Apr 142018
 

Today is the first day of the Cambodian New Year in 2018, Khmer: បុណ្យចូលឆ្នាំថ្មី or Choul Chnam Thmey, literally “Enter New Year.” The holiday lasts for three days beginning on New Year’s Day, which usually falls on April 13th or 14th, which is the end of the harvesting season, when farmers enjoy the fruits of their labor before the rainy season begins. Khmers living abroad may choose to celebrate during a weekend rather than just specifically April 13th through 16th. The Khmer New Year coincides with the traditional solar new year in several parts of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. It was originally pegged to the lunar calendar, but is now more fixed within the Gregorian calendar. Cambodians also use the Buddhist Era to count the year based on the Buddhist calendar. For 2018, it will be 2562 BE (Buddhist Era).

The three days of the new year are:

Maha Sangkran (មហាសង្រ្កាន្ត)

Maha Sangkran, derived from Sanskrit Maha Sankranti, is the name of the first day of the new year celebration. It is the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. People dress up in new clothes and light candles and burn incense sticks at shrines, where the members of each family pay homage to offer thanks for the Buddha’s teachings by bowing, kneeling and prostrating themselves three times before his image. For good luck people wash their face with holy water in the morning, their chests at noon, and their feet in the evening before they go to bed.

Virak Vanabat (វិរ:វ័នបត)

Vireak Vanabat is the name of the second day of the new year celebration. People contribute charity to the less fortunate by helping the poor, servants, homeless, and low-income families. Families attend a dedication ceremony to their ancestors at monasteries.

Vearak Loeng Sak (វារៈឡើងស័ក)

T’ngai Loeng Sak in Khmer is the name of the third day of the new year celebration. Buddhists wash the Buddha statues and their elders with perfumed water. Bathing the Buddha images is a symbolic practice to wash bad actions away like water clean dirt from household items. It is also thought to be a kind deed that will bring longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity in life. By washing their grandparents and parents, the children can obtain from them best wishes and good pieces of advice to live the life for the rest of the year.

In temples, people erect a sand hillock on temple grounds. They mound up a big pointed hill of sand or dome in the center which represents Valuka Chaitya, the stupa at Tavatimsa where the Buddha’s hair and diadem are buried. The big stupa is surrounded by four small ones, which represent the stupas of the Buddha’s favorite disciples: Sariputta, Moggallana, Ananda, and Maha Kassapa. There is another tradition called Sraung Preah (ស្រង់ព្រះ): pouring water or liquid plaster (a mixture of water with some chalk powder) on an elder relative, or people in general. This is now mostly a lark for younger people. I will have to watch my step.

There are also a number of traditional games performed over the three days.

Chol Chhoung (ចោល⁣ឈូង), for example, is played on the first nightfall of the Khmer New Year by two groups of boys and girls. Ten or 20 people comprise each group, standing in two rows opposite each other. One group throws the “chhoung” to the other group. When it is caught, it will be rapidly thrown back to the first group. If someone is hit by the “chhoung,” the whole group must dance to get the “chhoung” back while the other group sings to the dance.

Chab Kon Kleng (ចាប់⁣កូនខ្លែង) is a game played by imitating a hen as she protects her chicks from a crow. Adults typically play this game on the night of the first New Year’s Day. Participants usually appoint a strong player to play the hen who protects “her” chicks, while another person is picked to be the “crow”. While both sides sing a song of bargaining, the crow tries to catch as many chicks as possible as they hide behind the hen.

The Khmer New Year is also a time to prepare special dishes. One of these is a “kralan”: a cake made from steamed rice mixed with beans or peas, grated coconut and coconut milk. The mixture is stuffed inside a bamboo stick and slowly roasted. I have prepared ansom chek (អន្សមចេក) for today – sticky rice and banana steamed in banana leaves. It’s traditional and not that hard to make – if you live in Cambodia. I’ll make a sour fish soup that I like, as well. Also, very popular for festivals. This site gives a ton of Khmer recipes for festivals. As ever, the challenge is finding the right ingredients http://www.khmerkromrecipes.com/recipes/recipe273.html . I’ll break my normal reluctance to post recipes from Asia because of the difficulty in getting ingredients (this once). If you do not know what you are aiming for I will not be answerable for your results. I’ll also embed a video at the end for good measure (in English). Fish amok is a fish curry with coconut that is very common in Cambodia, year round, but you will find it on festive tables too. Unless you live in SE Asia you will not find all of the ingredients, but here’s the recipe anyway.

Fish Amok (ហហ្មុកត្រី)

For kreung paste

5 kaffir lime leaves, ribs removed, thinly sliced
3 dried Thai red chiles, soaked in water until soft, drained, seeds discarded, chopped
3 slices galangal, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 slices kacheay (also known as lesser ginger or lesser rhizome), peeled and chopped
3 shallots, thinly sliced
2 stalks lemongrass, bottom parts only, thinly sliced
2 small pieces fresh turmeric, peeled and sliced, or 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

For fish amok

½ cup coconut milk, plus extra
1 tbsp Cambodian chili paste
1 tbsp Cambodian (or Thai) fish sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp shrimp paste
½ tsp salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 lb boneless skinless meaty white fish, cut into chunks
8 banana leaves
¼ cup nhor/noni leaves (morinda citriforlia), shredded
4 fresh red chiles, cut lengthwise in thin strips

Instructions

First make the kreung paste. Pound together the lime leaves, red chiles, galangal, garlic, kacheay, shallots, lemongrass and turmeric, a few ingredients at a time, using a mortar and pestle until a fine paste forms. You can do this in a food processor, but mortar and pestle is better.

