Tamatiebredie

Finished and plated tamatiebredie with mieliepap.
Finished and plated tamatiebredie with mieliepap. (Photo mine, June 2017)

My grandmother is of the soup-and-stew school of cooking. Even today at 90, when she lives in a retirement home in Israel, she still helps herself to a generous portion of soup in the cafeteria at each meal. Back when she and my grandfather used to come to our house in New York for months at a time, the kitchen would be filled with South African and Ashkenazi Jewish soups and stews – lentil soup, cabbage soup, and fish curry among them. This food was hearty – and tasty. One that I perhaps remember best, however, was not the soup, but the sweet and meaty taste of the South African tamatiebredie – a throwback to my grandmother’s childhood in the Cape, and very delicious.

Tamatiebredie is the history of Cape Town in a bowl. The recipe itself is a classic stew that could come from any of the city’s cultural influences. The meat comes from both the pastoral traditions of San and Xhosa peoples that originally inhabited the Cape and the Eastern Cape, but also the European livestock then imported to South Africa. The sweet flavor with the meat comes from Indonesia, from where the Dutch imported thousands of enslaved people to the Cape in the 18th century. The tomatoes, star of the show, came from the New World via Spain to the Dutch, who then brought it both to South Africa and to Indonesia, partly with the assistance of Jewish traders. Cinnamon and cloves recall Cape Town’s original purpose: to stock Dutch trading ships going to Indonesia for its spices (and, unfortunately, to perpetuate genocide and take away people to be enslaved in South Africa). Like the Afrikaans language, this is not a pure product of Europe, but rather a mix of Europe, Asia, and Africa brought together by colonialism, yet perhaps beautiful in subverting all its norms.

Tamatiebredie recipe in Afrikaans, with a picture

Tamatiebredie and other dishes – such as kerrievis – are primarily associated with the Cape Coloured community, an ethnic group descended from Africans, Asians, and Europeans that form the majority of Afrikaans speakers. Many, often called “Cape Malays,” trace most of their descent to enslaved Indonesians brought to South Africa in the 18th century, and form the better part of Cape Town’s community of 400,000 Muslims. Though now claimed by many white Afrikaners as “their own,” this dish – like the Afrikaans language – really began in this community.

It is often said that Ashkenazi Jews in South Africa “kept” a certain “authentic” Eastern European cuisine alive in South Africa. But beyond that, many Jews adopted local dishes into their repertoire, often with an idea that these were donated by Afrikaners. Indeed, a few – such as rusks, melktert, a custard tart, or the doughnut skuinkoekdid come from Afrikaners. But many more, such as mielie pap, samp and beans, fish curries, and tamatiebredie, were often given or taken from Cape Coloured and Black domestic workers and laborers Jews encountered in South Africa – not just those who could afford domestic labor, but also those who encountered these groups as customers in small shops and in their daily lives. (It should be noted here that Ashkenazi Jews have been considered “white” in South Africa since the 1880s.) My own great-grandmother, for example, served dozens of Black and Cape Coloured laborers every day from her small food shop in the 1930s. This history has largely been forgotten – and conveniently so, since it also avoids the thorny topic of Jews having domestic workers or white privilege in South Africa. But the influence is still there – and is now, perhaps, more celebrated. Even in the 1960s, South African Jewish cookbooks cited tamatiebredie and kerrievis as classic “Malay” dishes.

 

My tamatiebredie is a tad sweeter and a tad more piquant than my grandmother’s sultry version. I not only add more sugar, but I also add more pepper and paprika – the latter of which is a perhaps unorthodox addition. You can vary the spice content as you wish – I prefer the sweetness of the tomatoes to come out – and serve it with any carbohydrate. Rice is traditional and probably the best, but when I last made tamatiebredie I served it with mieliepap – the polenta-like corn gruel that is a staple in Southern Africa. A heretical combination by a heretical cook, but delicious.

