(Note: This article was originally written for a Chinese magazine, hence the slightly Lonely Planet-esque tone. Unfortunately the magazine was not to be, so I thought I'd best not waste my work, and am thus posting it here. Enjoy!)
The first British home of my mother's family was the East End of London. Fleeing violent persecution in Eastern Europe and Russia during the early twentieth century, they and millions of other Jews moved across land and ocean to North America, Australia, and England.
In London, Jews mainly settled in an area that stretched from Spitalfields in the West to Stepney in the East; from Hackney in the North to Whitechapel in the South. The centre of the Jewish East End was Brick Lane, a long, narrow road running for over half a mile between Whitechapel and Bethnal Green Roads. Now a popular weekend destination lined with cafes and vintage clothes shops, Brick Lane was then a little pocket of Eastern Europe in London, complete with pickled cucumber stalls and bagel shops (a couple of which survive to this day).
This was the world that my maternal grandparents grew-up in. Though it's now years since the family moved to the suburbs, my grandmother, Sylvia, still talks about the folklore of this area. Sylvia witnessed the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists were prevented from marching through the area; she remembers when the Jewish restaurant Bloom’s was at the southern end of Brick Lane; and she remembers eating cholent on the Sabbath.
Cholent, a long, slow-cooked dish of beef, potatoes, barley and beans, is the quintessential East-European Jewish food. Its origins, however, lie further west. In Medieval France, Jews in cities such as Toulouse, Nimes and Montpelier adapted the local speciality of cassoulet, and it is from the French that the dish gets its name - a combination of chauld (hot), and lent (slow), in reference to the cooking method. When the Jews were expelled from France in 1394, many went to Germany and further East, and they took their eating habits with them.
However, as the food writer Claudia Roden points out, 'the Jewish practice of cooking a meal in a pot overnight is of course much older than the fourteenth century’. Because lighting fires and cooking are both forbidden on the Sabbath (the Jewish holy day, from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday), Jews have long found ways of making sure they have at least one hot dish to eat during this time. In the shtetls (villages) of Central and Eastern Europe, on Friday evenings Jewish housewives would assemble their uncooked cholent at home, and seal the lid onto their copper pot with a mixture of flour and water. The name of the family was then marked on the pot in chalk, the pot taken to the local baker’s oven, cooked overnight, and finally fetched, often by children, on the way home from synagogue - a tradition that continued in London's East End.
Though patently a poor people’s food, cholent is nonetheless loved and held dear by many, and my own family has its own stories about the dish. My great-grandmother Annie apparently made an excellent cholent, for which her two adult sons, Harold and Morris, would come home every Saturday night. Annie also had her own secret ingredient - a sheet of parchment paper pitted with dozens of small holes made with the tip of a pencil, which she would place on top of the assembled cholent, and then pour over a layer of beef dripping, allowing the fat to ooze slowly onto the ingredients below - a pretty indulgent extra, since cholent is already so rich that it is said that ‘people have to go to synagogue on Sunday to pray for their stomach to recover’.
I bought the ingredients for my version of this dish at one of the last remaining open-air markets in East London: Ridley Road, in Dalston, Hackney. Now one of the most fashionable parts of the city, this area has, like the rest of the East End, had a chequered history. Settled by Jews in the early 20th century, it is now home to a sizable Turkish and Afro-Caribbean community, both of whom are increasingly being pushed out by the rising house prices. This is an area undergoing major changes - the Olympic Park is just down the road, making it the focus of many government-funded regeneration projects; this though is creating its own problems, as the riots in August 2011 showed. There is a certain tension in the air of Hackney, as the (usually) white yuppies rub shoulders with their poorer neighbours; while taking the photographs for this article, I was told that it 'wasn’t allowed'.
Nonetheless, I have a great fondness for this area. My best friend Francesca grew up just around the corner from here, and within my own family there are associations - my grandfather had a china and pottery shop on Mare Street, and Annie lived for a short time at the Pembury Estate (one of the flashpoints of the 2011 riots). Ridley Road market itself is a joy - ‘like taking a holiday every time you walk down it’, as I once heard someone say.
I’d never made cholent before, but the easiness and deliciousness of the finished product could easily convince me to do it again. This recipe comes from the wonderful Book of Jewish Food by the incomparable Claudia Roden, which is also where I gathered much of the information in this article.
Cholent, adapted from The Book of Jewish Food, by Claudia Roden
500g fatty beef, diced
3 tablespoons light vegetable oil
2 large onions, diced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
3-5 potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size chunks
200g dried butter beans, soaked for an hour
100g pearl barley (optional)
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 400°F / 200°C, gas mark 6.
In a large heavy pot or casserole dish with a tightly fitting lid, heat half of the oil, and brown the meat. Remove to a bowl, add the rest of the oil, and then fry the onions until soft. Add the garlic and bay leaves and fry until the aroma rises. Return the meat to the pot, and now add the potatoes, beans and barley (if using), seasoning each layer liberally with salt and pepper.
Cover with boiling water, then put the lid on and place in the oven. Cook for 20 mins, and then turn the oven down to its lowest temperature. Cook overnight, or for at least 8 hours. Serve, and in the words of Claudia Roden, ‘remove the lid at the table, so that everyone can get the first whiff of the appetizing smell which emanates’.