The challenge of Friday lunch

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How can you prepare your best meals if you can’t turn on a stove or oven, let alone chop, roast or bake? This fundamental paradox of Shabbat cuisine has shaped Jewish cuisine and produced some of its most distinctive dishes. Preparing for Shabbat is not only a gastronomic challenge, but also a logistical one. For a mindful housewife, Friday is a frantic race against the clock, especially now that the sun is setting early and all chores have to be done before 4pm. And in the midst of all this hustle and bustle, there is another task that needs to be addressed: Friday lunchtime.

In Israel, as in most Mediterranean countries, lunch is the largest meal of the day, so by lunchtime people are usually quite hungry. Oddly enough, even around this troublesome food, there are a variety of customs and local dishes. Of course, they’re less regulated and more esoteric than those associated with Shabbat and holiday cooking—but that’s all the more reason to explore them.

My first encounter with a dish for lunch was on Friday Pasta Kabbalat Shabbat (literally Shabbat greeting noodles). Deriving from Jewish-Bulgarian cuisine, it’s basically a Balkan version of macaroni and cheese, but instead of cheddar and milk, there’s kashakaval and feta. Both cheeses are used to fill bourekas, the stars of Bulgarian Shabbat brunch, which are prepared ahead of time on Friday – but the leftovers are tossed with olives, pasta and eggs and sent in the oven for lunch that day. Delicious and foolproof to make, this seems like a logical solution to that hasty meal.

Shabbat Greeting Pasta, a Balkan take on macaroni and cheeseDaniel Laila, courtesy of Gad (Ezra) Dairies

However, logic and culinary traditions do not always go hand in hand. Take Syrian Yeh, Iraqi Aruk, or Tunisian Bentash: All three are pan-fried patties made with eggs, herbs and, in the Iraqi and Tunisian versions, mashed potatoes. Forming and frying individual patties is quite labor intensive; Despite this, all three are associated with Friday lunches in their respective communities.

Potatoes keep popping up in additional Friday dishes — from the Ashkenazi potato ball to the Syrian Hamud. The latter is a fragrant, broth-like soup made with potatoes, celery, Swiss chard and lots of lemon juice (Hamud means sour in Arabic). Other carbohydrate-based dishes are equally popular: rice with white beans (Turkish and Syrian), pasta with butter, sugar and cocoa or poppy seeds (Hungarian), or buttered couscous (Moroccan), to name a few. Since all of these dishes are very filling, they are not served with bread, which may be why they were associated with pre-Shabbat eating in the first place. Rabbi Joe Schwartz explained: “According to halacha, a meal—as opposed to a snack—involves eating bread (requiring washing and blessing before and after). Avoiding bread on Friday lunchtime makes it less important and thus elevates the status of Friday night dinner, the first of the three Shabbat meals.” This concept of downplaying pre-Shabbat food is also reflected in the fact that the Most Friday lunch dishes are meatless or made with the simplest cuts, such as offal, wings or necks.

To learn more about Friday lunch traditions, I turned to Tehilah Setton, an Israeli food writer and founder of Foodos – an online community of more than 30,000 thoughtful foodies (DOS is a local nickname for religious Jews). Setton posted a request on the Foodos Facebook wall, which sparked a lively discussion and generated hundreds of comments.

All of the traditional dishes I’ve described, and many others, have cropped up in the online discussion, but usually as something respondents remember from their parents’ or grandparents’ households. In the young, busy families (often with dual careers) that form the backbone of the Foodos community, Friday lunch is a challenge, usually combined with takeout (for the lucky ones, the takeout comes from grandma’s kitchen ), a pizza, a plate of hummus or a sandwich. One sandwich that caught my eye was a baguette with hummus and turkey pastrami—if that’s not Israeli cuisine in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. But the most iconic sandwich before Shabbat is challah with schnitzel. This new and highly Instagrammable trend emerged about three years ago in Nurman, an upscale shawarma joint in downtown Tel Aviv, and is closely linked to the pre-Shabbat atmosphere.

Aruk, Iraqi herb and potato latte

Aruk, Iraqi herb and potato latteQuentin Bacon, from “Shuk – From Market to Table, the Heart of Israeli Cooking” (Artisan)

“In my parents’ house, we called it ‘thieves’ sandwich,'” said Aviel Hanya, one of Nurman’s owners, whose parents are from Tunisia and Morocco. “Imagine a Friday afternoon in a typical North African household. The house is quiet and sparkling clean, and a small army of pots and trays filled with delicious food sit on the kitchen counter. For lunch my mother served us a plate of samples from Shabbat pots, but small ones so we’re really hungry for the main event. And we are hungry! When my mom gets in the shower, I quickly sneak into the kitchen, tear up some thick pieces of challah, and smear them with it matbucha, fried aubergines and some schnitzel. I’m not afraid to touch other items, like the spicy fish stew I love so much – my mother will know immediately that someone has touched the pot. But schnitzels pile up – no one notices when a couple is missing.”

Decades later, Hanya recreated the thieves’ sandwich at a family dinner he was cooking for his kitchen staff. “It was Friday, the restaurant was closed for cleaning and maintenance, the pantry and fridge were almost empty. So I sliced ​​a challah I bought for Shabbat and spread it over it matbucha my sister brought over and threw a few escalopes into the hot oil. Everyone loved it and we decided then and there to add it to the menu.” The challah schnitzelmatbucha-The eggplant combo quickly became Nurman’s most popular item. When the pandemic struck and restaurants closed, the take-out sandwich became an even bigger hit (apparently it’s easy to transport) and, according to Hanya, kept the place afloat during these trying months. Nowadays it is imitated by many fast food restaurants and is also popular at home.

The Shabbat tasting plate that Hanya mentioned is another Friday lunch tradition, and a very practical one at that. No additional cooking is required, all you have to do is assemble a plate of tastings of everything you’ve prepared for Shabbat. Best of all, by trying Shabbat food early, you’re actually making a mitzvah—or at least following an ancient tradition. “The halacha gives two reasons for the custom,” Schwartz explained. “The first is more pragmatic: making sure in advance that the food will suit the man’s tastes in order to avoid family quarrels on the Shabbat itself. The second is more mystical: to fulfill what is written in the prayer recited Musaf of Shabbat: “Those who observe [the Sabbath] with joy they will partake of eternal glory, and those who taste of it will deserve life.’”

All of that is well and good as long as you don’t overdo it. As stated in the Shulchan Aruch: “One is enjoined not to eat any special celebratory meal on Friday in order to enter Shabbat with an appetite, and after the 9th hour on Friday it is forbidden to eat any real meal at all gain weight.”

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