This coming Sunday night, September 16, will mark the first night of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. At tables here in Baltimore and around the world, Jewish families will gather and eat traditional foods which will symbolize the start of a sweet new year. For many, this conjures up the images of round challas laden with raisins and red apples dipped in honey. However, Jews from different parts of the world serve other traditional foods to symbolize good fortune and prosperity. A short prayer is recited over each food. As a dietitian who will soon be celebrating (and cooking) the holiday feast, I can not help but also consider the nutritional values of both the more common and less well known traditional foods
Most Ashkenazic Jews (those originating from Eastern Europe) will eat apples dipped in honey, round challas, sweet carrots and the head of a fish on the first night of the holiday. Pomegranates are also commonly served.
There are a couple of opinions as to why apples are eaten. One is that there is a reference in a passage of the Torah that compares the smell of the Garden of Eden to that of an apple orchard. Honey, of course, is sweet, which we hope our new year will be. There is truth to the saying of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” The fruit contains both soluble and insoluble fiber and phytochemicals, particularly flavenoids, which have been linked to reducing the risk of some cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Qercetin, a prevalent flavenoid in apples, may be related to decreasing the prevalence of lung cancer according to several studies.
Many symbolic foods allude to prosperity and abundance. Carrots in Yiddish are known as “meren” (which also means many). Fish are known to multiply. Sephardic Jews (those of Middle Eastern descent) eat black eyed peas, as they are abundant. The seeds in pomegranates are many and therefore symbolize fruitfulness. Also, they are said to have 613 seeds, which corresponds to the 613 mitzvos, or commandments, of the Torah.
From a nutritional perspective, all of these foods are definitely winners. Fish are known to be rich in the Omega-3 fatty acids, while carrots are packed full of the powerful antioxidant beta carotene. Pomegranate juice is a good source of many vitamins and minerals, as well as natural phenols which act as antioxidants. Preliminary research and clinical trials suggest that pomegranate juice could be effective in reducing heart disease risk factors. Many clinical trials are in progress to examine the efficacy of pomegranate extracts or juice in the prevention of a variety of diseases. Black eyed peas are an excellent source of soluble fiber and also rich in both zinc and iron.
Other symbolic foods are puns on words of our holiday prayers. For instance, the Hebrew word for date is “tamar” which is a pun on the word “yitamu,” which means remove. We pray that the Almighty will remove our adversaries. Similarly, leeks, beets and gourds are eaten as each one’s name in Hebrew resembles a word that means consumed or decimated. This is what we wish to be the fate of our enemies, sins or bad decrees.
Leeks are high in folate and a good source of Vitamins C, B6, and K. They are also high in the flavenoid kaempferol which protects the linings of the blood vessel against free radicals. It also leads to the dilation of blood vessels and decreases the risk for hypertension. Beets are also high in folate, as well as vitamins A, C, and niacin. Betacyanin, the pigment that gives them their ruby red color, may be protective against certain types of cancer. Dates, as well as being super high in fiber, are a great source of potassium and iron.
Some families eat the foods at a ceremony at the beginning of the meal, while others incorporate the different foods into the menu. Below, I have included a recipe for black-eyed-peas, as well as for a beet salad, both adapted from the cookbook Jewish Holiday Cooking by Gloria Kaufer Greene. No matter what the custom, the hope is for everyone to have a sweet, healthy and happy new year blessed with peace and prosperity! Shana Tova!
Traditional Rosh Hashana Black Eyed Peas
1 onion, chopped
2-3 Tbsp oil
1 15 oz can black eyed peas, rinsed and drained
12/-1 cup tomato sauce or canned chopped tomatoes
2 cups water or chicken broth
Salt to taste
Sauté chopped onion and pepper in oil. Add peas and tomato sauce and stir to combine. Add the liquid and season with salt to taste.Cover the pan and bring to a boil.Lower the heat and simmer 15-20 minutes.
Moroccan –Style Beet Salad
1 large bunch medium-sized fresh beets (about 1 lb)
3 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 ½ Tbsp. olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic finely minced
2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley leaves
1 Tsp. sugar
Pinch each of ground cinnamon, cumin and salt
Cut off the beet greens and leave the roots intact. Scrub well with a vegetable brush and put them in a saucepan and cover with cool water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the pan, lower the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes or until tender enough to be pierced with a toothpick.
Rinse the beets under running cold water. Carefully cut off the roots and stems and slide the skin off the beet or peel with a sharp knife. Cut the beets into strips and put in a small bowl.
Stir in the remaining ingredients adjusting the spices to taste. Chill the salad until ready to serve. It is good cold or at room temperature
-Written by Esther Lejtman, RDLDN, CNSC, clinical dietitian, Sinai Hospital
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