Friday, October 17, 2014

Jachnun: An Unofficial Dossier

Jachnun is a legendary Yemenite pastry, made out of a special type of dough that gets stretched out and stretched out, and rolled up and rolled up, and then stretched out again and again. It originated in compliance with shabbat halacha, when cooking is prohibited and Jews needed to come up with foods that could sit on the fire over night.

Jachnun is up there with marak timani (Yemenite chicken soup) in terms of being identified with Yemenites in Israel. Yet, the story is more complex, as I learned during a conversation with my husband's family this Sukkot. The following brief and unofficial history was pieced together over the dinner table which included my husband's aunt and uncle, who made aliyah when they were 11 and 10 respectively, and remember what life was like "in the old country."

One issue that comes up when talking about "Yemenite" cuisine is much the same when you discuss "Israeli" cuisine: a wide range of diverse foods being lumped together from many distinct heritages and cultures. Jews in Yemen lived in both urban and rural areas, and the country is quite hilly, making for many isolated communities. This helps explain all of the variations of jachnun out there. My husband's mother adds some whole wheat flour. And I, of course, eat it like an ashkenazi person would, with honey and sour cream piled on top, rather than the traditional schug, a hard boiled egg, and grated tomato. (In my white-person American defense, I call this "fusion." In my further defense, please keep in mind that jachnun with my husband's family is generally served at 10 am Saturday morning, when people get back from the break-of-dawn Yemenite shuel services).

 Not surprisingly, since food varied between regions, and while things like hawaijj and marak temani seem to have been widely dispersed, jachnun was only made in certain communities. So where was it specifically made? This part of its history is a bit vague to me, as I only know that my aunt- and uncle-in-law did not grow up in the area that made jachun. They--like many Yemenites--learned how to make it in Israel upon immigration, when the government placed the new Yemenite olim together in camps regardless on their point of orgin. People from their community learned how to make jachnun  from other Yemenites. In other words, despite being considered so "Yemenite," jachnun only reached the broader Yemenite community in the last 60 years or so, and only in Israel.

What is so interesting to me is that as much as jachnun is considered so decidedly Yemenite, it has taken on a life of its own here in Israel. As much as most days I could take it or leave it, it seems to have built up quite a fan base in recent years. It is readily available in supermarkets nationwide in the frozen isle, and jachnun eateries have begun to pop up in Jerusalem. Walking around, when I lived in Nachlaot, I would see a sign for homecooked jachnun for sale on Fridays. It has even been written up in Haaretz.

One reason for it being so readily available is the fact that it is apparently not so fun (time-consuming, space-consuming) to make. Even my husband's mother often buys jachnun from a woman in her community (this is saying a lot, as the older generation of my husband's family notoriously makes everything from scratch, from homemade pickles, schug, hawaijj, pita, and even challah on occasion). When I told her I wanted her to teach me how to make it, she said to just buy it instead, that it was a headache to make. I will persist in my pleas, but in the meantime, it seems more likely that she will teach me how to make jachnun's more elegant and less-popular cousin, kubbaneh. So, say tuned.

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