Saturday, January 26, 2013

Tu B'Shevat

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Fruit and Wine for Tu B'Shevat Celebration
Saturday is Tu B’Shevat, a Jewish holiday that honors trees, especially fruit trees. Although it's in the depth of our winter, it falls in the earliest part of spring in Israel. In antiquity, this was the traditional time to plant trees. Modern celebrations for Tu B'Shevat include eating a wide variety of fruits and nuts, especially the “seven species” – wheat, barley, olives, dates, pomegranates, figs, and grapes (for eating and for wine). Each of these items has many special associations and symbolic meanings in rituals, Jewish literature, and Biblical lore.

Although the exciting parts of the menu for Tu B’Shevat rituals are the delicious fruits, especially those that grow on the trees, the holiday expands to celebrate barley and wheat as well. I find the history of grains and how they were eaten in Biblical times to be a very interesting subject. Wheat wasn’t just ground into flour for bread or fermented into beer, but was eaten as a kind of whole-grain or wheatberry pilaf; some wheat could even be eaten raw right from the fields before it became too hard. 

Freekeh is a middle eastern dish that offers a way to understand what the ancients did. It's made from fresh, green wheat berries. Recently in food articles I've seen some references to it, and I think it has appeared on menus at trendy restaurants. According to an article in this week's L.A. Times freekeh “in Aramaic means ‘the rubbed one,’ a reference to rubbing off the roasted husk to reveal the grain, still green because it has to be harvested when young.”

The cookbook Jerusalem by Ottolenghi and Tamimi gives two recipes using either a whole or a cracked form of freekeh: spicy freekeh soup with meatballs (p. 148) and poached chicken with sweet spiced freekeh (p. 182). The authors write: "We use it for making pilafs, in salads, and for serving with lamb or chicken... . Its earthy flavor and slightly coarse texture go particularly well with sweet spices."

An article in Gastronomica “Roasting Green Wheat in Galilee” describes a few Arab farmers in Israel who still harvest and prepare unripe wheat, which they call farike. Their methods are much the same as  in ancient times. Timing is essential – “there is a short interval of a few weeks during which the mature wheat, though still green, is soft and full of starches and protein. This is the only moment at which the wheat can be eaten fresh from the stalk, and the time when farike can be prepared.”

The article explains the connection to Biblical tradition: “Roasted grain (kali in Hebrew) is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. It appears in the list of foods that Isaac commands his sons to bring to their brother Joseph in Egypt, and it is the love offering that Boaz extends to Ruth as they rest on the threshing floor. Different English translations of the Bible refer to roasted grain as ‘parched corn’ (corn being a British term for grain) or ‘parched grain,’ yet in Arabic biblical translations the term that is used is farike.”

Wheat berries from mature wheat are available at farmers’ markets and various stores; however, the pilaf that I have made from them is probably quite different from the interesting and historically relevant dish described in these articles. Some time, I’ll have to try one of the many recent freekeh recipes.

Grains both ripe and green were important nutritionally and culturally in the past; references to bread in Biblical passages show how central it was to the ancient diet. Tu B'Shevat makes us aware that the tree fruits of Israel 2000 years ago and more were also central and also much loved for their tastes and aromas. Centuries before sugar arrived in the Middle East, date honey – a sweetener extracted from dates -- was an important internationally traded commodity. Cleopatra Queen of Egypt demanded to own the orchards near the Dead Sea that produced the best dates and date honey in the Roman world. Having one's own "vine and fig tree" was a symbol of peace and security. And in modern times, citrus orchards became one of the keys to the economic success of the state of Israel.

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More fruit for Tu B' Shevat -- also bright green olives
Earlier this week, I attended an event to learn more about Tu B’Shevat, including how to prepare some traditional and modern foods, such as date-oatmeal bars, platters of dried fruits, and decorative arrangements of totally non-biblical fruit such as chocolate-covered strawberries, pineapple, and blueberries. Our hostess for the evening says that her preferred tree fruit to eat for the holiday is carob -- another Biblical species though not in the traditional list of seven. I knew little of this holiday until one of our visits to Israel in the 1990s, when we went to a secular Israeli celebration with similar platters of dried fruits and arrangements of fresh produce. I’m delighted to think of the numerous meanings and possibilities of the celebration of trees.

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