Tamatiebredie

Based on recipes by Esther Katz, Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker, and Barbara Joubert

2.5 lbs/1 kg lamb stew meat, chopped into pieces

2 large onions, diced

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons table salt

2 teaspoons ground pepper

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground paprika

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground pepper

2 fresh tomatoes, chopped

2 cans canned whole tomatoes, chopped + any juice (separate the tomatoes and the juice)

2 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons table sugar

1lb/500g small potatoes, chopped

Vegetable oil

  1. Heat a deep pot over high heat, and add oil. Then, add the lamb. Brown the meat until just brown, about 2 minutes. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  2. Add a bit more oil, then add the onions. Sauté until just soft, about 2 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic and spices. Sauté for another minute, or until the garlic begins to soften and release its smell.
  4. Add the tomatoes but not the juice. Mix well, and then sauté for 4-5 minutes or until the fresh tomatoes start to soften.
  5. Add the lamb back in and mix thoroughly. Sauté for another two minutes.
  6. Add the tomato juice, chicken stock, and sugar and mix well. The meat-tomato mixture should be just covered now by the “broth.” Bring to a boil.
  7. Once the mixture is boiling, lower the heat and simmer the stew, covered, for one hour, stirring occasionally. The meat should soften and the tomatoes will “melt” a little.
  8. After the hour, add the potatoes and mix in well. Simmer for another 40 minutes uncovered, or until the sauce is reduced and thick and the potatoes are soft. The bredie is now ready, serve hot over rice, or if you’re a heretic like me, mieliepap.

Thank you to Ziva Freiman and Lexi Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing.

Kook soos ‘n Jood: Jewish Snapshots in Afrikaans Recipes

Your author has been on holiday for two weeks in South Africa visiting his relatives and taking a break from all the stress and tsuris of New York. While here, I’ve also been brushing up on my much-forgotten Afrikaans, and delighting in all the delicious food of the Afrikaans-speaking cultures: the peppery and sumptuous Cape Malay cuisine, the hearty Afrikaner cuisine, and the many delicious things Cape Town has to offer. Anyway, while brushing through Afrikaans cookbooks I’ve also spotted a few parallels with Jewish foods that I’ve felt compelled to share.

“Welna se saadbeskuit” – Sonskynkafee, Mariëtte Crafford

“Coffee in our world is not “coffee” unless there is a biscuit that goes with”

The recipe: a more refined take on the traditional South African rusk, with lots of seeds. South African rusks (“beskuit” in Afrikaans) are somewhat plainer, although still absolutely delicious. Crafford’s version contains sesame, rapeseed, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, and linseed alongside coconut and bran – and the final version is probably quite nutty, though still sweet.

The Jewishness: I’ve often opined that the rusk/“beskuit” is different from the Ashkenazi “Mandelbrot” – the former is chunky and rich and very rustic, the latter is refined and nutty and terribly elegant. But this recipe reminds us: authenticity is bullshit. This is an Afrikaans rusk with many elegant seeds, this is a delightfully chunky Mandelbrot with buttermilk. Buttermilk! Our ancestors in Eastern Europe would have certainly approved – especially of the poppy seeds.

Tamatiebredie recipe in Afrikaans, with a picture

“Tamatiebredie” Kook saam Kaaps, Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker

“If you are not satisfied, you will not be very happy either.”

The recipe: a Cape Malay classic, the tamatiebredie, a luscious meat stew cooked in a surprisingly sweet tomato sauce. Sometimes it is cooked with beef, but more often – and here too – it is cooked with mutton The dish is a blend of the flavors brought by Malay slaves taken to South Africa during Dutch colonial rule, Dutch cooking methods, African meat, tomatoes from the New World, and a stewing method common to many cultures. (This admixture – contrary to apartheid and white nationalist lore – is also what produced the Afrikaans language, with its melodic rhythms and endless diminutives.) The recipe here is deceptively simple and utterly delicious.

The Jewishness: similar sweet meat dishes with a tomato sauce are common across Europe and North Africa – it is a formula for many recipes that Jewish traders brought with them from their own participation in early transatlantic trade. Sometimes it is cooked with okra, sometimes it is cooked with beans, and sometimes other ingredients are added. Of course, it is also sometimes very simply stewed meat with tomatoes – like the tabikha of Algerian Jews. This recipe may have been introduced to Dutch Jews, and then the Dutch, from the Ottomans or the Venetians – where Jews first encountered the tomato in the 16th century. Nowadays, tamatiebredie itself has been adopted by many South African Jews: I remember eating my grandmother’s slightly piquant take on it as a child.

Eierbootjies recipe in Afrikaans

“Eierbootjies” – Uitgerys, by Mareli Visser

“I like a runny egg, because egg yolk is, for me, the tastiest sauce in the world.”

The recipe: a lovely, puffy bread filled with cheese with a cracked egg on top, based on “several versions found on the internet.” The name is literally “little egg boats.” It’s hardly a traditional South African recipe, but uses the bread and eggs in such a familiar way. Like other places, South Africa too has had quite an “internationalization” of food in recent years. This recipe is presented as somewhat Italian – what with the mozzarella cheese and everything.

