Framed by pomegranate seeds and bowls of honey, the roast on the Rosh Hashanah table might appear to be an all-too-familiar brisket.
Look closer. See those little bumps on its surface? It’s a cow tongue, the culinary centerpiece of the Persian Rosh Hashanah meal.
Where Ashkenazis place a fish head, some Sephardic Jews place a roasted cow tongue on the dinner plate to symbolize the hope that God will make us “the head, not the tail” in the coming year. This delicacy is perhaps the most polarizing food in the Rosh Hashanah spread — many young Persians find the dish repulsive, but a devout few (and their parents) savor the holiday specialty.
“Persian [adults] love tongue, but you could never get an American millennial to pick up a tongue sandwich,” said Penny Davidi, a Persian-Jewish chef and once a contestant on “Food Network Star.” “My own kids have acquired the taste buds for it through tradition. They love it with mustard on a baguette.”
Davidi compared the flavor of cow tongue with that of a short rib: fatty, rich and full of umami, a savory category known as “the fifth taste.” She prepares the meat, one of her favorite dishes to make, in a roasting pan with garlic, onion and a bay leaf. She then keeps it in the oven until the meat is tender enough to fall apart on a fork.
Davidi said her Sephardic dinner guests devour cow tongue like a feast before the main course, dressing it with pickles or pepperoncini and eating it like a French dip sandwich. Her Ashkenazi guests, on the other hand, don’t touch it.
“They look at us from across the table like we’re crazy,” she said.
Taste buds and capillaries make cow tongue an unattractive cut of meat, said Reyna Simnegar, author of the cookbook “Persian Food From the Non-Persian Bride.” She said she’s seen Persians serve their Rosh Hashanah tongue whole and unadorned, sometimes with the “kasher” symbol still branded on the meat’s surface. When she prepares tongue for Rosh Hashanah, she makes sure to dress it and sauce it to conceal its natural texture.
Aaron Hendizadeh, a 20-year-old Persian American, said he can’t get past the feeling of a cow’s taste buds brushing against his own.
“If we grew up in Iran, I think we’d be more willing to accept [cow tongue] as a normal thing to eat,” he said. “But it’s considered weird in America.”
Cow tongue is a fairly commonplace food in Iran, along with cow-foot stews and lamb testicles. During the High Holy Days, however, tongue acquires an elevated culinary importance to Persian Jews.
F & Y Kosher Meats Co. on Pico Boulevard sells cow tongue year-round, but Iranian-American owner Farajollah Yadkarim estimated that tongue sales are about six times higher during the run-up to Rosh Hashanah.
Suzee Markowitz, co-owner of Factor’s Famous Deli, also said patrons order more tongue sandwiches in the fall than they do during the spring or summer. The dish is a delicacy, she said, and those who love it might come to the deli just to enjoy some cow tongue. Often, these tongue enthusiasts are older Jews.
Simnegar said she knows many Orthodox Ashkenazis who grew up eating cow tongue in Eastern Europe, at a time when poverty or limited access to meat necessitated using every part of the animal. She said many Ashkenazi kosher markets on the East Coast still sell tongue year-round, and many of her Ashkenazi friends prepare the meat in a sweet sauce and enjoy it just as much as any Sephardi. It’s the modern Jews, she said, who think cow tongue is gross.
Any cut of meat from an animal’s head — say, a whole sheep’s head or even an eyeball — could satisfy the meal’s requirement for a symbol of progress and leadership, said Rabbi David Shofet of Nessah Synagogue, an Iranian Orthodox congregation in Beverly Hills. Tongue just happens to be one of the more available and edible options.
Shofet said he generally avoids red meat, but makes an exception for cow tongue to fulfill the Rosh Hashanah blessings.
Hendizadeh, too, said he forces himself to eat a tiny portion of tongue during the meal for the sake of ritual.
“It’s tradition,” Shofet said. “You have to have the tongue.”
ROSH HASHANAH TONGUE WITH TOMATO AND MUSHROOMS (ZABAN)
Recipe from “Persian Food From the Non-Persian Bride” by Reyna Simnegar.
– 1 beef tongue
– Water as needed
– 1 onion, diced
– 4 garlic cloves
– 3 tablespoons olive oil
– 1 onion, thinly sliced
– Dash of turmeric
– 1 (13-ounce) can mushrooms sliced or stems and pieces, drained
– 1 cup tongue broth
– 3 tablespoons tomato paste
– 1/2 teaspoon salt
– 1/4 teaspoon pepper
– Fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped, for garnish
Place the tongue into a 6-quart saucepan and cover with water until it reaches about 3 inches above the meat. Add the diced onion and garlic cloves and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 3 1/2 to 4 hours, checking periodically and using a small strainer or slotted spoon to remove the scum that accumulates on the surface of the water.
Remove tongue from broth and set aside to cool. Reserve one cup of broth.
To make the sauce, pour olive oil in a skillet and sauté sliced onion and turmeric until onion is translucent. Add mushrooms and toss together for one minute. Add tongue broth, tomato paste, salt and pepper. Cook for about 3 minutes.
While the tongue is still warm, peel off the surface skin and discard. Cut tongue into 1/4-inch-thick slices and arrange on a serving platter. Pour the tomato and mushroom sauce on top and sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.