Cholent is truly a Jewish food. Jewish communities around the world prepare it specially for Shabbat, each with its own variation in name and ingredients. Also called dafina or skinha (Morocco) and hamin (Sephardic in general), the common thread of cholent recipe is that is slowly cooked overnight on Friday so that it’s ready for Shabbat lunch. You cannot cook cholent quickly in a microwave or pressure cooker. It is a long cooking process, and like Shabbat, it requires one to slow down from the rapid pace of weekday life. And no matter what goes into it, cholent is usually so hearty and filling that a Shabbat meal can be complete with it and nothing else.
Fortunately, as people’s diets evolve to consume less meat, vegan cholent is increasingly common at Shabbat meals. I have eaten every imaginable type of vegan cholent, from one made with vegan kishke (derma) that was consumed on a sultry Shabbat afternoon in Los Angeles to a crispy, browned cholent eaten on a blustery damp Jerusalem winter day.
I even had cholent at an Israeli-run ashram on an island in the Caribbean, where I had to explain to fellow guests in the buffet food line what “hamin,” listed on the menu board, was. (They all loved it.) Eating Moroccan-spiced cholent while sitting on a hammock under palm trees with yogis from around the globe certainly made for a one-of-a-kind experience.
I skipped the meat cholent at a Shabbat meal in Fes, but was given a heaping platter of the dish’s creamy spicy beans and rice, cooked separately for me. I have had veggie cholent in Tel Aviv that was prepared buffet style—with ingredients cooked separately so that each diner make his or her own (and avoid certain ingredients, such as, in my case, all the meat that had been prepared).
I have written before about “veganizing” traditional Jewish foods. Cholent lends itself well to this, as the rich flavors and ingredients make it easy to forego meat entirely.
Eating vegan cholent on Shabbat brings Jewish ethics and values—including the prevention of cruelty to animals (tsar ba’alei chayim), protection of the environment and treating workers with dignity—to your table. Jewish values are incompatible with our current industrial food system, where annually 10 billion animals are raised and slaughtered in grotesque, inhumane industrial farms known as CAFOs (98% of all animals slaughtered for kosher meat comes from them). Judaism challenges us to do mitzvot and live to the highest ethical standards every day.
As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hersh explained, “Here you are faced with God’s teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.”
Every time you opt not to eat meat, you significantly reduce your carbon emissions, save the life of an animal, improve your own health, avoid contributing to an industrial food system that impoverishes workers and help the environment.
I can think of nothing more fitting for Shabbat than a long afternoon meal of cozy, hearty vegan cholent with family and friends, no matter where you might be in the world.