Instead of preparing to move one day, I decided to start watching Netflix’s Street Foodseries. I am a big fan of street food generally – it is fun, showcases the creativity of evolving cuisines, feeds lots of different people, and is usually very tasty. (I have a special soft spot for roasted chestnuts or peanuts on the street.) The series looked beautiful too, with a focus on street food vendors and their food in ten different Asian countries. So, I turned on Netflix and began watching the first episode, about Jay Fai and her famous drunken noodles. I was hooked.
The show is not just about the food, but about the extraordinary “ordinary” people who cook it. While much of the show focuses on the delicious food, most of the time is dedicated to the people who cook it – and particularly, one vendor in each episode. The chef narrates his or her story, his or her history, and his or her life. The show shines here: it makes the show about the food and its wider context. This focus is often lost elsewhere. When a food is divorced from its social or political context, it becomes easy to dismiss the concerns of the people who cook it as well. Street Food avoids this trap by plainly putting that context in your face. You cannot watch the show without noticing the influences from various places, or how people adapt to difficulties through food, or how history informs the very basis of the cuisine – and not some sort of “authentic essence.” In fact, Street Food is markedly critical of authenticity, and proudly displays new foods like Korean baffle (egg waffles) right alongside traditional fare like Filipino nilarang.
Street Food is not just critical of authenticity, but also shows the dynamism of each country’s street cuisine. The vendors talk about inventing new methods and preparations – from Jay Fai’s Japanese-style crab omelet in Bangkok to Aisha Hashim’s modernization on the process of making putu piring, a rice and coconut cake, in Singapore. Scholars on the show talk about the influence of war, globalization, colonialism, or political trends on the cuisine. Western food writing and media often treats street food as something unchanging, and the show challenges that. Often, the newer foods are the most appealing – for example, the flour-based knife cut noodles (kalguksu) from Seoul.
Of course, the food is mouth-watering. My favorite episodes were the ones for India and South Korea. The former featured huge plates of delicious curries, stews, and fried goods, often cooked for hours at a time. The meaty Nihari stew is something I would love to try. The Korea episode was also wonderful for the food: Cho Yoon-sun’s kalguksu noodles look perfectly filling, with a luscious texture and delicious (albeit treyf) broth. The banchanfeatured in the Seoul episode – particularly the lotus root pickles – were so mouth-watering that I had to go get a snack immediately. And, of course, all the other episodes have delicious food too.
My one big critique is that the episodes are too short! At thirty minutes, one can sense that many of the stories and histories were cut short. I would love even an extra fifteen minutes to more deeply explore the making and history of some of the dishes. I would have also loved to see an episode featuring Cambodian or Central Asian street food (plov anyone?), but I also understand the difficulty of producing media in those countries.
I look forward to future installments of the series. We still do not know which countries will be featured, though I am hoping very fervently that Mexico’s incredible street food culture gets featured. Ditto for Turkey and Morocco. And, given the quality of this season, we can expect a real treat for the second installment too.
Accessibility notes: audio description is available, and all episodes are captioned in several languages.
I am moving to Maryland and in the midst of packing, but I did not want to leave you, my loyal readers, hanging. So, here is a quick recipe for a dairy-free pie crust. I have seen many people complain about the lack of quality generally present in pareve desserts. Though I love butter and sour cream, I do not think that a lack of dairy means that your dessert needs to be bad. Here is my tested pie crust recipe, which works for most dairy-free and vegan pies.
Pareve Pie Crust
For one double-crust 9-inch/23cm pie or two singe-crust 9-inch 23cm pies.
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
½ cup oat milk
½ cup corn oil
Up to ½ cup cold water
Sift the flour and salt together in a large bowl with a fork or a whisk.
Add the oil and oat milk. Then, with a pastry knife or your hands, meld the flour and liquids together to form a dough. Add a teaspoon of water at a time until you have a pliable but not dry dough.
