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Hamantaschen pastries – named for a three-cornered hat?

It’s Purim again, time to celebrate the story of Queen Esther and Mordechai’s defeat of evil Haman, who plotted to annihilate the Jews of Persia. This joyous festival is marked by dressing up and partying carnival-style, reading the Book of Esther, and giving gifts to friends and charity. And of course, what would a Jewish occasion be without symbolic food?

The most famous Purim treats are hamantaschen, triangle-shaped pastries traditionally filled with poppyseed paste but nowadays with jam, chocolate or other fillings. Most people who have grown up eating hamantaschen are told that they were created to represent the three-cornered hat worn by Haman, and the poppy seeds represent the seeds Jewish Queen Esther lived on to avoid eating non-kosher food in the palace. But is this the only explanation?

There is no historical evidence that three-cornered hats were worn in ancient Persia around Haman’s time so he probably never wore one. However, for centuries there have existed triangular-shaped pastries called oznayim (ears) that were eaten at times other than Purim. The first reference to these pastries at Purim-time came in the sixteenth century when a play written for a Purim carnival in Italy included a reference to oznei Haman (Haman’s ears). In Israel today the pastries are still known as oznei Haman.

In medieval Germany a triangular pastry stuffed with poppy seed paste was popular on the culinary scene among Jews and Christians alike. This delight was named a mohntasch, from the German words ‘mohn’ meaning ‘poppy seed’, and ‘tasch’ meaning ‘pocket’. Around the 17 century German and Eastern European Jews, who by now had the tradition of making mohntaschen around Purim, started to call them ‘hamantaschen’. The existence of the pastry with its classic filling before the name came about indicates that the poppy seeds may not refer to Esther living on seeds and beans while in the palace of King Ahasueros. But the name possibly harked back in Purim-style jest to Haman’s pockets, which according to legend, were always filled with bribe money.

Whether we decide that hamantaschen symbolise the hat, ears or pockets of Haman, the internet is bursting with recipes for these delicious treats – take your pick to give your family and friends a sweet and merry Purim.

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