Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ode to Hamin

Some regions have four distinct seasons.  Spring and fall are sufficient distinct and long to have an identity of their own.  Alas, the Middle East has only two seasons with vague transitions between them, both almost identical in terms of temperature and far too short to merit more than a "feeling" of change. So, when winter finally arrives, there is a celebration of change after endless months of sun and hot weather.  Unfortunately, this year it arrived one week too late in Israel. The last week in November was marked by high winds, drying everybody's skin, creating shocking amount of static electricity and, the worst, feeding the series of fires, both natural and man-made, that scarred the country.

To everybody's great relief, winter finally arrived on December 1.  Rain, clouds and coolness opened December.  Granted, it was not exactly arctic. Depending on the location, the temperature was in the 10's during the day and above freezing at night. Nor was the rain that steady or strong as in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Still, this is a normal winter, Middle Eastern style. Winter rites could begin.

Winter clothing comes out of the closet. Long lost sweaters and scarves are pulled down and appreciated anew. Boots of all sizes, colors and forms replace the faded sandals and sneakers. The distinctive sound of women's boots can now be heard in every institution. The local version of a winter jacket is now hung prominently in the entrance way.  Those with more sensitive skin or systems already put on their gloves. Winter is definitely here.

Yet, the most salient sign of the new season is the smell of Hamin (or Chulent) this past Friday. In hundreds of thousands of households, religious and non-religious alike, dinner was this traditional Jewish stew. For generations, Jews have prepared this dish, each family and each region in its own manner. This simple dinner brings on multi-sensory connotation, a bit similar to a Thanksgiving turkey to an American or a bouillabaisse to some French.

To those unfamiliar, hamin or chulent, its alternative name, is a slow cooked stew using whatever ingredients are available. On Friday morning, a combination of wheat, potatoes, beans and/or whole eggs are placed in a pot, generally with some meat, such as chicken and beef. After around a half hour on the gas, the pot is put in an oven at round 140 degrees centigrade (284 degrees Fahrenheit), to be served that night or the next day. In many places in the Diaspora, there was a custom for a whole village to use a common oven and not to mark their pot.  This way, poorer families might get luck and get a "rich" meal. If the Sabbath is also a celebration of food, this was a sure-fire method of guaranteeing both happy tongues and stomachs. Believe me, nobody gets up from a Hamin feeling hungry and cold. Also, for the person who has to do the dishes, it is a one-pot meal, making for quick clean up.

So, I, my wife and our two cats (passively in their case) marked the arrival of  winter in a tried and true method,  with a wonderful plate (or two) of hamin.  I can say that after a good dinner, a short walk and a cup of tea, we sat contently the rest of the evening. Now that is winter.

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