Mix the kreung paste with the coconut milk, chili paste, fish sauce, sugar, shrimp paste, salt and egg in a large bowl. Add the fish and combine well with the kreung paste marinade. Set aside and allow the marinade to infuse the fish for about 15 minutes or longer.

Set up a steamer. Make banana leaf bowls (konthoangs) by placing 2 banana leaves on top of each other and folding into little rectangular bowls with the tapered sides folded up and held together with bamboo toothpicks. Make 4 in total. Make a bed of noni leaves in the bottom of each konthoang. Divide the marinated fish between the bowls, and place on top of the noni beds. Spoon 2 tablespoons of coconut milk over each serving of fish and top off with a fresh red chile. Place the filled konthoangs in the steamer and steam until the fish is cooked through, about 20 minutes. Serve with plain, boiled jasmine rice.

Dec 312017
 

On this date in 1853 a celebrated New Year’s Eve dinner was held in the mold of the Iguanodon being used at the time in the construction of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs. It was immortalized in an image in the Illustrated London News (above). Following the closure of the Great Exhibition in October 1851, Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace was bought and moved to Penge Place on Sydenham Hill, South London by the newly formed Crystal Palace Company. The grounds that surrounded it were then extensively renovated and turned into a public park with ornamental gardens, replicas of statues and two new artificial lakes. As part of this renovation, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to build the first-ever life-sized models of extinct animals. He had originally planned to just re-create extinct mammals before deciding on building dinosaurs as well, which he did with advice from Sir Richard Owen, a celebrated biologist and paleontologist of the time. Hawkins set up a workshop on site at the park and built the models there. The models were displayed on three islands acting as a rough timeline, the first island for the Paleozoic era, a second for the Mesozoic, and a third for the Cenozoic. The models were given more realism by making the water level in the lake rise and fall, revealing different parts of the dinosaurs. To mark the launch of the models, Hawkins held a special dinner on New Year’s Eve 1853 inside the mold of one of the Iguanodon models, although the exact location of the dinner has been disputed. The mold does not appear to be big enough to accommodate all the invited guests, but there may have been some seated in the mold and some beside it.

Specially engraved invitations were sent out bearing the following:

Mr Waterhouse Hawkins requests the honour of — at dinner in the mould of the Iguanodon at the Crystal Palace on Saturday evening December the 31st at five o’clock 1853 An answer will oblige.

The scene shown in the Illustrated London News depicts a collection of gentlemen sitting around a table inside one of the Iguanodon models under construction over the winter 1853-54. In the image, waiters deliver dinner. On the floor are pieces of the mold used to cast the model. Different reports put Richard Owen at the head of the table and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins standing center and facing the viewer. The model is surrounded by a tent decorated with a chandelier and four plaques honoring famous paleontologists (William Buckland, Georges Cuvier, Richard Owen, Gideon Mantell). Because the Iguanodon model stood so tall, a stage was required for waiters and guests to get inside.

This picture in Illustrated London News was based on a drawing made by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, preserved in the Academy of Natural Science of Drexel University. This drawing was meant to be a report to the geologist Joseph Prestwich, but Waterhouse Hawkins intended it for wider circulation. At the time, much was made of the fact that Professor Richard Owen was placed at the head of the table – quite literally, sitting where the brain was located. Waterhouse Hawkins’ drawing was accompanied by a small report.

THE DINNER IN THE MOULD OF THE IGUANODON

Given by Mr. B Waterhouse Hawkins

To Prof R Owen, Prof Edward Forbes, Mr Joseph Prestwich and 18 other Scientific and literary gentlemen at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham on the 31st of December 1853

The Restoration of the lguanodon was one of the largest and earliest completed of Mr Waterhouse Hawkins’ gigantic models measuring thirty feet from the nose to the end of the tail, of that quantity the body with the neck contained about fifteen feet which when the pieces of the mould that formed the ridge of the back were removed the body presented the appearance of a wide open Boot with on enclosed arch seven feet high at both ends. The arch in the head of the animal was occupied by Prof R Owen the celebrated Palaeontologist who with Prof Edward Forbes liberally aided Mr Waterhouse Hawkins with counsel and scientific criticism during the whole time occupied by his unique, arduous and successful undertaking. The wider arch at the opposite end was filled by Mr Francis Fuller the Managing Director of the Crystal Palace with Prof Edward Forbes on his right and a musical friend on his left whose delightful singing greatly increased the pleasure of a memorable evening. The two sides contain nine seats each that in centre of left was occupied by Mr Hawkins as host and Chairman, was supported on his right by Mr Joseph Prestwich one of his earliest pupils & constant friend during the previous twenty five years. Mr John Gould FRS was on his left.

