What is Cholent?

According to the Ten Commandments, "On the seventh day thou shalt rest," which means that no cooking can be done on the Sabbath. This tradition is the reason Israel is truly the center of the world for cholent, an overnight stew. Almost all Jewish families have brought their own unique versions — with Hungarian smoked goose breast, Brazilian black beans, Moroccan rice, Bukharan turkey giblets and raisin-stuffed cucumbers, or Polish barley and meat. A dish that has experienced a rebirth even among secular Israelis in the last few years, cholent is often served as a centerpiece main course for parties, usually blending several traditions in one exciting creation.


Eons ago, needing a dish that could be kept warm for the Sabbath, Jewish cooks came up with an overnight stew, the ingredients for which varied depending on where they lived. The stew was tightly sealed, often with a paste-like dough, and cooked before the Sabbath began, then left overnight in the embers to warm until the next day. During World War II, before Israelis had proper ovens, the cholent often was simmered over the small flame of a kerosene stove, the lid covered with two heavy bricks.


The word cholent comes from the French chaud, meaning "warm," and lent, meaning "slow." In Israel, it is also called hamim, Hebrew for "warm." Like outdoor grilling, preparing cholent seems to have become the Israeli man's domain. It is served on every Israeli army base on Saturday, even in small military units on their own at lookout posts throughout the country, since the army, which officially observes the dietary laws, must serve a traditional Sabbath meal.


This Hebronite hamim recipe was given to me by Amnon Lipkin Shachak, a former Israeli army chief of staff. He combines the Ashkenazic basic beans and barley with Sephardic sausages and the long-cooking eggs in their shells called huevos haminadav to make an innovative Sabbath dish from Hebron, the city from which part of his family hails. According to him, the recipe changes each time he makes it, depending on what he can find in the cupboard. This version requires kishke (a traditional delicacy made of flour and fat stuffed into sausage casing, today obtainable from Jewish specialty stores) and the robust and highly aromatic eastern Mediterranean spice combination of baharat