It’s that time of year again – Purim or the Feast of Esther (14th Adar). It’s funny, so many Jewish “holidays” commemorate some historical event or other. Purim is a celebration of deliverance which marks the survival of the Jewish people despite the attempts of their enemies to destroy them.
The Purim story is preserved in the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther), a richly illustrated scroll often encased in a silver or gold case. The place is ancient Persia. The players are King Ahasuerus (maybe the historic Xerxes); Haman, his evil vizier; Mordechai, Esther’s cousin; and Queen Esther (also known as Hadassah). The megillah can be illustrated because the name of G-d is not included in the text.
In brief … Haman convinces King Ahasuerus to kill all the Jews in his realm, seeking to steal their possessions. Mordecai tells Esther of Haman’s plans. He begs her as queen to ask the king to rescind the edict. But, it’s a capital offense even for the queen to enter the king’s presence without an invitation. Esther, Mordecai, and other Jews fast and pray for three days before she approaches the king. Finally, she is able to convince him of Haman’s wicked intentions. Haman and his sons are hanged.
Four commandments or mitzvot are associated with Purim. They serve to reaffirm Jews commitment to others: One – Read the megillah* on the eve and the day of Purim; Two – Give gifts to the poor on Purim, two gifts of money, food, and clothes to two needy people; Three – Send packages of food (mishloah manot or shala manot) to relatives and friends, such as fruits, baked goods and sweets; Four – Eat a festive meal (se’udah) on the day of Purim (14th Adar).
*Note, some Hebrew words have entered English usage. When I was a kid if someone had a big, convoluted story they were told, “Don’t make a big megillah out of it!” I think this long post is a bit of a megillah.
During the reading of the megillah, whenever Haman’s name is mentioned loud noises are made to blot out his name. In many parts of the world clacking noisemakers or groggers are sounded loudly. Jews in Greece and elsewhere stamped their feet on the flagstone synagogue floors.
Purim falls on the 14th of Adar. According to the Talmud, Adar is a month of celebration: “With the advent of Adar, joy is increased.” As written in the Book of Esther (9:22): “Make days of feasting and gladness and of sending gifts to one another and gifts to the poor.” It’s a day for enjoying wines and sweets and masquerading and dancing, revelry, pranks, and play acting.
Several motifs are repeated in Purim foods – hiding, shapes, vegetarian foods. In the King’s harem, Queen Esther concealed her Jewish identity. Many traditional Purim foods incorporate some element of hiding. Sweets that incorporate hiding include triangular Ashkenazi hamantashen with sweetness tucked inside (more on hidden foods below).
Haman, the story’s villain, figures large in many Purim sweets: Most American Jews grew up with hamantaschen (Yiddish for “Haman’s pockets”) filled with poppy seeds, prunes, apricots, or cheese was possibly fashioned after the Napoleonic tricorn. They also resemble Haman’s three-corner hat or represent the three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac) Jacob, who spiritually inspired Queen Esther.
Here’s a great song about hamantaschen – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMvLi2lF4a8&feature=youtu.be – by Theodore Bikel.
Poppy seeds appear especially in Ashkenazi Purim dishes. Originally called “mundtaschen,” or “poppy seed pocket. “Mohn,” German for poppy seed, also sounds like “Haman.” Hungarian Jews enjoyed kindli/beigli and fluden/flodni. Kindli (little children) are poppy seed-filled cookies that look like small children wrapped in blankets. Flodni is a layered pastry filled with nuts and honey or sometimes poppy seeds.
The shapes of other characteristic holiday foods … Western European Jewish sweets include palmiers, reminiscent of Haman’s misshapen ears; Haman’s fritters in England; gingerbread Hamans in the Netherlands and Scandinavia; and a walnut honey candy (noent) traditionally eaten by people with roots in Galicia.
A number of variants existed in the Sephardic world: Haman’s ears (Hebrew, oznei haman or Italian, orecchi di Aman), fried strips of dough, probably came from the custom of cutting off the condemned criminal’s ears before the execution; Haman’s fleas (koubeta/psires tou Aman), a honey Greek sesame candy, also called susam or pasteli; Haman’s teeth (dentes de Haman/dontia tou Aman), another Greek Jewish confection.
Nanbrangi, a traditional Persian Purim treat topped with poppy seeds or sesame seeds to symbolize Haman’s fleas. Debla or “rose,” a popular Purim sweet eaten in Libya.
