Schalet is the food of heaven,
Which the Lord Himself taught Moses
How to cook, when on that visit
To the summit of Mount Sinai…
Schalet is the pure ambrosia
That the food of heaven composes—
Is the bread of Paradise;
And compared with food so glorious…
From the poem Princess Sabbath by Heinrich Heine,
translated by Edgar Alfred Bowring
The History of Cholent
Since Biblical times the Jewish people have scattered and settled all over the globe, adapting their foods to suit the regions where they’ve settled. Over the centuries countless regional ethnic dishes have been made kosher to fit the Jewish religious standards for pure eating. This means that “Jewish food” is really world cuisine; there are very few dishes that are uniquely Jewish. Bagels? A Polish baked bread originally created for Lent and later embraced by the Jews. Gefilte fish? A German dish adopted by Yiddish cooks. But cholent– well, cholent is one of the few foods that is totally and completely a Jewish creation.
In Joan Nathan’s fabulous book Jewish Cooking in America, she writes about this distinction:
“Throughout their wandering history, Jews have adapted their life-styles to the local culture. Food is no exception. Following the same dietary laws, Jews, relying on local ingredients, developed regional flavors. Because they have lived in so many places, there is no ‘Jewish food’ other than matzah; haroset (the Passover spread); or cholent or chamim (the Sabbath stews that surface in different forms in every land where Jews have lived).”
Cholent is uniquely Jewish. It was created because Jewish law does not permit cooking on Shabbat. To adhere to this prohibition, Jewish cooks began to create meat and bean stews in heavy pots that would slowly simmer inside a low-heat oven overnight. They would prepare the stew on Friday before sundown, cook it partially, and place it into the oven to continue cooking throughout the night. That way, there would be no need to kindle a fire or light a stove during the hours of Shabbat; they would simple remove the stew from the oven at mealtime and it would be fully cooked and ready to serve.
How did this whole slow-cooking idea come about? Well, when researching the history of a dish I often like to start with the etymology. According the The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook by Gloria Kaufer Greene, the word cholent may have come into usage in medieval Europe:
“The medieval word cholent (with ‘ch’ pronounced as in ‘chair’) may have come from the French chaud-lent, meaning ‘warm slowly,’ or, less likely, from the Yiddish shul ende which describes when the cholent is eaten — at ‘synagogue end.'”
Food historian Gil Marks refutes this notion of shul ende being the root of the word, because the word cholent was used in France before Yiddish developed as a language in the mid 1200’s. In his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, he contends that the word most likely evolved from the French chaud (hot) or from the Spanish escallento (warm), since the dish probably made it’s way to France from Spain. Still others believe that the word cholent is derived from the Hebrew she’lan, meaning “that rested” and referring to the pot resting in the oven overnight.
While nobody knows the exact source of the word cholent, it is without a doubt one of the most beloved dishes in Jewish cuisine.
A Cholent By Any Other Name
Shabbat stews are cooked all over the world in different ways and under many different names. Here are a few of the many varieties of cholent:
Schalet – The Yiddish word for cholent, referred to in the German poem at the beginning of this blog. Schalet refers to an Eastern European-style cholent with meat, beans, barley, and sometimes kishke. Spicing is minimal; often only salt and pepper are used.
Hamin/Hamim/Chamim – From the Hebrew word “hot.” The Sephardic version of cholent is known as hamin. Popular throughout Israel, hamin is often made with chicken rather than meat and usually contains eggs. It is also spiced more exotically than Eastern European cholent.
Dafina & Skhina – In Spain, the Maghreb, and Morocco, cholent is referred to as dafina or skhina. It is generally cooked with chickpeas, meat, potatoes and eggs along with spices native to the Maghreb.
Osh Savo – A sweet and sour Shabbat rice stew served by Bukharan Jews.
Tabeet & Pacha – Iraqi Jews have two popular Shabbat dishes. Tabeet is made with a whole chicken stuffed with rice, herbs, and seasonings. Pacha is tripe stuffed with lamb, seasonings, and rose petals. Both are slowly cooked overnight for Shabbat, which makes them regional ethnic variations on the cholent theme.
Batia Restaurant in Tel Aviv
On my trip to Israel this summer, our friend Hagai brought me to a restaurant called Batia in Tel Aviv. It’s a traditional Ashkenazi restaurant, well known for their cholent. While there I met the manager, Miri. She gave me a tour of their kitchen and I got to snap a shot of their massive cholent pot, which is the size of about twelve normal cholent pots. Check it out:
Miri told me that even with all of this cholent, they never fail to run out towards the end of the day. I had a chance to try it, and I understand why it’s so popular. It is absolutely delicious. Their cholent is made in the Israeli style with eggs, similar to mine but with less spices. They also add a kishke to their cholent and sliced meat if you ask for it.
Cholent: A Family Affair
I recently chatted with Tamar Genger from the website Joy of Kosher, who posted an article about cholent earlier this week. In her article, she talks about the warm memories and feelings that a pot of cholent can conjure. “People have an emotional response to the word ‘cholent’ — it may be a memory of a meal at a grandparents house, kiddush after shul or that unmistakable smell that warms the entire home on a cold winter morning.”
