Cholent: The Sabbath Stew

Prepared Friday and slow-cooked overnight, cholent is the traditional Sabbath-day dish.

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The name "cholent" (there are various pronunciations) is generally believed to come from the medieval French chault (hot) and lent (slow) in reference to the long slow cooking. There were Jews in the region of the Languedoc, where cassoulet originated, since earliest times. Many lived off the land. Toulouse, Narbonne, Nîmes, Lunel, Béziers, and especially Montpellier were centers of Talmudic studies. Then there was a massacre during the Albigensian Crusade in the 13th century and measures were taken against them.

When they were finally expelled in 1394, many headed for Germany. That may well be how a kind of cholent (there were no white beans at that time as they came from the New World) and the name were introduced to the Yiddish-speaking world. The German rabbis were stricter than the French rabbis, who allowed their servants to rekindle the Sabbath fire and reheat the pots. And in Germany the rabbis decreed that the public ovens be sealed with clay on Friday. In medieval Germany the dish took on the various additions that we know today.

The tradition of cooking a meal in a pot overnight is of course much older than the 14th century and has to do with the interdiction against lighting fires or cooking on the Sabbath. It was often referred to in Talmudic days and dates back to the ancient Hebrews. It is only the combination of ingredients that can be traced back to southwestern France and medieval Germany.

There are many versions now, including meatballs, tongue, sausages, meat loaf, chicken or lamb, and a variety of beans. In the old days families who could not afford meat had cholent composed only of beans and grain. Nowadays it is vegetarians who make meatless cholent.

The basic traditional cholent is meat, potatoes, barley, and beans. The traditional accompaniments, which are cooked in the same pot, are of German origin. They include kishke (a sausage filled with a flour‑and‑onion stuffing) and various knaidlach--all part of the dumpling family of foods. There is good reason for the saying that cholent is so heavy with stodge that "people have to go to the synagogue on Sunday to pray for their stomach to recover."

A test of "who is a Jew" is supposed to be whether you like cholent. One of my Israeli friends found himself eating cholent with friends in Jerusalem. When he complained that it was not very good, one of his companions replied, "It's not supposed to be." Of course, it depends on the cook.

Cholent Recipes

Indian Cholent

Italian Cholent

Lamb Supreme Cholent

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Claudia Roden

Claudia Roden is one of England's leading food writers. Her works include the James Beard Award winning The Book of Jewish Food and A Book of Middle Eastern Food.