Purim is a merrymaking holiday with many food-related traditions, including giving mishloach manot to family and friends and eating triangular-shaped hamantaschen. But beyond these better-known customs lies one with a lower profile, the eating of beans. 

Bean and chickpea dishes are typically served at the festive meal on Purim day to evoke Queen Esther's diet while in the court of King Ahasueros, where the midrash relates that she ate only beans to avoid non-kosher fare. Legumes are also a traditional food for mourners--some suggest that Esther consumed them when she heard of Haman's plan for the Jewish people.

Beans have been a part of Jewish cuisine since Biblical times. In her book Classic Italian Jewish Cooking, Edda Servi Machlin remembers how beans were prized for their protein when meat and fish were simply too expensive for most members of her Tuscan-Jewish community. Ashkenazi Jews have long used beans in their Sabbath cholent--their sturdiness makes them perfect for the dish's extended cooking time.

This warm, fragrant bean recipe, adapted from Jennifer Abadi's A Fistful of Lentils, a cookbook and memoir about her Syrian-Jewish family, falls somewhere between a soup and a stew. It's completely vegetarian, very satisfying, and--best of all--you may already have all of the ingredients in your pantry.

Serves 6-8

You'll Need:

l lb. (2 1/2 cups) dried cannelini or navy beans
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 2 1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
one 6-oz. can tomato paste
one 14-oz. can diced tomatoes with juice
4 cups cold water or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon lightly packed brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
cooked rice

1. Cover the beans with cold water and remove any rocks, dirt, or other debris from the surface of the water. Drain water and transfer to a 4-quart saucepan.

2. Cover with water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer vigorously until beans are just cooked but not soft, about 45 minutes. Drain water and reserve beans.

3. Heat the oil in a heavy soup pot over medium-high heat. Cook the onions, stirring, until translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 additional minute; do not burn.

4. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Add diced tomatoes, water, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, and pepper and stir to combine.

5. Return to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer over medium-low heat until beans are very soft and liquid has thickened considerably, about 1 1/2-2 hours.

6. Serve in bowls over basmati rice.

Adapted from A Fistful of Lentils by Jennifer Abadi, © 2002, Harvard Common Press.

Adeena Sussman

Adeena Sussman is a food writer and chef based in New York. She writes the bimonthly food column "Season to Taste" for Hadassah Magazine.