Author’s note: I will discuss non-Ashkenazi additions at length, b”h, in future posts.
Jews have added stuff to soup ever since Jacob made something tasty and distracting for Esau. Some of these are not as well-known, others, such as matzah balls, noodles, and kubbeh, are widely praised. Now that you have your soup, you may want to add some of these. But which?
In the Ashkenazi culinary tradition, the humble matzah ball is probably ranked highest. These soft and fluffy dumplings, also known as kneidlach (sg. Kneidel), are made from ground matzah – the wafers that substitute for bread and other leavened products during Passover. They are often thought of as the quintessential Jewish dish – American Jewish media has canonized kneidlach for over a century, and Ashkenazi Jews the world over consider the soup an essential part of holiday and Shabbat celebrations. Yet this dumpling shows clear similarity to and influence from other European dumplings – for example, the German Knödel and Czech knedliky. Even the names are similar. In fact, some writers consider the kneidel to have emerged in medieval Germany at the same time as Knödel; the dumpling then travelled east as Jews migrated into Eastern Europe. We’re glad matzah balls came along.
The matzah ball is not the only non-Jewish addition we have made to our soups. For starters, we have added kreplach – dumplings similar to the Russian pelmeni or Chinese wonton, which probably sourced in part from the mantı brought by Turkic soldiers from Central Asia in the 13th century – which are still common in Turkey today. Of course, there are lokshen – noodles, brought in via Persia and Central Asia in antiquity (where Jews call the noodles lagman), and then again from China in the Middle Ages (where they are known as laomian). Some Romanian Jews add hazelnuts – which were probably first encountered by Jews in the early medieval period as they settled around the Black Sea region. An unadulterated dish chicken soup is not.
Even the most “Jewish” of dishes reflects two thousand years of influence from our neighbors. I think that for us Ashkenazim, in the context of Eastern Europe, it is difficult for us to acknowledge external influences on our culture(s) given the long history of anti-Semitism and abuse in the region. We want to protect “our” chicken soup, its dumplings and noodles, its scattered hazelnuts or dill. Yet there is something far more liberating about saying that we not only contributed to our neighbors’ cooking, but also took things and made them Jewish. Most of the time, when I eat a kneidel, I’m enjoying the kneidel. But occasionally, I like to remind myself of how it reflects the way changes to Jewish culture (dumplings) eventually become celebrated and almost essential. If you ask me, totally essential.
I’m including a recipe here for matzah balls with the optional addition of neshommes (“souls” in Yiddish) – fried onions in the center of a kneidl. They take a bit of time to make, so we only did them for holidays growing up – but they are really worth the effort. This seems to be a Lithuanian tradition, but I’ve read that Polish Jews sometimes include gribenes – crisp, fried chicken skin cracklings with onion – in festive kneidlach. Can anyone confirm this?
Matzah Balls with Optional Neshommes
Based on the recipe of Annushka Smit Freiman
makes about 20 matzah balls
~2 1/4 cups matzah meal
1/3 cup vegetable or olive oil
1/3 cup warm water
2 tbsp salt
2 tbsp pepper
1 tbsp dried dill
- Mix all the ingredients to form a thick batter-like thing. If your batter is very thin, add more matzah meal. Refrigerate for one hour.
- With wet hands, roll the mixture into little balls of about 1.5” diameter. If adding neshommes, stick your finger into the ball to make a dent, add a tiny bit of the neshommes, and then wrap up the ball again.
- Boil in boiling water or soup for 30-35 minutes. If in soup, serve immediately. Otherwise, remove from water and keep separate until serving time for soup. I strongly recommend that you cook the matzah balls separately.
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp oil
Fry the onion in the oil until the onion is brown and very, very soft. Remove from the heat, drain out a bit of oil, and let cool before adding to matzah balls.