Refrigerate the dough until ready for use. You do not need to have the dough at room temperature to work it. Use like a dairy pie crust in your pie recipe.
Do note that when it is done, it will be slightly lighter than a dairy pie crust.
I often post explicitly political things on this blog and the associated Facebook page. I do this for two reasons. One is that this blog has never been, and will never be, politically neutral. It is irresponsible to talk about the food people eat without concern for how that might be affected by people’s lives, and all the things that affect their lives. The other is that, by and large, the readers of this blog like the political commentary – even if they do not always agree with it. Some are even drawn to it. That said, a few people have complained, either because I refuse to endorse their racism or their politics of cruelty, or because they believe food should be not political. “Food should unite,” one messenger told me. “It shouldn’t be subject to politics.”
Well, you will just have to deal with the political bent of this blog. Food is deeply political! In some ways, it is the basis of politics itself – what else spurred any form of governance other than the need to make sure people’s resources were managed, including food! (For good or for bad.) When we eat, we say all sorts of political things. What we eat is closely connected to our status, what sort of “traditions” we pass on to our kids, and who we see ourselves as. Even more so, what we do not eat does the same thing. Beyond that, what we are able or not able to put on the table spurs us to political action. The knowledge of how that ability might change informs how we act politically today. And the identities that we take into politics is shaped by food. Think about how much our own Jewish identity is shaped by food – and then think about how much Jewish identity gets shaped in politics. Think about how many racist things are said in the name of food being “too smelly” or “too gross.” Think about how someone’s life might be shaped by those remarks. And think about how often politicians use food as an excuse to gain power, to take away power, or give power.
Your food cannot be isolated from political discussion. It is a hard truth, and many people wish to hide behind the privilege of not needing to think about this. If you are a migrant child in a cage with irregular food access, an elderly person unable to access food because of an inaccessible environment, or a poor person unable to buy certain foods because of limits on what you can use food stamps for, you do not have the luxury to assume that food is not political. The same rules apply for an observant Jew in a country that has banned shechita, the Jewish child teased for matzah at school, or the Jewish prisoner forced to eat treyf because of the abysmal nature of prison food systems. Even when you can sit at a dinner table normally again, that knowledge never goes away.
So I ask you, if you are uncomfortable, to sit with that discomfort at your next meal. Think about the workers that grew the crops in your food, and why your food cost as much or as little as it did, and why you are eating that specific thing. Were you ever teased for eating it, if you brought it to school as a child? Did anyone call the cops while you made it? Have you always been able to afford it – and what enabled that? That will help you understand how food is, in fact, deeply political.
Credit, first and foremost, to my friend Rebecca for introducing me to this cake. Blueberry buckle is her favorite cake, and I and others have made it for her birthday. It is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of American baking. The recipe itself originated in Colonial New England as an adaptation of an English cake, and uses a native ingredient – blueberries. That said, this recipe is much like smetanakuchen, the coffee cake introduced by Ashkenazi Jews with great success to the Northern United States. And though I love Jewish coffee cake, the blueberry buckle has a moisture that the cake is sometimes missing. The name itself comes from the fact that the crumb topping causes the cake to “buckle” – as you can see in the picture.
I made the buckle a little softer than most buckles, because I find that the melty blueberry goes well with that texture. You can totally use frozen blueberries if that is easier or more affordable for you, or if you prefer the result. I added some yogurt to give the cake more weight.
4 tablespoons salted butter, melted
½ cup full-fat Greek yogurt, at room temperature
½ cup whole milk
¾ cup brown sugar
1½ cups flour
2/3 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
4 tablespoons salted butter, softened
½ cup white sugar
1/3 cup flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Grease a cake pan – I used a 9”/23cm wide round pan, but you can use a similarly sized square pan.
Whisk together the butter, yogurt, milk, sugar, and eggs until thoroughly combined. Add the flour and baking soda and mix in thoroughly.