The Jewishness: this is basically a ­khachapuri – a delightful Georgian Jewish cheese boat often served with a fried egg on top. Differently, the cheese used is a slightly saltier and lighter sulgumi. But essentially, the recipe is the same. And wherever it is from, this is a delicious concept.

Bonus: another recipe in this book, for the South African doughnut skuinskoek, is essentially a classic recipe for the Yiddish pontshik with the delightful additions of anise and butter. I am absolutely making these for Hanukkah this year!

Kasha Varnishkes with Mushrooms

Kasha varnishkes in a metal bowl
Kasha varnishkes. (Photo mine, May 2017)

There are some Ashkenazi Jewish dishes that I can easily explain to people who are not familiar with that style of cooking. Kneidlach are a classic case of “carbs in soup,” latkes are giant hash browns, and even p’tcha is a sort of 1950s aspic, but far older. (And generally tastier.) Cabbage soups make sense in many cultures, as do soft and sweet breads like challah. But then there are the ones that find confusion among Americans – the pickled herring and poppy seed filling, for example.  But none have caused quite as many perplexed looks as kasha varnishkes – roasted buckwheat groats with noodles.

“What is buckwheat?” “Is that a health nut thing?” “You eat grains with noodles?”

Kasha varnishkes is a delicious dish – nutty and savory, with hints of carbohydrate sweetness and a touch of tannin from the buckwheat. Though it has dropped off the mainstream radar in recent years, other than a reference in Seinfeld, it is still a treasured treat for many Jews. The dish itself has a fascinating history. Kasha, or buckwheat, has been present in Jewish cooking since the 12th century, when Mongol and Tatar invaders introduced buckwheat to Eastern Europe from Siberia and China. The plant – grain-like, but botanically not a grass like wheat – was well-adapted to the climate of northeastern Europe, and quickly became a mainstay of the local diet. The groats were usually roasted for better flavor, easier digestion, and longer storage time – roasted groats can keep for months in cool and dry spaces. Kasha varnishkes initially began as vareniki, or pierogi, stuffed with buckwheat. However, the dish soon became buckwheat with onions and strips of pasta, which skipped the laborious process of stuffing the dumplings. In the United States, the recipe then became popular with bowtie pasta, made initially in imitation of the Italian farfalle. Today, kasha varnishkes is almost always made with this pasta.

In this preparation, I made the kasha varnishkes with mushrooms. Kasha with mushrooms is another Jewish recipe with a long history – it was a particular favorite in pre-war Lithuania. Today one does not encounter kasha varnishkes with mushrooms too often in Jewish spaces, but the meatiness of the mushrooms complements the buckwheat quite well. Alone this dish is a delicious meal – especially with an egg – but it also makes a wonderful side dish.

Kasha Varnishkes with Mushrooms

2 cups buckwheat groats

1 lb bowtie pasta

1 lb white mushrooms, chopped

1 medium onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon white vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Water

Vegetable oil, schmaltz, or butter

  1. If your buckwheat groats are not roasted, roast the buckwheat groats first. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C, and lay out the groats flat on a cookie sheet or a big pan. Roast the groats for 15 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Remove from the oven.
  2. Cook the bowtie pasta according to package instructions – generally speaking, about nine minutes in briskly boiling salted water. Set aside.
  3. In the meantime, heat a pan. Add oil, and then the onions and garlic. Sauté for a minute or until the onions begin to soften.
  4. Add the mushrooms, vinegar, salt, and pepper to the onion-garlic mixture. Sauté for another five to ten minutes, stirring regularly, or until the mushrooms have softened. When the mushrooms are soft and the onions very soft, remove from the heat.
  5. In the meantime, bring four cups of water to a boil. When the water is boiling, add the buckwheat groats. Simmer, stirring regularly, for ten minutes, or until the buckwheat has absorbed all the water and is soft to the tooth.*
  6. Mix the components together: pasta, buckwheat, and the mushroom mixture. They should be evenly distributed. I mix the pasta and mushrooms first, then the buckwheat. Serve hot or warm.

*Some people claim that coating the groats in beaten egg helps them not to stick together. I counter that if your buckwheat is too sticky, you have added too much water. Besides, fluffing with a fork is a very easy way to fix this problem.

Thank you to Ziva Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

BONUS: For another great variation on kasha varnishkes, check out The Gefilte Manifesto‘s version with crisp Brussels sprouts!

Eggplant Salad

Eggplant salad with peppers and garlic
Eggplant salad with peppers and garlic. Photo mine, April 2017.