In Salonica, a large sugar doll representing Haman was made at a local candy store. It was hung from the doorway of the school for each child to hit when entering. When it finally fell apart, the children picked up and ate the pieces.
Several special breads were associated with the Purim celebrations: in Jewish communities in Russia, kulich, an oversized, multibraided sweet challah was the specialty. The braids are reminders of the ropes used to hang Haman. Roscas de Purim are another twisted bread ring meant to resemble the noose for Haman. In Morocco, the Purim bread, Boyoja ungola di Purim, used hard-boiled eggs to represent Haman’s eyes.
The requisite festive Purim meal (se’udah) included some savory foods using the same symbolic ingredients as the sweets: Sephardim enjoyed Haman’s hair (kaveyos di haman), fine egg noodles served in lemon sauce; in Vienna noodles with poppy seeds and almonds were served. Haman’s foot, known as huevos de Haman or folares, were hard boiled eggs baked in a pastry basket often given to children in return for the shalah manot.
Esther’s hid her identity as a Jewish woman. Purim is often celebrated with masquerades, masks and costumes conceal identities. Many Purim foods incorporate hiding into their structure. Meat filled kreplach are eaten as a separate dish or served in soup. They are also eaten whenever “beating” takes place: at Kippur (when men beat their breasts), Hoshana Raba (when willow branches are beaten) and Purim (when Haman is beaten).
In the court of Ahasuerus, Esther ate mainly peas and beans to remain kosher. Thus, many traditional savory recipes include beans, vegetables, and legumes such as chick peas and lentils. Ashkenazi dishes used chickpeas (nahit, Yiddish) and fava beans. Jews in Tunisia enjoyed hard boiled eggs with fava beans or couscous with fava beans. The typical Italian meal was Purim Ravioli made with spinach and other spring vegetables such as artichokes.
Turkey (tarnegol hodu or “Indian chicken”) was another Purim favorite. Turkey is also known as d’inde/ India bird in Hebrew and French. According to the Book of Esther, King Ahasuerus ruled from India to Ethiopia. He was known as a foolish king, the cock of Persia
Sephardic Jews added to their celebrations with co(m)plas de Purim that tell the story of the holiday and celebrate its customs and special dishes. La celebración de Purim describes the festive meal including almond cookies, maronchinos (http://www.jewishfolksongs.com/en/la-celebracion-de-purim):
|Tenemos de ajuntar todos los vicinos||We have to invite all our neighbours|
|para tañer y cantar y prebar los vinos,||to play and sing and to taste the wines|
|troquen maronchinos y que den baksis,||and exchange almond cookies and give money|
|salchichas metan al shish,||put sausages on the grill|
|las mesas bien hartas, frutas y salatas.||the tables were full of food fruit and salads.|
|Kelal de este Purim es de abrir las manos,||It’s a rule on Purim to open our hands|
|diciendo Alah Kerim e viva, hermanos,||and to say “Allah Karim” wishing them well.|
|coman endianos, sofrito y kebab,||Eat without restriction fried and grilled food|
|cada uno su erbab||each to his own taste.|
|ordenen las mesas sin haber manquezas.||Set the table let there be nothing missing.|
A verse in the copla Esta noche de Purim [This night of Purim] refers to the Saba de las noviecas (http://www.jewishfolksongs.com/en/el-testamento-de-aman). The Sabbath before Purim is known as the Sabbath of the Brides. Marriages were arranged on that day. Often brides sent trays of sweets and received a try of new clothes in their first year of marriage. In Ioannina an engaged woman gave her fiancé a Megillat Esther on this day.
|Y los novios a las novias||The groom must send the brides|
|envien dulces y rosas||sweets and roses|
|y joyas y algunas cosas||and jewels and other things|
|que les queden a deber.||which the brides will have to return.|
|Vivas tú y viv yo …||Long may you live, long may I live, …|
Spoiler alert: I have not really cooked many special Purim foods. Daughter does not like hamantashen, even if they are filled with chocolate. The photos were taken from the web.
Thanks to http://fireinmykitchen.blogspot.com/ and Musings from the Yellow Kitchen https://musingsfromtheyellowkitchen.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/hidden-gems-for-purim-nanbrangi/. Thanks also to http://www.jewishfolksongs.com/en/purim.
Delightful column. Happy Purim to you!
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Thanks Sylvia, enjoy the hamantaschen!
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