Fold in the blueberries until evenly distributed through the batter. Then, pour the batter into the greased pan.
With a pastry knife, fork, or food processor, blend the topping ingredients together. Then, sprinkle on top of the cake.
Bake for 35-45 minutes or until a toothpick in the cake comes out clean. Let cool before serving.
Thank you to Rebecca Galin for introducing me to this cake.
Today we have a guest post from my friend Ilana Newman. She is a fantastic Canadian Jewish librarian in Toronto with a keen mind and a witty sense of humor! Though we often have different perspectives on things like authenticity, she is an incredible person to discuss food with, and has a keen eye for historical and current recipes that go beyond the box of what we think of when we think of Ashkenazi Jewish food.
Ilana wrote up a recipe for pyrizhky – pasties – stuffed with hearts. This recipe is part of a longer tradition of Jews eating treats stuffed with organ meat. Many Lithuanian Jews would stuff pierogi with lung, dumplings with liver, and of course, put a stuffed kishke (intestine) in the pot. Polish Jews often prized the gizzards and other organs of chickens, geese, and ducks. (You can learn more in Gil Marks’ and Claudia Roden’s works. I am personally a fan of these foods, and it pleases me very much to publish Ilana’s recipe.
I will let Ilana take it from here.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been on something of a mission to learn to cook the foods of my culture- so, Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Of course, I’ve been eating some of this food my whole life, so on one level it’s intimately familiar to me. But I also grew up as a middle class American child of culinarily-adventurous Ashkenazi Jews, one second generation and one third generation, making me something like Gen 3.5 – and as a result, I have ended up eating the foods of other peoples more than my own.
I don’t think this is a bad thing, by any means. I’m grateful to my parents’ “foodie” natures (and their financial stability), which meant I got to try saag paneer, sushi, ojingeo bokkeum, and other culinary delights, early and often. But my experience with Real Jewish Food* was limited to a few staples: gefilte fish (from the jar), my mom’s challah, matzoh brei, latkes, matzoh ball soup, bagels and lox, salami and eggs, and pickles. It wasn’t until I left home and met Jews other than the ones I grew up with that I tried cholent, kishke, holishkes, and more.
As a kid, I also instinctively understood that there was something embarrassing, if not even shameful, about Ashkenazi food. Just as I absorbed the notion that Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew was embarrassing, in comparison to the Israeli pronunciation we were taught in Hebrew Sunday school and at synagogue, I learned what “acceptable” Ashkenazi foods were. These included challah, brisket, matzah ball soup, and bagels. They were sweetish, soft, cakey rich bread, roasted meat, bready dumplings, and, well, everyone knows what a bagel is.** Who wouldn’t like those things? Gefilte fish, on the other hand, is obviously “disgusting,” or “smelly.” Cholent? Tzimmes? Holishkes? Unpronounceable, unrecognizable, and frankly inedible, to the WASPs with whom I grew up surrounded in Maine in the 1990s. (Even today, articles like “7 foods I would never touch if I wasn’t Jewish” abound.)
All this is to say that I grew up somewhat divorced from my own culinary heritage. I was taught to have as adventurous a palate as I could, even eating some kinds of treyf, like a fiery Korean squid dish. I was not taught the same for the “deep cuts” of Ashkenazi food, like tongue, p’tcha, chopped liver, pickled herring, kishke, knishes, and more.
It is with this in mind that I have started to explore eastern European cooking in general, since Ashkenazi food is generally an adaptation of the same, with changes made here and there to allow for kashrut. And one recipe I tried recently is for heart-stuffed pyrizhky, Ukrainian stuffed buns. Pyrizhky are made with a yeasted dough wrapped around some kind of filling- it can be cabbage, beef, cheese, potato, or anything, really. They are often baked, but can also be pan-fried.
