Shabbat without chamin is like a king without a city-a popular saying of the Jews of Algiers
An ancient Hasidic legend tells of the creation of the world with guardian angels appointed for anything and everything. One of the guardian angels was given an honorable job: to see that the person raising the shofar was the one sounding it. But since the shofar was blown only on Rosh Hashanah the angel was largely unemployed. Therefore he was given another charge: to oversee preparation of the chamin. So that he did not have to fulfill two roles at the same time it was decided that when Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, the shofar would not be blown – and thus the angel would be free to ensure that the first chamin of the year would be a success.
Whether you believe in angels or not, it is impossible to argue with the central role of chamin in Jewish culture; it appears in stories, proverbs, jokes and songs of praise (the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine even declared that cholent to be a heavenly food), and especially on Shabbat tables of a significant portion of the world’s Jews. One burnt pot of chamin received its own funeral prayer in a parody from the 19th century recently discovered in the archives of the National Library: the unknown author writes of an old man and his family gathering at the Shabbat table and impatiently waiting for the traditional pot of chamin. When he discovers that the contents of the pot have been burned, his grief is so great that he decides to eulogize the dish: “Hamin bar Hamina Dana, the late King, in his mercy, placed him between an oven and a stove, and between his tongue and lips and palate and teeth, burned on Shabbat without hams in his paw. Let the death of his food be an atonement for all the keepers of his Sabbaths. The king in his mercy will have mercy on his eaters.”
Among Ladino speakers, they say that “the chamin and the groom – come as they are”, thus testifying to the necessity of putting up with chamin that is not tasty, or with a groom who is not up to the standards of his mother-in-law. In Morocco there’s a saying about a lazy person who shirks work that he “sleeps like a Jew after the sakhana”.
They were all his sons
And there were also people who chose death over life without chamin: during the Spanish Inquisition, cooking Jewish or kosher dishes was incriminating evidence, and according to food researcher Gil Marks, cooking chamin led to an especially high number of convicitions. Food researcher Peter S. Feibelman claims in his book “The Cooking of Spain and Portugal” that the Spanish replaced the eggs in the original version of chamin with pork and pork fat. ‘A true Christian,’ wrote Feibelman, ‘used to eat pork at least once a day. Better in public’. Anyone who entered the house unexpectedly could be convinced, by the sight of the pig in the stew, that this was not the home of an infidel but of a ‘true believer in the true religion’. This “traif chamin” is the ancestor of the “quesido madrileño”, a popular stew in Spanish cuisine
And it’s not surprising: being one of the first slow-cooked dishes in the world, chamin inspired classic dishes from many different nations, some that might surprise you. Who would have thought that chili con carne, for instance, had Jewish roots?
Where did Chamin come from?
Chamin is one of the most distinct Jewish culinary inventions, because it was designed to answer a fundamental issue innate in its religion: the prohibition of cooking on Shabbat. And as always, the Jewish mind invented a solution: you can’t light a fire? Let’s use residual heat! And thus the Shabbat casserole was born- cooked all night at low heat and served at noon on Shabbat- a dish so closely associated with Jewish cuisine from around the globe.
Chamin likely evolved from Arisha, a dish that originated in the Middle East and includes wheat, meat (usually lamb) and onions. Over time, legumes (chickpeas or fava beans), other types of meat and water were also added to the pot, and the Jews of Spain – who were among the first to adopt the stew – established the new name of the ultimate Shabbat dish: chamin, a word derived of course from the word “cham” (hot) and originating in the Mishnah.
How is chamin prepared?
As previously noted, all chamin is slow cooked at low heat. In the old days, when an electric hotplate was in the realm of science fiction, Jewish families from different communities used to prepare chamin in the ovens of local bakeries. Before Shabbat, the oven was sealed with clay, and in the late morning hours of Shabbat, children, maids and other messengers flocked to the bakery to collect the family lunch, according to a number or marking assigned to each family. In other places, mainly in the countries of North Africa, chamin was cooked in a pit in the embers of a fire, one that might have been used to heat the water in public baths or a private home.
To prevent the chamin from drying out, Jewish cooks used to seal the sides of the pot with dough, or place cabbage leaves on top of all the ingredients.
What are the ingredients?
The number of versions of chamin is equal to the number of Jewish cooks. From the moment this recipe began its trip around the world, the eclectic pot absorbed the flavors, ingredients, and customs of the region, and the name of the dish changed as well.
In Ashkenazi communities it is customary to eat chamin as a stew, without garnish or alongside a few other dishes, such as kugel or pickles (after all, who has room for anything else?). On the other hand, in Jewish communities of Spanish and Arab origin usually serve chamin by separating the grains, meat, potatoes and eggs, and each component of the pot is accompanied by a fresh side dish – salad or sauce.
And these are the names of the pots that Jews have on the hotplate for Shabbat Eve:
Oshi sabo \ Osh Savo \ Osovoh)- what started as a festive rice dish originating in India as pilaf (or plov), evolved into the Shabbat stew of the Bukhari Jewish community. The rice in the center of the dish is cooked until slightly charred with both dried and fresh fruits, tomatoes and of course meat.
Arisha \ Arisa – among Tripolitanians (mainly) wheat and meat remain the main ingredients. Over the years fluffy, small semolina meatballs called koklas were added. Spinach features in some iterations, as does rice cooked in cheesecloth in the center of the pot. In the old days, Arisha was crushed into a smooth porridge, but most cooks today keep to the traditional presentation.