Recently, I have found myself craving eggplant all the time – and I have perhaps become addicted to the tannic and earthy taste of a vegetable that is actually a giant berry. And so, given my passions and my interests, I have also been researching the Jewish history of this most extraordinary plant. Today, the eggplant is so associated with Israel that it is difficult to believe that eggplants were not, in fact, present during the First and Second Temple period. Rather, the plant is from India – and the word “aubergine” in English and French comes via Arabic and Persian from the Sanskrit vatiga-gamah, which might be related to the word for flatulence. I cannot speak to that effect, but I can say that eggplants reached the Jewish Mediterranean in about the 7th century CE.

White, five-petaled flower of a wild eggplant, with little green fruit behind.
Flower of a wild eggplant. (Photo Michael Khor/CC-Flickr)

Eggplants have long been a beloved mainstay of Sephardic cooking – and show up in all sorts of pastries, stews, and salads. Folk songs wage a fight between the eggplant and tomato (another newcomer), which were long considered the two favorite vegetables of the Sephardi community. In Morocco, Jews and non-Jews make a pungent and delicious salad called za’alouk with eggplant, as well as a lovely eggplant jam. Moroccan Jews even candy eggplant! Ashkenazi Jews historically only ate eggplant in Hungary and Romania, but developed an attachment to the plant there as well. Eggplants were one of the first foods adopted by settlers in Israel and Palestine in the early 20th century, and today eggplant might as well be a food group in Israel.

Eggplant pieces
Delicious eggplant, before cooking. (Photo mine, March 2016.)

This salad is a riff on a recipe more typical in Israel today – one often called a “Moroccan” eggplant salad, though it is somewhat different from typical salades cuites. As in North Africa and Turkey, “salad” in Hebrew, or salat, can also refer to small plates of vegetable dishes served at the beginning or as part of a meal. Even in English, the term salatim is now frequently used among Hebrew-speaking Jews. The eggplant used in Israel is smaller and fried more deeply in oil, whereas I have used the larger Mediterranean eggplant. I also have added more garlic, because garlic is delicious. In any case, this eggplant salad – though given that it is cooked I hesitate to say “salad” – is easy, delicious, and goes well with many other dishes.

Fried Eggplant Salad (Salat Khatzilim Metuganim)

2 small-to-medium eggplants, chopped into 1cm/ 1/3 inch slices (optionally salted)

1 bell pepper, finely chopped

1 chili pepper, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tbsp lemon juice

Salt, to taste

Olive or vegetable oil

  1. Heat a wide skillet or pan, then add about 2cm/1 inch of oil. Fry the eggplant in the oil until soft and darkened on both sides, flipping as necessary.
  2. Remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil in the pan. Set the eggplant aside to cool.
  3. In the same oil, sauté the peppers and garlic until the pepper begins to soften and the garlic is thoroughly browned. Remove, with the oil, from the heat. Set aside to cool.
  4. Mix the leftover oil-garlic-pepper mixture with the lemon juice. Then, pour this “dressing” over the eggplant, and mix well.
  5. Add salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Five Myths About Medieval Cuisines – and Jewish Foods and Books to Unlearn Them

Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica, with ink illustrations of the flowers
Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica. (British Museum, public domain)

Your humble author has been on a bit of a “spice binge” over the past month – in that he has been steadily gobbling up books about the history of spice and sugar cultivation. And so much of this literature is on the medieval spice trade – one that spawned colonialism, far-flung trade, and globalization as we know it. Medieval Europeans, Arabs, North Africans, and Middle Easterners loved their spices, and couldn’t get enough of valuable aromatics traded through complex networks from halfway across the world. And from the spices, I have been learning about the deeply different – and yet eerily familiar – cuisine of Europe in the High Middle Ages.

Many traditional Jewish dishes are holdovers from medieval recipes. Ashkenazi recipes such as kugel and forshmak grew out of late medieval German-Jewish cooking, and many Sephardi recipes grew from the pre-expulsion late medieval food of Spain. (Spanish travelers were shocked to find Sephardim eating quince jam in the 19th century, just like Spaniards in the motherland.) Some Iranian Jewish recipes date back over a millennium. When I have told friends, in conversation, about the age of many Jewish dishes, they seem surprised. “Wasn’t medieval food…bad?” Well, not always.

