It’s Not a Rosh Hashanah Feast Without Honey

Instead of welcoming in the year with disappointing club nights and surge charge Ubers, Rosh Hashanah lets you celebrate the new year gorging on honey cake.

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Sep 14 2015, 10:00am

Photo via Flickr user *Stormquiver*

As the years go by, Jewish new year seems more appealing than the one we celebrate in January. Instead of welcoming in the year with disappointing club nights, awkward midnight snogs, and surge charge Ubers, you get to gorge on honey cake.

Rosh Hashanah began last night and if you follow the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, the year is officially 5776.

As a kid, the celebration always stood out to me. This was probably because my mum would bake a seemingly endless supply of honey cake that lasted for weeks. There was enough in my packed lunch to pacify the steeliest of teachers and the most belligerent of bullies.

To put it another way, celebrating Jewish new year without honey is like celebrating Easter without chocolate—it's compulsory fare. The religious reasoning being that sweet food symbolises the coming of a sweet year.

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Originating from the early Middle Ages in Germany, honey cake has always been a Jewish favourite. When cooked right, it's squidgy but firm, moist but sturdy. My family recipe contains the usual suspects but also instant coffee and autumnal spices like cinnamon, ginger, and mixed spice for an extra kick.

While in the oven, the cake emits an intensely sweet aroma. Once cooked, you're left with a moist centre of crumbs with a caramelised exterior. For optimum flavour, the cake should be made a good three days before you want to eat it but once made, it can be kept for weeks. After all, honey is one of those rare foods to never go out of date.

As a kid, my mum would bake a seemingly endless supply of honey cake. There was enough in my packed lunch to pacify the steeliest of teachers and the most belligerent of bullies.

But there's more to Rosh Hashanah than the sweet stuff. On the first night of Jewish new year, it's traditional to have a festive family meal. Each element of the tapas-style feast represents something different.

I liked dipping moon-crescent shaped apple slices into sticky honey but it's also traditional to serve the head of a fish—symbolising the head of the new year—and challah baked in rounds to signify the cycle of life. Pomegranates are also eaten, thought to contain exactly 613 seeds and thus representing the 613 commandments in the Torah.

But of course, this is all up to interpretation and personal taste. As the old saying goes, get two Jews in a room and you have three opinions. As such, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated in myriad ways by different kinds of Jews, with a countless range of dishes served. A food that might be avoided in one part of the world could be treasured in other climes.

Being Ashkenazi Jews (those of Germany, France, and Eastern Europe and their descendants), my family tend to stick with the staples you'd associate with Jewish cooking. Starting the meal with what is known as Jewish penicillin—a light but richly flavoursome chicken soup with vermicelli noodles—followed by poached fish and then a roast chicken cooked very simply, with just a little paprika and salt rubbed evenly into the skin.

Celebrating Jewish new year without honey is like celebrating Easter without chocolate—it's compulsory fare. The religious reasoning being that sweet food symbolises the coming of a sweet year.

Unsurprisingly Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, who descent from Spain, Portugal, the Middle East, and North Africa have very different culinary traditions—something that comes to the fore during Rosh Hashanah. On the whole, Sephardi traditions are more diverse and their holiday dishes are less homogenous. Egyptian Jews often eat black-eyed peas because they're called rubya, which means "many." Likewise, North African Jews often use carrots and other root vegetables to make a seven-vegetable couscous dish.

When we think of Jewish cooking in Britain and America, we think of salt beef, latkas, and bagels but many Sephardi families also serve sweet roasted pumpkin burikitas, which are small pastries.

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Another staple Sephardi dish is keftes de prasa—leek fritters made with not much more than leeks, eggs, breadcrumbs, aleppo pepper, and allspice. Just like latkas, they are best eaten hot out the pan.

The resurgence of modern Sephardi cooking in the UK restaurant scene has seen Ashkenazi classics like gefillte fish and chopped liver superseded by stuffed peppers and falafel. Just like the Sephardi Jews themselves, the cuisine comprises the length and breadth of the Iberian Peninsula, the Maghreb, and the Middle East. Think honey, saffron, harrissa, white zucchini, aubergine, rose petals, couscous—think Jew meets Mediterranean.

Today might be festive but Rosh Hashanah also marks the beginning of a ten-day period of reflection and fasting in the lead up to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

So, eat while you can.