A Purim Food Primer
The Jewish festival of Purim celebrates Jewish survival. During this holiday, the biblical book of Esther is read, which tells the story of how Esther saved the Jews of Persia from annihilation at the hands of the wicked Haman. Although a serious subject, Purim is a fun-filled Jewish holiday for both children and adults. The holiday is celebrated with costumes, parades, plays, carnivals, matanot l’evyonim (the giving of charity), mishloach manot (giving food baskets to family and friends), special pastries and a festive meal featuring traditional foods.
For Ashkenazi Jews, perhaps the most widely held food tradition on Purim is eating triangular-shaped foods such as kreplach and hamantashen pastries. Kreplach are pasta triangles filled with ground beef or chicken and hamantashen are triangles of pastry dough surrounding a filling often made with dates or poppy seeds.
One of the most popular explanations for this tradition is that these triangular foods represent Haman’s three-cornered hat. However, because it has been argued that this style of hat wasn’t popular during this time period, there are a lot of other, lesser-known explanations for why we eat triangular-shaped foods at Purim.
It is written that King Ahasuerus reigned from India to Ethiopia, from “Hodu to Kush.” In Hebrew, the word hodu means both “India” and “turkey.” Thus, some people eat turkey on Purim while others eat Ethiopian dishes such as Ethiopian lentils. To incorporate a turkey dish into your Purim meal, try roast turkey with caramelized onion-balsamic gravy or panko-crusted turkey cutlets with cranberry and pear chutney.
Queen Esther is said to have eaten a vegetarian diet in order to keep kosher while living in King Achashverosh’s Palace. In her honor, many people serve a meatless meal for their Purim feast. Along those lines, it is reported that Esther’s diet consisted of nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes. This is one explanation behind the custom to eat poppy seeds during the holiday, which turn up most iconically in Ashkenazi hamantaschen as mohn filling.
Why not serve a menu that is a nod toward the megillah’s setting in ancient Persia with recipes inspired by the country’s delicious cuisine? You can incorporate dishes like ashe reshteh (legume and noodle soup) and tahdig (the layer of pan-fried crisp rice from the bottom of the pot), along with modern takes on Persian flavors in recipes like avocado and pomegranate salad with cumin lime vinaigrette and a roast chicken with saffron and citrus. Finish the meal with rosewater pistachio hamantaschen, highlighting two important ingredients from Persian Jewish cuisine.