What’s the Story Behind Tzimmes?

This sweet dish of stewed root vegetables is common at many Rosh Hashanah tables, and for good reason.

Published Sept. 23, 2022.

Have you ever had tzimmes? It’s a dish of glazed root vegetables and dried fruit often served on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It wasn’t part of my family’s traditional Rosh Hashanah spread growing up, but when I tried it for the first time at a friend’s holiday dinner, it was love at first bite. Tender sweet potato, earthy carrot, and jammy prunes bathed in a syrupy (but not cloying) sauce, it added a sweet note that balanced the rest of the savory meal so well.

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What Is in Tzimmes?

The ingredients in tzimmes can vary by region or family tradition; carrots, sweet potatoes, and prunes are common, but you’ll often see other additions such as white potatoes, turnips, onions, apricots, or raisins. Tzimmes is sweetened with sugar or honey and might be bolstered with citrus zest or warm spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. It can be simmered on the stovetop or baked casserole-style; it is usually a side dish but sometimes features chunks of beef braised along with the vegetables for a hearty entrée stew. (This style of tzimmes served as inspiration for our delicious Instant Pot Brisket with Tzimmes.) 

Who Eats Tzimmes?

Tzimmes is found predominantly in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. The Ashkenazim are Jewish people with ancestries from mostly central or eastern Europe; they are the prominent Jewish community in North America. (The Sephardim are Jewish people of mostly Spanish, Mediterranean, or Middle Eastern descent.)

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When Is Tzimmes Served and Why?

While the combination of sweet root vegetables and dried fruits is delicious, the ingredients hold more significance than that. Claudia Roden explains in The Book of Jewish Food (1996): “In Yiddish lore, sliced carrots are associated with gold coins, and carrot tzimmes are eaten at Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) as a symbol of prosperity and good fortune. The honey symbolizes the hope that the year should be sweet.” What’s more, the word for “carrots” in Yiddish is mehren, which also means “be fruitful and multiply,” another omen of good luck for the new year. And though Rosh Hashanah is the most common holiday to eat tzimmes, you’ll also see it served a couple weeks later on Sukkot (the harvest festival, where fruit picking is celebrated).

What Does Tzimmes Mean?

The word tzimmes comes from the German zum essen, meaning “to eat.” In Yiddish, the word tzimmes also means “a fuss,” because of all the peeling and chopping necessary to prepare the hearty root vegetables . . . or maybe because of the stir it causes among enthusiastic dinner guests.  

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