Victoria (Toya) Levy, the author's aunt and creator of this tbeet recipe.
Victoria (Toya) Levy, the author's aunt and creator of this tbeet recipe.
Text size

In her modest, shack-like home in southern Israel, my great aunt Toya served some of the best food I’ve ever tasted.

After my Iraqi grandmother, Rachel, passed away, her cousin Toya (Victoria) Levy took it upon herself to fill void in our hearts and in our bellies. One of her duties was to prepare tbeet for us on shabbat.

Tbeet is the Iraqi version of a Shabbat overnight stew. A chicken is stuffed with a mixture made of its inner parts, rice and spices, then covered with more rice, topped with hard boiled eggs and cooked overnight. The rice comes out moist and flavorful, the chicken so soft you can literally chew the bones.

The tradition of the Shabbat overnight stews grew from the desire to serve a hot meal on Shabbat, while keeping the Jewish law that prohibited lighting fire on the holy day. Women prepared the dish on Friday and baked it overnight, usually in a communal bakery, so it was ready at lunch time the next day when the men came back from synagogue.

Many people are familiar with the Ashkenazi (Eastern-European) Shabbat stew, the cholent, that is made of beans, potatoes and meat.

But Shabbat stews developed all over the Diaspora, and each community had its own version, using some of the local spices and ingredient that were available to them.

The Iraqi Jews had the tbeet; Yemenites had jachnoon and the kubaneh (both are basically breads that are baked all night and served with spicy tomato salsa); the North African communities had the d’fina, or skheena, a stew of meat, chickpeas, grains and spices; and the Sephardi Jews of Jerusalem had their own version of Shabbat stew, made with beans, meat and bread patties, called chamin.

Since the weather is just right, I will introduce you to all of the above in the next few weeks.

All of these dishes are still very popular in Israel, cooked and devoured by addicted families every week.

That is why I was surprised to hear from my friends here in Washington that none of them ever prepares these Shabbat stews at home. They could all still remember their grandmother making cholent, but the tradition didn’t last.

 I’m wondering what made it last in Israel, a hot country where the weather is not all that accommodating for this type of cooking. Is it because families over there stay (physically) closer, creating the need to cook for kids and grandkids regularly, for which the traditional Shabbat stews are meant? Is it because these dishes are very forgiving and don’t really require a written recipe, so sons and daughters can simply watch, learn and repeat? Is it because thEse dishes allow you to use cheaper ingredients, and to feed a large family without getting into large expense?

Toya used to prepare her tbeet on the stove. Then she would move it, wrapped in old towels, for a night inside her “Shabbat oven”, a warming tray standing inside a large tin box.

For the chicken she preferred an old one, claiming the meat tasted better. She stuffed it with rice mixed with gizzards, and covered with more rice and spices like cardamom and paprika.

My grandmother Rachel used to make it from an egg-laying chicken, using the unborn egg yolks that came inside it. She actually separated the meat from the chicken (using it for another dish), leaving only the wings and the back with the whole skin of the chicken, and stuffed it all with the rice and inner parts.

I don’t want to intimidate you! If gizzards, hearts and livers scare you, just omit them, or replace with a little ground beef (and next time you’re in Jerusalem, try the wonderful Jerusalem mixed grill at Midnight Steakhouse in Machne Yehuda market, which will change your mind about inner parts forever).

Toya was born in Baghdad in 1922. She was married at the age of 14, much like the rest of girls in the Jewish community at the time, only she was forced to marry her uncle. Even in a society where marriage between cousins was the norm, being forced to marry an uncle was unusual and wrong. The only time I heard my grandmother Rachel ever express her inner feminist was when she talked about the cruel injustice that was done to her cousin.

But Toya loved her husband, and the couple had two children together. They move to Israel in 1950, and settled in the house where Toya stayed for the rest of her life. Both of her children died in their twenties from a genetic disease.

This is not a story of sorrow and the comfort in food. Toya was a bright and assertive woman, who dedicated her life to a children’s house for kids from troubled families. From 1954 and until her death in 2011, she did every possible job in the house, from being a nanny to kitchen manager. And she continued as a volunteer after retiring, taking care of the children, trying to give them a stable home.

When her brothers (businessman Latif from Beverly Hills, and professor and entrepreneur Abraham from Florida) visited her humble home, looking for the taste of their childhood for one more time, she wanted nothing for herself. But she always asked them to donate to the children house, and they gladly did.

Last week, the children’s house held a ceremony in Toya's memory. “We’re saying goodbye to a noble, accomplished woman, full of love to the children and adults, but mainly a big loving mother," they said. "We will remember you always."

Click here to try Vered Guttman's recipe for tbeet, adapted from Victoria Levy

Also try this version that my mother gave to Bonnie Benwick from the Washington Post food section a couple of years ago.