Cooler weather and falling leaves bring to mind quiet evenings in front of the fireplace, noshing warm chestnuts, drinking spiced wine, cuddling with a St. Bernard. I think I covered all the clichés.
But I want to talk about a lesser known use of chestnuts from a different region of the world: Shabbat stews with lamb and chestnuts from Turkey and from Azerbaijan.
Chestnuts have been part of the European and Asian diet for millennia. They were brought to Europe by the Romans and the Greeks, and became a staple of the local cuisine in Southern Europe, including Spain, Turkey and the Caucasus. Chestnuts served as a good source of starch at a time when wheat was scarce, before potatoes spread through Europe in the late 18th century.
Therefore it is no surprise that we can find meat stews with whole chestnuts, the way we would use potatoes today. Like Sephardi hamin de kastanyas, a simple stew made with lamb or beef, whole chestnuts and minimal flavoring agents, often just tomato paste and onion.
When I searched for the stew’s origins, I only found a couple of mentions: in the “Gizar con Gozo Ladino” cookbook by Matilda Koén-Sarano and in Claudia Roden’s “The Book of Jewish Food.” Both relate the recipe to the Sephardi community in Turkey. But although the recipe is called “hamin,” which is usually a dish that’s cooked overnight for Shabbat (like cholent), these recipes require only a few hours of cooking and are not left in the oven overnight.
I was also able to find a few similar recipes from the Caucasus, like turshu govurma, a lamb and chestnut stew from Azerbaijan. The dish often includes a sour agent, such as dried apricots, fresh sour plums or pomegranate. Jews from Baku who immigrated to Israel make it with prunes instead of the sour plums, because the latter are not available in Israel. The stew is either served over rice or cooked with rice, which is called turshu govurma pilaf or plov.
Digging further back, the 13th century anonymous Andalusian cookbook “Kitab el Tabikh,” thought to be based on Muslim and Jewish cooking of Al Andalus (the Muslim caliphate of the Iberian Peninsula) includes a recipe called Chestnuts with Lamb. The simple recipe instructs readers to cut a leg of lamb into small pieces, mix with the same amount of chestnuts, add salt and cook over coals. In the name of all food writers, I wish we could write recipes this way today!
This is only my assumption, but the dish may have moved with the Sephardim from Spain to the Ottoman Empire after the expulsion of 1492, although the dish is popular among non-Jews in Turkey as well. In Azerbaijan, it’s considered a national dish, prepared by local Jews as well, though they’d skip the butter in the original recipe for kashrut reasons.
These dishes are great examples of comfort foods from our own heritage (cold night, blazing fire and glass of wine on the side optional).
- 2 lb boneless lamb shoulder, leg of lamb or beef chuck
- kosher salt
- black pepper
- 4 Tbsp olive oil, divided
- boiling water
- 2 yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
- 2 cups sushi rice or Spanish bomba rice
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 10 oz cooked, peeled chestnuts
- 4 oz dried apricots (about 12–14 apricots; optional)
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- 3 marrow bones (optional)
- 1 lb yellow potatoes, peeled and cut to 1-inch chunks
- Pat dry meat using paper towels. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper.
- Heat 2 Tbsp oil in a saucepan and sear meat on all sides for about 8 minutes total. Cover with boiling water up to 1 inch over the meat, bring to a boil, and skim foam. Reduce heat to low, cover the saucepan and cook until tender (3 hours for lamb, 1½ hours for beef).
- When meat is done, measure 3 cups of the cooking liquid and set aside.
- Put the remaining 2 Tbsp oil in a 4 quart or larger heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add sliced onion and cook until lightly golden, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add rice and tomato paste, mix and cook for 1 minute while stirring. Add 3 cups of the meat cooking liquid, the chestnuts, apricots, cinnamon, 2 tsp kosher salt and ½ tsp black pepper, and mix.
- Arrange the cooked meat, marrow bones and potatoes over the rice mixture. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 1-1½ hours, until potatoes are tender, rice is ready and there’s a crispy layer of rice at the bottom of the pot.
- Remove the lid and cover the pot with a double layer of paper towels or a clean kitchen towel. Place the lid back on and let stand for 20 minutes before serving.
- Prep Time: 10 minutes
- Cook Time: 3 hours-4 hours 30 minutes
- Category: Entree
- Method: Stew
- Cuisine: Sephardic