My Iranian charoset_ Hallaq
Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Once again, I ask my father to give me our family recipe for the Passover charoset, or as we called it in Iran, haleq. He says, “Chop walnuts, almonds and pistachios in a food processor, add apples, bananas, and grapes — only if you wish–pomegranate juice, wine, and vinegar–as you like–cinnamon and cloves, and dates and even figs–if you want.” Surprised, I ask, “Bananas?
When did we start adding that? And what about pomegranate seeds?” My mother interjects, “No, no, don’t use them. They are — well–seedy.” My father adds, “We make it dense for our guests, but, personally, we prefer it watery.”
But I know this is not our recipe because I was in charge of making it every year when I lived with my parents in Iran. The day before the holiday, I burrowed through Passover dishes, fruits, and vegetables, piled in a large dark pantry, to find the pomegranates that had hung in our sukkah in the fall. A few spoiled, but most produced ample seeds, no longer bright red, but sweeter than usual.
I sat on a low stool by the kitchen door, away from the hubbub of my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt’s preparations for Passover. Holding a heavy pestle with both hands, I pounded freshly roasted nuts in a stone mortar.
“Don’t beat them hard; they will turn into oil,” a voice in the background ordered. I grated apples, added pomegranate seeds, cinnamon, cloves, and some kind of liquid. Was it wine? This is where my memory fails. But I am certain that there were no bananas.
In fact, bananas are not native to the Iranian soil, and I had never tasted one until I was in high school, when an aunt visited Israel and brought us a few green ones. Not realizing they weren’t ripe yet, I took a big bite and spat out the bitter pulp. Years later, Iran would import them and they would become a part of our diet, but there is nothing traditional about them in the Iranian charoset.
There is a curious irony in the recipe. Although it symbolically represents our days of slavery in Egypt and our toiling in the mud (the charoset is made to resemble mud in almost all recipes), it is often made with luxurious, even exotic ingredients to attest to our resilience, our triumph in reclaiming freedom, and our celebration of life. Indeed my parents have adopted new ingredients in their recipe and have forgotten the original one that I recall.
Their charoset tastes much closer to what I remember of our Iranian mixture than mine. And that’s the reason I pester them about the ingredients every year.
Finally, one year I demand that they must bring all ingredients to make the charoset in front of me when they visit for Passover.
In my adopted home in Virginia, they throw nuts, apples, bananas, and dates — just as they had told me — in my pesadik food processor. Then my father opens a sack and carefully removes a well-wrapped bottle.
As I watch, I remember him in our kitchen in Shiraz, opening a locked cupboard and handing me a bottle of homemade wine vinegar, the secret ingredient. When he opens the bottle in my kitchen, the room fills with the aroma of Passovers past, of a homeland lost, of a community in disarray.
This article was written many years ago, Passover 2005. My father died shortly after. I visit this old article of mine this year because I again miss key ingredients. We are in the midst of a plague, the eleventh plague, and I am not going to disobey the rule of social distancing by scouring grocery stores for pomegranate seeds.
I add cooking wine, balsamic vinegar, cinnamon and nutmeg. It is close to the original recipe even if not exact.
3 apples grated
1 cup walnuts chopped fine
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup grape juice
1/4 cup cooking wine
Mix and chill
Farideh and Baba in Isfahan, 1971