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Cholent: An Historical Stew

Cholent, chulent, hamin, hameen is a stew made on Friday afternoon that cooked uninterrupted until it was served as a midday meal on the Sabbath. The stew, cholent to Ashkenazi Jews and usually called hamin by Sephardic Jews, may take its name from the Hebrew word "cham," meaning "hot", or the French word "chaud"- it does resemble a Jewish cassoulet. To avoid violating the Shabbat laws that prohibit lighting flames, a form of work, this was the only hot meal on Saturday. Some modern Hameen recipes direct you to complete the cooking within two hours, for safety's sake.

When the Sephardic Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492, they took with them to Morocco and North Africa the tradition of making hamin for the Sabbath. They cooked their overnight stew in the same manner, using local ingredients and flavors. Mutton replaced beef, and rice-- cooked in a cloth bag to prevent sogginess-- sunstituted for barley. The mixture was spiced with hot red peppers, saffron or turmeric, and ground coriander seed, according the Mediterranean culinary scholar Clifford A. Wright. Syrian Jews place the mixture inside a hollowed-out piece of pumpkin or squash, Wright notes, and Jews throughout the Mediterranean often add chickpeas or cracked wheat as well.

Made in a covered pot, the dish also became known by a new name--dafina (also spelled adafina or tafina), from the Arabic word for "covered." Just as in Europe, families often took their covered pots to communal ovens for cooking. The pots were sealed with a flour and water paste, and baked overnight, then retrieved on the way home from synagogue on Saturday.

Many recipes for dafina call for huevos haminados, a unique and delicious version of hard-boiled eggs. The eggs, which are cooked in their shells, are dyed a deep reddish-brown color by the onion skins that are usually included in dafina. Even better than the rich color is the creamy texture and delicious flavor the eggs absorb from the other ingredients.

Dafina may also include a "centerpiece" ingredient, such as a giant meatball made from ground lamb, or a dumpling called kouclas. The dumpling is usually made from bread, but may also be made from matzo meal during Passover. Some dafina recipes call for calves' or lambs' feet or tongues as the central ingredient.

Traditional dafina recipes are not particularly low-fat, you may want to adapt them to suit your diet. Trim visible fat from meat. One way to further reduce fat is to prepare the dafina two days ahead of time and refrigerate it until it's thoroughly chilled. When the mixture is cold, the fat will rise to the surface and make a solid layer. Remove as much excess fat as you like, then simply reheat the mixture on Friday afternoon.

Dafina is certainly hearty enough to serve as a complete meal, but some Mediterranean cooks serve couscous alongside it to soak up the gravy. If you like cholent, try this big assortment of cholent recipes. Find more about cholent at the Owens Mill Torah Center. Read a moving account of cholent and torah in Uganda here.

Basic Cholent/ Hameen- Overnight Rice Stew

serves 6
Crockpot or preheat oven to 350 degrees

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, sliced
2 cups of basmati rice, rinsed OR whole barleym. soaked after measuring
salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons turmeric
4 whole cloves
4 cardamom pods
1 cup tomatoes, chopped
OR dried fruit, such as apricots, plums, or golden raisins, would be added instead of tomatoes, and when in season, pieces of fresh quince
1 pound whole carrots, or cut into large chunks, OPTIONAL
1 pound (2 cups) cooked whole garbonza beans, OPTIONAL OR 1 cup mixed dried beans, presoaked, with 1 1/2 cups extra water
1 large stick of cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, pressed
5 pounds bone-in lamb, goat or mutton shoulder OR 5 pounds roasting chicken parts (fryers are too tender!)
2 cups of cold water, divided

Heat the oil in a pot that can be placed in the oven. Add onion and sauté. Add rice, salt and pepper, turmeric, cloves, cardamom pods, tomatoes/ fruit and cinnamon stick. Cook for a couple of minutes. Add grated fresh ginger and garlic, then stir. Add meat or chicken and stir-fry until meat is slightly browned and all the ingredients are thoroughly combined. Add 1 cup of cold water, cover and cook on medium flame until the water is absorbed, stirring from time to time. Add remaining cup of cold water, cover and bring to the boil. Remove from flame.


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place in the preheated oven. Bake on the middle shelf for 1 hour. Remove from the oven, stir and check for doneness. If necessary, add a bit more water and return to the oven. Continue baking until the chicken is tender and the rice cooked through.


Put all the ingredients into the crock, set to low, and cook 8-10 hours, stirring once or twice.