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Ancient Jewish dish becomes melting pot of Israeli cuisine

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It is a Thursday evening at Maadaniat Chef, a small restaurant in the central Israeli ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak specialising in traditional eastern European Jewish food.

[BNEI BRAK, Israel] Moshe Genzler lifts the lid off a huge aluminium pot, thrusts in a massive spoon and dishes out a steaming portion of beans, potatoes and beef.

It is a Thursday evening at Maadaniat Chef, a small restaurant in the central Israeli ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak specialising in traditional eastern European Jewish food.

The gefilte fish and potato kugel pale next to the warm brown glow of the eatery's crowning glory -- hamin -- also known as cholent.

Consumed by Jews for Saturday lunch since antiquity, the rich stew is enjoying a renaissance in Israel.

While ultra-Orthodox local residents sit at the few tables enjoying their steaming fare, three elderly women and a man, all secular, enter to enquire about the food.

The four are from the nearby cities of Givatayim and Ramat Gan and hope to celebrate a birthday with food from their childhood.

"We wanted to try something different," says one of the women.

A bus drops off a group of senior citizens from Kfar Daniel, a village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with their guide Yair Landsberg.

"A dish you ate in your childhood is memories," he says. "It's enough that you smell it and you're full of memories, of nostalgia."

Mr Genzler -- the young son-in-law of the restaurant's owners -- says eating hamin before the Sabbath has become trendy.

"You have people from all walks of life -- ultra-Orthodox, secular, all kinds of religious people," he says. "Groups arrive here as part of a tour of Bnei Brak and enter to see and feel an authentic Jewish experience."

Hamin, meaning "hot things" in Hebrew, can be traced back to the Mishna, the early oral interpretation of the Torah, as part of the discussion on how food might be kept warm on the Sabbath.

Jewish religious law prohibits cooking on Saturday, "but you can prepare something that will begin cooking before the Sabbath and continue to cook or retain its heat during the Sabbath," notes Shmil Holand, a chef and expert on Jewish culture and food.

"That's what created this dish."

The Jews expelled from the land of Israel some 2,000 years ago were split into two parallel routes, one via Babylon to North Africa, Spain, the Balkans and what became the Muslim world.

The other group went to Rome, France and eventually central and eastern Europe.

Over time, each Jewish diaspora created its own variation of the dish, based on the climate and available ingredients, according to  Mr Holand.

"Together something new came into being," he says from the spacious kitchen of his Jerusalem home.

European Jews, who were eventually called Ashkenazim, referred to their hamin as cholent, derived from the French words for hot (chaud) and slow (lent).

And while other people around the world make variations of the dish, hamin stands out for the unusual length of its preparation -- normally at least 12 hours, Mr Holand says.

The dish has become a popular winter delicacy in Israel, enjoyed even by people who do not necessarily observe religious law.

- 'Taste of childhood' -

A short drive from the Bnei Brak restaurant is Ramat Hahayal, an upscale Tel Aviv neighbourhood favoured by the country's burgeoning technology sector.

Shuk Hatzafon, a local food court, held a "hamin festival" in January, with variations of the dish from Jewish communities in Austria, Iraq, Italy, India and elsewhere.

The hot spices of the Libyan hamin were balanced out with chard, sold next to a Moroccan version of the dish with groats, chickpeas, potatoes and meat.

Shimon, a young man from Tel Aviv, said hamin "gives you a feeling of home, regardless of your origin".

Back in Bnei Brak, the religious significance of the dish is still its most important aspect for Mr Genzler.

"Hamin is something that represents the Sabbath for a Jew," he says.

"It's been like this for thousands of years and will always remain Jewish food," he insists.

Bruce Lax, a technician from Ramat Gan who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem, says Maadaniat Chef's hamin was the "taste of childhood."

"It reminds you of places, people, flavours," says Mr Lax, who like most hamin fans, makes his own too.

His secret ingredient? "A good bottle of vodka next to it."

 

AFP