The Southeast Asian Origins of Jewish Cooking

I first ask my readers to forgive the click-bait title. This post is a look at the various ingredients in Jewish cuisines that were first domesticated in Southeast Asia. It is not a crackpot attempt to attribute Jews to an origin in that region. It should be noted that this attempt probably exists somewhere.

Many foods that we think of as “classically” or “immemorially” Jewish are assumed to have originated at some point in Europe or the Middle East. Indeed, a few things do originate in these areas; rosemary, wheat, chestnuts, rye, and onions are among them. Yet others come from further afield. For example, apricots are from China, apples from Kazakhstan, buckwheat from Siberia or Korea, and potatoes, tomatoes, and corn all come from the New World. And a whole host of foods come from Southeast Asia. Yes, you read correctly, Southeast Asia. Though long assumed in the popular imagination to have been relatively isolated before about 2000 years ago, Southeast Asia is actually the origin of many of our most cherished ingredients. I define Southeast Asia with the common academic definition: Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, and East Timor. These countries share a common history of Indianization (except Vietnam) and colonialism, were often parts of the same pre-modern trade networks based on the use of the Malay and Sanskrit languages, and share similar families of climates and crops. It is from this region that much of modern food began.

Map of southeast asia, with the eleven countries and their capitals
Map of Southeast Asia (Cacahuate via Wikimedia/CC)

The trade and exchange of foodstuffs – and their spread – has occurred for several millennia. Initially, it started quite simply: one would give the other, say, a tasty nut in exchange for a bolt of cloth. By the time of the Romans, trade networks were bringing spices all the way across Eurasia and sending back bolts of cloth. Among the spices and cloth and other goods were also various crops and animals that would be quickly adopted – for their taste, their ease, or their popularity. Some of these came from Southeast Asia and traveled a long, intermediary-filled journey to Europe and North Africa.

The role of Southeast Asia in much of world history – and especially that in food and material culture – has been obscured for several reasons. One is that a lot of the physical evidence is inaccessible: documents and structures decay due to moisture and termites in the tropics, which is a challenge for anyone studying the medieval or ancient eras in tropical environments. (Even if we have copious evidence of advanced civilizations.) Secondly, of course, is racism and colonialism: other than Thailand, the region’s eleven countries were all colonized by European powers for significant amounts of time. Our Eurocentric food history has left little room for the true and magnificent tales of the peoples who Europe colonized – and brutally so. Finally, there is simply not yet enough work done on how the trade networks that spanned from the Moluccas to Portugal operated before the modern era. We have an idea, but because of the decay and Eurocentric history, our picture of food trade and agricultural ideas in Southeast Asia and anywhere that is not Europe or Northern Asia is sadly deeply incomplete – even as we know from archaeology and anecdotes that this was deeply important.

But that is enough blathering from me. You, I am sure, want to know the foods I am discussing! What was traded and spread from their original homes in Southeast Asia?

Chicken

Confused chicken looking quizzically at camera
This rooster cannot believe his 23andMe report! (Matt Davis via Flickr/CC, March 2012)

Chicken is often seen as an ancient food in the Middle East and Europe – after all, the Egyptians consumed it – but it originates somewhere in Southeast Asia. There is a bit of a debate as to whether it was first domesticated in what is now Thailand, what is now southwestern China, or what is now Sumatra in Indonesia. Like many crops such as corn and wheat, it is likely that there were several moments of domestication. Maritime peoples spread the useful bird wherever they went: speakers of Austronesian languages took chickens from Southeast Asia to East Africa and Madagascar at one extreme, and through the South Pacific to Ecuador on the other. Indian traders brought the bird through India to the Middle East, from which it was brought to Europe. Chickens were likely somewhat known to Jews in the First Temple period and were certainly present by the Roman era, and have remained popular in the Mediterranean ever since. (Geese were more common in Eastern Europe, where chickens were a somewhat rare luxury.)

Citrus

Etrog on a branch
Etrog (Daniel Ventura via Wikimedia CC)

The lemon and orange are quintessentially Mediterranean. They are also Burmese. Well, not quite – but the likely origin of all citrus fruits is somewhere in what is Burma today. Back then, it was just the citron. From Southeast Asia, traders brought it to the Middle East by ancient times, where citrons – called Etrog in Hebrew – became indispensable for the rituals of the holiday Sukkot. Greeks and Romans then grew citrons in their areas, but only Jews continued to grow citrus fruits in Europe through much of the Middle Ages. Arab rules reintroduced citrus fruits to Spain during the Moorish period in Spain, by which time talented farmers had developed lemons and oranges in India and on the Arabian Peninsula. Other lovely citrus fruits, like the lime and kumquat, were bred elsewhere. Jewish communities across the world not only used citrus fruit for rituals, but inserted citrus at various levels in everyday cuisine. Marmalade was initially introduced by Portuguese Jews to the rest of Europe, where it became very popular among Jews and non-Jews alike.

Coconut

Green coconuts with the tops peeled off
These coconuts are not quite ready to be turned into Passover macaroons! (Photo MaxPixel/CC)

Coconuts likely originated in the region of Sumatra or Peninsular Malaysia. They were spread initially by the sea – coconuts can float in the sea and stay fertile despite being salty for 120 days. The coconut was a pretty popular foodstuff wherever it was adopted, and from India and Indonesia it spread throughout the Indian Ocean basin and the tropical Pacific. Spanish and Portuguese traders later brought it to the Americas. In Jewish cuisine, until the late 19th century, it was mostly only present in communities where coconuts were common, in India and coastal Yemen. Coconuts were found in curries, chutneys, and stews. However, dried coconut spread in the 19th century around the world, and began to be commonly incorporated in Jewish baked goods. Machines to more efficiently process coconut were invented by American Jews in the late 19th century, which led to the popularization of coconut in cold climates. Coconut milk also emerged as a popular pareve substitute for milk.

