Cold weather brings with it a special type of Shabbat overnight stew called hareesa, a simple dish that has popped up in different versions in far-flung Jewish communities, from Yemen to Iraq, Georgia, Iran, Libya and Tunisia. It is made of wheat and meat, sometimes with the addition of onions. That’s all. But while the Yemenite, Iraqi, Georgian and Farsi versions are ground or pounded into a porridge and then sprinkled with cinnamon, the Northern African version is closer to the more well-known hamin or cholent, with a consistency of a thick stew.
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Hareesa in its porridge form is traditionally prepared during the week before Tu Bishvat. While some may think it is because the dish is made with wheat, one of the seven species of the Land of Israel, the real reason actually has to do with that week's Torah portion, Beshalach, in commemoration of the manna mentioned in this portion.
Beshalach tells the story of the Israelites as they leave Egypt, chased by the Egyptian army across the Red Sea, and the beginning of their 40-year journey through the dessert. The portion talks about manna, the food that God supplied the Israelites during their travels. “The house of Israel named it manna, and it was like coriander seed, [it was] white, and it tasted like a wafer with honey.” (Exodus, 16:31).
Wheat stew dates back to the Sasanian Empire, the last Persian dynasty, which ruled between the 3rd and 7th centuries C.E., before the rise of the Muslim Empire. Nawal Nasrallah writes in her book “Delights from the Garden of Eden” that hareesa was and still is a beloved porridge, so much that poems were recited in its praise in Medieval Iraq.
The ancient Al Baghdadi's “Kitab al-Tabikh” cookbook from 1226 gives a recipe for hareesa that uses six pounds of meat cooked with eight pounds of shelled wheat. “Keep a steady fire going until the first quarter of the night is gone, stirring all the time; then leave over a good fire. Put in quartered chicken with cinnamon bark and leave until midnight Leave until dawn, then stir again and remove sprinkle with cumin and cinnamon ground fine separately.” This is amazingly similar to the way the dish is prepared today.
It’s interesting to note hareesa was cooked all night long, making it ideal for Shabbat. Perhaps, as Gil Marks suggested in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” hareesa may have even started as a Jewish dish. But hareesa has always been a very popular dish in Muslim communities, mainly during Muslim holidays such as Ramadan and the 10 days of the month of Muharram, when Shi'ites commemorate the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson.
Besides its popularity in many Arab countries, hareesa is also the national dish of Armenia, and is also served in Georgia during Lent (where it is sometimes called tsandili). In Medieval Spain, Jews ate hareesa for Shabbat and sold prepared hareesa in markets, topped with fat and cinnamon, just as Al Baghdadi suggested in his 13th century recipe. I assume the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate, which ruled the Middle East from North Africa to Andalusia, brought this favorite dish with it.
According the Gil Marks, Spanish Jews gave it the Mishnaic name Hamin di trigo (warm grain), or simply hamin, the name still used for Shabbat stew. At that point, cooks started adding fava beans or chickpeas to the pot.
With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the same hamin made its way to Eastern Europe, where it evolved into the cholent we know today. The dish also travelled with the Jews expelled from Spain to North Africa, and while Moroccan Jews serve a stew named dafina or adafina that is very similar to the Eastern European cholent, Libyan and Tunisian Jewish communities still hold on to a Shabbat stew called hareesa, which is made with wheat and meat. All these versions, however, are no longer served like porridge. Instead it is a thick, caramelized stew usually topped with farina or bread patties called koukla that help keep the moisture in the pot while absorbing all the wonderful flavors produced in the long cooking process.
What a journey for such a modest stew. But when you taste it, I’m sure you’ll understand why this wonderful dish is still a favorite after so many centuries.
Tunisian/Libyan hareesa (Wheat hamin)
1/4 cup corn or vegetable oil
2 yellow onions, halved and sliced
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 1/2 cups wheat, freekeh, farro or spelt, or a combination
4 chicken quarters (thigh and drumsticks), or a whole chicken, cut into pieces
6 cups boiling water
6 koukla patties
For the koukla patties
4 oz. ground beef
1/4 cup corn or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 1/2 cups farina
1. Put oil in a large oven-safe pot over medium-high heat, add sliced onion and sauté for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it begins to brown. Lower heat as needed. Add brown sugar and sauté for 5 minutes longer, until nicely caramelized.
2. While the onion is sautéing, mix all ingredients for the koukla in a medium bowl and set aside.
3. When onions are ready, transfer about a quarter of them into the koukla bowl and mix well. If mixture seems dry, add a few tablespoons of water and mix again.
4. Add tomato paste, paprika, turmeric and 1 tablespoon salt to the onions in the pot, cook for another minute and remove from heat.
5. Mix wheat into the remaining onion mixture in the pot. Top wheat with chicken pieces and cover with 6 cups of boiling water. Chicken should be covered with an inch (2 centimeters) of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, skim any foam and continue to simmer.
6. Form 6-8 large flat patties of the koukla mixture and arrange in the simmering water on one side of the pot. Arrange eggs on the other side, next to the koukla patties. Bring to a boil again, lower heat to medium-low, cover with lid and continue to simmer until oven is warm.
7. Heat oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit (110 degrees Celsius). Check the pot - the water should reach almost the top of the koukla patties. Cover again with the lid and wrap the pot with 2 layers of aluminum foil to make sure it’s sealed well. Transfer to the oven for the night.
8. When ready to eat, remove from oven, let stand for 10 minutes (the liquid will have been absorbed at this point) and serve.