I used Olia Hercules’ recipe from her cookbook Mamushka, but made several adaptations to make it kosher . They came out really delicious, and while they were not unbelievably challenging to make, prompted some amount of awe in friends and family (my dad’s response was that I was “taking it old school! Hearts!”). Here’s the recipe, by Olia (with a few edits by me). Olia’s recipe provides other fillings, including egg and green onion, and potato filling. Her original heart filling calls for chicken livers instead of mushrooms, but I improvised as I didn’t have livers, and I ended up loving the result. But you might try using livers instead if you prefer.
For the dough:
½ tbsp sunflower oil** (or substitute canola or olive)
1 cup room-temperature water
2 tsp active dry yeast
½ tbsp granulated sugar (I think I forgot this, but they came out fine without)
½ tsp salt
2.25 – 2.5 cups flour
For the filling:
2 tbsp sunflower oil (or substitute canola or olive)
125g shallots (or substitute onions), sliced
2 tbsp Madeira (I didn’t have any and used ordinary cooking wine)
½ lb chicken hearts, quartered
½ lb mushrooms (any kind), diced very fine
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper (to taste; I used about 2 tsp)
About 6 tbsp sunflower oil (or substitute canola or olive), or as much or as little as necessary depending on preference
Whisk oil, yeast, salt, sugar, and water in a large bowl. Sift in the flour gradually. Cover and leave to rise for 45 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.
Knead dough until soft and pliable but not sticky. Divide into 8-10 equal pieces and cover.
Heat 1 tbsp oil in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Cook the shallots or onions until golden, then deglaze with your cooking alcohol and cook until the liquid evaporates. Remove the shallots from the pan and set aside.
Add more oil if necessary and saute the mushrooms until their liquid has evaporated. Add the chicken hearts on medium-high heat. Saute until they are fully cooked and begin to get some colour on them. Add your salt and pepper, add the shallots back to the pan and stir until the mixture is even. Take it off the heat to cool slightly.
Flour your work surface well and roll out each piece of dough into as perfect a circle as you can, ideally about 10 cm in diameter. Put some filling in the middle of each circle (about two tbsp of filling) and fold over the dough. Fork the perimeter of the dumpling so the edges stick together.
Heat your pan again and add some oil if needed. You can either fry the pyrizhky very hot in the oil (in which case add the full 6 tbsp), or use a little oil and steam-fry the pyrizhky. If frying, cook three minutes on each side. If steam-frying, cook about 2 minutes on the first side, covering, then flip the pyrizhky over and cook another 2 minutes covered. (I don’t love heavily fried foods, so I prefer the second method, which Olia doesn’t mention. She’s team fry all the way I guess!)
Turn each bun out onto a paper towel on a plate, and let drain if necessary. Serve immediately for best results, but honestly, they’re still delicious even days later. (Just make sure to refrigerate them once they’ve cooled completely.)
*“Real Jewish Food” is obviously a really subjective measure, dependant on time and place. All the foods I mentioned are Ashkenazi (not the only kind of Jewish and certainly not any more “real” than any other kind), and several are a specifically American variety of it. Authenticity, as has been discussed on this blog before, is itself subjective, mutable, liable to change – in short, very much a cultural construct. But nevertheless, the heart understands that some things are indeed Very Real.
** Olia says that unrefined sunflower oil is one of the cornerstones of southern Ukrainian cooking. For me it hasn’t been easy to find (I’d have to go to a specialty store), and I found that olive oil works just fine for this recipe.
Many thanks to Ilana Newman for this guest post! She describes herself as such: “Ilana is a librarian currently based in Toronto. She is also a frequent baker of challah, a stewer of fruit preserves, and a pickle enthusiast (half-sours are the best; no questions). You can find her on Instagram at @ketzelekitchenpreserves.”
My maternal grandmother left a mountain of recipes. I wrote about some of these for Handwritten Magazine before. The recipes are delicious and replete with typos or forgotten ingredients. Mysteriously, 0s are doubled or removed, so the recipe ends up calling for “20 grams flour” rather than 200. Entire ingredients, like flour, are forgotten. So are basic steps, like frying onions. When one cooks from the recipe, it is an experiment of trial and much error. It took nearly twenty attempts to get her pumpkin fritters right.
