First off, before I dive into this post, I’d like to beg forgiveness for the internet silence on this blog the last couple of months. Things have been especially crazy in my preparation for and actual move to Madrid, so I’ve a lot of trouble sitting down to write a substantive post. But, as it is a new year, I promise from now on I’m going to be updating much more regularly from here on out.
Now that that’s out of the way: onto the blog! On Sunday night, Jews all over the world celebrated the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. For those of you who have never heard of this holiday, its name literally means “head of the year.” This year we’re celebrating 5777. As the Jewish calendar is a lunar one, the date of the holiday changes every year, but it generally falls sometime in late September/early October. It’s one of my favorite Jewish holidays, partly because I love starting off a new year in the fall along with the school year – it just feels like it makes more sense. I also love Rosh Hashanah, as I will explain further in this post, because of its emphasis on sweetness. This can be evidenced in every aspect of the holiday from the customary wish of l’shana tova umetukah (to a happy and sweet new year) – or in the Ladino-speaking Sephardic tradition, anyada buena, dulse, i alegre (good, sweet, and happy new year) – to the emphasis on sweet foods as the traditional way to invite a good new year.
It is just this emphasis on the food’s multiple meanings that I want to talk about today. Most especially because across the Jewish subgroups, there’s a huge range of symbolic foods that are used to invite happiness and abundance in the new year. For instance, as Gil Marks writes in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, one such “an ancient custom [that reflects the diversity of traditions even within the Jewish community] is to eat a new fruit… on the second night of Rosh Hashanah… seasonal produce frequently finds its way into Rosh Hashanah fare, such as spinach and leeks among Sephardim, pumpkins among Italians, and apples and plums among Ashkenazim” (506). This diversity is all the more abundant when it comes to the different sweet foods that different Jewish communities eat, even when using the same sweetener that is most well-known as a symbol of Rosh Hashanah: honey. Marks explains that while “Ashkenazim traditionally serve a honey cake called lekach… Sephardim make honey-soaked cakes, such as tishpishti [and] Hungarian Rosh Hashanah desserts generally continue the apple theme—hosts offer apple cakes, pie, or compote” (507). In the Jewish tradition, there are many ways to symbolically eat your way into a sweet and prosperous year.
You may ask: why dedicate a whole blogpost to the variety of symbolic dishes? Seems pretty logical, right? Well, yes. But the important takeaway is this: there’s a huge range of ways to evoke sweetness for the new year and each one is as special and important to the people who celebrate the holiday with it as the next. To me, the concept that even within the same global Jewish community, the fact that different subgroups and individuals can express auspicious sweetness with an entirely different food yet have it mean evoke a shared meaning is inspiring and connective. We all wish for sweetness in a new year of life – whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jew, Jew or non-Jew - each person in his or her own way with his or her own special dish. It speaks to the power and profound meaning of food generally. But even more, it’s a great lesson to start the new year off with, especially if it’s one shared with an abundance of family and friends, with a little extra honey on the side for good measure. L’shana tova umetukah to you and yours, may 5777 bring you and your loved ones only the sweetest of things.
Honey Orange Chicken
This recipe comes from Joan Nathan’s fabulous cookbook The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, first version published in 1979. The dish covers all the Rosh Hashanah bases: laced with honey and orange juice for sweetness, spiced with fresh ginger for and served atop an abundance of rice, it is a sweet and satisfying way to ring in the new year. We make it every year in my house, though this year I was lucky enough to be able to make it for a Rosh Hashanah dinner with my friends in Madrid. I also made a round challah, which I will write about more in next week’s post, served the dish alongside a vinegar-y salad topped with yet more apples, and finished the whole thing with a plum cake. My mother, who has been making this dish for Rosh Hashanah for decades, and I both recommend that you make the chicken the day before so the flavors meld. Trust me, it’s always better the second day. It takes about 2 hours total and serves 6-8.
2 teaspoons water
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 3-pound fryers (I use 6 pounds of mixed chicken pieces: thighs, drumsticks, and wings with skin on are particularly important for the flavor of the dish)
½ cup vegetable or olive oil
1 cup hot water (should be hot enough to dissolve the honey, but it doesn’t need to be boiling)
¼ cup honey
1 cup orange juice (store bought is fine)
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
Beat the eggs with the 2 teaspoons of water. In another bowl, mix the breadcrumbs with the salt and pepper.
Dip the chicken in the egg mixture to coat and then the breadcrumbs, making sure to distribute the crumbs in an even coating all over the piece of chicken.
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet (very important: DO NOT put the chicken in a skillet that’s not hot enough; it will just absorb grease and won’t taste as good) and brown the chicken on all sides.
Preheat the oven to 325°F/165°C. Place the chicken in an oven-proof casserole with a lid or a roasting pan that you can cover with aluminum foil.
In another bowl, combine the orange juice, honey, and hot water. Pour the mixture over the chicken and sprinkle the grated ginger on top.
Cover the chicken and simmer it in the oven for 45 minutes (sometimes I even let it go for an hour), basting occasionally.
If serving the next day: Store the dish, covered, in the refrigerator. Reheat it at 350°F/175°C for about 15-20 minutes, until warmed through.