There was an eight-course dinner, details of which we know from copies of the menu card:

Soups: Mock Turtle, Julien, Hare

Fish: Cod and Oyster Sauce, Fillets of Whiting, Turbot à l’Hollandaise

Removes: Roast Turkey, Ham, Raised Pigeon Pie, Boiled Chicken and Celery Sauce

Entrées: Cotolettes de Moutonaux Tomates, Currie de Lapereaux au riz, Salmi de Perdrix, Mayonnaise de filets de Sole

Game: Pheasants, Woodcocks, Snipes

Sweets: Macedoine Jelly, Orange Jelly, Bavaroise, Charlotte Russe, French Pastry, Nougat à la Chantilly, Buisson de Meringue aux Confiture

Dessert: Grapes, Apples, Pears, Almonds and Raisins, French Plums, Pines, Filberts, Walnuts &c, &c

Wines: Sherry, Madeira, Port, Moselle, Claret

Many newspapers reported the event in the following days. All press accounts followed the tongue-in-cheek spirit of holiday celebrations. For example, Punch reported “Fun in a Fossil” (1854 volume 26 page 24),

The world of scientific gastronomy will learn with interest that Professors Owen and Forbes, with a party of other gentlemen, numbering altogether 21, had an exceedingly good dinner, the other day, in the interior of the Iguanodon modelled at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. We congratulate the company on the era in which they live; for if it had been an early geological period, they might perhaps have occupied the Iguanodon’s inside without having any dinner there.

The London Quarterly Review asked,

Saurians, Pterodactyls all! . . . Dreamed ye ever . . . of a race to come dwelling above your tombs and dining on your ghosts.

Hawkins benefited greatly from the public’s reaction to the dinosaurs, including the publicity generated by the dinner in the Iguanodon. He was able to sell sets of small versions of the dinosaur models, priced at £30, for educational use. But the building of the models was costly (around £14,000 each) and in 1855, the Crystal Palace Company cut Hawkins’s funding. Several planned models were never made, while those that were half finished were scrapped, despite protests from sources including the Sunday newspaper, The Observer.

With progress in paleontology, the reputation of the models declined. In 1895, the US fossil hunter Othniel Charles Marsh scorned the inaccuracy of the models. The models and the park fell into disrepair as the years went by, a process aided by the fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace itself in 1936, and the models became obscured by overgrown foliage. A full restoration of the animals was carried out in 1952 by Victor H.C. Martin, at which time the mammals on the third island were moved to less well-protected locations in the park, where they were exposed to wear and tear. The limestone cliff was blown up in the 1960s.

In 2002, the display was totally renovated. The destroyed limestone cliff was completely replaced using 130 large blocks of Derbyshire limestone, many weighing over 1 ton, rebuilt according to a small model made from the same number of polystyrene blocks. Fiberglass replacements were created for the missing sculptures, and badly damaged parts of the surviving models were recast.

The menu for the meal gives you ample scope for celebratory dishes, and might inspire a New Year’s Eve feast of your own.  Here’s Isabella Beeton’s recipe for Charlotte Russe, which would be perfectly in keeping with the times. If you like, you can add a topping of seasonal fruits. I’m fond of berries. Beeton’s cautions about unmolding the dessert are well taken. I butter a spring-form pan, line it with greaseproof paper, and set the lady fingers in right-side-up. Then fill with the cream mix, let set in the refrigerator, then loose the spring-form. Molding upside-down in a fixed mold, and turning out by inverting is a recipe for disaster.

CHARLOTTE RUSSE.

(An Elegant Sweet Entremets.)

  1. INGREDIENTS.—About 18 Savoy biscuits, 3/4 pint of cream, flavouring of vanilla, liqueurs, or wine, 1 tablespoonful of pounded sugar, 1/2 oz. of isinglass.

Mode.—Procure about 18 Savoy biscuits, or ladies’-fingers, as they are sometimes called; brush the edges of them with the white of an egg, and line the bottom of a plain round mould, placing them like a star or rosette. Stand them upright all round the edge; carefully put them so closely together that the white of the egg connects them firmly, and place this case in the oven for about 5 minutes, just to dry the egg. Whisk the cream to a stiff froth, with the sugar, flavouring, and melted isinglass; fill the charlotte with it, cover with a slice of sponge-cake cut in the shape of the mould; place it in ice, where let it remain till ready for table; then turn it on a dish, remove the mould, and serve. 1 tablespoonful of liqueur of any kind, or 4 tablespoonfuls of wine, would nicely flavour the above proportion of cream. For arranging the biscuits in the mould, cut them to the shape required, so that they fit in nicely, and level them with the mould at the top, that, when turned out, there may be something firm to rest upon. Great care and attention is required in the turning out of this dish, that the cream does not burst the case; and the edges of the biscuits must have the smallest quantity of egg brushed over them, or it would stick to the mould, and so prevent the charlotte from coming away properly.

Time.—5 minutes in the oven.

Average cost, with cream at 1s. per pint, 2s.

Sufficient for 1 charlotte. Seasonable at any time.