We believe a lot of myths about medieval European and Arab cooking. Some of these myths have a kernel of truth to them – and, of course, the food consumed in 1200 was very different to that consumed today. We know this from manuscripts, archaeology, and surrounding history. But many of these myths are the exact opposite of what actually happened – both in Jewish food and more generally in the food of the old world. Many Jewish recipes offer counterpoints to these myths, and serve as an example of what happened to food more generally in European and Middle Eastern history. So, here I will briefly discuss the five myths I’ve heard most frequently – with the Jewish foods and books that offer lessons in the other direction.

Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter - men and women dressed in gold eating confections and drinking, with a bearded servant and a young boy in a scarf attending
Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter (England, 14th century). Many of the confections being consumed were probably heavily spiced in real life. (British Library, public domain)
  1. Medieval Europeans did not eat things from outside their area – and hence their food was bland. Food trade is as old as civilization itself: imported spices were found in archaeological digs at Sumer. Medieval people were no different – and there was plenty of movement of people and goods in medieval times that also brought different foods and different methods of preparing food throughout medieval realms. Exotic spices and foods were much-prized, and many crops were introduced by new rulers, such as citrus in Spain by Arab rulers. This did not make a bland cuisine – and besides, people in all civilizations had been seasoning their food with local goods for millennia.
Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
P’tcha? Nope, pihtije – the Serbian p’tcha. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

Jewish food: P’tcha. This calf’s foot aspic is famous for turning heads and stomachs, but many Ashkenazi Jews – including myself – find it quite delicious. In my experience, it is often trotted out by nationalists as an example of “declining” Jewish culture – because people “do not eat it anymore” – and by others as an example of “weird” or “lost” Jewish food. In the 18th and 19th century, p’tcha  was a delicacy that was saved for special occasions, for it took a long time to make. Now, it’s still common enough in Haredi communities and making a hipster comeback. This dish, however, is not really Jewish in origin – but Tatar. Turkic tribes, ancestors of today’s Tatars, introduced soups made of cow or sheep feet to Eastern Europe in the 13th century during Mongol rule. Hence the name p’tchaand the similar Serbian pihtije  – comes from the Turkic word for “leg” (paça in Modern Turkish). And while Sephardim eat calf’s foot soup hot, Ashkenazim and other Eastern European peoples developed an aspic out of it. Heads up: p’tcha is an upcoming blog recipe.

Book recommendation: A Taste for Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice, by Michael Krondl. This book is a wonderful biography of the spice trade in Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam, and how each of these cities was really made important initially by their trade in spices. He also takes copious notes in Venice of the city’s medieval cooking – and how much of Italian food today is from the late 19th century. He also does excellent due diligence in noting the Indonesian influences on Dutch culture that go back centuries.

Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Rylands Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain. The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb's blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. (
Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Rylands Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain. The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb’s blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. Medieval Sephardic cuisine was, like its Spanish and Arab neighbors, highly spiced. (University of Manchester, public domain via Arizona Jewish Post).
  1. Medieval people used spices to hide the taste of meat or fish that had gone off. This myth is based on the assumption that because medieval people did not have refrigeration, they were constantly dealing with food that was rotten, so pickling and spicing developed to hide the rotten taste. In fact, the opposite is true in some part: pickling and spicing preserved foods that were liable to go off quickly. Many spices were used with salt to preserve meat, and many foods were pickled and thus able to “keep” for longer. Such is the origins of today’s salted meats, sausages, herrings, lox, and other goodies. In any case, those who could afford spices generally could afford the freshest meat. Here, too, spices came to play other roles: they were seen as correcting “harmful” qualities of a fresh food, thus bringing their “humors” into balance. Spices were as essential to the medieval Galenic medical system as they were to cuisine – and humors were discussed as nutrients are today. Those most likely to deal with rotting food – the poor and peasants – generally did not have spices either.
Escabeche
Escabeche. (Photo Pisco Trail)

Jewish food: Escabeche. This recipe originated as an Arab and Jewish preparation for cooked fish, which it remains today. In escabeche, cooked fish is preserved in a heavily spiced vinegar mixture, often alongside anchovies. Vinegar was not meant to hide the taste of overripe fish, but rather to keep the fish not rotten. Hence the sauce must be acidic enough to preserve the fish. Spaniards continued to prepare escabeche after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and brought the recipe to Latin America and the Philippines. Jews, meanwhile, prepared the recipe in Turkey, France, and the Netherlands, and from the latter the dish ended up across the Dutch and French colonial empires too. Today, dozens of variations exist around the world – including the garlicky Catalan version, the eggplant-filled Uruguayan recipe (link in Spanish), and of course the simple and elegant Filipino recipe. Of course, escabeche is still found on Jewish tables too. Escabeche is also the origin of my favorite dish from my parents’ homeland of South Africa, Kaapse kerrievis. The Capetonian version has Malay and African influence! (I’m also planning to make this for you.)

