 minutes or until mixture thickens and most of milk is absorbed. Stir in vanilla.

Prune Filling: Put prunes in bowl and cover with hot tea or water. Set aside, covered, about 30 minutes or until prunes absorb liquid. Drain, purée in food processor or blender with jam.

Form hamantashen: preheat oven to 350. On lightly floured surface roll out dough about 1/8-1/4-inch thick. Cut into rounds about 3 inches in diameter. Place 1-2 tablespoons filling in centre of each round, pinch pastry together to form 3 corners, leaving a little filling showing in middle of pastry.

Place pastries on baking sheet and bake about 15 minutes or until pale golden. Serve warm or cold, dusted with confectioners’ sugar, if you like.



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