I am not a vegan. The reasons why are probably the topic of a future, more controversial post that would discuss a lot of environmental and agricultural science. That said, I have a number of vegan friends who I enjoy feeding, and am always happy to cook for them. So it was a welcome challenge when a friend requested a vegan, Shavuot-appropriate cake. Shavuot is a dairy-heavy holiday, and if you do not eat dairy, a lot of festive foods for an agrarian, sugary festival are barred to you. I also happened to be very stressed, and baking is a good way for me to relieve anxiety. (Your mileage may vary.) So I decided to put the request to work and make a cake using some flavors I enjoy in my cakes: the dark fruitiness of cherries and the happy luxury of chocolate. The cake is simple, and turned out well. My colleagues enjoyed the cake immensely, and gave good feedback to make it better. I put a ganache on this cake because chocolate rarely hurts. However, the cake is perfectly delicious without it.
¾ cup melted vegetable shortening or vegetable oil + more for greasing pan
1 ¼ cups granulated brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cup / 300 mL soy milk
1 cup dried cherries, soaked in water for 20 minutes and drained
1 cup miniature chocolate chips
2 heaping teaspoons baking powder
2 ½-3 cups all-purpose flour (depending on which shortening you use, you may need more flour)
⅔ cup chocolate chips
½ cup / 120 mL soy milk
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Grease a medium-size (9 inches or 25 centimeters square) rectangular/square pan, cake pan, or Bundt pan, depending on what shape you want the cake to be.
In a large bowl, mix the shortening/oil, brown sugar, and vanilla together until the brown sugar is completely mixed into the oil. You can use a whisk or a large spoon.
Add the salt, soy milk, cherries, chocolate chips, and baking powder. Mix until the mixture is thoroughly even in distribution of chocolate chips. (The cherries need the ballast of the flour to become even.)
Mix in the flour, a half cup at a time, until you get a thick but still viscous batter. The cherries and chocolate chips should be evenly distributed.
Pour into your prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick or chopstick comes out clean. Remove from heat, and let cool before adding ganache and/or serving.
To prepare the optional ganache: put the chocolate chips in a bowl. Then, heat the soy milk to just below boiling temperature on the stove or in the microwave (no shame). Then, pour the soy milk over the chocolate chips and mix with a fork until well blended, about two minutes. Let cool until thicker. Once thicker and cooler, pour over the cake or use for other purposes.
Thank you to all of my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing and Operational Readiness Testing on this recipe, and giving feedback for adjustments.
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.
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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:
So when I was in Mexico a few months ago, I had one of the best soups of my life at a restaurant in Tula de Allende that served comida casera – roughly speaking, “home-style cooking” – but entirely vegetarian. I asked the proprietor, Cristina, for the recipe, which she roughly described in the telegraphic style of home cooks everywhere. A bit of this, a bit of that, and a good dose of black beans. Unfortunately, I left the scrap of paper with my notes on the bus back to Mexico City. However, with some experimentation over the winter, I was able to roughly recreate the soup with ingredients readily available in the United States.
The soup is chock-full of ingredients beloved by Jewish communities: beans, garlic, tomatoes, squash, and peppers among them. Though some would tell you that this is a “weeknight” dish, I would consider this soup better for languorous weekend cooking, when you have the time to spare a while to cook a big hearty soup. Eat leftovers during the week, when the myth of so-called “easy” home cooking is most apparent.
Sopa de Frijoles y Calabaza con Fideos
1 large onion, diced
7 cloves white garlic, minced
2 dried ancho chilies, broken apart into small pieces (keep the seeds if you want it spicy)
1 tablespoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon white or apple cider vinegar
1 15-oz can crushed tomatoes
1 large kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped into chunks
1 8oz/225g can corn kernels, drained (or 1 cup cooked corn)
2 15-oz/425g cans black beans, drained (or 4 cups soaked black beans)
Many of those around me have noticed that I have a hard time throwing food away. It takes something being rotten or most definitively off for me to throw it out; even then, I feel a little twinge of guilt. This guilt is not from sermons about food waste – I am well-read enough to know that waste has actually gone down significantly with modern agriculture, and I am also generally able to plan shopping and food storage to minimize any unneeded waste. Rather, it is because I carry quite a bit of baggage and secondary trauma about the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother was a survivor of Bergen-Belsen who starved in the camps, and whose food practices were forever shaped by those years of deprivation. As a result, my mother and I have a lot of thoughts about the potential of food – and throwing away any of it sends shivers down our spines. It is also why we stockpile food – a subconscious “just in case.”
These sorts of historical and transmitted traumas have influenced Jewish foodways for a long time. How many cooks view food is directly related to their own experience of lack, or for those like me who have been more fortunate, lack experienced by our relatives. Sometimes this happens in terms of food storage: how much do we keep? How little do we throw out? Sometimes this happens when we cook: how many portions do we cook? And sometimes it happens to our guests – not letting them “go hungry,” getting them to eat something. Subconsciously, it is a response to trauma experienced or inherited. And around that trauma, a culture of relentless squirrelling away, huge outlays of food, and stuffing guests’ faces has been built.
