Chai – the hebrew word meaning “life” – is created by combining the Hebrew letters chet and yud. It’s pronounced like the word “hi,” as if you were saying hi to somebody, except the “h” has a slight glottal stop in the back of your throat– not “ch” as in cheese, rather “ch” as in “kh.” I don’t know exactly how to describe the sound, just imagine Adam Sandler in “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” saying the word “hello” and you’ll get it. It’s a funky sound we don’t really use in English, and it took me a while to get the hang of it. Now it’s second nature. Sort of.
In Hebrew, the word chai is spelled with the Hebrew letters chet and yud. It looks like this:
While the word chai means “life,” it also has a much deeper meaning for the Jewish people. The Hebrew letters have become a celebrated symbol, a reminder to be good and do good in life. You might see these Hebrew letters on necklaces and jewelry worn by Jewish women. The numerology behind the word is interesting. In the mystical Jewish tradition of gematria, the Hebrew letters chet and yud add up to a numeric value of 18, which represents good luck. This is why Jewish folks often give monetary gifts for bar mitzvahs and weddings in multiples of 18.
Those of you who aren’t Jewish are probably familiar with the word chai as it’s used in a popular song from Fiddler on the Roof – “L’chaim,” which means “to life.”
Oh man, I love that musical. Doesn’t hearing that song just make your whole day better?
Maybe you young whipper snappers out there are more familiar with the Black Eyed Peas referencing “l’chaim” in their song “I Gotta Feeling.”
Of course, some might see the word chai and imagine frothy Indian-spiced lattes… and that’s okay too. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Hebrew word chai and the Indian spice blend chai have the same English spelling. The two words are pronounced slightly different, but they’re both describing something very, very good. The Indian chai spice blend is warm, bold and full of vigor. It makes people happy. A great chai latte makes me want to raise my mug and say “l’chaim!” It was only a matter of time till the chai spice blend made its way into my traditional Jewish cooking.
Today’s noodle kugel recipe is based on my favorite Lokshen Kugel, amped up with– you guessed it– chai. I added a homemade chai spice blend and a graham cracker crumble topping to make a sweet, lightly spiced dessert-style kugel. Shavuot is next week, a Jewish holiday when dairy foods are traditionally served (learn more here). This kugel would make a great option for a Shavuot menu, a spring brunch, or just because. It’s a fun twist on the traditional kugel theme.
Incidentally, there is another word that has meaning for both Indians and Jews– shiksa! In Yiddish, it means non-Jewish woman (and is sometimes used as a term of insult, but never on this blog). In India, I’ve been told the word shiksa (pronounced shiksha) actually means teacher or education. How cool is that? I guess in some ways I’ve become a cooking teacher here on the web. I’ll embrace the Indian definition of my nickname, just as I’ve embraced chai lattes. It’s all good!
No matter how you choose to pronounce the name of this kugel… with a chai (chet and yud) or a chai (ch- as in cheese)… either way, you can’t go wrong. It’s a creamy, dreamy, rich and fabulous mix of flavors. I swear, Indian chai spices were meant for kugel. Can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner. It’s enough to make me chai on life. L’chaim!
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Chai Noodle Kugel
- 12 oz wide egg noodles
- 6 large eggs
- 1 lb lowfat sour cream (2 cups)
- 8 oz lowfat cottage cheese (1 cup)
- 8 oz cream cheese, softened (1 cup)
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp powdered ginger
- 1 tsp cardamom
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- 1/2 tsp coriander
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Nonstick cooking oil spray
- 3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 3/4 tsp cinnamon
Place a rack in the middle of your oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles to the pot, bring back to a boil, and let them cook till tender (not overly soft), about 5 minutes. Drain, rinse the noodles with cold water, and return the cooked noodles to the pot.
In a food processor or blender, mix together the eggs, sour cream, cottage cheese, cream cheese, sugar, melted butter, spices and salt.
Pour the egg mixture over the cooked noodles in the pot and stir till well combined.
Spray a 9x13 inch baking dish with nonstick cooking oil. Pour the noodle mixture into the dish.
Mix the topping ingredients together with clean hands till the crumbs are evenly moistened with butter. Sprinkle the topping over the kugel. Alternatively, you can use your favorite kugel topping (streusel, cornflakes) or simply sprinkle generously with sugar and lightly with cinnamon. This will result in the top noodles forming a crunchy top to the kugel, which some people prefer to a topping. Bake the kugel for about 60 minutes, turning once halfway through cooking, till the center of the kugel is set. Remove from the oven. Let the kugel rest for 15-20 minutes before slicing. The more it cools, the easier it will be to slice cleanly. Kugel can be served warm or cold.
I usually like kugel with raisins or other fruits added in, but I left them out of this one so the chai flavor could take center stage. You can feel free to add them if you wish, raisins in particular will work great with the spices to give another dimension of flavor. If you want to add them, or any other dried fruits, I recommend measuring out a cup of fruit and soaking it in hot water for about 10 minutes, then draining, before adding to the kugel ingredients. This will help plump the fruit and keep it juicy as it bakes inside the kugel.
Other Great Recipe Ideas
Joy the Baker: Chai-Spiced Cinnamon Rolls
Eat the Love: Chai Chocolate Orange Marbled Brioche Loaf
Simply Recipes: Chai Ice Cream
Blue Kale Road: Chai Chia Pudding