[Mordecai instructed them] to observe them as days of feasting and gladness, and sending delicacies to one another, and gifts to the poor. – Esther 9:22
This past week was Purim, aka the Jewish “party” holiday. For kids, it’s a chance to wear costumes and run around like crazy with impunity. For adults, it’s a time to dress up, get wasted (it’s a commandment!), and give food gifts. Last weekend, I was the recipient of the latter.
I went home to Philly, and was nearly stampeded at the door by my 8-year-old niece and 9-year-old nephew. They held a triangle-shaped cardboard box that said HAPPY PURIM! and each wanted to be the first to put it in my hands. The box was covered in biblical illustrations of the Purim story, in which Jewish Queen Esther convinces her husband, Persian King Ahasueras, to spare the Jews from death at the hands of his evil advisor, Haman. Inside the box was a carefully curated selection of kosher foods. In giving me these edible gifts, the children were following the Purim custom of shalach manos, translated from the Hebrew as “sending out portions” of food and drink. I hunkered down with my treats.
I opened the box with curiosity, but with low taste expectations: Kosher food and drink does not have a glowing reputation. I’ve experienced this firsthand with dry knishes, leaden matzoh balls, and cardboard pastries. Need I say anything about Manischevitz? I figure the quality isn’t so hot because people care more that the food adheres to dietary restrictions than about how it tastes. I’ve had wonderful homemade kosher food in Jerusalem, but here in the US, an uncomfortable amount of kosher food is made from heavily refined ingredients, rather than fresh ones.
To my delight, the box held some pleasant surprises. Here’s what I found, along with some thoughts and observations.
Contents of box:
- 1 oz bag Bamba Peanut Snacks made by Osem Food Industries Ltd, Tel Aviv, Israel. These look like and feel like beige cheese doodles. I was told these are the number one junk food favored by Israeli kids, or the equivalent of Doritos. At first taste, these were utterly dull, with only a faint peanut taste. Biting in was anti-climactic: There was no “there” there. However, when I went back and tasted them a day later, they had taken on a familiar, soothing appeal. The Bamba were best when I tasted them with the Wasabi almonds, below. With traces of Wasabi still in my mouth, the Bamba finally acquired some character.
- 6 oz can Bold Wasabi and Soy Sauce Almonds made and packed by Blue Diamond Growers, Sacramento, California. These were straight up delicious. I downed ¼ of the can right after opening it. They have a pleasant bite that is addictive, and less painful than the nasal burn of Wasabi peas. Although the Wasabi craze came and went with the 90’s, I still love it as a flavor. I think it would be easy to make these at home by toasting almonds with salt and sugar until crisp, then tossing them in Wasabi powder. Wasabi powder may be too delicate to cook in the oven at a high temperature.
- 6.3 oz bottle Concord grape juice made by Kedem Food Products, Marlboro, New York. This is the drink kids get at Seder or other special occasions because they’re too young to drink wine. Good stuff. The only ingredients besides Concord grapes was potassium metabisulfite as a preservative; less additives than a lot of store bought juices. I love Concord juice. In the fall when grapes are at the farmer’s market I make it from scratch. I place the grapes in a blender or food processor with a cup of water and blend for 30 seconds. I pour the mixture through a strainer and poof! Instant juice, no preservatives added.
- 3 raspberry hamantaschen from the kosher department at Genuardi’s grocery store, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. These shortbread cookies filled with jam are traditionally served at Purim. They are triangle-shaped like the pockets of the evil Haman, who according to lore was always “stuffing them with bribe money;” their name means “Haman’s pockets” in Yiddish. Growing up, you only found hamantaschen with one of three fillings: prune, poppy seed, or raspberry. My first choice was always prune, then poppy seed. These days, I see the cookies with flavors like apricot and strawberry, but I prefer the old-school ones. My cookies were quite tasty, not overly sweet and with a rich consistency. However, I’d like to taste these made with half spelt flour or nut flour. I just don’t find white flour pastry very interesting.
- 5. 1.75 oz bar Halvah made by Joyva Corporation, Brooklyn, New York. Halvah is made from sweetened crushed sesame seeds. The appearance of the bar is nearly identical to that of my sharpening stone. The taste is pure sweetened fat with a bitter aftertaste, and a flaky texture. It’s very particular to the Middle Eastern palate. I hated halvah growing up, but for the sake of the kids, I tasted it and was surprised that I liked it. Maybe I’ve grown accustomed to bitter flavors, as I love bitter greens like escarole and kale, as well as coffee. I was sad to see that these are made with corn syrup, the scourge of today’s grocery shelves. It would be interesting to make my own halvah by draining out the excess oil in tahini and pureeing it in a food processor with sugar.
I think it would be fun to create a shaloch manos with homemade, preservative–free ingredients, but for that I’d need a kosher kitchen. This year, I’m glad I got to be a part of the commemoration of Purim, and receive the special blessing that comes with a gift from a child.