It is not one of the Biblical Seven Species, but it has been part of the flora and the landscape of Israel since ancient times and grows throughout the Mediterranean shrub land - in the Galilee, Golan Heights, Carmel Mountains, Samaria, the Judean mountains and Jerusalem. It is believed that the almond was one of the first trees domesticated for agricultural purposes as far back as the Early Bronze Age, 5,000 years ago. The almond tree is the first to blossom in the Israeli winter, and its pink and white flowers decorate the entrance to Jerusalem for those who ascend to the city from Route 1 and from Ein Kerem.
Rabbi Gedaliah from Siemiatycze, a traveler who arrived in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 18th century, described the abundance of fruit trees in Jerusalem:
“There are in the land of Israel many fruit trees, such as grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates, peaches, lemons, oranges, large and small walnuts, almonds, carob and many more types of fruit…”
There are two main types of almond tree: the bitter and the sweet, which were described by Rabbi Gedaliah: “Almonds: there are sweet almonds like in every land, and there is a type of almonds unique in their sweetness and when they grow they become bitter. You eat them when they are small, and they are called bitter almonds.” (Abraham Yaari, Travels in the Land of Israel, p. 337-338)
The popular part of the almond tree is actually the seed. The fruit, covered in a hairy coating, is picked when it is completely green, the pit is soft and the seed is still watery. The fruit is eaten in its entirety and is sold mainly in Arab markets. Therefore, Rabbi Moses Poriyat from Prague, who moved to Israel and lived in Jerusalem, wrote in 1650: “Green almonds are eaten with the peel, because they are green. There are also dry almonds.” (Abraham Yaari, Travels in the Land of Israel, p. 280)
As Rabbi Gedaliah described, bitter almonds were also commonly eaten when they were soft, before the point when the bitter element (amygdalin) became prominent. Bitter almonds are used to make almond oil, and are added to drinks and marzipan to enhance the almond flavor.
Sweet almonds are the most popular, and it is customary to eat them and their products when they are dry. You can prepare are blanched, salty, sweetened or roasted almonds from sweet almonds
Eating almonds was part of the culture of hospitality as noted by Rabbi Gedaliah from Siemiatycze when describing his visit to the tomb of the prophet Samuel: “And when we came, the old people sitting in synagogue office served us honey water, pomegranates, almonds, and grapes.” (Yaari, Travels in the Land of Israel, p. 315)
In addition to eating almonds as nuts, from sweet almonds it is possible to prepare many other food items: almond flour, almond butter, almond dough, and almond milk.
We are used to thinking of almond milk as a relatively new product on the market as a milk substitute in the spirit of veganism; but actually, it was already on the “market” for a long time, at least as early as the Middle Ages, when almond milk was very popular. In contrast to today, in the not-so-distant past, milk was a seasonal product (similar to fruits and vegetables) and was not available 365 days a year. The “milk season” was mostly in the winter, when the nursing cows produce more milk; during the summer, the yield drops significantly (Israelis may remember the “butter crisis” in the summer of 2019). Even though different techniques for keeping food cold did exist, fresh milk couldn’t be saved at home for more than a few days before it spoiled. Fresh milk, therefore, was used mostly for preparing cheese or butter, to extend the “shelf life”. As a substitute for fresh milk, almond milk was used, including for babies as a breastmilk substitute. In order to prepare almond milk, the almonds were ground, mixed with water and filtered through a cloth sheet or a handkerchief.
Another reason for the popularity of almond drinks was the prohibition of eating certain foods during Christian fast days. As opposed to Jewish and Moslem fasts where the faithful completely refrain from eating and drinking, Christian fast days (Fridays and the 40 days before Easter) include a prohibition of eating animal products: chicken, sheep, beef, eggs and dairy products. There are 150 Catholic fast days throughout the year. Because of the specific prohibitions during these fast days, milk substitutes, and especially almond milk, became a popular product and an important cooking ingredient. Almond milk is mentioned in many cookbooks from the Middle Ages, from European and Arabic-speaking lands alike. These cookbook show that the use of almond milk became so popular that it was featured in recipes containing beef, and other animal products (and not just in vegetarian recipes for fast days).
In 17th century Jerusalem, almond milk sweetened with sugar was considered an effective medication, at least among the city’s poorer population. In the book Medical Works, compiled by Rabbi Raphael Mordecai Malki, he describes popular folk medicines prescribed for the sick and paid for from communal funds, including a mixture of sweetened almond milk and rose tincture. Rabbi Raphael describes how the almond milk was prepared and the desired dosage:
And what was done for them? Buy almonds and sugar and mix them into a little rose tincture as a mild laxative. Give the sick person the almond mixture every time he is sick, a half ounce dosage…Little by little, administer to him two or three times, and no more. Of the sugar, every time one is sick, give less than the above dosage in almonds. And what would the sick person do with them? Make almond milk: every time he was sick, he crushed the almonds in a pot and added water. When the water becomes white from the almonds, mix in a little sugar and give it to the sick person to drink, either hot or cold.
