Persian Lamb Stew with Sweet Fruits
- 2 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. ground ginger
- ¾ tsp. ground black pepper
- ½ tsp. ground mace
- ½ tsp. ground allspice
- ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp. crushed saffron
- 3 cups water
- 3–4 lb. boneless lamb, cut into 1? cubes
- 1 Spanish onion, minced
- 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 sticks cinnamon
- ¼ tsp. ground cloves
- ¼ cup unsalted butter (or margarine)
- 1 cup seedless white raisins
- ½ cup pine nuts (or crushed black walnuts)
- ½ cup dates (or dried apricots), chopped
- ½ cup honey
- couscous (or yellow rice)
- two bunches seedless Concord grapes
Combine the nutmeg, salt, ginger, pepper, mace, allspice, cinnamon, saffron, and 1 cup water in a large pot, stirring until dried spices are partially dissolved. Add lamb cubes, the remaining water, onion, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, and butter, and cook on a low flame, partially covered, until lamb has lost a lot of its toughness and can be cut through with a sharp knife (approximately 1–1½ hours). Fold in raisins, pine nuts, dates, and honey; then simmer, partially covered, for about ½ hour longer, or until meat is very tender. Remove pot lid and cook over medium heat, being careful that the mixture does not burn, until stew begins to get thicker, about 15 minutes or so. Serve over couscous or yellow rice on a platter surrounded by seedless Concord grapes.
Yield: 8–10 servings
14 From the time King Artaxerxes appointed me as their governor in the land of Judah—from the twentieth to the thirty-second year of his reign, twelve years— neither I nor my brothers used the governor's food allowance.
15 Governors who had preceded me had oppressed the people by taxing them forty shekels of silver (about a pound) a day for food and wine while their underlings bullied the people unmercifully. But out of my love for God I did none of that.
16 I had work to do; I worked on this wall. All my men were on the job to do the work. We didn't have time to line our own pockets.
17 I fed one hundred and fifty Jews and officials at my table in addition to those who showed up from the surrounding nations.
18 One ox, six choice sheep, and some chickens were prepared for me daily, and every ten days a large supply of wine was delivered. Even so, I didn't use the food allowance provided for the governor—the people had it hard enough as it was.
19 Remember in my favor, O my God, Everything I've done for these people.
“One ox, six choice sheep, and some chickens were prepared for me daily.”
Nehemiah 5:14–19, adapted from The Message
Biblical Passage Notes
One of the major figures of the postexilic period of the ancient history of the Jewish people, Nehemiah made a name for himself as the rebuilder of the wall surrounding the city of Jerusalem. When we first encounter Nehemiah in the book that bears his name, he is an officer in the court of Artaxerxes when he learns that the Jews of his homeland are suffering under a great oppression and that the city wall and the entrance gates of his beloved Jerusalem have been almost totally destroyed. Nehemiah commences a period of mourning and fasting that does not go unnoticed by the king, who later gives Nehemiah a royal commission with all the proper credentials to journey to Jerusalem so that he might bring his people whatever help they needed. With a royal decree in his pocket allowing him to requisition the materials necessary to restore the wall, the fortress, and the Temple at Jerusalem, he accomplishes the task in a relatively short time despite the efforts of many others to halt his work. In his role as governor, Nehemiah also institutes needed social reforms, particularly with respect to the oppression of the poor by the rich. It is his actions on behalf of the less fortunate that frame the biblical passage pertinent to the seemingly extravagant meal described in verses 17–18 above.
Nehemiah invited the local leaders and visiting emissaries (with their retinues) from surrounding countries to his table for dinner as a gesture of goodwill and hospitality in an effort to demonstrate what he believed were the qualities of leadership that others should follow. As governor, he had the right to use public funds garnered from extra taxes levied on the common folk so that he might entertain the dignitaries at his table. Instead, he used his own financial resources, and as part of his effort at social reform, set the example so that other officials might follow his lead. In this instance, Nehemiah was carrying out a common biblical and theological understanding of what God required: to provide hospitality, not only to one's own circle of family and friends, but to others as well, including the stranger; to invite the rich and the poor to sit down at the table; to provide a meal from one's own bounty; to prepare an ample feast; and to present it as a thanksgiving for all that God has provided. Nehemiah was viewed as a righteous man and a faithful servant of God through these actions, and his good deeds are set forth in the Hebrew scriptures as the prototype for everyone to emulate.