Dec 312016
 

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Almost every culture celebrates the turn of the year at some point in some way, and these days the turn of the Gregorian calendar year is an almost universal turning point even though many cultures use other calendars as well. This state of affairs creates a little bit of confusion in some cultures, but only a little. In China, for example, the turn of the Gregorian year has its importance, but the lunar New Year is still much more important. In the Jewish Diaspora things are a bit more complicated. Rosh Hashanah marks the Jewish New Year, and has its importance, but it vies much more earnestly with the Gregorian New Year.  All told, we can say that every culture, perhaps every individual, has multiple turning points in the year. For me birthdays are critical turning points when I reflect on the previous year and look forward to what is to come.  But I still cling to New Year’s Eve as a critical turning point for several reasons. First, it’s a communal celebration. Second, there are real secular changes that happen. Third, I’m in the habit of doing special things on this day.

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I could rabbit on about how anthropologists view cycles, the passing of the year, etc., but I’ll spare you. Some of it is interesting, some is challenging, but most of it is fairly straightforward common sense  which you already know at some level. Maybe you’d like to learn why January 1st is the beginning of the new year? Well . . . look it up. Most of the online historical sources are accurate – to a degree. You can dismiss all the “origins” nonsense, but the basic facts concerning when Europeans switched to January 1st are not controversial. You might be a bit surprised though.

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I always take the time on New Year’s Eve to reflect on the past year in a personal way. I go through each month, step by step, and look at successes and failures, with an eye to learning something useful. I don’t make resolutions as such, but I do hope to learn from the year’s mistakes. Obviously this practice can be ongoing, but taking stock once a year is useful too.  My first job as a teenager was working in a light engineering factory on Slough Trading Estate as a stockroom clerk. Most stockrooms in those days took inventory once a year, but this firm had what they called “perpetual inventory.” That is, when the workload for the clerks was light they were supposed to do a bit of inventory, so that in the course of a year they had checked all the stock drawers twice. Of course that never happened. Everyone hated doing inventory, so it got put off until it had to be done all at once. That’s how I wound up with my summer jobs – doing inventory. From a factory point of view I don’t think it matters whether you do inventory all at once or a little at a time – all the time. Life is different. It’s good to take stock of your life daily. I do. It’s ridiculous to put it off. On my commute on the way to work and again on the way home I give thought to how my life is going, and how the day went. It looks an awful lot like staring out of the window, but I’m musing. What will the day bring and how will I manage? What worked? What didn’t work?

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For cooking on New Year’s Eve I fluctuate between traditional Japanese food, and fish of some sort. For many years Japanese dishes were my norm – especially soba which is very traditional. Soba means buckwheat in Japanese, but usually also means buckwheat noodles. I’ll make soba tonight. There are many, many varieties of hot soba. Soba is also often served as a noodle soup in a bowl of hot tsuyu. The hot tsuyu in this instance is thinner than that used as a dipping sauce for chilled soba. Popular garnishes are sliced long onion and shichimi togarashi (mixed chili powder).  These are various possibilities.

 

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Kake soba 掛け蕎麦: Hot soba in broth topped with thinly sliced scallion, and perhaps a slice of kamaboko (fish cake).

Kitsune soba きつね蕎麦 (“fox soba”, in Kantō) or たぬき蕎麦 Tanuki soba (“raccoon dog soba”, in Kansai): Topped with aburaage (deep-fried tofu).

Tanuki soba (in Kantō) or Haikara soba ハイカラ蕎麦 (in Kansai): Topped with tenkasu (bits of deep-fried tempura batter).

Tempura soba 天麩羅蕎麦: Topped with tempura, a large shrimp frequently is used, but vegetables are also popular. Some of soba venders use kakiage for this dish and this often is called Tensoba.

Tsukimi soba 月見蕎麦 (“moon-viewing soba”): Topped with raw egg, which poaches in the hot soup.

Tororo soba とろろ蕎麦 or Yamakake soba 山かけ蕎麦: Topped with tororo, the puree of yamaimo (a potato-like vegetable with a mucilaginous texture).

Wakame soba わかめ蕎麦: Topped with wakame seaweed

Nameko soba なめこ蕎麦: Topped with nameko mushroom

Sansai soba 山菜蕎麦 (“mountain vegetables soba”): Topped with sansai, or wild vegetables such as warabi, zenmai and takenoko (bamboo shoots).

Kamonanban 鴨南蛮: Topped with duck meat and negi.

Currynanban カレー南蛮: Hot soba in curry flavored broth topped with chicken/pork and thinly sliced scallion.

Nishin soba 鰊(にしん)蕎麦: Topped with migaki nishin 身欠きニシン, or dried fish of the Pacific herring.

Sobagaki 蕎麦掻き: A chunk of dough made of buckwheat flour and hot water.

Oct 042016
 

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The Jewish feast of Rosh Hashanah began at sundown on 2 October this year, and continues for 2 days. So today is the second day, which ends at sundown. It is traditionally a 2-day festival, although usually it is celebrated on one day only now, because it is pegged to the rising of the new moon and at one time 2 days were needed in case one were cloudy. The day was set locally by what could be physically observed (and still is in some sects). Nowadays, for the most part, astronomical calculations take the place of physical observation, and so can be made years in advance. Unlike the Islamic calendar, which is strictly lunar (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/islamic-new-year/ ), the Jewish calendar is luni-solar. Intercalary days are added to make sure that the lunar months, hence the High Holy Days, keep correspondence with the seasons.

Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎‎, lit.”head) of the year”) is the Jewish New Year. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה‎‎), lit.”day of shouting/blasting,” sometimes translated as the Feast of Trumpets). It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days (Hebrew: יָמִים נוֹרָאִים‎‎ Yomim Nora’im, lit. “Days of Awe”) specified by Leviticus 23:23–32, which usually occur in the early autumn of the Northern Hemisphere.

Rosh Hashanah begins on the first day of Tishrei. Tishrei is the first month of the Jewish civil year, but the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year. According to classic Judaism, the fact that Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the year is explained by it being the traditional anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman according to the Hebrew Bible.

Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar (a hollowed-out ram’s horn), as prescribed in the Torah, following the prescription of the Hebrew Bible to “raise a noise” on Yom Teruah. Among its rabbinical customs, is the eating of symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey (for a sweet year to come) to full Rosh Hashanah meals including foods with a symbolic meaning may be served, depending on local minhag (“custom”), such as the head of a fish (to symbolize the prayer “let us be the head and not the tail”).

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The Yamim Nora’im are preceded by the month of Elul, during which Jews are supposed to begin a self-examination and repentance, a process that culminates in the ten days of the Yamim Nora’im beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. The shofar is traditionally blown each morning for the entire month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. The sound of the shofar is intended to awaken the listeners from their “slumbers” and alert them to the coming judgment. The shofar is not blown on Shabbat. In the period leading up to the Yamim Nora’im “days of awe”), penitential prayers, called selichot, are recited.

Rosh Hashanah is also the day of “Yom Hadin” (Judgment day). On Yom Hadin, 3 books are opened, the book of life, for the righteous among the nations, the book of death, for the most evil who receive the seal of death, and the third book for the ones living in doubts with “non-evil” sins. The final judgment is not made from Yom Hadin until the start of Yom Kippur, so it is sometimes possible to receive the seal of life by asking for forgiveness (if you are listed in the third book).

Unlike the denominations of Rabbinical Judaism, Karaite Judaism believes the Jewish New Year starts with the 1st month and celebrate this holiday only as it is mentioned in the Torah, that is, as a day of rejoicing and shouting. Additionally, Karaites believe the adoption of “Rosh Hashanah” in place of Yom Teruah is the result of pagan Babylonian influence on the Jews during the period known as the Captivity or Exile (after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon and the deportations of Jews to Babylonia – 597 BCE for the first, with others dated at 587/586 BCE, and 582/581) . The first stage in the transformation was the adoption of the Babylonian month names. In the Torah the months are numbered as First Month, Second Month, Third Month, etc (Leviticus 23; Numbers 28). During the Exile Jews began to use Babylonian month names, a fact readily admitted in the Talmud.

Samaritans, in their strict interpretation of the Torah, preserve the biblical name of the festival celebrated on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei), namely Yom Teruah, and in accordance with the Torah do not consider it to be a New Year’s day.

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Laws on the form and use of the shofar and laws related to the religious services during the festival of Rosh Hashanah are described in Rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah that formed the basis of the tractate “Rosh HaShanah” in both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. This also contains the most important rules concerning the calendar year.

The shofar is blown in long, short, and staccato blasts that may follow a set sequence:

Teki’ah (long sound) Numbers 10:3;

Shevarim (3 broken sounds) Numbers 10:5;

Teru’ah (9 short sounds) Numbers 10:9;

Teki’ah Gedolah (very long sound) Exodus 19:16,19;

Shevarim Teru’ah (3 broken sounds followed by 9 short sounds).

The shofar is blown at various times during the Rosh Hashanah prayers, with the actual sounds varying considerably according to local custom.

Many communities hold a “Rosh Hashanah seder” during which blessings are recited over a variety of symbolic dishes. The blessings have the incipit “Yehi ratzon,” (“May it be Thy will”). In many cases, the name of the food in Hebrew or Aramaic represents a play on words, a very important aspect of scriptural language. The Yehi Ratzon platter may include apples (dipped in honey, baked or cooked as a compote called mansanada); dates; pomegranates; black-eyed peas; pumpkin-filled pastries (rodanchas); leek fritters (keftedes de prasa); beets; and a whole fish with the head intact. It is also common to eat stuffed vegetables (legumbres yaprakes).

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Some of the symbolic foods eaten are dates, black-eyed peas, leek, spinach and gourd, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud: “Let a man be accustomed to eat on New Year’s Day gourds (קרא), and fenugreek (רוביא), leeks (כרתי), beet [leaves] (סילקא), and dates ( תמרי).” Pomegranates are used in many traditions, to symbolize being fruitful like the pomegranate with its many seeds. The use of apples dipped in honey, symbolizing a sweet year, is a late medieval Ashkenazi addition, though it is now almost universally accepted. Typically, round challah bread is served, to symbolize the cycle of the year. Gefilte fish and Lekach are commonly served by Ashkenazi Jews on this holiday. On the second night, new fruits are served to warrant inclusion of the shehecheyanu blessing.

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I’m really fond of leeks prepared in all kinds of ways (I always have them in my refrigerator). Here’s leek fritters. This recipe is Syrian but you can vary the spices according to taste. Aleppo pepper is a variety of Capsicum annuum used as a spice, particularly in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, also known as the Halaby pepper. It starts as pods, which ripen to a burgundy color, and then are semi-dried, de-seeded, then crushed or coarsely ground. The pepper flakes are known in Turkey as pul biber. The pepper is grown in Syria and Turkey, and can be found in some Western markets or online. You can substitute red pepper. I use butter to sauté the leeks at first because I prefer the taste, but olive oil is fine also.

