Purim is so much about sweets and treats that planning and cooking a festive main dish can get lost in the shuffle of hamantashen by the dozens. But following the tradition of the holiday’s heroine, Queen Esther, you just might be tempted by a simple, symbolically meaningful entrée to serve before dessert.
The story of Purim, from the Biblical book named for the beautiful young Jewish woman Esther, tells of how she was taken to the house of King Ahasuerus in ancient Persia to be part of his harem. Not knowing her identity, he fell in love with her and made her queen. Legend has it that while part of his court, she ate only legumes, grains, nuts and fruit as a way to maintain a kosher diet. She loved seeds, too—caraway and poppy in particular.
Ultimately, as we know, Esther bested the evil Haman to save the Jewish people of Persia, all while maintaining her simple diet—one we’d call plant-based today—as a way to remain true to her faith.
The family of legumes, encompassing beans of all sorts as well as lentils, have long been traditional to Jewish cuisines around the world, particularly in the Middle East, from ancient times to modern. There are plentiful references to them in biblical passages (“Further, take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and emmer. Put them into one vessel and bake them into bread.” — Ezekiel, 4:9). And given their prominence in everyday fare, from cholent to hummus, the humble legume family is often overlooked when it comes to festive holiday food.
Think about it—mishloach manot, which are described in the Book of Esther as “sending portions of food to one another, and gifts to the poor” (9:22), are a perfect directive to share a healthy dish with family and friends. Cinnamon-Spiced Chickpea and Lentil Stew is so easy to make that you can double the recipe and portion it up into containers to pass along to family, friends and neighbors who aren’t feasting with you. For part two of mishloach manot, monetary donations to organizations that combat food insecurity seem particularly appropriate for this holiday.
For another homage to the Persian cuisine that Queen Esther might have partaken of, it’s fitting and fun to explore its traditional flavorings and spices as part of this holiday feast. Cinnamon, for example, isn’t used in savory dishes as much as it deserves to be—it adds a warm, subtly complex flavor, as your palate will find out in the accompanying recipe for Cinnamon-Spiced Chickpea and Lentil Stew. Like all good stews, this one relies on your own palate and sense of flavor to adjust seasonings. Cinnamon and cumin are must-haves, but there’s an array of other, optional spices that you can experiment with, too.
Photo credit: Evan Atlas