Most of the Shabbat dinners at my home are seasonal. Usually this means relying on what I find fresh in the market to inspire the menu that I make. This week however, I’m taking my inspiration from the seasons of the Torah. In the story of Noah, this week’s Torah part, the tale of the Tower of Babel is told in nine short lines, which provided the inspiration for my Friday night menu with dishes from around the globe.
In the story, the people of Shinar, you might recall, got it into their minds to build a tower so high that it would reach into the heavens. They were trying to make a name for themselves, but clearly this was not what God had in mind. As the tower grew in stature the people found that they could no longer understand each other, having each been bestowed with the ability to speak a unique language. The project was abandoned and the people scattered. The name given to the tower, Babel, shares a root with the Hebrew word for confusion and the English word babbling. The story’s message is simple: many languages leads to confusion and breaks down our ability to connect.
But it seems to me that there is something deeper going on. When we all speak one language, or for that matter look the same, or come from the same home town, it is easy to make assumptions and to ignore the beauty of the complexities of the people around us. Perhaps the difficulty of the people of Shinhar was in assuming holiness was in the sky, not in the people all around, in the diversity that is the complexity of humanity.
From a culinary perspective, speaking the same language is akin to eating from only one cuisine, meaning whole realms of possibility would be closed off to us. While we might achieve expertise as bakers of challah, if for example we stuck to an Eastern European Jewish diet, we would never come to know the wonder that is the flaky crusty Yemenite Jewish fried bread, malaawach. Culinary life in America was simply not as engaging before large portions of the population discovered that eggplant could be made into both Middle Eastern baba ganoush and Indian baingan bharta, the former smoky the latter chunky and spicy. And, as delicious as those marvels of Toll House fame are, it is a culinary shame that most Americans don’t know the easy delight of the Canadian classic confection the Nanimo Bar. It is not just about fusion or the next best dish, culinary diversity opens up the wide array of the possibilities that the world holds — a finite number of ingredients can be combined into an infinite array of tastes and textures. And to this culinary rabbi, that is the definition of holiness.
So to honor the holiness that comes both from culinary diversity and from the complexity of human experience, I’m planning a Tower of Babel Shabbat menu. Far from being confused, this menu will allow my guests to taste dishes from around the globe. From the wide range of possibilities I chose dishes with names that for an English speaker don’t roll off the tongue but do provide it culinary delight. I plan to make some of the dishes and buy others from local ethnic eateries.
I encourage you to play around with the concept, making some new dishes, taking out from local eateries, engaging tastes and flavors that highlight how complex and diverse our world can be.
Bread: Malawaach — Yemenite
Dip: Bābā ghanūj (baba ganoush) — Egyptian
Beverage: Orxata (Horchata) — Mexican
Side Dish: Spanikopita — Greek
Main Dish: Baingan Bharta — India
Dessert: Nanimo bars — Canada (for recipe see below)
I’d love to hear your suggestions for what I might serve. But for now, I’m happy to share a recipe from Nanimo, British Columbia, Canada, the country to which my ancestors scattered and found new possibilities to embrace:
Chef’s Note: The purist form of these bars is made with vanilla flavor but the Abusch-Magder family prefers the mint variety (see the variation below)
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup sweetened flaked coconut or shredded coconut
1/3 cup finely chopped walnut halves
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup butter
2 tablespoons vanilla pudding powder
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (for mint bars ¼ teaspoon mint extract)
2 cups sifted confectioners sugar (sifting is important to avoid lumps)
2 tablespoons whole milk, (approximate depending on need)
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped (chocolate chips can be used)
1 tablespoon butter
In bowl, stir together graham crumbs, coconut, walnuts, cocoa powder and sugar. Drizzle with butter and egg; stir until combined.
Press crumb mixture into parchment paper-lined 9-inch square metal cake pan. Bake in 350°F oven until firm, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool in pan on cooling rack.
Filling: In bowl, beat together butter, vanilla pudding powder and vanilla (or mint if desired). Beat in icing sugar alternately with milk until smooth, adding up to 1 tsp more milk if too thick to spread. Spread over cooled base; refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
Topping: In heatproof bowl over saucepan of hot (not boiling) water, melt chocolate with butter. Spread over filling; refrigerate until almost set, about 30 minutes.
With tip of knife, score into bars, this will make cutting significantly easier; refrigerate until chocolate is set, about 1 hour. (Make-ahead: Wrap and refrigerate for up to 4 days or overwrap in heavy-duty foil and freeze for up to 2 weeks.) Cut into bars.