Even now, many Jews do not have enough to eat. A night volunteering at a kosher soup kitchen or food pantry in New York or Chicago is evidence enough. (I highly recommend Masbia, which is the nexus of a huge community.) If anecdote is not enough, allow the statistics to speak: 10% of American Jews struggle with food security. A higher proportion of Jews in Israel and some other countries do. These struggles do not just end when people have enough to eat: food insecurities, as we see from history, inform how people will eat in the future.
And the proof of this is in the way we relate to food today in the Jewish community. One reason we seek to have groaning Shabbat tables is because we remember the times in which our ancestors simply could not have that. One reason there are so many cultural strictures against wasting food is because we are only seventy years out from a huge starvation event – the Holocaust. (Genocide was accompanied by hunger and forced starvation.) Many of the popular foods among American Ashkenazi Jews today – challah, babka, cold cuts, and more – were prized by immigrants in the early 20th century precisely because of their rarity at home.
This history is why I also have little patience for the nostalgic, sentimental narrative around Ashkenazi cooking as a product of “poverty.” For most Ashkenazi Jews, challah was an occasional treat, as were things like brisket, p’tcha, or pretty much anything with meat. Ditto for other Jewish communities and meat. The daily fare of poverty was a lot plainer and probably not something those in developed countries in our era would willingly eat. When we say bread “came from the earth” in the blessing hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz, we are partly commemorating the fact that wheat was once threshed on floors. This idea is explicitly stated in ancient and medieval commentaries such as Bereshit Rabbah. Bread had impurities that were dirt or stones. Bugs were commonplace in food before the modern era. Starvation was only unknown to the wealthiest in the community – most people experienced some hunger at least once in their lifetime. A lack of food security, not just persecution, drove millions of Ashkenazim to emigrate from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. The cuisine that became everyday was the cuisine of festivals, because that was the cuisine that meant plenty to our ancestors. And the fact that we eat so much – and so often, and that we store so much? That is the actual aftereffect of generations of poverty, or the memory of grandmothers in concentration camps, or remembrance of famines past.
For more on the history of hunger in the Jewish world, I highly recommend Hasia Diner’s Hungering for America and John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied.
I got not one, but two requests for sherry potatoes – one from a close friend, and the other from Sarah Teske, a fantastic librarian in Minneapolis, MN. Despite having lived in the Midwest, I somehow had never had sherry potatoes, and Sarah’s description of this recipe as having “a warm depth of buttery, slightly-sweet, caramelized goodness” most certainly intrigued me. And it is, like the best of buttery dishes, Passover-friendly. I am providing two recipes here: first, the recipe I made – I like my potatoes with skin on in all circumstances (even fries), and then Sarah’s recipe. For my version, I added some peri-peri spice mix that I brought back from visiting relatives in South Africa last year, but you can use any peppery-sweet curry spice mix instead. Sarah’s version calls for Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, which is delicious, but contains cornstarch, which some people do not eat on Passover. Both recipes are good.
Sherry Potatoes with Peri-Peri
Based on the recipe by Sarah Teske
2 lbs/1 kg small red gold potatoes, sliced into thin slices (with peel on)
In a medium-size (or any appropriately size baking dish), layer the potatoes. After each layer of potatoes, sprinkle some salt and pepper on top.
Once all the potatoes are in, sprinkle the peri-peri on top of the potatoes.
Mix the melted butter and sherry together, then pour over the potatoes. Make sure that the potatoes are well-coated.
Bake for 40 to 60 minutes, basting occasionally if you wish. (I like my potatoes with a bit of crisp on top. Garnish with parsley; serve hot.
Sarah Teske’s Sherry Potatoes (in her own words)
2 lb. very small red potatoes (about 20), scrubbed, peeled*and cut in half (YES, peeling is necessary for her recipe… please try not to add any/much of your skin or blood to the potatoes while doing so. Remember, SAFETY FIRST.)
3 Tbs. olive oil
3 Tbs. or half a bottle or whatever you have left of a good, dry (not too expensive) sherry
A few shakes of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt (to taste).
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put potatoes baking pan that is big enough with a lip/side so the liquid stays in the pan. Mix the dressing of all the other stuff. Coat potatoes evenly. Put in oven and bake. Check on the potatoes and baste as you feel necessary (about every five to ten minutes depending on how anxious you are about the guests you are hosting). If timed correctly, they are done usually about 20 minutes after all the other food is. Basically, cook them anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour and an half depending on how many times you opened the oven to baste. Serve. Eat with your family at every Jewish holy day/holiday meal. Serves two.
