By Leila Stein
Lag B’Omer, may be the most South African of all the Jewish holidays if not for any other reason than it revolves around an open flame.
Celebrated on the 33rd day of the Omer (this year, evening of Wednesday 18 May through to Thursday 19 May), this festival pauses the mourning period with a celebration of the life of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and the end of the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students. It is marked all over the world with bonfires, and children playing with bows and arrows.
Unlike other holidays, like Pesach which has just passed, there aren’t codified commandments on what exactly to eat. However, this doesn’t mean that traditions haven’t formed around certain foods to prepare and eat to celebrate this day.
This is where the South African and Jewish elements combine. Since there is already a bonfire available, much of the Lag B’Omer traditions involve cooking food on the embers of these flames.
While cooking over a fire is something many cultures participate in, a braai is something specifically South African. Its uniqueness lies in the pageantry of putting together the fire, standing around chatting and having very specific opinions on how to get the meat cooked just right.
This is not the only similarity to be found. Alongside the food, Lag B’Omer is known as a holiday celebrating the resilience of the Jewish people.
Jewish South Africans carry this resiliency both because of our Jewish heritage and our South African one. Despite all the challenges we face, South Africans are known for our hardiness and ability to find the best, or at least most positive outcomes no matter the circumstances.
To celebrate this coming together of our identities, we’ve put together a braai menu that can be whipped together quickly, that doesn’t need to take all day but still brings a South African flavour to the spirit of Lag B’Omer.
Lemon and herb chicken sosatie
Since Lag B’Omer is all about the bonfire, meat on the braai is a must. The sosatie is a South African braai staple and while it can be made with a variety of meat, we have chosen chicken for its universality.
This recipe is for four people and makes two sosaties per person.
• 4 chicken breasts, cut into equal cubes
• 8 kebab skewers
For the marinade
• 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
• ¼ cup of lemon juice
• ¼ cup of olive oil
• ¼ cup of white wine
• a sprinkle of mixed herbs
Roast potato braai boats
Another tradition for Lag B’Omer is to roast potatoes on the fire. Commonly, these are simply whole potatoes wrapped in tinfoil and left to cook on the fire — providing a smokey flavour and a light burning of the potato skin.
To level up this simple tradition, try expanding the offering by turning the roasted potatoes into delicious mixed vegetable boats.
• 4 large potatoes
• 2 mielies, rinsed
• 1 red onion, chopped
• olive oil, for coating
Halve the potatoes and cover all over with olive oil, paprika, salt and pepper. Wrap in tinfoil before placing them on the braai coals. While the potatoes are cooking, place the mielies on the grid and cook until lightly charred. Remove the potatoes once tender but not overcooked — best to test with a fork.
Once the mielies are ready cut off kernels from the cob. Scoop out the middle of the potato without breaking the skin. Mix the potato filling with the kernels and red onion. Check if the mixture is seasoned enough, if not add some more salt and pepper.
When all mixed together, refill the hollowed out skins and re-wrap in tinfoil. Place back on the coals and cook for another 5 minutes or until hot.
Overnight carob date balls
Finally, for dessert, we are moving away from the traditional South African desserts like melktert and malva pudding. This is because carob is a central food for Lag B’Omer but not that popular an ingredient in our local post-dinner choices.
It is believed that while Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son were hiding in a cave from the Romans for 13 years, they sustained themselves with carob pods from a tree that sprung up outside the cave.
While carob has a close-to-chocolatey taste, eating a carob pod raw is not really ideal. As such, a great, pareve option to finish off your braai are some simple carob-date balls. These are quick and easy to make and will also ensure a sweet treat after what is often a rather large meal.
This recipe makes around 12 balls depending on size.
• 1½ cups of pitted dates
• ⅓ cup of tahina
• ¼ cup of carob powder
• 1 tsp vanilla extract
• a sprinkle of salt
• your choice of coating for rolling: desiccated coconut, cocoa powder, or crushed nuts.
Place the dates, tahina, carob powder and vanilla extract into a food processor. Pulse until everything is well combined and is a sticky consistency. Remove a heaped teaspoon at a time and roll into balls, slightly damp hands help to prevent getting your hands too sticky.
Finally roll the balls in your coating of choice and store in an airtight container in the fridge until you are ready to serve.
Published in the PDF edition of the May 2022 issue – Click here to read it.
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