T’fina pkaila, or more commonly known as pkaila and also called bkaila, bkeila, or pkela, is one of the most emblematic dishes of Tunisian Jewish cuisine.
What is t’fina pkaila?
The word t’fina is a Judeo-Arabic word which comes from the Arabic word ad-dafina meaning “covered”, “very hot” or “smothered”, in relation to the cooking mode.
The word pkaila simply means “spinach” in Tunisian Arabic dialect, the dish mainly consisting of stewed spinach.
Indeed, for religious reasons, Jews do not cook on Shabbat. T’fina pkaila, made of white beans and spinach, is one of those long-simmered dishes that are prepared on Friday before sunset and continue to simmer gently during Shabbat on a hot plate.
The ritual of North African Jews for the Shabbat lunch (Saturday) is to prepare t’fina. This term therefore designates a dish that has been simmered for a long time and it can define different recipes:
- Haricha or t’fina harissa: a Tunisian dish prepared with wheat, beef, and eggs, not to be confused with the famous Tunisian harissa sauce.
- Loubia, a stew of white beans and meat, similar to fasolia.
- Nikitouches, typically Tunisian, which are small pasta balls made from fine semolina, oil and egg yolk, which are generally prepared in chicken broth and served on couscous semolina.
- Beid hamine, a tradition of Sephardic Jewish cuisine: long simmered eggs found in Egypt, North Africa and Spain.
- Pkaila, which is therefore the most famous Jewish Tunisian dish. This stew of beef, fried spinach and white beans, is often served with couscous or Tunisian Italian bread.
Moreover, these different dishes that simmer on a hot plate, are generally served over a serving of couscous (semolina).
Variants of the pkaila
There is a variant very close to pkaila which was adopted by the people of Tunis. This variant, called madfouna, inherited by Muslims from Tunisian Jewish cuisine, is characterized by ground meat instead of pieces of beef in the recipe for traditional pkaila. Madfouna means “buried”.
Tunisians also prefer chard over spinach in most madfouna recipes. Not to be confused with the Moroccan madfouna, also called madfouna of Tafilalet, this beautiful Saharan region of Morocco south of the High Atlas, known for its magnificent oases is also famous for its culture and local products.
Its rich and varied cuisine is internationally recognized. The most popular dishes are numerous including its famous madfouna, a bread stuffed with almonds, onions, eggs and fat.
The Jews of Constantine, a city in the northeast of Algeria, close to Tunisia, prepare spinach or cardoon tfina, with chickpeas and beef shank and hock. Often in this tfina version, people add koklas, that are large balls of ground beef that can be added to the tfina halfway through cooking. In Constantine, people also prepare a wheat tfina, in which koklas may also be added.
Ghormeh sabzi is a typical Persian dish, which uses the same concept of fried herbs (this time parsley, coriander, fenugreek, chives, dill) as a base with meat and beans, this time red kidney beans.
Often cooked for Saturday lunch in traditional Tunisian Jewish families, pkaila is above all a festive dish.
The three preparation techniques
The pkaila recipe requires first and foremost to prepare fried and stewed spinach. To do this, 3 options are possible:
- Option 1: Use a jar of store-bought spinach confit that is ready to use. This confit, generally available in kosher supermarkets, is not available everywhere in the world but mostly in Europe and Israel.
- Option 2: Fry and stir the spinach for several hours in a Dutch oven over low to medium heat.
- Option 3: In the microwave. Against all odds, and no offense to purists, there is no difference in taste or texture between the microwave method and the traditional method. The spinach confit prepared with this method may, just like all the others, be kept in the refrigerator for at least three months, in its cooking oil.
What is the origin of pkaila?
The origin of the pkaila is not very clear, but the main ingredient and its cooking method of frying suggest that it was certainly inspired by Italian cuisine (like many Tunisian dishes). Indeed, the culture of spinach requires a cool and humid climate, a climate which is not characteristic of the countries of North Africa.
Why is pkaila prepared at Rosh Hashanah?