I totally relate to this emotional response, even though I didn’t grow up eating cholent. For the past eight years, cholent has made a regular appearance on our Saturday table. During the winter, it doesn’t feel like Shabbat unless a pot of cholent is slowly cooking in the oven, filling the house with its tantalizing, savory aroma. Cholent and challah are the official flavors of Shabbat in our home.
Cholent recipes vary greatly from region to region, and even from family to family. No two cholent recipes are exactly alike. It’s one of those dishes that evolves over generations, with spices and ingredients being added or changed to suit family tastes. Some cholent recipes have a hint of sweetness in them from the addition of honey or ketchup. Our family prefers a savory cholent, the recipe for which appears below. Later this year I’ll share my friend Sharone’s cholent, which has an added sweetness that many enjoy. Ashkenazi cholent recipes sometimes include kishke, or stuffed derma, which is a particularly unique Jewish delicacy. My recipe does not include a kishke, because I like to keep things simple– although you could certainly buy a kishke and add it to the pot. Couldn’t hurt!
Our family’s cholent recipe is a reflection of the heritage of my fiance’s parents; his mother was Sephardic, his father Ashkenazi, so I call this our Ashkephardic Cholent. The dish uses the basic ingredients of an Ashkenazi cholent– meat, beans, potatoes, and barley– but adds Sephardic and Moroccan spices for flavor. We also add whole eggs to the pot, another Sephardic custom. The eggs slowly cook in the broth, soaking up the flavor of the cholent and turning a lovely brown color. I sometimes use chickpeas, as is the custom in Moroccan dafina. Other times, I use a combination of kidney, pinto, and lima beans, which are more often used in Ashkenazi cholent. It just depends on what we have in the pantry on Friday morning. I use red potatoes because they have a lower starch content, so they won’t dissolve during the long slow cooking process. When we want a lighter cholent, I leave out the barley and let the potatoes take starchy center stage. Cholent is flexible that way. The result of combining all of these different flavors is an irresistible savory cholent that is always a hit on Shabbat.
Remember, this dish cooks overnight, which requires some forethought. The traditional way is to start the cooking on Friday before sundown so that the pot is in the oven before Shabbat begins. You don’t have to wait for Shabbat to make cholent, but you will need time to pre-soak the beans, so do plan ahead. Enjoy!
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- 1 cup dried beans (lima, pinto, kidney, chickpeas, or a mixture)
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 1/2 lbs beef stew meat cut into chunks
- 2 onions, chopped
- 2 marrow bones
- 6 eggs (optional)
- 2 1/2 lbs large red potatoes, peeled and halved
- 2-4 tsp kosher salt
- 1 1/2 tsp paprika
- 1 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp cumin
- 2 garlic cloves (optional)
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 cup pearl barley (optional)
You will also need
- A large heavy pot - a 7 or 8 qt. heavy Dutch or French Oven works best
- In the morning on the first day of cooking, cover beans with 3 inches of cold water. Let the beans soak all day until you are ready to cook the cholent. Drain and rinse.
- Heat the olive oil over medium in your large pot. Rinse the meat, then add it to the pot. Brown the meat on all sides. Remove meat from pot, leave the fat in. Saute the onions in the fat until brown and caramelized. Add meat back into the pot and stir. Add the soaked beans and stir again.
- Place the marrow bones evenly spaced the meat, marrow side up. Rinse the eggs clean, then nestle them within the meat, evenly spaced.
- Put a layer of potatoes on top of the meat.
- Cover all ingredients with water and bring to a slow boil. Skim the foam that rises to the top.
- Add seasonings to the pot and stir the water gently (do not agitate the layers of potato, meat, and beans-- just stir enough to disperse the spices in the liquid). If adding barley, sprinkle it evenly across the top of the broth; it will trickle down and settle amid the other ingredients. Let the mixture simmer slowly. While it's cooking, preheat the oven to 200 degrees F.
- After 15 minutes, taste the broth and add additional kosher salt and pepper, if desired. Add kosher salt carefully, there's nothing worse than oversalted cholent!
- Cover the pot tightly and place it in the warm oven.
- Close the oven door and let the cholent cook overnight for 12 to 15 hours. The cholent is done when the potatoes have turned dark brown and the liquid has reduce by about half. Check the cholent periodically to make sure it's not becoming too dry; don't let the liquid reduce by more than half. If it seems too dry, add hot water to the pot (see note). If towards the end of cooking your cholent seems too soupy, remove the lid for the last hour or so to let the excess liquid evaporate.
- Serve each portion of cholent with meat, potatoes, and an egg if desired.
- Note: Adding hot liquid to the pot may be considered "cooking" under certain circumstances (cooking and working are forbidden on Shabbat), so if you're a strictly observant Jew it's best to check with your Rabbi or another halachic authority about the proper method of adding liquid to your cholent pot.