The Shabbat Meal – Cholent and Dafina

The Saturday midday meal is a family gathering, one of the 3 meals of Shabbat. Two special dishes are loved by many Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, cholent and dafina, respectively. These dishes had to be prepared and cooked before Friday sundown following the Jewish tradition of the Sabbath that included having a cooked meal ready for lunch the next day. Since work is forbidden on the Shabbat to observant Jews, a meal that involved no actual preparation from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown was necessary.

The Ashkenazi table is graced with kugel (potato or noodle), apple and bread pudding, sponge cake, and cholent – a meal in a pot. Perhaps cholent was introduced to German Jews by French Jews expelled at end of 14th century. It was especially enjoyed by German, Czech, and Austrian Jews. The tradition continued in London as they migrated westward. The name could come from the Latin verb, “to warm up”; the French, chaud lent, “warm slowly”; or the German, shul ende, “synagogue services are over.”

Schalet was the traditional Shabbat dish of Germany. Heinrich Heine, the German Jewish poet immortalized the schalet in a parody of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, to the text sung in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: Schalet, wondrous sparked of the gods/ Daughter of Elysium!/ That’s how Schiller’s Ode would have sounded/ Had he ever tasted Schalet/ Schalet is the true/ God’s Kosher Ambrosia.

Cholent epitomizes poor man’s food; its base is egg with breadcrumbs or matzohs, and meat, potatoes, barley, beans. It sometimes includes kishke, kneidlach, knodel (German) dumplings. The long cooking stew was sealed with a dough crust and taken to the baker’s oven during the day on Friday. Each pot of cholent was marked with a chalk number. On Saturday midday, the pots were brought home, wrapped in blankets to keep them warm. 

Cholent for every Shabbat

This was a similar activity in Greece in the 1980s. Baking pots for the midday meal were taken in the morning to the corner bakery to help cut down on utility bills and not heat the house. A family who shared much of their life with me told me of the time when the husband fetched their lunch from the bakery only to find out he’d brought home the wrong pot!

The Saturday Sephardi desayuno includes among other foods, borekas, from the Turkish for pie; the pride, joy, and trademark of the Sephardic table required skill and time. Dafina, the centerpiece of the Sephardi Shabbat table is also a slow-cooking stew made with a mix of meat (chicken, lamb and beef), onions, chickpeas, barley, and more. Some recipes call for meatballs, others call for a rice or bread dumplings. The origins of the word “adafina” are probably from the Spanish Arabic word addafína, which comes from the Classical Arabic word dafīnah meaning “hidden” or “buried.” Sephardic Jews in Morocco call schena or sk’eena. They said, “a good Shabbat cannot be complete without a good sk’eena!”

It was also known as hamin (Hebrew, warm) by the Jews in Medieval Spain. This stew was one dish by which conversos or crypto-Jews were identified by the Inquisition. It was never made with pork or shellfish. The ingredients were braised in olive oil, not the lard used by their neighbors. The fact that the dish was cooked on Friday for the Saturday meal was another sign for the inquisitors.

Dafina reflects the migration of Sephardi Jews and foods they adapted. Potatoes in lieu of bulgur; fava beans or chickpeas; paprika and other hot peppers instead of long pepper, which was common in the Middle Ages. North Africans added whole red peppers. One hard-boiled egg, called hamine, per person in its shell was also included. Sephardi spices included pepper, saffron, and ground coriander seed.

 A good dafina

National variations of slow-cooking Sabbath stews include: • Iraqi hamin, or tebit, made with chicken and rice; • Bukharian bokla, with eggs and potatoes on top of beans, chickpeas, and lamb shanks according to Joan Nathan, or osevo/osh savo, made with rice and sometimes fruit, like prunes; • Tunisian and Algerian, tafina, Tunisians often add lamb’s feet and cardoons, a relative of the artichoke; • Alsatian Jews called them schalet included noodles & apples; • Hungary’s special version was called shalet, with goose, and sometimes stuffed goosenecks, and Hungarian paprika. It is so delicious and special that it is a national dish in Hungary, available at many restaurants.

Haim Shapiro wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “… during a recent visit to Hungary … I found at least one country where Jewish cooking has very clearly influenced the local cuisine.”

On Sunday everyone ate leftovers. It was said, “people had to go to the shul on Sunday to pray for their stomach to recover!”

Joke time – It was Friday night and little Sam was having his Shabbos meal with his parents. They were, as usual, going to eat roast chicken. When it arrived, Sam’s daddy smiled and said, “Sam, do you know why this roast chicken is like an armchair?” “No daddy.” “Because they’re both full of stuffing, that’s why,” said his daddy. See David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson, A Drizzle of Honey: The Life and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews.

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