Our Iraqi Rosh Hashanah: Apple jam, coconut-stuffed dates and more

Our Iraqi Rosh Hashanah: Apple jam, coconut-stuffed dates and more

ELANA BENJAMIN celebrates the unique dishes and customs that define her family’s Baghdadi heritage.

I’m hosting first night Rosh Hashanah this year. On my shopping list are those must-have items: a pomegranate, a fish head. But I won’t be buying apples. Or honey. As a Sephardi-Mizrahi Jew – my parents were part of Bombay’s Baghdadi Jewish community before moving to Australia – my guests and I will instead feast on cardamom-infused apple jam. And our different Rosh Hashanah culinary customs don’t stop there.

The bible of Jewish cuisine, Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, includes a recipe for Iraqi apple preserve, which Roden describes as “very sweet” and “a New Year specialty”. What Roden doesn’t mention is that apple jam – what she calls apple preserve – is one of numerous symbolic foods eaten by Iraqi Jews at Rosh Hashanah.

Many Sephardi-Mizrahi Jews eat a series of ritual foods before their New Year meal. This practice is thought to have begun in Talmudic times, when Rabbi Abaye suggested that at the start of the year, people eat pumpkin, beans, leeks, beetroot and dates, all of which grew in abundance, in the hope that the new year would also be filled with abundance. From this beginning, the ritual expanded to include a range of foods, each with their own bracha (blessing) containing a hope or wish for the year ahead, often with a play on Hebrew words.

So as first-night dinner host, my shopping list also includes the symbolic foods that are customarily eaten by Jews of Iraqi origin: dates, coconut, chives, spinach, zucchini, cucumber and beans. Each item has its own significance, and we’ll say a blessing unique to each food before eating it, in effect asking God for only good things in the year to come.

Some food substitutions are possible: the cucumber, for example, is for blessing a fruit of the ground (ha’adama) so could be replaced with banana; when pomegranate was unavailable in previous years, I’ve used passionfruit. But under no circumstances am I allowed to salt the beans – or any of the other foods – so as not to jinx our chances of a sweet year ahead.

The Iraqi foods that feature on Elana Benjamin’s table at Rosh Hashanah

I’ve often heard this practice of blessing and eating symbolic foods referred to as a Sephardi seder, though I dislike the terminology. Although there’s a strict sequence to blessing and consuming these “food omens”, I associate the word seder (meaning order) with the restrictive cuisine and heavy energy of Pesach, while Rosh Hashanah is such a delicious, joyous time of year.

In my family, we simply call the practice The Brachot (The Blessings), which encompasses the blessings and the foods themselves (as in, “Who’s buying The Brachot?”). They’re also known as simanim, Hebrew for sign, in some circles.

Different Sephardi communities have different customs in relation to the specific foods chosen. For example, Iraqi Jews eat chives or shallots, while the Iranian and Moroccan custom is to eat leeks. But whichever member of the allium family (onion, garlic, chives, leek, shallots) is on the table, the blessing is identical, asking God that those who seek our harm shall be cut off, with the Hebrew word karti (chives/shallots/leeks) being similar to the word yikartu (cut off) in the blessing.

It’s the sticky, golden apple jam that always steals the show. And it’s always my mother who labours for hours to make the jam that everyone swoons over.

While eating each symbolic food is mandatory (with exceptions made for fussy children), some are more coveted than others. In my home, for example, there are never requests for seconds of the bland, unsalted beans; the chives are a welcome respite from all the sweetness; and the coconut-stuffed dates are a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. But it’s the sticky, golden apple jam that always steals the show. And it’s always my mother who labours for hours to make the jam that everyone swoons over.

I’m no stranger to apple-dipped-in-honey: during my childhood, I’d come home from school in the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah with a whole apple (usually red, a Delicious) and an individual portion of Kraft honey, the kind you get with an airline meal. And for the past 20 years, I’ve spent first day Rosh Hashanah lunch with my Ashkenazi husband’s family. But apple and honey isn’t home for me.

Apple jam at Rosh Hashanah is part of my cultural identity. As Claudia Roden writes: “Dishes are important because they are a link with the past, a celebration of roots, a symbol of continuity. They are that part of the immigrant culture which survives the longest, kept up even when clothing, music, language and religious observance have been abandoned.”

Yet there’s nowhere I can buy Iraqi apple jam commercially. And I’ve never bothered to learn how to make it. I could try following Roden’s recipe, but it’s not the same as my mother’s: it uses rosewater, not cardamom. Plus, Roden’s version doesn’t include my family’s secret ingredient, handed down from Nana Hannah to Aunty Florrie to Mum: lime powder, which prevents the apple from disintegrating.

Apple jam, you see, isn’t supposed to be spreadable fruit, but whole slices of apple in syrup, firm enough to stab a fork into.

Lately, I’ve become acutely aware that my mother and the other apple-jam-makers in our small Sephardi-Mizrahi community are only getting older. Indeed, many have already passed away. So if I want this once-a-year delicacy to be part of my future New Year celebrations – and I do – then I’m going to have to step up and learn to how to make it.

This year, I’m writing about apple jam. But next year – inshallah (God willing), as Mum would say – I’ll be standing beside my mother as she cooks her cardamom-scented jam; watching, learning and taking notes. That way, I’ll be able to preserve a small part of my heritage, its rich gastronomic tradition, and the diversity of Jewish experience, to share with others and gift to the next generation.