Cholent: The Sabbath Stew
Prepared Friday and slow-cooked overnight, cholent is the traditional Sabbath-day dish.
Reprinted with permission from The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, published by Knopf.
The traditional stew for the Sabbath midday meal and [traditionally] the only hot dish of the day, which is prepared on Friday and left to cook overnight, is the most characteristic Jewish dish.
In an ironic parody on Schiller's "Hymn to Joy" entitled "Princess Sabbath" (1850), about assimilated Jews in 19th‑century Germany who frequented the Berlin salons while holding on to their Jewishness, the German poet Heinrich Heine rhapsodized about cholent, which "alone unites them still in their old covenant."
Cholent for Shabbat
Cholent, ray of light immortal!
Cholent, daughter of Elysium!
So had Schiller's song resounded,
Had he ever tasted Cholent,
For this Cholent is the very
Food of heaven, which on Sinai,
God Himself instructed Moses
In the secret of preparing.
Cholent has deep emotional significance. The smell exhaled when the lid is lifted is the one that filled the wooden houses in the shtetl. In the old days in Central and Eastern Europe, the pot was hermetically sealed with a flour‑and‑water paste and taken to the baker's oven, and the men and children fetched it on their way home from the synagogue. Jewish bakeries in the East End of London continued the tradition, and on Saturdays their ovens were full of copper pots brought over from Russia and Poland. They would give metal tags with numbers for people to retrieve the pots and used a paddle to pull them out.
Cholent is currently enjoying a renaissance. In my area in London, people buy it ready‑cooked, chilled or frozen, in foil containers. In Israel, young people, including Sephardim, now flock to fashionable eateries that advertise "Jewish Cooking" to eat it on the weekend. In New York, a restaurant advertises, "The French have cassoulet, we have cholent." (Cassoulet combines different meats, including goose and sausage, with beans slowly cooked in plenty of goose fat.) The likeness is not pure coincidence.