Book recommendation: Out of the East, by Paul Freedman. In this book, Freedman explores many of the ways spices were used – as an approximation of Eden, an expression of class, and as a stimulant and flavoring. In addition, many scholars now note that some spices, including cloves and pepper, have antimicrobial properties that aid in keeping food fresh.

Manuscript illustration of Richard II dining with his dukes in a lavishly decorated dining room.
Richard II dining – and drinking – with his dukes in the Chronique d’Angleterre (Bruges, late 15th century). The boat probably contains salt. (British Library, public domain)
  1. Medieval peasants and medieval kings ate mostly the same food. I’ve heard this myth peddled by a few starry-eyed leftists who believe that everything “pre-capitalist” was good. (This is also a terrible reading of Marx.) But in medieval times, the starkest inequality was in food. Nobility, the wealthy, and those of other privileged classes generally enjoyed a much higher standard of nutrition – and a much more varied and secure diet – than their less fortunate counterparts. For the majority, poor and peasants, food was much more monotonous, much less secure, and of lower quality across the board. Even if famine was rare, diseases related to malnutrition such as pellagra were not. In fact, the lot of the rural poor would not significantly improve in many parts of Europe and the Middle East until the twentieth century – and despite problems, food is far more equally distributed now than in the Middle Ages. In the cultural realm, divisions of food by class were cemented by ideologies that someone naturally “born” into a station should not eat food of other stations. According to this narrative, nobility would be sick if they ate gruel, and a peasant would be sick if they ate white bread. Inequality in food was not only a fact of life, it was taken as the order of the world.

Jewish food: Rye and wheat bread. Bread was the truly the medieval staff of life – and bread and gruels often accounted for 80-90% of a peasant’s calorie intake. Across much of Central and Eastern Europe, the “base grain” for such bread was rye. Though we often think of dark rye breads as a somewhat upscale “ethnic” food, rye was often specifically not a luxurious or even slightly special food for most medieval Europeans. Rather, it was a base grain for an often impure bread filled with other additives – seeds, nuts, and so on – that wrecked digestive systems. Poorer folks often relied on grain that had gone off, leading to ergot poisoning. The wealthy, however, tended to eat higher-quality bread – rye breads, mixed breads, and above all white breads – for whiter flour was far more expensive. The breads tended also to have fewer additions, and were generally better proportioned with the rest of the diet. No wonder then that in the 19th century, when mass-produced white bread first became available to the working class, it was incredibly popular – it was far less dangerous and seen as healthier.

Book recommendation: Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire is magnificent, and very informative to this particular discussion. Laudan is very firm about the fact that food for the hoi polloi until very recently, by and large, was monotonous and not always secure, whilst the food of nobility, kings, and the wealthy was far better.

Three baked challahs
Baked challahs. This is a royal bread. (Photo mine, October 2016)
  1. There were no noodles in Italy or the Mediterranean before Marco Polo brought them in the late 13th century. One of the most commonly attributed traits to Marco Polo is “the man who gave Italians pasta” – but by this time, Italians had been eating pasta for centuries. Noodles spread from China through the Silk Road to Persia during the fifth century, and are first mentioned outside China by the Jerusalem Talmud as itriyot, and later in the Babylonian Talmud as rihata – both words of Persian origin. Pastas such as rishta, lissan, and couscous were common in the medieval Arab world, from which they were introduced to Sicily, Spain, and Southern Italy by the tenth century. Pastas became popular in Sicilian and Sephardic Jewish cooking. Meanwhile, lokshen – the Ashkenazi noodle – reached Eastern Europe both from Central Asia and Provence via Germany by the fourteenth century. The Yiddish lokshen derives from the Persian word lakhsha, or “to slide.” In any case, by the time Marco Polo came back from China in the 1290s, Jews and non-Jews alike in Italy were chowing down on all sorts of pastas and noodles – though the explorer may have introduced new varieties of noodle to Venice, from which recipes spread throughout Europe. Arab Jews continued to eat their own ever-evolving noodles.

Jewish food: Jerusalem Kugel – a noodle kugel made with a tantalizing caramel with a heavy dose of ground black pepper. Though the recipe only dates to the early 19th century, Jerusalem kugel has a most medieval spice combination of black pepper and sugar – one that would not have been out of place for the many sweet-spicy pasta recipes of Medieval Italy. In some ways, the Chasidic families who invented it travelled back in time. I recommend this recipe by Giora Shimoni.