So, to this year. My mother and I were tasked with bringing stuffed matzoh balls to a Passover seder. These kneidlach are stuffed with fried onions and garlic and are very, very tasty. We opened the sheaf of my grandmother’s typewritten papers with her recipes to the matzoh ball to find that … mysteriously, she seemed to call for as much margarine as matzoh meal. Being experienced enough to know that this couldn’t be right, we consulted other recipes for a more sensible ratio. We realize now that my grandmother meant 20 grams.
As I reflected on this bizarre typo (and imagining fat globules swimming through my soup), I thought about all the ways Jewish cuisine might have been shaped by mistakes. We often think of cuisine as some sort of unbroken tradition. I have written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, why that is bunk. We also valorize the creativity of our ancestors in using and taking in new ingredients, or making things out of limited ingredients, or having the bravery to try something new. That is somewhat more accurate, but there is still something lacking. And so I would say this:
Mistakes have shaped Jewish cuisine. They may be typos, omissions, spills, accidental omissions, or random accidents. Sometimes they change it for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes we never know. A dish might end up being better with the accidental addition of a spice, or leaving out something else. It might become a longstanding tradition – I suspect that whoever first made the gelled broth of gefilte fish probably left the broth out for too long by mistake. A mistake may also turn into someone’s “secret ingredient.” My formerly-secret ingredient of black pepper in applesauce started as an accident.
That said, people make mistakes more often than they withhold secrets. When a recipe does not work out, some people’s first instinct is to assume that the cook left out an ingredient to preserve their domination over a dish. The mythical “secret ingredient.” I doubt that this is usually the case, though ardent cooks can be as vain and petty as anyone. Rather, I am more convinced of the fact that cooks forget that they do things in a way, or that they add something in such and such a way, because it is so natural to them. I beat eggs in a certain way, so that the whites get a bit puffier, but I never thought to include that in a recipe, for example. That mistake will change the final product, unless you too beat your eggs in the exact same way. In addition, you can always mess up when cooking from someone else’s recipe. And these mistakes determine, I think, a bit of what gets cooked and what does not. If a mistake makes a dish hard for someone to recreate, then that dish will likely not appear on the table – or appear in altered form. Likewise, if a mistake leaves you with a bad impression of a dish, then you will not be inclined to cook it again. As I write this, I wonder how many creative, tasty, and wondrous dishes have been lost to mistakes by author or cook. My grandmother’s pumpkin fritters very nearly met this fate, because she forgot to mention flour at all.
Things get lost in translation, too. One thing that often never gets really appreciated is how different “eyeball” quantities can be in different languages – ktzat in Hebrew is not necessarily a bit in English, and that is not un poquito in Spanish either. Now, apply that measure to salt, or pepper, or nutmeg (as I have witnessed), and see what results. The same goes for directions: meng in Afrikaans can be expressed by several words, not just mix, in English. And, of course, “to taste” is impossibly personal and extremely cultural. So when parents give their children recipes, or friends give their friends recipes, or someone squints over a newspaper in a language they speak imperfectly (guilty as charged), unintentional mistakes can be made quite easily. And the end product is different. Sometimes the change is not so great, but sometimes it is better or tastier.
And then there are the dishes you end up forgetting to make for years at a time. I have not made brownies, for example, for about five years. (Shocking, I know.) I know that when I make them the first time, I will probably mess something up. If I make them for someone, they might not like “my brownies” – even if I try to convince them that my brownies are normally delicious. If that person is my boyfriend, I might not end up making them for quite a while, or ever again. Transpose this idea to a rarer dish, or one that might not be easily made. It is quite possible that many things have been given up, because they are too hard to make right, or so hard to recreate that they are easily messed up. Beyond changing ideas of “good” and “bad” and assimilating a cultural aversion to wobbliness, one reason that p’tcha is probably no longer as common, for example, is that it is actually quite easy to mess up. Other dishes or variants of extant ones have probably been lost in the recesses of many memories. Still others are changed by the mistakes that you make in re-creation.
