In Israel by late January, about halfway through the rainy season, the majority of the year’s precipitation has fallen. The sap in the trees begins to flow and the branches show the initial signs of budding. It’s at this time that Jews celebrate Tu B’Shvat (this Thursday and Friday) — known as the New Year for the tree. Since Tu B’Shvat is a minor holiday, few specific dishes were created for its celebration, but rather the practice emerged of serving dishes that highlight the flavors of local fresh fruit and nuts, which each Jewish community adapted to what was available to them.
Sephardim, partially due to the warm climate and early growing season in their locales, have long manifested a deep devotion for the day, which they call Las Frutus (“The Fruit”). To celebrate, Sephardic families customarily visit relatives where they are offered a veritable feast, appropriately containing an abundance of fruits and nuts. The children are encouraged to not only partake of the spread, but to take bolsas de frutas (“bags of fruit”) home with them.
The Kabbalists of 16th century Safed developed a Tu B’Shvat Seder based off of the Passover Seder to celebrate the holiday. Four glasses — each wine a different type — were served and at least 12 fruits and nuts were sampled. Others increase the number to 15, corresponding to the numerical value of Tu. Iraqi Jews further expanded on the concept, increasing the number to a minimum of 100 fruits, nuts, grains, and vegetables.
In the colder northern climates of Ashkenazic Jews, though, the holiday was barely celebrated historically, in part because of a lack of fresh fruit mid-winter. That changed in the first part of 20th century with the establishment of agricultural settlements in Israel and the need to plant trees to rebuild the land; the holiday took on new significance throughout the Jewish world.
There is a widespread custom of eating the Shivat Haminim (“Seven Species,” the five fruits and two grains for which the Land of Israel is praised): wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. In addition, many people eat other fruits and nuts mentioned in the Torah or associated with Israel, most notably bokser (carob), raisins, apples, quinces, walnuts, and pistachios. Since almond trees are traditionally the first to bloom as well as biblically significant, their nuts also hold special meaning on Tu B’Shvat.
As each community has developed their own culinary custom for the holiday, the celebratory dishes vary widely. Some popular Tu B’Shvat dishes include: Hungarian wine soup (borleves), Moroccan orange salad (salata latsheen), Middle Eastern bulgur-stuffed cabbage (malfoof mahshee), Bukharan vegetable and fruit stew (dimlama), Ashkenazic barley with mushrooms (gersht un shveml), Persian carrot omelets (havij edjeh), Middle Eastern wheat berry pudding (ashure) and German fried dumplings with fruit (schnitzelkloese).
Dried fruit strudels and kugels are a popular Ashkenazic treat. Turkish Jews enjoy prehito/moostrahana, a dish of sweetened cracked wheat, or kofyas, a dish of sweetened wheat berries, called assurei or koliva by the Greeks. Syrians serve fruit and nut pastries such as ma’amoul (nut pastries) and ras ib adjweh (date pastries).
Below are recipes for a menu of Israeli Wine and Fruit Soup, Moroccan Orange Salad and Couscous With Dried Fruit and Nuts, which together make a healthy, fresh and fitting start to the tree’s New Year.
Tu B’Shvat Recipes
Israeli Wine and Fruit Soup
6 to 8 servings
If you prefer whole fruit, add the oranges to cooled soup.
4 cups dry red or rose wine (or 2½ cups fruity dry white or rose wine and 1½ cups dry red wine)
2 pints fresh or 40 ounces frozen raspberries or cherries
44 ounces canned mandarin oranges
1½ cups orange juice or water
½ cup lemon juice
6 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
2 (3-inch) sticks cinnamon (optional)
1) Bring all ingredients to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally.
2) Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
3) Serve warm or chilled.
Variation: To thicken soup with cornstarch — Omit tapioca. Dissolve 2 tablespoons cornstarch in ½ cup water; stir into boiling soup; and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until clear.
Moroccan Orange Salad (Salata Latsheen)
6 to 8 servings
5 medium (3 cups/720 ml) navel oranges or tangerines, peeled and segmented
2 medium red onions, thinly sliced (1½ cups/360 ml)
1 head romaine or butter lettuce or 1 bunch spinach, torn into bite-size pieces
About 5 cups greens, such as 2 bunches watercress, 2 bunches radicchio, or 6 ounces (170 grams) baby arugula, torn into bite-size pieces
¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil
¼ cup (60 ml) vegetable oil
¼ cup (60 ml) fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons (30 ml) fresh lemon juice or red wine vinegar
2 to 3 tablespoons (30 to 45 ml) honey or sugar or ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon (5 ml) grated orange zest
1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
1 tablespoon (15 ml) fresh or ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) dried rosemary, basil, cilantro, mint, or thyme or ½ to 1 teaspoon (2.5 to 5 ml) ground cumin
¼ cup (60 ml) chopped fresh mint or cilantro (optional)
1) Divide the lettuce and watercress between serving plates or place on large platter.
2) Toss together the oranges and onions and place on greens.
3) Combine all the dressing ingredients and drizzle over the salad.
Variations: Add 2 peeled and sliced avocados, 2 cups sliced cooked beets, 1½ cups chopped pitted dates, 1 sliced large bulb fennel, 1 pound julienned peeled jicama, or 20 to 24 pitted and sliced black olives.
Couscous with Dried Fruits and Nuts (Couscous Hiloo)
6 to 8 servings
1 pound (2 2/3 cups) instant couscous (not Israeli style)
4 cups boiling water
½ cup granulated sugar
½ to 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup (½ stick) butter or margarine, melted
¾ cup (3.5 ounces) raisins
¾ cup (5 ounces) chopped pitted dates
¾ cup (3.5 ounces) chopped dried apricots
¾ cup (3.75 ounces) chopped blanched almonds
¾ cup (3 ounces) chopped walnuts or 1/3 cup pine nuts
about 2 cups almond milk or hot milk
additional ground cinnamon for garnish
1) Pour boiling water over couscous. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes.
2) Stir the sugar and cinnamon into the butter. Pour over the couscous, tossing to coat. Stir in the raisins, dates, apricots, almonds, and pine nuts. Gradually add enough of the almond milk to moisten the couscous.
3) Mound the couscous on a large platter and sprinkle with the additional cinnamon.
Gil Marks, a rabbi, writer, and food historian, is the author of numerous books, including the new Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.