And now for the second in our series of potato dishes for Passover – a dish most people associate with Spain, the potato omelet. In Spain, this dish is made with chunks of potato and known as a tortilla española. It is a common favorite at tapas bars around the world. However, a similar dish exists across Italian, North African, and Middle Eastern Jewish communities. It is called frittata de patate by Italian Jews, kuku sib zamini by Persian Jews. It is also named makroud fil-batates in North African Arabic or a variety of things in Ladino.
One of the great things about many of the Jewish versions of the frittata is that it is made with mashed potato instead of potato chunks, which does wondrous things for the texture. Instead of admittedly delicious chunks of potato, you get a creamy, almost mousse-like texture. I based my recipe off of Claudia Roden’s, but with a few adjustments. I swapped the parsley with cilantro, and added a touch of another New World introduction – chili peppers – to give it a bit of a spicy kick. This dish makes for a great sharing food, or as breakfast for Pesach and the whole year. However, I skipped the onions in the North African version and made a riff off of the deceptively simple Italian version. I have been eating it for breakfast, piece by piece. Enjoy!
Potato Frittata for Passover
Based on several recipes by Claudia Roden
2lbs/1kg potatoes, peeled
5 cloves white garlic, minced
2 fresh hot chili peppers, finely diced
4 tablespoons olive oil or sunflower seed oil
1 fistful fresh cilantro, chopped
8 eggs, beaten
Salt and black pepper to taste (I used about 2 teaspoons of salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper)
Boil the potatoes in water until soft. Then, drain the potatoes and rinse them under cold water to cool them. Mash the potatoes and set aside to cool further.
In the meantime, heat a deep non-stick or cast-iron skillet and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Then, add the garlic and chili and sauté for 1-2 minutes, or until the garlic is browned. Pour out the oil, garlic, and chili, and mix them into the mashed potatoes.
Mix the cilantro, eggs, salt, and pepper into the mashed potatoes until you get a thick batter.
Heat the skillet again, and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Then, pour the egg-potato mixture into the skillet. Cook for 15-20 minutes on a medium-to-high flame, or until the omelet is set and browned on the bottom. If you want it brown on top, you can bake the frittata afterwards for a few minutes. Alternatively, you can bake the frittata in the skillet or a pan for 35-45 minutes in an oven preheated to 425F/220C.
Remove from heat. Serve the frittata in slices, hot, warm, or cold.
Passover is speedily upon us. I personally do not mind the culinary restrictions brought about by celebrating the Exodus: it is a fun time to be creative, eat colorful food, and ingest mammoth quantities of vegetables and unusual starches. For some, however, Passover is a time of woe, when all one’s favorite foods are forbidden. Doubly so for those who follow the Ashkenazi custom of not eating kitniyot – “wheat-like” items that include corn, rice, beans, and seeds. Which means … a lot of potato.
I personally could eat potatoes for three weeks straight without complaining, but that is just my Lithuanian ancestry saying hello. But I do realize that some people find potatoes “boring.” So the next three recipes, all for Passover, are easy and tasty ways to make potatoes.
This first recipe answered a challenge issued to me by a friend: could I do a potato gratin, with a rich and creamy béchamel sauce, for Passover? Béchamel sauce normally requires flour, which for non-matzah purposes is basically forbidden during Passover. Luckily, potato flour serves as a nice substitute, and you still get the creamy béchamel that blends with cheese to make a very decadent dish.
This dish might seem very “white-bread American.” However, béchamel, which is one of the “mother sauces” of French cooking, made its way into Jewish cooking during the 19th century, when Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike used it to seem “classy.” German Jews put a “white sauce” on vegetables, and Jews across the Mediterranean under French influence used it for dairy-heavy egg- and vegetable-based casseroles. (If you want to learn more about the history of béchamel, I strongly urge you to read Anny Gaul’s post about béchamel in Egypt and Morocco!)
Most recipes have you melt the cheese into the béchamel, but I distribute it among the potatoes for “maximum coverage.” I use cheddar here, but any strong and sharp cheese should do. Enjoy!
Passover Potato Gratin
3lbs/1.3kg potatoes, peeled
8oz/225g cheddar cheese, shredded
4 tablespoons butter + extra to grease
4 tablespoons potato flour or potato starch
2 cups milk
Table salt and ground black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C.
Slice the potatoes very thinly.
Grease a medium-to-large casserole pan with butter. Place half the potatoes in the pan, then half of the cheese on top. Then, place another layer of potatoes, and then another layer of cheese.
Make the Passover béchamel:
In a small pan on a medium flame, melt the butter.
When the butter is melted, add the potato flour, salt, and pepper. Whisk quickly so that the potato flour is browned.
Slowly pour in the milk and whisk it slowly.
Keep stirring with the whisk until the mixture is thick and starts to bubble. Then, turn off the heat.
Pour the Passover béchamel over the potatoes and cheese.
Bake for 60 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Serve hot.
Thank you to Dana Kline, Dov Fields, and Robbie Berg for serving as the User Acceptance Testing committee for this recipe.