The Ambiguous Joys and Mysteries of Jewish Cuisine

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Over the centuries the Jewish people have wandered the face of the globe, sometimes integrating into their host society and in too many instances being forced into separate ghettos but at the same time absorbing various traditions of their adopted surroundings and adapting them to the unique religious and social requirements of their own community. This included adapting some of the local culinary traditions to conform to the kosher requirements thus interpreting “Jewish food” into a wide and somewhat undefinable genre of cooking. Throughout this history and under many different circumstances, the Jewish people have bequeathed a rich cultural heritage and culinary traditions to their new destinations adopting local customs, something that is strongly reflected in the different food cultures that developed in both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions.

The breadth of Jewish cooking is as wide and as far as Jews have traveled. The food culture  in different Jewish communities would by and large reflect the social and economic status of the Jews in that particular part of the world at a specific point in time. Many classic Jewish foods and dishes also reflect Kashrut*, the laws that pertain to dietary restrictions as well as religious observances that apply to issues of food and cooking in general. Because of these diverse stimuluses and circumstances, Jewish cuisine has no one defining definition apart from the laws of Kashrut, but rather a wide range of influences that left their mark and guided the Jewish kitchen to become what it is today.

In our Kitchen

My mother’s cooking was indicative of most Jewish mothers who are programmed to force-feed their families.

*Culinary historians generally agree that the origins of force-feeding geese to produce enlarged fatty livers was in Pharos’s Egypt possible by Jewish farmers who eventually this force-feeding technique across Europe to Alsace…I can see the connection!!!

In our home as a working-class Ashkenazy Jewish family of “fressers”* there was always an emphasis on food. There was the obligatory gefilte fish.  In our case coming from Jewish English heritage this came in the form of “chopped fried” gefilte fish as well as the gelatinous boiled variety.

There was always gehackte Leber and gehackter herring (chopped liver and chopped herring to those deprived of a good deli upbringing).

There were also always the typical deli tidbits to nosh on, pickled cucumber, olives, Polish Wurst sausage, schmaltz herring, heady aromatic cheeses and heavy caraway seed bread as well as Challah on Shabbat.

Potato latkes always made us smile and of course roast chicken on special occasions with potato kugel. And then there was the crowning glory…lokshen soup, a glorious golden chicken broth full of carrots, onions and celery. We always fought over the prized tidbits, the neck which inevitably went to my father who would spend an eternity sucking, very noisily the last pieces of flesh from the gristle. Added to this was the lokshen or vermicelli

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Jewish cooking has always been closely influenced with its immediate environment. In many instances’ typical local dishes which in their original form did not conform to the strict Kosher dietary rules were re-worked to comply with Kashrut and  transformed into a hybrid version of the original thus becoming synonymous with the Jewish food culture of these communities.

On the other hand it is also an anomaly that the exact opposite has happened in that many well-known dishes associated with the national cuisine of certain countries in fact have Jewish roots. For example Jewish Italian cuisine was shaped by the social separation of the Jews in Medieval Italian society and the foodstuffs left to them and rejected by the locals.

In the middle ages those food that today are synonymous with Italian cuisine such as eggplant, tomato, zucchini and fennel were considered “The vile foods of the Jews”;

Familiar Italian dishes such as caponata, fennel gratin, fritto misto, carciofi alla Guidia (artichokes Jewish style) can all be traced back to the original Jewish Italian communities. 

The manufacturing of Balsamic Vinegar has also been tied to the ancient Jewish community of Modena and indeed it may well have been Jews who advocated the use of the tomato which didn’t reach Europe until around 1500, brought back either by Christopher Columbus or the conquistador Hernán Cortés.

You may be surprised to learn that fish and chips,  Britain’s favorite food, can be traced back to 16th-century Jews fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition finding refuge in the British Isles.

Fish was notably important for Marranos,* the crypto-Jews, forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition who ate fish on Fridays, when meat was forbidden by the Church, and also saving some to eat cold the next day at lunch to avoid cooking on Shabbat.

Frying is a typical cooking method in Jewish kitchens — think of  Latkes (potato pancakes) and “soofganiot” (fried doughnuts) representative of Hanukkah celebrations.  As the Jewish community began to flourish in England, it spurred a taste for its beloved fried, battered fish throughout the country.

According to Claudia Roden’s “The Book of Jewish Food,” Thomas Jefferson tried some on a trip to London and said he ate “fish in the Jewish fashion” during his visit.

It is not totally agreed when  “chips” were added to the “fish” but the official pairing of fish and chips didn’t happen until later, and even though disputed, it seems that once again it is credited to a Jewish cook, a young Ashkenazi immigrant named Joseph Malin, who opened the first British chippy, aka fish and chip shop, in London in 1863. The shop was so successful it remained in business until the 1970s.

Slow Food!

There is one dish that is truly identified as being genuinely Jewish and eaten in most all Jewish households – the iconic Shabbat Cholent (Ashkenazic) or Hamin (Sephardic). A dish created for the need to observe the rule of not starting fires, no creating or cooking raw food on the Shabbat. To obey this injunction, Jewish cooks created a slow cooked stew from meats, vegetables and pulses that would simmer slowly, sometimes in the local baker’s oven overnight. The stew would be prepared on Friday before sundown, cooked partially, and then placed in the oven or over a very low heat to continue cooking throughout the night.