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Keftedes de Prasa

Ingredients

2 tbsp butter or olive oil
2 leeks, white parts only (about 12 oz), washed and sliced thinly
salt
4 large eggs, beaten
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
¾ tsp allspice
¾ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp Aleppo pepper
vegetable oil for shallow frying

Instructions

Heat the butter (or olive oil) in a skillet over medium heat until it is melted and sizzling but not brown. Add the leeks and salt and sauté for about 5 minutes, until softened. Do not brown. Remove the leeks and put them in a bowl. Clean out the skillet.

Combine the leeks with salt to taste, eggs, breadcrumbs and the spices. Mix thoroughly. You should have a rather wet batter but with some body. You don’t want it so stiff that you can form a ball, nor so loose that it spreads when fried. Adjust the proportions of egg and breadcrumbs as needed and test fry a small fritter to be sure. You need the fritter to cohere.

Heat vegetable oil for shallow frying in a large skillet over medium-high heat and drop the batter by the ladleful in small batches into the oil. Brown on the bottom and flip to brown on the other side. Drain on a wire rack and serve hot.

Oct 032016
 

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By coincidence today is the beginning of the New Year for both the Jewish and Islamic calendars. This coincidence does not happen too often because the calendars are not calculated in the same way. The Islamic calendar is lunar and does not add extra days to help mesh it with the solar calendar. Consequently it drifts back about 11 days relative to the solar calendar each year, meaning that festivals drift slowly through the solar calendar year by year. The Jewish calendar, on the other hand, is only partly lunar. It still keys its main events to phases of the moon, but it adds days to the year so that festivals keep pace with the seasons. Passover is always in Spring, and Rosh Hashanah (New Year) is always in autumn  This kind of calendar is known as luni-solar. The fact that the two calendars mesh today is very unusual. But . . . to make matters worse, both the Jewish and Islamic calendars mark days from sunset to sunset, not midnight to midnight, so special days in those calendars span two days in the Gregorian calendar. This year that’s good for me. I’ll talk about the Islamic New Year today, and the Jewish New Year tomorrow.

The Hijri New Year, also known as Islamic New Year (Arabic: رأس السنة الهجرية‎‎ Raʼs al-Sanah al-Hijrīyah) is the day that marks the beginning of a new Islamic calendar year, and is the day on which the year count is incremented. The first day of the year is observed on the first day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar. The first Islamic year began in 622 CE with the emigration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina, known as the Hijra. All religious duties, such as prayer, fasting in the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage, and the dates of significant events, such as celebration of holy nights and festivals, are calculated according to this calendar.

While some Islamic organizations prefer determining the new month (and hence the new year) by local sightings of the moon, most Islamic institutions and countries, including Saudi Arabia, follow astronomical calculations to determine future dates of the Islamic calendar. There are various schema for calculating the tabular Islamic calendar (i.e. not based on physical observation), which results in differences of typically one or even two days between countries using such schema and those that use lunar sightings. For example, the The Umm al-Qura Calendar used in Saudi Arabia was reformed several times in recent years. The current scheme was introduced in 1423 AH (15 March 2002).

Basing a calendar on local lunar sightings is, to a degree, more sensible than basing it on calculations that hold true for Saudi Arabia, but not for the rest of the world. The Gregorian calendar works that way. Time zones are based on the sun’s relative position, so when it is 4 am on Monday here in Italy it is 10 pm on Sunday in New York. We manage. If the whole world’s calendar were linked to Greenwich Mean Time (in London) the world would be in a royal mess. Beijing is 5 hours ahead of Mecca, so if Chinese Muslims (of which there are millions, courtesy of the Mongols) followed a calendar based on moon sightings in Saudi Arabia, they’d be performing half of their required prayers in the middle of the night. That’s what happens when global telecommunications become normal. I began my birthday celebration at midnight on 30 March in China, even though it was 1 pm on 29 March at that time in Buenos Aires where I was born. When the actual time of my birth rolled around (9 pm) it was already the morning of 31 March in Kunming. My birthday goes from midnight to midnight where I am at the time.

The first day of the new Islamic year is not an especially important day in the calendar, but it is the beginning of the second holiest month (after Ramadan) – Muharram – which is important. The word “Muharram” means “forbidden,” and some Muslims fast during this month. The 10th day of Muharram is the Day of Ashura, which to Shi’a Muslims is part of the Mourning of Muharram.

Sunni Muslims fast on this day, because it is recorded in the hadith that Musa (Moses) and his people gained a victory over the Egyptian Pharaoh on the 10th day of Muharram; accordingly Muhammad asked Muslims to fast on this day (Ashura) and on the day before (Tasu’a). More about those days in other posts.

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Shi’a Muslims during Muharram do different things and with different intentions. They observe and respect Muharram as the month when Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet and son of Ali, was killed in the Battle of Karbala. They mourn for Hussein ibn Ali and refrain from all joyous events. Unlike Sunni Muslims, the Shi’a do not fast in this month. In addition there is an important Ziyarat book, the Ziyarat Ashura about Hussein ibn Ali. In the Shi’a sect it is popular to read this ziyarat on the “Day of Ashura”, although many of the Shi’a try to read Ziyarat Ashura every day and they send salutations to Husayn ibn Ali.