Book recommendation: Oddly enough, Claudia Roden’s A Book of Jewish Food has many recipes for noodles that are somewhat similar to the noodle dishes consumed by Arab Jews in the medieval world.

Rosemary
Rosemary – one of the few things that has constantly been used in Mediterranean cuisines. (Photo mine, December 2016)
  1. What constitutes national culinary traditions now is directly descended from what people ate in these places in the Middle Ages. One of the more outrageous claims of nationalism and the cult-like worship of “authenticity” is an idea that the “national” culinary traditions of today have a history that stretches back to the medieval. This is quite far from the truth. The ingredients, prevailing norms, and social context of food in the Middle Ages, across the Christian and Islamic worlds in which Jews lived, were very different from today. The boundaries of dishes and foods were different. Communities were identified differently. And how people related to the food on their plate was very different. National culinary traditions – including the “French” and “Italian” traditions we often think of as seminal and timeless – were largely invented in the 19th century, products of increased wealth, nationalism, and romantic and ahistorical ideas of country life. Widespread education spread these dishes, because they were “taught.” And though many of the recipes themselves reach back to the medieval era, it is likely that a Venetian or Parisian from the 15th century dropped into Venice or Paris today would not only not recognize the “national cuisine” of her home city, but would find that their tastes hewed much closer to North African or Turkish food today.

Jewish food: Spinach with raisins and pine nuts. This was a recipe that was indeed eaten in the Middle Ages, and all these ingredients were popular at the time as well. The preparation itself came with Jews from Catalonia to Italy through trade. However, the sweet-savory combination in Italy later lost favor, and the dish became a largely Jewish recipe that only gained widespread popularity after World War II. Italian cuisine, meanwhile, moved from a sweet-sour complex to an herbal one, and began to limit sweet foods to dessert in imitation of the French from the 18th century. So now, this spinach dish, Jewish in origin, is “Jewish” once again – though it was very popular in Northern Italy during the late Middle Ages.

Book recommendation: Sidney Mintz’s classic Sweetness and Power is important for two reasons: one, it clearly outlines how sugar played an integral part in colonialism and the slave trade; two, it shows how the European diet was fundamentally altered by a regular sugar supply for the poor and the introduction of tea and coffee, both of which often “needed” sugar. The entry of sugar, just like changing performances of class and adjustments in the commonality of spices, radically rejigged European cuisine, and as a result what was common in 1700 was very different from what was common in 1800. Jam, for one.

Qatayef with cheese and pistachios
Qatayef (Photo Abbad Diraneyya via Wikimedia Commons)

BONUS: In the Middle Ages many of the culinary cues were taken from the Arab world – and so it is well worth your while to read Clifford Wright’s blog post on the delicious realm of medieval Arab cooking. Don’t tell Trump, Farage, Le Pen, or anyone seeking to make Europe or America “great again” – but actually, totally do.

Rhubarb for Pesach

I was recently asked by a friend of a friend if there are any Jewish rhubarb recipes – he had found good rhubarb and wanted to make some for Pesach (Passover). Initially, I was stumped – rhubarb is not even mentioned in Gil Marks’ otherwise encyclopedic Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. So I went to the various corners of the academic food internet to do some research – expecting to find a Greek, Russian, or Iranian Jewish rhubarb sweet, given that those are rhubarb-laden areas that historically had many Jews. Instead, I found something savory: a series of rhubarb sauces used for fish and meat in Greek and Turkish Sephardic communities. Some sources noted that this dish is, in fact, traditional for Pesach. It sounded intriguing – and delicious.

In honor of this history and the season, I made a stewed rhubarb side dish that is kosher for Passover. It is based on the rhubarb sauces from the Mediterranean, but with the addition of rosemary, which complements the tart rhubarb nicely. Though you may still prefer sweet rhubarb in a very-much-khametz pie, I hope you enjoy this method of preparation as well.

Rhubarb with Rosemary and Garlic (for Pesach)

1 pound/500 grams fresh rhubarb stalks (about 5)

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

 

1 tablespoon butter or olive oil

1 cup water

  1. Wash the rhubarb, and discard the ends. Then chop into 1 cm/1/2 inch chunks.
  2. In a shallow pan, melt the butter (or heat the pan and add the oil). Add the rosemary and garlic and sauté for thirty seconds.
  3. Add the rhubarb and mix thoroughly with the garlic and rosemary. Distribute evenly flat across the pan.
  4. Add the salt, sugar, and water, and bring the mixture to a boil.
  5. Simmer for ten minutes, or until the water has cooked down and the rhubarb has just started to disintegrate. Serve hot or cold.