It is thought that this is effective and leads to healing, but more important is that they think it heals... and everything is nonsense, and the poor sick person dies due to his poverty from lack of food, including bread and proper medicines.
(Raphael Mordecai Malki, Medical Works (published by M. Benayahu), p. 58)
Rabbi Raphael spoke out against the use of almond milk as a “medicine” and believed that it caused more harm than good. His words were very harsh and revealed the poverty in the city, where the poor did not have enough food to eat, not even bread, and no money for “real” medicines.
In order to focus on the sweet taste, we turn to a popular dessert from the Arab kitchen - kadaif.
In Jerusalem where children of different religions and communities lived next to each other, food was one of the meeting points - and points of divergence - between different groups: native-born residents, pilgrims and new immigrants; Moslems, Christians, Armenians, and Jews. Kadaif, one of the foods which was eaten at sunset with the end of the daily fast of Ramadan, was one of the foods that brought the city’s residents together.
In a question that was sent to Rabbi Ovadia Hedaya (1889-1969), the Rabbi was asked about the appropriate blessing to make on “a sort of roll which was sold in the market (in the Holy City, that is, Jerusalem, found mostly by the Moslems, who are fastidious in their preparations), which is soft like a sponge, and its top looks pierced.” Already from the question it seems that the one who is asking only discovered the kadaif in his meanderings in the Jerusalem markets, considers the making of kadaif as a professional skill, and knows that they are sold by Moslems.
On this question, the Rabbi gave an answer which was published in his book Yaskil Avdi published in 1931. The Rabbi’s answer was lengthy (and the legal discussion merits its own examination at another time), but at the beginning he describes a very unique culinary situation:
The obvious intention of your question about what sort of food it is, that is called “kadaif” in Arabic, points to the fact that you don’t know the ingredients, because it doesn’t exist outside of the Land of Israel...This is how it is made. First knead a thick dough mixed with yeast, as is done for all dough, and after it rises, then make it soft by working it until it becomes like a thick batter, like flowing water. Take a container with a hole on the side and fill it up, closing the hole with your finger. After it is filled, remove your finger and let the batter flow through the same channel onto a frying pan, and then it will spread on the frying pan into a circle. It will bake and fill with bubbles and rise. It swells like a sponge. There are those who eat it as it is, and there are those who dip it in sugar and honey, and those who fry it afterward in oil and fill it with almonds, walnuts and honey…
(Rabbi Ovadia Hedaya, Yaskil Avdi, part 1, Orach Chaim, 10)
From Rabbi Hedaya’s answer, the reason for the question is clear - the one asking is apparently a new immigrant who arrived in Israel from an area where kadaif is not made; and because in Jerusalem he saw this new food, he needed to ask which blessing should be said on it.
From the description of kadaif in the writings of Rabbi Hedaya, we learn the method for preparing kadaif. Today, many kadaif recipes are based on industrial processes, but from the Rabbi’s answer, it seems that the base is the batter; and because of differences in recipes for the batter, kadaif has different smells and tastes. The answer points to the Rabbi’s proficiency not just in the methods of preparing kadaif, but also in the three ways of eating it: plain, with sugary syrup and honey, or filled with almonds, walnuts and honey.
And now, from the theoretical to the practical -
A recipe for preparing homemade kadaif with almond filling:
Ingredients for batter:
1 tsp dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
½ - 1 cup hot water
1 ⅓ cup flour
For the syrup:
1 ¼ c. water
2 c. sugar
Juice from half a lemon
1 Tbs rose water
For the filling:
2 cups ground almonds
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 Tbs ground pistachios
- To make the batter: dissolve the sugar and the yeast in ½ cup hot water and set aside until fermentation starts. Put the flour in a bowl and slowly add the yeast mixture and the remaining cup of water. Mix until you have a smooth batter without lumps. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for an hour.
- Prepare the syrup: Add the water, the sugar, and the lemon juice in a pot and cook until it boils. Lower the flame and cook for 10 more minutes. Add the rose water. Set aside the syrup to cool.
- To make the filling: mix the ground almonds and the cinnamon in a small bowl.
- Oil a teflon frying pan with a small amount of canola oil. When the frying pan is hot, pour a small amount of batter in to make a small circle. You can fry several small cakes at a time as long as they don’t touch each other. Fry on a medium low flame. When all the bubbles dry and the bottom of the cake is golden and separates easily from the frying pan, take out the kadaif (without turning it over to the other side!) and stack them on a plate.
- Cover the kadaif on the plate with a towel so that they don’t dry out in the meanwhile.
- Fill the kadaif: in the center of each cake, on the side which was not fried, place a tablespoon of the almond filling. Fold the cake in half to make a half-circle. Press the edges of the cake until they stick. Oil the pan with butter (or oil) gently and fry it again until it’s golden. Dip the kadaif in the cold sugary syrup and sprinkle it with pistachio for decoration.
Translation: Leiah Jaffe