Shabbat Recipes from Persia’s ‘Hidden Jews’
I’ve never visited my ancestral hometown. Mashad is located at the north-eastern part of Iran. It is a holy site for Shi’ite Muslims, a famous destination for pilgrims who visit the golden shrine of Emam Reza, resting place of the eight Imam of Shia. The history of the Jews of Mashad is unique and intense: In the spring of 1839, a few days before Passover, a pogrom occurred, in which dozens of Jews lost their lives. The surviving Jews were presented with a cruel choice: death or forcible conversion to Islam.
This started a long period of “hidden Jewishness.” We (the story was always told to me in the first-person-plural) took on Muslim names and appearance, prayed at the mosque, bought non-kosher meat (later throwing it to the dogs) and fresh bread during the seven days of Passover (secretly feeding it to the birds). Prayers were held in secret and Shabbat candles lit in basements. Some of the more affluent men were expected by their non-Jewish neighbors to perform the Islamic custom of Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) which they did, wearing miniature Tefillin under their robes and sometimes stopping in Jerusalem — to pray at the Western Wall and establish synagogues, orphanages and poor-houses — on their way back home, to their double life in Mashad.
Even in hiding, families preserved the recipe for the traditional Mashadi Shabbat dinner, Cholow Nokhodow, a hearty beef and bean stew, rich with chopped fresh herbs and wedges of kohlrabi. We treat our signature Friday night dish with affection, it is unique to our cooking culture and not served by other Persian Jewish communities. For me, it is the taste of Shabbat.
The dish is a bit of folklore, not just a food tradition. Its name is used in puns like: “Cholow Nokhodow, eat it and run!” (It sounds much better in Persian…) and funny stories are told about it: When I was a child I was told that members of our community in Milan have to purchase the kohlrabi for their Friday night feast in secret, from special greengrocers who smuggle it to Italy — since the Italian Catholics refuse to eat it, believing that Jesus was stoned with kohlrabi while on the cross. I am not sure that I still believe this story, but can’t resist the temptation of telling it anyway.
Cholow Nokhodow is not nearly as colorful and culinarily-complex as other Iranian dishes, it does not require long hours of fastidious labor, nor the use of expensive and exotic spices — but, for me, it is the most satisfying and comforting Shabbat dinner. A hearty mixture of beans, nice chunks of beef, crunchy wedges of kohlrabi and a lot of fresh herbs — cooked together in a rich broth and served on a bed of fluffy Persian rice. What more can a Mashadi heart desire on a Friday night?
Cook’s Note: I sometime cheat and add canned beans and chickpeas towards the end of the process instead of cooking them from scratch with the beef, but don’t dare to tell that to my mother!
3 pounds Beef chuck, trimmed and cut into large (2-3 inch) cubes
3-4 small marrow/soup bones
1 large onion, peeled
4 medium size kohlrabi, peeled and cut into medium-thin wedges
2 cups dried chickpeas (soaked in cold water overnight)
3 cups white beans (soaked in cold water overnight)
2 bunches of scallions (washed and chopped)
2 bunches of cilantro (washed and chopped)
2 bunches of fresh dill (washed and chopped)
Salt, pepper, turmeric
1) In a medium size pot, combine beef, soup-bones, chickpeas, beans and onion. Cover with water (about 2 inches above ingredients)
2) Bring pot to boil, allow boil to roll for 4-5 minutes. Carefully skim all froth.
3) Lower flame to medium-low and simmer half-covered until beef and beans are tender (3-4 hours)
4) Remove onion and marrow bones from pot, skim fat from top of broth, season broth to taste with salt, pepper and turmeric.
5) Add kohlrabi wedges, allow to simmer for 15 minutes.
6) Add all greens, stirring them gently into the broth, allow to simmer for 15 more minutes.
7) Serve over a bed of steamed high-quality basmati rice, with fresh challah to soak up the remaining broth (yes, it’s that good!)