Biryani – Biryani is the term for the family of rice dishes that can be found across India. Jews from Kashmir gave the traditional cholent their own local spin: plenty of vegetables, peas, spices such as saffron, ginger and garam masala, nuts and dried fruits were added to the stew. Although the Jews of India eat beef, sometimes the sacred calf is replaced with mutton or chicken.
Gofa – a Persian stew with potatoes, legumes (mostly chickpeas) and meatballs in place of stew meat.
Chamin from Tehran, called Halim/Haleem, is half hamin/ half porridge. Halim is composed of wheat and red meat (or chicken or turkey) that are cooked together for a long time, until the wheat becomes soft and creamy. In some versions, beans are also added and it’s served with hard-boiled egg similar to the more traditional iteration, and in others, cinnamon is sprinkled on the finished dish, which brings it closer to a porridge.
Shiraz expats also have their own chamin – Chale Bibi. This cute name means aunt (Chale) and grandmother (Bibi), and it has a little bit of everything in it: meat (beef or chicken), legumes (beans, lentils or mung beans), grains (wheat, grits or rice), vegetables (mostly turnips , kohlrabi and we also came across versions with cabbage) and sometimes also meatballs or gondi. Just so absolutely nothing is missing.
Dafina \ Skhina \ Skhena – this many named cauldron is the North African variant of chamin. In Tunisia, Algiers and parts of Morocco the name derives from the Arabic root dafn, which means “to bury”, indicating the traditional way of cooking, which, as mentioned, included burying the stew between the coals of the fire. In other Moroccan communities, the stew is called Skhina, from the word “hot”. Hot or buried, the African Shabbat pot is usually more orderly than its Ashkenazi counterpart, and each component has its own layer, or separate cooking bag. Featuring legumes (mainly chickpeas), meat (and sometimes marrow bones), potatoes – a relatively late addition, warmly adopted from the West – grains (wheat or bulgur), and the highlight: huevos haminados, those coveted brown eggs that get a brown color from the long cooking and which are cracked open just before serving.
Harees / Hareesa – The Yemenite chamin differs from other versions because of its characteristic use of legumes: lentils, not chickpeas or beans, are slow cooked with cracked wheat or rice, marrow bones and fatty meat until it becomes a relatively thin stew.
The Yemenite’s also have a thin stew of legumes or grains (corn, sorghum, wheat, lentils, peas, etc.) called lasis. It is eaten mainly as an evening snack, but some serve it on Saturday morning and consider it the community’s vegetarian chamin.
Macaroni chamin – a source of pride for Jerusalemites of Spanish and Italian descent, who created the custom of adding long, hollow noodles in their chamin. In its purest version, macaroni is cooked with chicken, garlic, and spices only, but this chamin also lovingly accepts potato, sweet potato, onion and/or root vegetables.
Tbit – Iraqi-style chamin, whose stars are chicken and rice. These two main ingredients, along with the addition of bharat spice mixture and tomato paste, are the base for one of the community’s favorite dishes. If you feel like harkening back to the days of previous generations, you can stuff rice under the chicken skin and fill with more rice and the giblets.
Cholent \ Tshulnt (yiddish) – the Ashkenazi version of chamin. Like any good shabbat stew, modern day cholent is a product of the Jewish melting pot: as mentioned, it began as the Sephardic Arisha which made its way into the hands of French and Italian Jewish communities, from there it migrated to Germany and Eastern Europe, and when Jews began emigrating to America – it went with them. Some theories posit that name of the dish is a combination of Yiddish and French origin, and here too derives from the word “hot”. According to other versions, the name is actually drawn from Hebrew, in the word “shelan” – that is, resting – because the chowder rests in the oven or on a hot plate overnight.
Since the Middle Ages, the Ashkenazi’s have utilized and combined different types of beans in their cholent, but their favored grain is barley grits. A controversial meat addition was made, which eventually became one of the symbols of typical Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine: stuffed intestines (Kishkeh/Kishka) or a sausage made by stuffing the skin from the chicken neck (Helzel). All of these, plus potatoes (in most iterations), root vegetables (mainly among German Jews) and at least one head of garlic, are cooked together with a great deal of liquid into a mushy and fragrant dish.
Kofta / Shifta – The word kofta encompasses a great deal more than soup, but for members of the Kurdish community bring in Shabbat with a pot full of wheat or rice cooked in water, with crumbled balls of rice that are stuffed with meat and fat (solid cow fat for the old school, margarine who prefer not to bite into a solid piece of fat).
Our varied cuisines gave birth not only to countless versions of the soup, but also additions specially tailored for each version, placed on top of the dish which absorb both the liquid and flavors.
Nikitouche – although the name sounds like a Russian term of endearment, this is, in fact, the name of a Tunisian chamin variation, or more precisely: the name of home-made pearl shaped pasta that features prominently in the dish. In addition to the nikitouche, eggs, potatoes, some vegetables and meat are added to the broth, and the result is relatively light for a fairly rich soup.
Sura \ Maamra – these are not your traditional meatballs, rather, the Moroccan’s create a large sweet meatloaf, made with ground meat, walnuts or almonds, and seasoned with a little sugar or date syrup and cinnamon. The meatloaf (sometimes called meat cake) is wrapped in a oven bag or cotton cloth and placed in the center of the pot.
Kuklas – meatballs from the Tripolitan / Tunisian cuisine made from semolina and chicken or beef fat.
Keborot – the skinny sisters of kuklas; Tunisian semolina meatballs without fat and with the addition of herbs, vegetables and sometimes chicken breast.