Coconut Macaroons (Pesach is Coming)

Pesach (Passover), like winter, is coming. So it is time to prepare: we clean our homes to the cracks in the floorboards, stock up on enough wine for our sedarim, and prepare our digestive systems for an onslaught of tough matzah.

A macaroon sitting under the title on the cover of a haggadah for Passover
It’s time – haggadot and macaroons. (Photo mine, March 2017)

Despite these struggles, Pesach is a delicious holiday. And for many Jews, no food is so associated with the holiday as much as the macaroon – the delicious, nowadays usually almond- or coconut-based, mysteriously flour-free cookie. Some people, including myself, are fans of macaroons, especially when they are freshly baked. A few Jews have been known to eat ten in one sitting – a category that, of course, does not include the author. Others will gladly eat fluffy French macarons but avoid the heavier Jewish macaroons. And many, having only had the underrated-but-still-somewhat-dry packaged macaroons, consider the cookie a bit dull or not tasty at all. Though one can find them all year round on many tables, macaroons are now only encountered by most Jews around Pesach in their packaged form. As a result, many think this treat with a long history is a modern invention.

Fresh macaroons on parchment paper
Macaroons, freshly baked, cooling. (Photo mine, March 2017)

 

Some historians argue that macaroons can be traced to monasteries and palaces in medieval Italy, where it was introduced to Italian Jews. However, given that cooks in the Arab world were already using whipped eggs and sugar to make treats, and that medieval (and modern!) Italian cooking is heavily indebted to influence from the Islamic world, it is more likely that Italian Jews first encountered macaroons in an Arab context. In any case, macaroons became a popular Pesach delicacy among wealthier Jews – since they already contain no chametz, or leavened food. The macaroon then spread through trade networks to the rest of Europe. The name in English itself comes from the Italian maccarone, or paste, which refers to the almond paste that was originally used to make the macaroon. The French macaron, of recent chic status in world financial capitals, is also based on this word and a cookie that first reached France through the same trade networks (link in French). Though now the cookie is seen as especially Jewish, macaroons were the typical small pastry found at wealthy tables throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Turkish almond macaroons
Turkish almond macaroons. (Photo MCozturk via Wikimedia Commons/CC)

Sephardim, and then Ashkenazim, adopted the macaroon from Italian Jews and Spanish Jews fleeing the inquisition, who had made the similar amarguillos from bitter almonds (link in Spanish). Macaroons appeared in the earliest Jewish cookbooks in the United States, and have remained popular since. Today, coconut macaroons predominate – especially given both the ready availability of coconut and the industrialization of coconut grating since the 19th century. One can, of course, still find delicious almond macaroons. The coconut version, however, connects Jewish macaroons to another family of macaroons spread through colonial empires. Coconut macaroons based on the European-Arab original are now popular in the Dominican Republic, Southern India, the Philippines, and Mauritius. (This Mauritian recipe by Shelina Permaloo is particularly lovely.)

These coconut macaroons are simple, tasty, and a good dessert for any time of the year. (And they are gluten free!) I have the recipe here with raisins, but you can also make them with chocolate chips.

A macaroon on a plate with flowers painted on the plate
A macaroon, waiting to be eaten by me. (Photo mine, March 2017)

Coconut Macaroons with Raisins

Makes 20-24 macaroons

2 eggs

½ cup white sugar

½ cup vegetable oil or 4 tbsp melted butter

3 ½ cups sweetened shredded coconut

½ tsp vanilla extract

1/8 tsp salt

½ cup raisins, soaked for ten minutes in hot water

  1. Preheat your oven to 325F/160C. Line a flat sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Mix the eggs, sugar, and oil/butter together until well combined.
  3. Add the coconut, vanilla, salt, and raisins. Mix again until the egg mixture, coconut, and raisins are thoroughly mixed together.
  4. Drop tablespoons of the mixture onto the baking sheet, leaving about 1 ½ inches/3 centimeters between the macaroons.
  5. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly brown on top and browned on the bottom. Let the cookies cool before removing them from the parchment paper.

Thank you to those of you who had these for participating in User Acceptance Testing. Thank you to Christine Schupbach from Writing the Kitchen for helping with research for this piece.