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Fish dishes lend meaning to the Rosh Hashanah table

Fish dishes lend meaning to the Rosh Hashanah table
Fish dishes are a traditional part of Rosh Hashanah. Here, halibut with leeks, tomatoes and olives. (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles Times)

For the Jewish New Year, which begins on Wednesday at sundown, fish will be on the menu in many households.

According to tradition, having fish on the table is an omen for blessings in the year to come. When the fish is served, observant Jews recite a prayer expressing the wish "that we be fruitful and multiply like fish."

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There is additional symbolism in serving fish. Rosh Hashanah literally means the head of the year, and it is customary to serve fish with their heads on and to recite a blessing based on a verse in Deuteronomy: "May we be heads, not tails" — in other words, leaders rather than followers. According to Nicholas Stavroulakis, author of "Cookbook of the Jews of Greece," in some Greek homes the head of the fish was reserved for the head of the household. "The fish," he wrote, "also symbolizes the Great Leviathan on which Israel is to feast for eternity in Heaven."

Another tradition is to cook a sheep's head to stand for the head of the year; this custom is not common among American Jews. Vegetarians might display a head of cabbage or lettuce or serve a roasted onion or a roasted head of garlic.

Today many prepare fish without heads to simplify cooking, serving and eating. Often the fish is served cold or at room temperature as an appetizer.

The fish dishes on the menu tend to be the family's holiday favorites. On many American tables, gefilte fish is served, topped with coin-shaped slices of carrot, which represent prosperity. Fish cooked with tomatoes or peppers, which are at the height of their season at this time of year, is also popular. Because the Rosh Hashanah main course is generally a meat dish, in kosher kitchens the fish is not cooked with butter or cream because dairy foods and meat are not allowed at the same meal.

For an Italian style Jewish New Year dinner, fish might be cooked in tomato sauce flavored with garlic and parsley sautéed in olive oil. Greek recipes for the holiday call for baking fish in tomato and white wine sauce with garlic, bay leaves and onions sautéed in olive oil, or in tomato-onion-garlic sauce accented with honey, lemon juice, cinnamon and cloves.

In Moroccan Rosh Hashanah recipes, fish is stewed in a sauce colored yellow with saffron or turmeric and flavored with whole garlic cloves and cilantro; carrot slices or sweet red pepper pieces might be simmered with the fish. Some Moroccan cooks poach fish balls in tomato sauce, made by grinding fish with hard boiled eggs, garlic, cilantro and a spice blend containing nutmeg, mace and cinnamon.

For Rosh Hashanah, when the divine judgment is believed to be written for the coming year, some avoid what they consider "bad luck" foods and therefore modify their fish recipes. Cooks might exclude "black" ingredients such as eggplant, black grapes and black olives from their menus, or might refrain from using sour, bitter and pungent foods such as lemons, vinegar, pickles, horseradish and raw garlic. People who usually eat hot and spicy fish dishes might omit or cut down on the number of chiles they use when making Rosh Hashanah fish appetizers.

The result of cooking without sharp ingredients makes the food delicate and sometimes slightly sweet in flavor, to represent the hope for a "Shanah Tovah u'Metukah," a good and sweet year.

Faye Levy is the author of "1,000 Jewish Recipes" and of "Faye Levy's International Jewish Cookbook."

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