Pkaila is the traditional Tunisian Jewish dish par excellence on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Legend has it that the Cohanim (plural of Cohen), the priests of the God of Israel, at the destruction of the first temple, arrived in Djerba where they are said to have built the Ghriba synagogue with a stone from the destroyed Temple. The First Temple or Temple of Solomon was built, according to the Bible, by King Solomon (in the 10th century BC). It was completely destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BC. AD
Upon arriving in Djerba, the priests had brought their main dish, mentioned elsewhere in the Talmud, a dish made from white beans and spinach.
In the Talmud (Oral Torah), specifically in the Treatise of the Shabbat number 118b (קיח), it is reported that one of the signs of the oneg Shabbat (“delight” or “Shabbat celebration”) is this cooked dish made from spinach.
Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzhak HaTzarfati, more eminently known as Rachi or Salomon of Troyes, was a French rabbi, exegete, Talmudist, poet, jurist and decision-maker (born in Troyes in France around 1040 and died in the same city on July 13, 1105). Rashi reports, on the subject of this Treatise of Shabbat, that it is an essential dish.
Still in the Talmud, Brakhot treatise number 39 (לט), Rav Chisda, a very educated Jewish Talmudist who lived in Kafri, Babylonia, near what is now the city of Najaf, in Iraq, taught that this cooked dish with spinach was good for the heart and the eyes, as well as for the intestines.
Regarding this Brakhot treatise number 39, Rav Nahman ben Kaylil, nicknamed Abayé, one of the most eminent Babylonian Talmud doctors of the fourth generation, director of the Talmudic academy of Pumbedita, added that you needed to cut the spinach into small pieces and cook them. Rashi, again, said véavid to’kh, to’kh, meaning that the spinach should be fried.
In the Talmud yéroushalmi, treatise Kilaïm, chapter number, it is said in the name of Rabbi Yona that it is good to consume white beans for the heart and the intestines, whereas in the treatise kétoubote, in the name of Rabbi Hanina, it is reported that the consumption of spinach on Shabbat and on holidays was one of the reasons for the good health of Jews in Babylonia.
It is for all these reasons that the Jews of Tunisia, the Djerbian and Tripolitan communities, on the evening of Rosh Hashanah more than all the other evenings, consume the dish called tavshil shel teradine or silka in the talmud and which is none other than the delicious pkaïla.
- 3 cups dry white beans , soaked overnight
- 2 lb spinach (fresh or frozen)
- Vegetable oil
- 1 onion , minced
- 6 cloves garlic , mashed
- 2 lb beef shank (or cheek), cut into 1-inch (5 cm) cubes
- 1 beef foot (or calf foot)
- 1 tablespoon harissa
- 1 bunch mint , minced
- 1 bunch cilantro , minced
Use the ready-made spinach confit.
Chop fresh spinach (or use frozen chopped spinach). Cook over medium heat in a Dutch oven and stir quite regularly with a wooden spoon. Once spinach is almost done with releasing steam, start adding oil. Continue to stir and add oil fairly regularly (for about 1 to 1½ hours) until color turns black but spinach is not burnt.
Place the 2 lb (1 kg) of previously drained frozen spinach on a plate. Add 5 tablespoons of vegetable oil (or olive oil) on top. Heat in the microwave oven for 15 minutes. Repeat this step 3 times. Just stir and add 5 tablespoons of oil in between each heating in the microwave. Once this is complete, chop the spinach confit in a blender or with a knife. Add into a jar and cover with oil. This spinach confit can be stored in the fridge for at least three months.
- Drain the spinach to extract the oil. Sauté the garlic, onion, harissa, the cow's (or calf's) foot, the beef in this oil for a few minutes. Then add the beans, spinach, salt, pepper and cover with water.
- Simmer covered on low heat for at least 2 to 3 hours or until the meat is tender. Add mint and cilantro 30 minutes before the end of cooking.
Cook for 1h15 in a pressure cooker. Add mint and cilantro and simmer for another 10 minutes or until reaching desired consistency.
Pkaila is most generally accompanied by couscous but can also be served without couscous and with Tunisian bread aka "Italian bread" .