Part of me wants to think only of the happy accidents – after all, which genius realized that gefilte fish is perfectly paired with horseradish? But cooking and cuisine are not only happy or happy accidents. A lot of learning to cook, and researching food history, is not noticing a thing and then making a disaster of your dish. These disasters help us figure out what to cook, how to cook, and how not to cook. And when we learn from others how to eat, what to eat, and how not to eat, these disasters can add up to a cuisine. Mistakes have changed the way Jews talk about, cook, eat, and remember food, and that is something worth noting – just like my grandmother’s missing 0.
I originally wanted to write a comprehensive post about the history of Jewish cuisine in the Indian Ocean. I realized that would need to be the length of a book. So I tried to do a shorter version. I ran into a similar problem. Instead, I have decided to do something a tad simpler. Rather than go into a drone, I will look at a few foods or things that show the influence of Indian Ocean trade routes on Jewish cooking. Though we do not think about the Indian Ocean much in Jewish history or Western history, it is important that we do so.
As many scholars have pointed out before, the Indian Ocean was the center of world trade for a thousand years, and much of that had to do with food. The flow of spices from Indonesia to India to Arabia and Africa to Europe – and within and between those places – set the stage for much of early global trade. Cloves and pepper were already traded across vast distances in Biblical times – and sugar would follow by the Roman period. After Islam came about and spread with seafarers, the region gained a common language – Arabic – and an even bigger network of traders, based in what is now Oman and Yemen. Meanwhile, Tamil emperors ruled for lengthy periods over South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. Later, the region would be a patchwork of kingdoms and empires which built their own powers on trade and maritime prowess. From there, spices, minerals, and people moved from Ethiopia to India to Malaysia to Arabia to Iran to China. Europe dealt with this world through intermediaries – and it was Portuguese and Spanish ambitions to enter this trade that influenced Columbus’ voyage to the Americas and the start of European imperialism. Nowhere was this more apparent than food. Spices were an attainable goal, and often these were spices native to faraway lands along the ocean’s shores. Cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, and cloves were items that tinged local cuisines across the basin and beyond. Dishes from traders were common from Zanzibar to Timor. Merchants from Portugal to Japan craved the same tinge of pepper.
Jewish cuisine the world over was influenced by this trade. In some cases, Jews were living on the trade routes themselves: in Egypt, Ethiopia, Yemen, India, Iran, Iraq, and Burma. In other cases, as was true of Ottoman, Venetian, and Ukrainian Jews, trade with other communities connected them to the ocean. For all these communities, the spices and foods, recipes and ideas, methods and knowledge that travelled on the seas transformed their kitchens. For examples, I will look at a snack, a spice, and a method.
A few years ago, I wrote about sambusak, a savory, filled Iraqi pastry, and its ties to triangular pastries elsewhere. The snack started its journey as a triangular pastry in Central Asia, and first became popular in the Persian-speaking world. From there, it travelled with soldiers, merchants, and migrants to India, the Middle East, and North Africa, where it sometimes went by different names. Eventually, it reached Greece and the Balkans as the boreka – named after a different Turkish pastry, the börek, which is made with boiled dough. It also reached Spain, and later the Americas, as the empanada. Jewish communities not only partook in sambusak and empanadas, but adapted them to Jewish holidays. In many communities, pastries like these are common on Shavuot.
