Honey and apple
“Anyada Buena, Dulse i Alegre!” This is a way to say in Ladino “May you have a good, sweet and happy New Year!”
This evening starts Rosh Ashana, the Jewish New Year, which will be celebrated for two days till Sept. 8. Sweet beginnings to a New Year must be with honey and apple. Apple is the first fruit, not to speak of the Adam and Eve connection, but it is considered as the first fruit of the New Year, being the one that appears first among the fall and winter fruits. Honey, needless to say, is for sweetness. In many Jewish communities around the globe, apple slices are dipped in honey to wish a sweet year, but in Turkey, apples cannot appear on the table only as humble slices. Dulse di Mansana is a must-have treat on a New Year table. It is apple preserves, or sweet if you stick to literal translation, a glistening shiny bright delight of grated apples cooked to a form of jam. The traditional method is to grate the apples thickly, sprinkle with lemon juice and throw them into thick boiling syrup, but an old Jewish lady once gave me another trick. She said the moment you grate a batch of apples, toss them immediately with sugar and a good squeeze of lemon juice, that toss them quickly so that they remain white, and that do not forget a good dulse must always be almost bright and luminescent, not dark. Usually spiked with a few cloves or vanilla, sometimes even gum mastic, it is the sweetest start guaranteeing an Anyada Dulse, that is a Sweet Year. In short, apple is new and sweet, just the right start for the year ahead.
Along with apples, pomegranates are also significant in many Jewish tables. In Anatolia, all cultures have always embraced pomegranate as a symbol of plenty and fertility. From Hittites to ancient Greece, from Seljuk Empire to Ottoman times, the pomegranate kept appearing in numerous ways standing for prosperity. Armenian cannot do without a pomegranate in the New Year or Christmas, but interestingly though the first pomegranates start appearing in Rosh Ashana time -- their existence in the Rosh Ashana celebration table seems to be limited, overshadowed by the glorious Dulse di Mansana. However, Marie Benmayor (93), a native of Edirne and mother of journalist Gila Benmayor, says that a pomegranate has to be on the table, not to eat, but as a symbol, in wishes that the community multiplies and grows larger, just like the innumerable seeds of the fruit.
One of the most popular dishes of Jewish cuisine in Turkey must be the leek fritters, Pırasa Köftesi in Turkish, or Köftes de Prasa, or more authentically, Albondigas de Prasa in Ladino. Note that the name suggests an eventual change in Ladino language: Köftes in Turkey or keftedes in Greece being replaced by the original Spanish word Albondigas. Albondigas de Prasa is not easy to make, but today not so difficult either with modern kitchen equipment, but the problem is that it disappears very quickly. Leek is one of the foods that must be present in the Rosh Ashana table, and in Turkey, it is almost always cooked in the form of fritters. Leeks, like apples, are one of the first vegetables of the year. The Hebrew word “karti” sounds similar to a curse on enemies for them to disappear, and as such, play on words is also important as to which food must be on the table; leeks lead the way. Leek fritters are loved so much that, nowadays, it continues to appear yearlong on special occasions, even making its way to Pesah. At a recent interview, Deniz Alphan, the author of Dina’s Kitchen (a wonderful book about her mother’s cooking, alas only available in Turkish), claimed that the leek fritters have such popularity in the Istanbul Jewish community that nowadays it is almost obligatory to have it in all celebrations. In the old times, it was so toilsome to chop the leeks finely that Jewish ladies would ask the butcher to have them minced in the mincemeat grinder. The minced leeks are cooked to soften and squeezed strongly to draw out excess juices, then is mixed with some minced meat, crumbled stale bread and an egg or two to form the mixture into patties, which are then dipped in flour and egg and then fried. Quite a work to do, but delicious nevertheless. Now everybody has an electronic kitchen tool or similar equipment to do the task, so it is normal that the tasty morsels keep appearing on Jewish tables as long as the leeks are still available. Apart from leeks, other must-have vegetables are chard and squash, the former considered to be typical of Sephardic Jewish culture since Spain.
For the main dish, the choice is usually fish, but if it is not available, lamb is also a choice, and sometimes, chicken can be too. Rosh Ashana literally means the head of the year, and the head is important. If there is fish on the table, it must be a whole fish to represent the unity of the family and integrity of oneself and the head goes to the father, the head of the family. The head will eventually lead the family to a better future. Fish also stands for fertility and prosperity, which is interestingly the same in Chinese New Year traditions and the Iranian New Year Norouz. The Chinese, if they cannot put an actual fish on the table, put a wood or porcelain statuette of a fish, and in Iran, it does not appear as food but as live goldfishes swimming in a bulbous vase. It is amazing how many New Year traditions feature fish as a symbol on tables in such a large geography, but we are, after all, the same. We all feel empowered to celebrate together with family and wish for the best, attributing certain symbolic significances to foods in hopes for a good future.