Eastern European Ashkenazy style cholent contains meat, potatoes, white beans and barley and the Sephardic Hamin is  made with chickpeas, rice or hulled wheat, potatoes, meat, and whole eggs. The Iraqi and Halab (Syrian) Jews made an overnight slow cooked casserole of rice, chicken and tomato called T’bit…

Whatever style of cholent or Hamin is cooked there is absolutely no doubt that the glorious scent of this iconic 24-hour, slow cooked stew that  permeates the air on Shabbat mornings is the aroma that the Jewish people have come to love and cherish throughout the ages.

One could even say that the Jews invented  “slow food” before it became all the rage!

Jewish Cuisine and its latest manifestation into Israeli Cuisine

A major head scratcher for first time visitors to Israel is the lack of “typical” Jewish dishes (i.e. Ashkenazi / Eastern European )  which have become widely identified  as  Jewish food. There is still smoked salmon and cream cheese served in the hotel’s typical “Israeli” breakfast but you would be really searching to find bagels like you find in London, New York and Montreal. Gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup are usually reserved for a once or twice a year festive dinner but this will still always be served side by side with “Chraime” Moroccan spicy fish.

There are  still  cafes and restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that do serve Eastern European Jewish dishes but you are more likely to see that the typical Israeli home food and street food is a fusion of Mediterranean / Middle Eastern traditions and ingredients adopted from local Arab dishes, such as falafel, hummus, and shawarma as well as the Sephardic tradition of cuisine reflecting the influence of Jews  immigrating to Israel from the diaspora of North Africa, Iraq, Iran etc.

The pre-state Jewish population of what was then the British mandated territory of Palestine, both town dwellers and the pioneers of the kibbutz and moshav communal farming communities adopted the local products that grew well along the Mediterranean coastline, as well as the many dishes adapted from the indigenous Arab kitchens.

The early years of Israeli statehood from1948 were marked by the arrival of immigrants who poured into the new state from the horrors of the holocaust and war-torn Europe as well as Jews fleeing those Arab states that had collectively declared war on the newly formed Jewish state.  They were immediately plunged into austerity and the rationing of basic food stuffs was a necessary part of daily life. They made due with the local produce that incorporated such vegetables as Aubergine, which grew in abundance and incorporated the many foods traditionally included in the Middle Eastern diet, so that spices like za’atar and dishes such as falafel, hummus, msabbha, shakshouka and couscous have become today synonymous with modern Israeli cuisine.  Even spawning such  contemporary dishes as “sabich”, an Iraqi influenced pita sandwich stuffed with fired eggplant slices, hard boiled egg, pickled and “amba” a traditional Iraqi mango relish. .

Over the years, as more Jewish immigrants from the English, French and Spanish speaking countries as well as North Africa, Yemen, Russia and Ethiopia began arriving and integrating into Israeli society, each with their own unique style of cooking, the creation of a sort of  “Israeli Cuisine” began to formulate although these different cuisines at the traditional level are still categorized into their individual ethnic types.

Modern Jewish / Israel cuisine has evolved and grown over time but those classic ethnic dishes, the ones that smell and taste of home have influenced a whole generation of new Israeli chefs  back to their roots no matter where those roots originated. From the shtetls and ghettos of Poland and Hungary to the bustling bazaars and mellahs of Egypt and Morocco, Jewish Israeli food has evolved and diversified while holding on to strong traditions, creating an unbroken link between the journeys of the Jewish people and the food that they eat today.

In recent years, Israelis have developed a more diversified palate, with Thai, Italian and Mexican restaurants easy to find on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, some kosher some definitely not! And even though the Middle Eastern and Arabic influenced  cuisines are still the predominant local style, Ashkenazy style food is making a comeback! New York style delicatessens, burger joints and Jewish European restaurants as well as some local chefs are beginning to break the mold and bring back the European Jewish influenced cuisines into the Israeli food scene.

As part of the nouveau Israeli food movement, which is integrating diaspora Jewish traditions from around the world, there’s a renewed interest in Classic European Jewish fare. Chopped liver is working its way onto fusion menus, marinated and picked fish is de rigueur at high-end restaurants alongside more local ingredients like chilies, pomegranates and avocados and the chicken schnitzel with spicy tomato ragout (“matbucha”) in a challah bread sandwich is the latest street food trend…

There are many ways we can look at the development of the Jewish Cuisine phenomena.

Is it even a cuisine in the normal ethnic sense or is it a harlequin of  diverse cuisines amalgamated through a turbulent history of dispersal, wanderings and the coming back together without ever losing that love of life and family represented through the foods eaten.

Similar to many other cultures the Jewish food experience represents life, family, national identity and to living in the moment.  But it is also different in how the food culture was created and its all-encompassing presence in the Jewish psyche that has created a vibrant and diverse food culture drawn from the unique Jewish experience.

It is all about the Jewish mother doting on her family and the reservist soldier doing his “Milluim”* annual call-up who brings his own ingredients from home because he wants to cook and create a taste of home for his fellow soldiers.

One cannot think of the Israeli and the Jewish food culture  as separate phenomenon without considering the importance that food plays in the identity of the people, the religion and the country. Passion, intensity and “Hutzpah”* are both things which are not in short supply in Israel and this amazing food culture incorporates them all .

*Fresser    – (Yiddish); a big eater usually applied with at least a small degree of admiration

*Kashrut – is a set of religious dietary requirements dealing with the foods that Jews are permitted to eat and how those foods must be prepared according to Jewish religious laws

*Marranos – Spanish and Portuguese Jews living in the Iberian Peninsula who converted or were forced to convert to Christianity during the Middle Ages

*Hutzpah – (Yiddish); audacity. cheekiness, insolence, impertinence, gall – the trait of being rude and impertinent; inclined to take liberties.

*“Milluim”   (Hebrew) Reserve army duty

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