When planning meals for the fall Jewish holidays, I often think back to the food from Canaan.
The fertile land — encompassed now by parts of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon — was a place where one could, according to Deuteronomy, “eat food without stint,” rich as it was with ancient ingredients like wheat, barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, olive trees and honey.
A reminder of the persistence of these natural gifts has never felt so poignant. At a time when we face many plagues — pestilence, fire, drought, floods — I find it particularly meaningful to return to the biblical riches that symbolize rebirth and renewal, which we so deeply need today.
For Rosh Hashana, the celebration of the Jewish New Year (which comes very early this year on Sept. 6), I’ll make a seasonal salad that includes those ingredients mentioned in the Torah, along with some others, as well as a round, robust challah made with emmer, the ancient wheat. For years, I have been playing a game, seeing how I can go back and taste what people would have been eating more than 3,000 years ago at this time of year. This salad, with its sweet and tangy flavors, brings it all together.
“Back then, the main staples were grapes, olives and some kind of grain, usually wheat or barley,” said Eric Cline, a professor of archaeology at George Washington University. “Many of the simple but hardy ingredients that we would toss in a salad, like olives and lentils, would also be at home with the Canaanites,” he said. “Imagine a woman in the Galilee gathering greens and fruits to complement the main dish. We would be surprised at how familiar yet exotic her salad would have tasted.”
No tomatoes, peppers, corn or potatoes for this salad, as these foods came to the Middle East after Christopher Columbus and his contemporaries introduced them, bringing them from the New World to the Old. And despite apples being dipped in honey at so many holiday tables, the fruit, originating in Kazakhstan, was not a biblical species. Although the Bible mentions the generic Hebrew word for fruit, “peri,” to refer to the forbidden one in the Garden of Eden, it was not until Jews moved to Europe that they adapted the apple, a fruit more readily available to them than dates and pomegranates, for the blessing.
To this day, as part of a Rosh Hashana meal, many Middle Eastern and Sephardic Jews say blessings over fall foods to symbolize hope for the new year. So this salad has the flavors of fall — pomegranates, olives, figs and beets. Ancient beets were prized for the greens, not the vibrant root, which is much bigger today; in this salad, I use both. Biblical herbs like mint, thyme, hyssop and parsley perk up the salad and a saltier brined goat cheese or a sheep curd cheese like feta contrasts the sweetness of the fall fruits.
According to Jon Greenberg, an ethnobotanist, “etrog” (the Farsi and Hebrew word for citron) can also be used, since this biblical citrus, with its thick pith and little juice, is central to the fall holiday of Sukkot. Though Dr. Greenberg said etrog in the ancient world was juicier than it is today, I opt instead for the juice of the lemon for the tart dressing. Related to etrog, the lemon also came long ago to the Middle East from as far away as Southeast Asia. And rather than bee honey, I choose date syrup, the more common “honey” of the Old Testament, to add a little sweetness to the lemon.
Although most of our foods reflect more than 3,000 years of adaptation to changing tastes, standards of living and access to ingredients, this salad is a wonderful reminder of what was once and still is on all of our holiday tables. “And, if you like sesame, bananas, soybeans and turmeric in your salad,” Professor Cline said, “we now have archaeological evidence that by 1100 B.C. they came from Southeast Asia to Megiddo and other sites in what was then the land of Canaan.”
Recipe: Beet and Barley Salad With Date-Citrus Vinaigrette
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