Sugarcane

Sugar cane crop with mountain in background at Cairns, QLD.
Sugarcane in Queensland, Australia (Photo Gregory Heath/CSIRO)

Sugar has a long and checkered history that all begins with the independent domestication of sugar cane at several locations across what is now Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The use of sugar and sugarcane spread from there to India by ancient times, and with Arab traders during the Umayyad Caliphate across the Middle East and North Africa to Spain. From there, colonizing European powers took sugarcane to the New World – which also accelerated the institutionalization of the slave trade. (Sidney Mintz’ Sweetness and Power is an informative history here.) Growing and refining sugar was backbreaking, dangerous labor that Europeans were only too happy to slough off to enslaved people. Jews in Suriname were among these slaveholders. By this time, Jews had already developed a taste for sugar in Spain during the Moorish period – and after the expulsion, they took sweets made from sugar and the use of sugar as a spice everywhere they went. Sugar in Eastern Europe, meanwhile, was sourced until recently from beets.

Bananas

Purple bananas and banana leaves on a table.
Not your Curious George banana – these are purple bananas and leaves for sale at a market in Thailand. (Photo Takeaway via Wikimedia/CC)

This is a bit of a controversial inclusion: bananas were domesticated in what is now New Guinea, which is usually not considered Southeast Asia. (Definitions vary.) Evidence of domestication of bananas and sugar cane comes from the Kuk Swamp in the highland regions of Papua New Guinea from several thousand years ago, and it is likely that domestication occurred independently at several places through the island. Contrary to popular assumptions about “uncontacted peoples,” New Guinean people traded with peoples to the east and west, and bananas reached Indonesia and the Philippines no later than four thousand years ago. By the medieval era, banana leaves were in frequent use as plates, food wrappers, and materials across the Indian Ocean basin – and bananas were a popular staple food as well. Jewish communities in India and the Arab world did eat some bananas, but bananas really “took off” with their introduction to the Americas in the 16th century, and their incorporation into local diets across the Americas. Immigrant Jews adopted bananas quickly upon arrival into the United States and Argentina, and the banana found itself both as a beloved snack and incorporated in baked goods.

Taro

Taro plants with big leaves
Taro leaves – yes, they are that big. (Photo Pixabay 2016)

Another controversial inclusion for a different reason: many people do not realize that yes, Jewish communities cook with taro! Taro was initially domesticated at least three times, in Northeast India, New Guinea, and in what is now Malaysia or Indonesia. The starchy roots are stunningly portable; hence, it spread quickly across tropical and semi-tropical regions, and was established from Polynesia all the way to Ancient Egypt and Cyprus. The Romans ate it much as Italians eat potatoes today. Taro’s use in Europe mostly declined after the fall of the Roman Empire, although it remained common in Portugal. Today, most North Americans associate taro with Chinese cooking. Egyptian, Indian, and Syrian Jews have all historically used taro in hearty stews.

Cloves and Nutmeg

Medieval illumination of noblemen in traditional tunics and boots around tables eating meats and breads under trees and drinking. Dogs are drinking at a creek in the foreground. The trees are tall and in full foliage, the image has red and blue illuminated borders.
Noblemen eating a sumptuous picnic that may have included some cloves and nutmeg because they could. Note: this was not normal. (Image from Le Livre de chasse de Gaston Phébus, 15th century.)

Cloves and nutmeg are both native to Indonesia – cloves to Ternate and Tidore, and nutmeg to the Banda Islands. I talked about the history of the spice trade around these in a post on medieval cuisine last year. Both have been part of Sephardic and Mizrahi cuisines for centuries, and became incorporated into some Ashkenazi dishes after the 18th century. Dutch Jews and Arab Jews use cloves especially in savory dishes. The love of cloves, in fact, also goes back as far as Biblical times – evidence of cloves from the period has been found in the Holy Land. For thousands of years,

Indonesia was the only source for both spices, and an entire trade network built up between the Molucca Islands and Europe and North Africa, trading the spices. The Dutch used brute violence and genocide to establish a monopoly during the 17th century, which also encouraged other European powers to transplant nutmeg and cloves elsewhere.

Black Pepper

Illuminated section of manuscript of Latin calligraphy, laid on a cerulean blue tile. Top section is drawings of unicorns on a blue background. Bottom section is serpents wrapped around frond-like trees on red ground.
To be fair, a snake around the tree is easier than some pepper grinders. This is what medieval Europeans thought getting pepper entailed: snakes around trees and unicorns! (Photo from 12th-century “Marvels of the East”)

Black pepper is native to South India and Sumatra, where locals figured out that the dried berries of the pepper plant add a wonderful spark to food. By the high ages of New Kingdom Egypt (mid-2nd millennium BCE), a thriving trade in pepper stretched across the Middle East. Greeks, Romans, and Medieval Europeans all loved pepper – and used it heavily in foods. Jews, too: it was the traditional prized flavoring of German and Lithuanian Jewry. In fact, it was pepper that spurred Europe’s first colonial ventures, in part – the Portuguese went on their sailing adventures, as did the Spaniards, partly in pursuit of pepper. Today, black pepper is used across Jewish cuisine – but especially in Ashkenazi cooking, in which it is the main source of piquancy. And though most Europeans moved away from heavily spiced food in the 18th century, many Jewish communities continue to use black pepper in quantities now unknown in Europe, but still common in India. In Southeast Asia, the chili pepper – native to Mexico – has taken predominance.


If you want to read more about the history of cooking, Southeast Asia, and trade of foodstuffs in the ancient and medieval Old World, I highly recommend the following resources:

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