Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tasty food, bland Rosh Hashana message


The Los Angeles Times is laying out a gastronomic feast for Rosh Hashana. These innocuous articles always follow a pattern: the food is tasty and exotic, the stories told redolent of nostalgia. Lord forbid that readers should get the message that Tunisian Jewry has dwindled from 100,000 to 2,000.

"Alain Cohen holds out a gorgeous spiral-shaped loaf of challah, the color of cherry wood. On the top of the bread is a graceful open hand made of dough. Cohen and his baker, Yuri Amsellen, have been experimenting again. From the crowded kitchen of Cohen's Pico Boulevard takeout shop, Got Kosher? Provisions, comes the hypnotic smell of yeast.

"In the weeks before the Jewish new year, the store has baked loaves in the shape of Jacob's ladder, and others in a circle with a well in the center, meant to hold honey for dipping. They've added dried fruits, apples and raisins.

"For Rosh Hashana, which begins Friday at sunset, challah is essential. The braided oval bread that Jews break and share after lighting candles each Sabbath gets reworked once a year into a spiral to call to mind the cycle of life.

"A loaf topped with an open hand, however, is uncommon. But in this, as in other food customs, Tunisian Jews have their own way.

"It's something from Djerba, to mark a period of reflection before Yom Kippur, a time when Jews are asking for and receiving judgment from God," says Cohen, whose mother's family comes from that island, located off the coast of Tunisia, where a small community of Jews traces its heritage back more than 2,500 years. (...)

"There's a joke that's told of a Jew who invites a non-Jewish friend to a Passover meal. Afterward, the guest remarks that the food wasn't too good. "It's not supposed to be," the Jew says.

"That joke "never would have been told in a Sephardic community," says Clifford Wright, a Santa Monica cookbook author, teacher and expert on Mediterranean food. In Tunisia, "the food is so exotic and interesting and spicy hot," Wright says.

"For this Rosh Hashana, a couple of dozen people will join Cohen and his partner in life and in business, Evelyn Baran, at their table. Like for a Passover Seder, many Tunisian holiday tables will hold about a dozen symbolic foods over which prayers are said.

"Figs, apples and honey are there for prayers for a sweet year. Dates are included so "that we elevate ourselves like palm trees and that our sins disappear forever," Cohen says. Sesame seeds suggest a proliferation of virtues. A fish symbolizes fertility.

"Most powerful to Cohen are spinach leaves, thinly sliced pumpkin and garlic cloves, which are fried in an egg batter and dipped in honey or a sugar syrup. The garlic and pumpkin are to ward off enemies, the spinach a symbol of renewal.

"Just an amazing taste. It's amazing. For me, it's like Proust's memories," says Cohen, 53. "It is those tastes I am looking forward to." He also recalls that Jews would pierce a quince with cloves, to make a pomander they'd keep for the nine days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur.

Read article in full

Mouthwatering recipes from Tunisia (French - with thanks: Michelle)

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