When in Purim, feast like the Persians
Vered Guttman offers a Purim seudah menu inspired by the famous feasts of King Ahasuerus in ancient Persia about 2,500 years ago.
A festive meal, (seudah, in Hebrew),and extensive drinking are two of the mitzvot Jews must fulfill on Purim. And what better way to celebrate the rescuing of the Jews from the horrible Haman than with food and heavy booze?
Queen Esther is a known historical Persian figure, and her tomb, together with the tomb of her uncle Mordechai, is located in the town of Hamadan in Iran.
She was the second wife of King Ahasuerus (alsos known as Xerxes), who ruled between 486 to 435 BCE. But in Iran today, “the Islamic Republic downplays pre-Islamic Persian Civilization and at times dismisses it altogether,” says Hedy Esfahanian, an Iranian who lives in the Washington, D.C. area. “Reference to Esther which was made pre-revolution, may not be as well known to the younger crowd.”
Indeed, some Iranians today may not share our joy of the Megilah story and the Jewish victory, judging from the downgrading of the tombs of Esther and Mordechai in the town of Mahadan only last year.
I was still hoping to draw some inspiration from the famous feasts of King Ahasuerus in ancient Persia about 2,500 years ago. Maybe this can be the theme for our Purim meal this year.
“Wine was flowing like water in those feasts,” told me Dr. Thamar E. Gindin, an Israeli linguist specializing in Persian languages. And in order to make sure the wine flows, said Thamar, revelers in the ancient Persian empire would use a rhyton, which is a large dish filled with wine held over the head of the person, who literally cannot stop drinking, since the wine keeps pouring.
That’s definitely a way to make sure you drink “to the point where they cannot tell the difference between ‘Blessed is Mordechai' and ‘Cursed is Haman.' (Megillah 7b).
According to Thamar, during the feasts in ancient Persia the main wives would sit first with the men for the meal, but as the guests got more and more drunk the wives were sent away and the dancers and mistresses were called in. That’s why Queen Vashti refused to come when the drunken king called her to dance in front of his guests.
I spoke to Najmieh Batmanglij, an expert on ancient Persian and modern Iranian food and the author of several books on the subject. “We don't have much by way of recipes from Xerxes's (king Ahasuerus)”, said Najmieh, “But we do know from Herodotus’ (a Greek historian of the same time) histories that he mentioned Persian pastries made with almonds. The description was much like our baklava.” And as someone who tried Najmieh’s baklava before, I can testify it’s one of the best there is.
According to Najmieh’s wonderful book Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies rice arrived to the Persian empire from either China or southeast Asia at the fourth century B.C.E. That’s one century too late for our story, which happened during the fifth century B.C.E. But simply cooked rice will be a good side dish for Najmieh’s pistachio and pomegranate meatballs recipe. And definitely perfect for our Purim festive meal.
So here’s a menu for a Purim feast:
Persian Rose cocktail (don’t overdo it - it’s still the middle of the week!)
Yet another mitzvah is fulfilled.
Vered Guttman is a caterer and a food writer based in Washington DC. Growing up in Israel she took her first lessons in Jewish cooking sitting at the tables of her two grandmothers, one from Poland, the other from Iraq. In Modern Manna, Vered will share a mix of new Israeli trends and old Jewish traditions, sprinkled with a distinct Sephardic flavor. Follow Vered on Twitter @veredguttman