The samosa was a seafarer, too, and became popular in the Indian Ocean region. From India, the recipe travelled eastwards to Southeast Asia, where it is still extremely popular in Indonesia. In Burma, too, it became popular – and the Baghdadi Jewish community would often serve their recipe on Shabbat. That version mixed flavors of three samosas: the local Burmese one, a Bengali one, and the sambusak recipe from Iraq. (If anyone has the recipe, please let me know!) Westward, the samosa made its way across the sea to Yemen, which already had a different version that probably came from the Gulf. There, Jewish writings mention triangle pastries as a delicacy enjoyed in urban areas like Sana’a. From Yemen, or via what is now Somalia, it hopped over to today’s Ethiopia and Eritrea, where Jewish communities also adapted the dish to local ingredients. Today’s Ethiopian Jews have brought their version of the recipe – filled with delicious lentils – to Israel and Chicago. It is also a plot device in a wonderful film about a Jewish boy named Solomon in the Ethiopian highlands, called Lamb. Later Jewish communities would also bring their own triangle pastries to the Indian Ocean shores. Portuguese Jews in Cochin mixed local samosas with empanadas, and Jews from Rhodes made borekas in the colonial cities on the African coast they went to in the early 20th century.
Why was the samosa popular? After all, cooking oil was expensive until the modern era, and samosas are often fried. (Though some are baked, steamed, or cooked in a Dutch oven-type way.) They are also surprisingly annoying to make, with thin dough and a habit of breaking at the worst possible moments. On the other hand, they are delicious. The carb-forward softness of the dough – substantial and yielding – gives way to a filling that can be spiced to almost any specification. They are most easily made in bulk, which makes them ideal for celebrations or anything in which people may be social. The effort required – even with our modern pre-made wrappers and equipment – makes the pastries special for occasions, and easily incorporated into the many Jewish traditions of elaborate foods for Sabbaths and holidays. More broadly, they are also the perfect street food.
Given that they are best made in bulk, and that frying was quite dangerous in homes until recently, samosas were, like other fried foods, a thing eaten outside the house in urban areas. Sellers, enterprising vendors, or housewives needing another line of income set up samosa stands in markets as early as the 12th and 13th centuries in Persia, and later elsewhere. The samosa joined a long line of other fried foods – doughnuts, fritters, dumplings, and so on – that extended back to the early days of Islam. Though many Jewish communities eschewed eating outside the community – and though many other communities had similar rules – Jews were likely in the markets, eating samosas, and picking up those ideas. Perhaps, they were selling them too – and giving other communities a taste for new things that Jews brought with them, from wherever they came. Like cinnamon.
Cinnamon is the unlikely star of Ashkenazi holiday food. It is strange, when you think about it, that the bark of a tree native to Sri Lanka and Indonesia would be so frequent in the festive cooking of an Eastern European minority thousands of miles away. And yet – Tzimmes mit Flanken is not quite the same for some without the cinnamon to accompany the carrots; Mandelbroyt gain a zing with it; red cabbage with apples is spruced up with a touch of cinnamon; some enterprising cooks even add them to their matzoh balls. In Lithuania, a tradition arose of stuffing matzoh balls and Kreplach with onions fried with … cinnamon. How did this community, so far from where cinnamon is grown, come to add it to their food?
Lithuania, Poland, and the Ukraine were tied through long spurs to the Indian Ocean trade networks thousands of miles away. The trade routes shifted over time, but in the 17th century, they looked something like this: Spices from Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent were bought and sold in Cochin and other ports in Kerala, from where they were shipped to what is now Oman, Iraq, and Yemen. From there, they went over land, river, and sea to Istanbul and other Ottoman centers in Anatolia and the Balkans. From there, another round of buying and selling would happen, and traders – often Jewish – would bring the spices from there, by land or sea, to what is now the Ukraine. Then, well-worn paths would carry the spices to the centers of Poland and Lithuania. Many of the communities on these paths were Jewish, and were already trading other things as well – etrogim for Sukkot, books and halachic literature, cloth, and goods. Spices were always a mainstay. Ideas spread too – not just recipes, which flowed back and forth, but also religious ones. The heresy of the false Messiah Shabtai Zvi spread from the Ottoman Empire elsewhere on these very circuits. Contrary to the Ashkenormative and, honestly, rather twee history spun of homely Ashkenazi communities hewing to some sort of tradition that they themselves would have found laughable. Our ancestors were aware of an extraordinary world – even if they were usually too poor to access its fruits. They took what they could, and made it their own. Cinnamon was one of them.
