As soon as Thanksgiving is over, many of us are d-o-n-e with pumpkins until the next fall. But that is a mistake because pumpkin is so much more than the pies we consign it to. This versatile fruit can be baked, boiled, steamed or stuffed. Yes, fruit. While the stem, leaves and roots are considered vegetables, the pumpkin itself is a fruit, much like avocados, tomatoes and squash.
Pumpkins have been around as a cultivated food for a surprisingly long time. Native Americans grew them throughout the Americas for nearly 6,000 years before they became one of the first New World foods introduced to Europeans in the early sixteenth century. The fleshy orange ingredient was most quickly adopted by Sephardic Jews for cakes, soups, stews, puddings, jams and pancakes.
In the 1500s, as Jews—including many conversos secretly hanging on to their Judaism—continued to flee Spain’s inquisition to the Ottoman Empire and throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, they brought with them their love of pumpkin. This led to a pumpkin influence on many different cuisines.
In time, Italian Jews became known for their pumpkin-stuffed ravioli, tortelli and sweet pumpkin fritters (frittelle di zucca). Syrian Jews grew fond of savory pumpkin patties (kibbet yatkeen), while Sephardim from Turkey and Greece stuffed small pastries (borekitas) with pumpkin and made deep-fried pumpkin fritters or sweet pancakes, both called bimuelos de kalavasa.
At Chanukah, bimuelos are to Sephardim what latkes are to Ashkenazim…it’s just not a holiday without these fried favorites! Not only are there different versions of the name (including bumuelos, birmuelos, buñuelos and the Greek loukomades), but several different versions of the dish as well. Some bimuelos are puffy, deep-fried fritters while others are fried flat like pancakes, and yet another version is baked in a special pan with indentations for the dough, similar to muffins.
While pumpkin bimuelos for Chanukah are a Sephardic favorite, pumpkin is also an important ingredient for the fall holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot. The many seeds of the gourd symbolize fertility and abundance, and one of the special seven blessings at the traditional Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder is said with pumpkin (or its close relative squash).
We can’t talk about pumpkins without bringing up its 21st-century status as a “superfood.” While Native Americans and Sephardic Jews have long valued pumpkin’s healthful qualities, in the past few years, the autumn fruit has been acclaimed for its nutrient-dense benefits. Pumpkins flesh is fat-free, high in fiber and high in potassium and vitamin C. It provides antioxidants and is one of the best-known sources of beta carotene. All this adds up to being good for hearts, eyesight, weight control and fighting cancer.
Canned pumpkin still has these healthy benefits including seven grams of fiber per cup, more than two slices of whole wheat bread. In fact, unlike most fruits and vegetables, canned pumpkin is usually equal to or even better nutritionally than the homemade puree…and a whole lot less work to get the smooth, ready-to-use puree.
So, even though Chanukah calls for us to fry foods, using a healthy oil (olive, safflower, avocado) and adding some pumpkin to your patties can help make for less guilty eating and more pleasure, especially knowing that we are carrying on a centuries-old Sephardic food tradition. And, if you must, you can even call them latkes, although bimuelos de kalavasa is a name that rolls off your tongue even as you savor the sweet taste.