The Hebrew text indicates that a large portion of meat, poultry, and wine— enough for as many as five hundred people, perhaps—was set aside daily for Nehemiah in his role as governor; if he used the provisions at all, it was not to entertain his friends and guests. Instead he prepared elaborate dinners from the funds of his own pocket, which resulted in meals much better than the diners at his table were expecting. The proportions set out in this chapter were customary for a man of his position (compare Solomon's food list in I Kings 4:22ff.). For example, in the 19th century c.e., the bey (a ruler of comparable power to the position Nehemiah held) of Tunis was known to receive as his daily entitlement twelve sheep, along with fish, fowls, soups, oranges, eggs, onions, boiled rice, and other goods. When the bey dined, his nobles dined with him; after they were finished, the servants sat down; and when they were finished, the poor took what was left over. By looking at both examples, we can begin to piece together a fuller picture of what it was like to eat a meal at the gubernatorial palace.
The chickens that are mentioned in verse 17 might be a flight of imagination (excuse the pun); though the breeding of chickens was widespread in Israel at the beginning of the Christian era, the poultry or fowl that Nehemiah served to his guests might just as well have been quail (which were well known and considered a fine meal), or perhaps partridge, dove, or sparrow, all of which were apparently in abundance in Israel and the surrounding area. We'll hedge our bets and provide a recipe for both chicken and quail, and leave the more enterprising cook to find the best ways to prepare partridges and doves, should one's palate have a hankering for smaller fowl (we've deemed sparrows to be off limits).
But what of the wine? The Hebrew word used here is yayin, a nondescriptive, generalized term for any type of red wine. It was apparently laid in stock by the servants every ten days or so, according to need but within the parameters of entitlement. At dinner it was served in abundance.
When cooking this meal, one has to use a bit of common sense and a lot of ingenuity. There are not many kitchens these days that feature the cooking of oxen. “Oxtails” are enjoying somewhat of a revival among top chefs and are a tasty menu item; yet unlike the days of old when there was truth in advertising, and oxtails were just that—the tails of oxen—today they are simply the tails of beef cattle of both genders. In some parts of the world (Norway, Madagascar) recipes using real oxen are still popular fare; but most of us are going to have to settle for what the butcher in our area can provide. Even at that, there is only one tail per animal available to the butcher, so you might have to put in a special order ahead of time if oxtails are on your menu. But if one can find ox meat for any of the recipes that follow, all the better for the cook and the lucky diner who has been invited for supper.
Nehemiah, royal cupbearer to the Persian king, was born to the tribe of Judah and may have been a native of Jerusalem. At that time (5th century b.c.e.), Judah was a province of the Persian Empire. The history of how this came to pass is complicated. As related in Chapter 11, the united kingdom of Israel had split into two states, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, in the 10th century b.c.e. Both kingdoms were able to maintain their autonomy, despite the conflicts they had with each other, because their neighbors were relatively weak. But in the 8th century b.c.e. the Assyrians conquered Israel and deported many Israelites into captivity. At the beginning of the 6th century b.c.e. the Babylonians, having destroyed the Assyrian empire, took control of Judah. The Babylonians razed the Temple at Jerusalem and carried away the Ark of the Covenant (which disappears from history at this time), essentially severing the living connection between the Jews and God. Nebuchadnezzar II, the Babylonian king, ordered the deportation of most of Judah's people to Babylon. This period of exile, when the Jews were enslaved in Assyria or Babylon or were forced to flee to Egypt or other lands, is known as the First Diaspora, or Dispersion. In the mid-6th century b.c.e. the Persian Empire, under King Cyrus the Great, conquered Babylonia and most of western Asia, including all of Israel. Cyrus permitted a number of Jews to return to Jerusalem, and under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, they began to build the Second Temple.
When Artaxerxes I became king of Persia in the 5th century b.c.e., he granted Nehemiah's request to return to Jerusalem in order to help in the rebuilding of the city. Beginning in 446 b.c.e., Nehemiah governed Jerusalem for about thirteen years, restoring the traditional religious observances and continuing the reforms begun by Ezra, his predecessor. When Nehemiah returned to Persia, however, Jerusalem quickly fell back into corruption and idolatry. At this point the prophet Malachi began to exhort the Jews to return to the Law, and Nehemiah rushed back to Jerusalem after an absence of only two years, shocked at the quick decline in the moral state of his people and determined to bring them back to God. He was able to maintain public order and worship and remained in his post as governor until his death in about 413 b.c.e. Afterward, Judah became a part of Syria, under the administration of the high priest.