How Sweet It Is

A Moroccan Holiday Menu

By Aaron Kagan

Published September 10, 2008, issue of September 19, 2008.
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A list of foods served around the world on Rosh Hashanah would contain at least as many items as there are raisins in a round challah. Jews of all nations prepare countless dishes specific to the New Year, perhaps nowhere more so than in Morocco.

HEAD OF THE YEAR: Moroccans observe the custom of serving a whole fish on Rosh Hashanah. Above, Moroccan baked white fish.
HEAD OF THE YEAR: Moroccans observe the custom of serving a whole fish on Rosh Hashanah. Above, Moroccan baked white fish.

A country renowned for its cuisine, Morocco has Rosh Hashanah food traditions that draw upon regional themes while adding elements of the spiritual and ceremonial. Two things largely influence a Moroccan Rosh Hashanah menu: what one should eat and what one shouldn’t eat. Dark foods, such as prunes and black olives, are considered taboo because they are thought to provide an ominous start to the year. In accordance with Jewish custom, Moroccans hope that sweet foods will set a good tone for the upcoming months, and so they serve even meat and vegetables — such as eggplant — with sugar.

Such pairings might seem unusual to the palates of American Jews accustomed to apples and honey, but these dishes are common throughout the region and are a much anticipated treat on Rosh Hashanah.

“Let’s put it this way,” Jewish food guru Joan Nathan said, “they’re not American tastes. My guess is that they won’t make it to the next generation, though you’ll still find them in France.” After a brief reflective pause, she continued, “There is nothing better than Moroccan food.”

Moroccans also eat foods on Rosh Hashanah that have a similarity to words used in prayers and puns. The lengthy list of such ingredients includes pumpkin, fenugreek, dates, pomegranates, beets and beet greens, leeks and carrots. The Yiddish word for carrot is “meren,” which is the same as that for “increase.” Eating carrots on Rosh Hashanah is therefore thought to promote growth and bounty in the coming year, and in Morocco they are served in an incredibly flavorful cold salad.

Animals such as fish or lamb are sometimes cooked whole, with the head included, in honor of the literal meaning of Rosh Hashanah, the “head of the year.” This custom also reflects the hope that the Jews might serve as a “head” among nations (and not the opposite). The significance of such dishes is driven home by serving the first portion to the head of the table. Dishes made from brains are popular for similar reasons.

Aaron Kagan is a freelance writer living in the Boston area.


Fried Eggplant With Sugar
Adapted from Joyce Goldstein’s “Sephardic Flavors” (Chronicle Books)

Serves 6-8

21⁄2 pounds globe eggplants
3 eggs
olive oil or sunflower oil for frying and drizzling
1⁄2 cup sugar
salt

  1. Slice the eggplants vertically, about 1⁄3 inch thick.

  2. In a shallow bowl, lightly beat the eggs.

  3. Pour oil to a depth of 3⁄4 inch into a large sauté pan and place over medium heat.

  4. When the oil is hot, dip the eggplant slices in the beaten eggs, in batches, and slip them into the oil. Fry until golden, five to seven minutes.

  5. Using tongs or a slotted spatula, transfer to paper towels to drain briefly.

  6. Sprinkle the eggplant with sugar and salt. Serve hot.


Moroccan Carrot Salad
From “Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook” (Schocken)

Serves 8-10

2 pounds carrots
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons paprika
Hot pepper to taste
1 tablespoon cumin
1⁄2 cup lemon juice
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
3 tablespoons olive oil

  1. Peel the carrots and boil in water for about 20 minutes, or until barely tender. Cool and cut into thin rounds.

  2. Place the carrots in a mixing bowl and add the remaining ingredients, except the parsley and oil.

  3. Cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. Before serving, sprinkle with parsley and oil.


Baked White Fish or Moroccan Pescado Blanco
From “Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook”

Serves 6-8

One 5-pound whole white fish, trout or rockfish, gutted and split down the center
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 entire head of garlic, minced
4 medium tomatoes, sliced in rings
1⁄2 green pepper, sliced in rings
3 lemons, sliced in rings
1⁄2 teaspoon saffron threads
1⁄2 cup vegetable oil

  1. Place the entire fish in a glass or earthenware baking dish.

  2. Stuff the fish with most of the parsley and garlic. Surround the fish with the remaining parsley and garlic, the tomatoes, green pepper, and lemons.

  3. Dissolve the saffron in about 1⁄2 cup boiling water and let it sit for a few minutes. Then sprinkle the saffron water over the fish and tomatoes.

  4. Preheat oven to 350˚.

  5. Pour the oil around the fish and tomatoes. Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes, or until golden and crisp.


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