In the Middle Ages, it was first eaten in Germany as a meat stew with parsnips and turnips, according to the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” which was published in 2010. Cooks added carrots when they became readily available in the 15th century; cut in circles like coins, they came to signify a wish for success in the new year. In later centuries, the dish went east with Jewish migration to Poland and Russia; potatoes were added in the 19th century, as were honey, plums and apricots for sweetness. (My husband’s mother made her tsimmes as a side dish with only carrots and honey, as they did in her native town of Zamosc, Poland, before World War II.)
When tsimmes traveled across the ocean to America in the late 19th century with mostly Eastern European Jewish immigrants, it became still sweeter with the introduction of sweet potatoes alongside white potatoes (later replacing them altogether), and the addition of brown sugar and cinnamon.
In Argentina, where tsimmes is sometimes served in a large pumpkin, it is similar to carbonada criolla, with meat, sweet potatoes and carrots, but also corn, squash and other vegetables found in South America. In Mexico, the dish might include chile powder, cilantro, mangoes and beans. And Lithuanian Jews, including those in South Africa, may add beets, with some cooks topping their tsimmes with a kugel crust made from potato and matzo meal for Passover.
When I asked Debbie why her dish tasted so good, she said that she makes it just the way her mother did, with only three ingredients: carrots, sweet potatoes and flanken, the German and Yiddish term for the chuck short ribs cut from the first five ribs, which are leaner and better for braising than plate short ribs. No spice, no onions.
Like Debbie I used flanken, but basically any cut with short ribs will do, as will high-quality beef stew meat. I kept the bones in for flavor and, rather than skimming the fat as it cooked, I put the stew pot in the refrigerator overnight so I could easily remove the hardened fat the next day. (A generation or two before me, people would have used that fat for cooking and baking.)