It started, like black pepper and ginger, as a luxury good in the Middle Ages. But increased trade – especially after the Dutch and Portuguese used colonization, genocide, and slavery to monopolize the market – made the spices cheaper in Europe. Now, the trade networks flowed from Amsterdam and Lisbon through Germany to Eastern Europe, and in much greater supply. By the 16th century, Martin Luther mixed his anti-Semitism with complaints about peasants becoming addled and lascivious on black pepper. Thus cinnamon went from a luxury good for a few Jews to a luxury good for many Jews. Soon, it began popping up in many goods. Later, when sugar became more common after the introduction of the sugar beet in Eastern Europe, cinnamon became a mainstay of Ashkenazi sweet foods, and substantial foods that were sweet but often served as a meal or holiday dish, like noodle kugel. The availability of cinnamon for a comparatively cheap price from the 19th century on also made cinnamon far more common in day-to-day cooking, just like other former luxuries like sugar, meat, and white bread. Even today, much of the cinnamon we consume comes from Indian Ocean countries like Sri Lanka. One reason cinnamon became cheaper, in fact, was the reduced shipping cost of spices to Europe after the opening of the Suez Canal.
Of course, cinnamon is frequent in the Jewish cuisines of the Indian Ocean itself. The spice makes frequent appearances in Indian Jewish curries and soups, and it is sometimes included in Ethiopian spice mixtures. It is also used with some frequency by Jewish communities in Iran, especially with fruit-heavy dishes.
This recipe started in Iraq. Medieval Arabic cookbooks from Baghdad record poultry stuffed with bread or rice as a festival dish, or a frequent dish on the tables of nobility and the wealthy. (Among other delicacies that, sadly, did not stay popular.) Jews probably picked up this dish there, and adapted it for cooking on the Sabbath and the restriction rabbinic Jews follow on not mixing dairy and poultry. (Most Islamic schools of thought allow that combination.) The dish stayed a local delicacy for a few centuries.
Then, starting as early as the 17th century, but especially in the 18th and 19th century, Iraqi Jews migrated in large numbers to India, Burma, and Malaya – which were then under British rule. The cuisine came with them, and as these communities became established as traders, merchants, and doctors, so too the cuisines began to change. The stuffed chicken gained new versions as spices were changed, fillings were changed, or even the method was changed. (Instead of roasting, say, baking in a covered pot.) As a result, many varied versions of the recipe now exist that we have a record of.
As Jews migrated in the past across the Indian Ocean basin, other recipes probably went through similar shifts. We are lucky to have a sense of it with stuffed chicken – and the copious writing of Baghdadi Jews across the region to tell us about it. Here, we can see an example of how a recipe might have travelled. Now, too, though those Jewish communities are mostly elsewhere, other recipes travel among those countries’ majorities too. Whereas in the 19th century, it was a stuffed chicken, now, it is noodle dishes with vegetables – brought from Southeast Asia through South Asia to become popular in the Middle East. Perhaps the noodles could be a chicken filling?
For samosas: on Netflix, there is a cute Indian series called Itihaas ki Thali se, with short animated films on the history of various South Asian delicacies. It is in Hindi with English subtitles. There is a really fun samosa episode, that makes for a perfect break between episodes on a Netflix binge, before you realize that you should make some food – or get some prepared food.
For stuffed chickens, Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Foodhas a recipe. I have not had the time or energy to try it yet – to say the least, it is not a recipe one simply walks into the kitchen to make. So, here, I leave you to the trusted care of Queen Claudia, who I trust with all my heart to guide you like the captain of a ship on calm waters.