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Say goodbye to 1437 AH at sundown and hello to 1438. What to do about a recipe? This is a little tricky because for Sunnis this is the beginning of fasting, but for Shi’a it is not. Even so, finding a Shi’a recipe is much like finding a Jewish recipe (tomorrow’s problem). The Shi’a, like Jews, eat what’s common in the culture that is home to them. So, if you search for Shi’a recipes on the internet you’ll find some Iraqi ones, even though the Shi’a/Sunni conflict in that country is well known. Iraqi Shi’a are the majority. But you’ll also find Iranian, Pakistani, and Lebanese recipes. Furthermore, you’ll find Italian and Chinese dishes along with hamburgers and hot dogs. The only common denominator is the avoidance of pork and eating halal meats.  On one Shi’a chat room I found, someone was asking for Shi’a recipes and a member posted this:

get pizza from local store, put it in oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes and then eat it. :!!!

So much for “authentic” recipes. Here is Murtabak (martabak, mutabbaq) (Arabic: مطبق‎‎) a stuffed pancake or pan-fried bread which originated in Yemen but which is now commonly found in Saudi Arabia (especially the Tihamah and the Hejaz regions), India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand, being spread by Muslims. Depending on the location, the name and ingredients can significantly vary. The name mutabbaq (or sometimes mutabbag) in Arabic means “folded.” Sometimes murtabak is served simply as a fried, spicy bread, but most often it is stuffed with a meat and vegetable mixture. I am using a Yemeni spice blend here (hawaij) but you can just see the recipe and add the spices separately. The recipe is a real rigmarole, but not that complex if you read the recipe carefully and follow the steps.

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Murtabak

Ingredients

Dough

300g all purpose flour
1 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp salt

Filling

300g ground mutton (or beef)
12 shallots, peeled and finely sliced
1 tsp hawaij (see below)
1 onion, peeled and sliced
10 green onions, chopped
extra salt, sugar, white pepper, vegetable oil
4 duck eggs, beaten
3 chicken eggs, beaten

Pickle

½ cup vinegar
1 cucumber
4-5 shallots

Martabak Sauce

75g palm sugar
25g granulated sugar
10 bird-eye chiles, chopped (or to taste)
1 clove garlic, sliced thin
2 tbsp lemon juice

Instructions

First make the flour dough. Place the flour in a mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Place ½ teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil into the well, then pour in 190ml of slightly warm water a little at a time, whilst folding in the flour to make a dough. Once you have a firm, slightly sticky ball, knead it with your hands until it is smooth (about 20 minutes). Divide the dough into 8 and roll the pieces into little balls. Immerse the balls in vegetable oil and let them rest and soak for at least 1 hour.

For the pickle, bring ½ cup of vinegar (I prefer rice wine vinegar), 1 cup of water, 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, and 3-4 tablespoons of granulated sugar to the boil. Peel a cucumber, remove the seeds, and chop. Peel and chop an equal amount of shallots. Place in a non-reactive bowl and pour over the boiling vinegar mix. Refrigerate for at least one hour, or overnight.

For the filling, put a little vegetable oil in a big skillet, heat over medium heat and add the sliced onion and shallots. Sauté until wilted, then add the ground mutton (or beef), Add in ½ tsp of sugar and the hawaij blend, plus salt and pepper to taste. Continue to sauté for a few minutes, then add the green onions. Continue to sauté for an additional minute or two.

For the martabak sauce. Heat 300ml of water in a pan. Add in 75 grams of palm sugar and 25 grams of granulated sugar. Stir to dissolve and add the chile and garlic. Continue to cook over medium heat until thickened. Add the lemon juice at the end and remove from the heat.

To prepare the martabak.  Remove the dough balls from the oil, and heat the oil in a heavy skillet to 160°C. Flatten each dough ball with the palm of your hand and then stretch it out by pulling with your fingers to form thin flat disks. This takes a lot of practice. You can cheat with a rolling pin.

Combine the beaten eggs with the meat and onion filling mix. Divide the filling by eye between the 8  disks (about 2 tablespoons each), and place the filling in the middle of each disk. Fold over the tops then the sides of each disk to form a square package. Press down a little on the package, then fry them in batches until golden on all sides. Serve hot with pickles and sauce (for dipping).

Hawaij

Ingredients

¼ cup ground cumin
1 tbsp ground cardamom
2 tbsp turmeric
1 tbsp ground coriander
¼ cup freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

You can simply mix the ingredients and store them in an airtight jar, or, as some Yemeni cooks do, toast the ingredients first for a few minutes and then store them.

Feb 032014
 

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Today is Setsubun (節分 Bean-Throwing Festival or Bean-Throwing Ceremony) the day before the beginning of spring in Japan. The name literally means “seasonal division,” but usually the term refers to the spring Setsubun, properly called Risshun (立春) celebrated yearly on February 3 as part of the Spring Festival (春祭 haru matsuri). In its association with the Lunar New Year, spring Setsubun can be and was previously thought of as a sort of New Year’s Eve, and so was accompanied by a special ritual to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away disease-bringing evil spirits for the year to come. This special ritual is called mamemaki (豆撒き) (literally “bean throwing”). Setsubun has its origins in tsuina (追儺), a Chinese custom introduced to Japan in the eighth century.

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The custom of mamemaki first appeared in the Muromachi period (c. 1337 to 1573). It is usually performed by the toshiotoko (年男) of the household (the male who was born in the corresponding animal year of the Chinese zodiac), or else the male head of the household. Roasted soybeans (called “fortune beans” 福豆) are thrown either out the door or at a member of the family wearing an Oni (demon or ogre) mask, while the people say “Demons out! Luck in!” (鬼は外! 福は内! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!) and then slam the door.

This is still common practice in households but many people will attend a shrine’s or temple’s spring festival where this is done. The beans are thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away the evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health with them. Then, as part of bringing luck in, it is customary to eat roasted soybeans, one for each year of one’s life, and in some areas, one for each year of one’s life plus one more for bringing good luck for the year to come.

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At Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines all over the country, there are celebrations for Setsubun. Priests and invited guests will throw roasted soy beans (some wrapped in gold or silver foil), small envelopes with money, sweets, candies and other prizes. In some bigger shrines, even celebrities and sumo wrestlers will be invited; these events are televised nationally.

It is customary in Kansai area to eat uncut makizushi called eho-maki (恵方巻) (lit. “lucky direction roll”) in silence on Setsubun while facing the year’s lucky compass direction, determined by the zodiac symbol of that year. This custom started in Osaka, but in recent years eho-maki can be purchased at stores in the Kanto area and it is getting more universal as a part of Setsubun tradition.

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Horoscope charts are published and occasionally packaged with uncut makizushi during February. Some families put up small decorations of sardine heads and holly leaves (柊鰯 hiragi iwashi) on their house entrances so that bad spirits will not enter. Ginger sake is customarily drunk at Setsubun.

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Historically, the new year was felt to be a time when the spirit world came close to the physical world, thus the need to perform mamemaki to drive away any wandering spirits that might get too close to one’s home. Other customs during this time included religious dance, fasting, and bringing tools inside the house that might normally be left outside, to prevent the spirits from harming them.

Because Setsubun was also considered to be apart from normal time, people might also practice role reversal. Such customs included young girls doing their hair in the styles of older women and vice versa, wearing disguises, and cross-dressing. This custom is still practiced among geisha and their clients when entertaining on Setsubun.

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Traveling entertainers (旅芸人), who were normally shunned during the year because they were considered vagrants, were welcomed on Setsubun to perform morality plays. Their vagrancy worked to their advantage in these cases because they could take the spirits with them when they departed.

While the practice of eating makizushi on Setsubun is historically only associated with the Kansai area of Japan, the practice has become popular nationwide due largely to marketing efforts by grocery and convenience stores. In the Tohoku area of Japan, the head of the household (traditionally the father) would take roasted beans in his hand, pray at the family shrine, and then toss the sanctified beans out the door. Nowadays peanuts (either raw or coated in a sweet, crunchy batter) are sometimes used in place of soybeans.

There are many variations on the famous Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi chant. For example, in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, people chant “鬼の目玉ぶっつぶせ!” (Oni no medama buttsubuse!), lit. “Blind the demons’ eyes!”

I have spent decades eating and cooking Japanese food.  In 1972 I went to the only Japanese restaurant in London with my girlfriend (of sorts) to celebrate my 21st birthday, as the culmination of a fabulous day.  It was completely brand new to me in those days when few people in the West had ever tried Japanese cuisine.  We were the only Westerners in the place, and the servers, dressed as geishas, barely spoke English.  All the other diners were Japanese men in suits. I left spell bound, determined to learn more; I was hooked. I was glad that by the late 70’s Japanese restaurants were blossoming in New York and I went every time I could, even though the menus tended to be limited to the basics: sushi, sashimi, teriyaki and such (and the majority still are). Nowadays I can make certain dishes reasonably well, including sushi and sashimi, but I will never remotely be a threat to classically trained Japanese chefs.  Tramping all over Japan was an eye opener – such an amazing experience. So many great meals even when eating in cheap noodle joints in hidden places. Here’s a pic of me with my son and a friend in a sushi/sashimi joint in the famed Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo plus my lunch dish. Yum.

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I could walk you through the steps to make eho-make; it’s really not that difficult (although getting the rice right takes a bit of practice, and you must use Japanese sushi rice). Instead I give you this video because it is much easier to see it done than to describe it.  Two things to note.  First, eho-make must be made with seven ingredients – a lucky number.  Second, it is eaten whole, not cut up. This is not easy because the nori (black seaweed) wrapping is quite tough to bite. The bamboo rolling mat is more or less essential, but before I bought mine I used a place mat that was similarly articulated. You also need practice to get the roll nice and round.  But even a lumpy one tastes good.  Trust me on that.

Now it’s your turn.  I’m off to barrio chino to get the ingredients.  Not going to find them in my local supermarket in Buenos Aires.  You can find nori sheets and sushi rice in most oriental markets worldwide. You’ll also need sushi rice seasoning or Japanese sushi vinegar. Here’s a professional chef making the rice: