I have spent a lot of time thinking about food during this time. Some of it is because, well, I am always thinking about food. Some of it is because dreaming about food helps me deal with the wildness of the outside world – as I told Ruby Tandoh for a piece in Food52. And some of it is because, well, there is a lot to say. I’ve been keeping what has become a fairly lengthy personal diary themed around food and food systems since the onset of the pandemic, with tons of materials and recipes and thoughts. I am also working on a piece about food sharing in socially distant ways (with video!). Beyond that, though, I have been noting observations I have made – both in my professional work in local government and urban planning, as well as the cooking habits I see in my away-from-the-desk life.
A lot more people are cooking, for sure – even as various places “reopen”. Many of these people were far more reliant on restaurants, takeout, and prepared foods before the pandemic; which, though not always leading to restaurants’ closure, certainly made a takeout-centric lifestyle a lot more difficult. So folks turned to the kitchen, and new trends blossomed: sourdoughs, jam-making, homemade pastas, and complex dishes. Others cooked because they were bored; still others cooked their grief away. And even consummate cooks like me, now with more time to cook complicated things we saved for chagim and birthdays, branched out in new directions. (I mastered khachapuri.) For those new to cooking, the sudden imposition of more time, and time at home, provided an opportunity to actually learn some new skills. Some liked the cooking, some did not. But two months in, a lot of new habits might be sticking. That is curious to me, though I’m always happy when more people find joy, solace, or simply something in cooking.
Of course, the consequences from this change are not always positive. For the millions of people who rely on kitchen work, serving, and other food work to pay their bills, the shift to cooking at home can be catastrophic – no matter how virtuous the intent. Then, of course, there is the question of who is doing the cooking at home. Women are still doing far more chores than men in shared households, and that extends to cooking. Increase cooking time without addressing patriarchy, and that’s increasing women’s work. (Cooking is hard!) Then, of course, we should also remember that food safety problems can come from improperly made home-cooked food – not ideal in the time of a pandemic. One is not, actually, necessarily staying safe at home. That said, some people are now cooking more, or cooking differently.
Some of these changes will “stick” for a while. People may cook at home because going out makes them anxious. People may cook at home because that is what they are used to now. People may cook at home because they feel pressure to do so from peers or social media. People may cook at home because that is what they can afford. People may cook at home because they like it. Perhaps it is all of these things. And for those of us in Jewish communities, cooking at home may also happen because all the other wonderful parts of semachot – happy occasions – are so much harder in a physically distant world.
But I have been wondering about what these things mean long-term. One is that I think we will see some of a shift in what kind of cooking is celebrated in social media and popular discourse. The 2010s saw a lot of cooking as a showpiece: the cookies, the stews, the perfect open-faced sandwiches. (Too often without honoring marginalized creators and contributors.) But when people have spent much of a formative moment in their lifetimes cooking for themselves and those in their households, or closest circles, showpieces begin to mean much less. I think, across cultures, that we might see more “home-style” cooking – as loaded and historically complex as this idea is – in which the process and the comfort take a much more central stage. Sure, you will have centerpieces, but cooking now sits in a very different place in many people’s brains.
Cooking is work! And I sense that there is greater appreciation for that now. When you have to cook, for work, or for a family, or for yourself, you start to learn shortcuts and tricks because you know that you do not have the time, energy, or space for the “real thing” – as bullshit as that concept is anyway. A lot of new cooks are coming in, and I think they are coming in with a perspective that is not about cooking something that shows status or looks good – though that is always part of food. Rather, it’s about trying to eat and enjoy it – and the process – even as the world seems to fall apart, and even when the energy to cook isn’t fully or really there.
Perhaps we will shift to a food culture that is less precious – and hopefully, less racist. A lot of this picture-perfect food culture is built on a narrative and process that steals from the work of people of color, and masks the risks and labor of cooks of color across the food industry. I hope that these changes lead some white folks to have greater empathy – and pay more attention to whose food stories are told, and who gets the money from them. I also hope that cooking habits lead people to glorify aspirational cooking a little less, and the fact that food should be for everybody a little bit more. I also hope that, now that some have experienced cooking labor for the first time, that there is more weight and advocacy for the millions of kitchen workers that feed America – few of whom have the luxury to eat the way white pundits tell them to.
But who knows if these hopes will come true? Like the virus, food habits are often unpredictable.
Stars are footnotes and appear at the end of the post.
Greetings from Maryland, where I am safely ensconced and riding out our strange new reality. I miss my partner, in New York, and my family, but I am okay. I hope you are managing and keeping safe.
With the ongoing crisis, I have been thinking a lot about differential access to food, and how it plays out in a pandemic situation for folks with different experiences, often marginalized ones. There are authors who have already written very eloquently about these effects from the point of view of class, race, and gender – and I strongly suggest you read these pieces too! I want to talk, today, about how these access points can play out for people with disabilities.* Specifically, I will talk about the acts of getting, storing, and making food to eat in this context.
When I wrote my piece about disability in the kitchen, the blog’s most-read article to date, I did not foresee that we would be dealing, two years later, with a global pandemic. At the time, I was working on accessible communications for a government agency; now, I am doing graduate work in urban planning, focusing on aging and disability in the built environment. Even the way I talk about my own autism has changed. And, as I research topics from public restrooms to sidewalks, I keep returning to that piece I wrote about disability in the kitchen. Now, when I watch all of our food habits change in line with the virus, enabled by technical innovations, I note that people with disabilities still face barriers to coronavirus cooking. These barriers come right alongside the threats to disabled people’s lives from rationed care, the lack of access to many remote services on which disabled people rely, and the housing problems many disabled people face.
We should remember that disability intersects with other marginalized identities. Disabled people of color face particular and often more intense barriers to access, and often lack access to services more than their white counterparts. This lack extends to access to food – be it living in food deserts or not having an accessible grocery store nearby. Gender, too, plays a role: women, non-binary people, and transgender people often also have difficulty accessing services. And class plays an overarching role. People with disabilities are far more likely to be poor and to rely on inadequate “safety nets”; many people cannot afford food during a normal time. So now, many of the interventions well-off abled people take for granted – grocery delivery, food delivery, or being able to purchase two weeks’ of food at once – are more difficult or impossible for many disabled people. Not to mention that inadequate housing and kitchens particularly affect poor disabled people – especially people of color with disabilities.** People incarcerated in “group homes”often have no autonomy over their food at all (or anything else). The inability during a “normal” time to afford a house with accessible food storage or appliances is doubly problematic when there is no accessible way to store, cook, or save large quantities of food.
But these problems start even before we get to putting food away. Let’s walk through the process of going to a grocery store, buying food, bringing it home, storing it, and cooking it in this time.
Barriers start with the simple act of getting to the grocery store, or getting groceries delivered. Of course, some people with disabilities cannot safely leave their homes during the pandemic, and that situation itself is an enormous barrier. Many people with disabilities, including those who can leave, rely on public transit or paratransit to go to “essential services” like supermarkets, and routes and service have been gutted in many areas. As a result, what was a one-hour trip might now take three. Sidewalks, already badly maintained and narrow, are difficult to practice social distancing on – especially if you cannot wheel on dirt or safely on a busy street! Many grocery stores that are open have visitors line up on inaccessible barriers for entry, or are located in difficult-to-navigate and often dangerous areas. These challenges are added to on the return trip with the difficulty of carting food while achieving any of these tasks. Food delivery can cost more money that many disabled people do not have, and not to mention, anecdotes indicate that some things do not seem to make it into delivery baskets right now. Furthermore, many delivery services’ communications are inaccessible, be it badly-designed websites or demanding telephone calls some people cannot make. So, many people with disabilities rely on friends or family to assist with groceries – but this relies coordination, and often gives other people undue power over what that disabled person is eating. The “well-meaning” (but actually inappropriately controlling) family member might not, for example, get those sour cream ranch chips that make lockdown that much more bearable for their relative.
Other barriers exist once you enter a grocery store or supermarket. Of course, many grocery stores are inaccessible, with narrow aisles and steps, loud equipment that triggers sensory reactions, and broadly impossible to navigate for blind people. Coronavirus adds another layer: the need to socially distance means that you move a lot, but some people move more slowly than others. Standing in line for an hour, as occurs in many places, is not possible for some people. Social distancing is more difficult or impossible for people with cognitive disabilities, especially given the type of mental processing such distancing requires. On top of food shopping, that can become very difficult without cues in the store. The worry about viral spread, often dismissed for grocery stores, is quite real for immunocompromised people. Masks make it harder for Deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate with store staff and other shoppers, because facial expressions and lip-reading become impossilbe. And, of course, shortages play a role too. If you, like many disabled people, have food sensitivities or allergens, and your mainstay foods are out of stock, you may find shopping more difficult. Not to mention that markups on common food items may make them unaffordable to many people with disabilities.
Once someone returns, or has food delivered, how do they store it? Refrigerators and freezers are often inaccessible for people with disabilities – especially wheelchair users and people of short stature. Food packaging is usually inaccessible to blind and low-vision people, who often have to relabel all of their food once it comes back into the house. With the larger grocery hauls that result from less frequent trips away from home, this task becomes longer, and more tiring. In addition, cabinets, especially those meant for food storage, are also often not accessible for wheelchair users. When one is limited to a certain amount of space, storing two weeks’ worth of food can be an insurmountable challenge, as a result of poor, inaccessible design. (Even a design that is pretty: if it is not accessible, the design probably is not good.) Many disabled people live in housing that already was inadequate for food preparation and storage. Furthermore, for many people with cognitive disabilities, the challenge of sorting and storing food,*** already present before the pandemic, becomes even more taxing with the new amounts of food and the different rations required during the pandemic. And, of course, let us not forget that people with suppressed immune systems are at higher risk of contracting coronavirus from packaging, if it is transmitted this way, with far worse results.
Then, of course, there are challenges familiar and new about planning and cooking meals. All of the usual barriers impeding disabled people’s freedom in the kitchen are still there: unusable counters, dangerous stoves, inaccessible sinks, and so on. But the necessitated reliance on cooking makes it that much harder if things get messed up – something that also matters for recipients of food assistance. In addition, planning meals can be a difficult task – and planning them for as much as two weeks is often extremely difficult for people with cognitive disabilities. Furthermore, many of the pre-prepared ingredients that make cooking more manageable for people with disabilities – pre-cut vegetables, canned fruit, and little herb sachets among them – are in short supply at many groceries. Some disabled people may not be able to, say, safely chop an onion in their kitchen.
For many disabled people, this paradigm is particularly exhausting. Some disabled people already work with lower levels of energy or higher fatigue than other people. Most disabled people have to do the honestly tiring work of figuring out how to move around barriers, to navigate inaccessible spaces, and still get what they need. In the age of coronavirus, that can be especially tiring. And so the added fatigue, the accumulated tiredness, the “lack of spoons,” becomes yet another barrier for food access. Even – especially for people who cannot leave their homes right now. The worry and the coordination of food access alone can be exhausting – on top of which, all these other issues may apply.
You may notice, when reading, that many of these issues are not specifically about coronavirus itself. Of course not – the built environment that harms disabled people was already there before the pandemic: access to food sources was still blocked, transport was still an issue, kitchens were inadequate, cooking was difficult, fatigue still occurred. The point is not that these barriers to food and cooking are new for people with disabilities. The point is that the coronavirus crisis amplifies them, to a point of being even more impactful and dangerous.
I wonder, from a personal and professional perspective, how we can address these issues in a post-pandemic world. What sort of transport structures and changes will we need to put in place to consider food access and service access for people with disabilities? What changes need to be given additional oomph? What new requirements will supermarkets, grocery stores, housing, and other services need to meet during construction? Some of these standards already exist, but some will be changed. After all, disabled people, too, will be making changes to their lifestyles after the pandemic – and that choice will necessitate some new design standards, be they wider supermarket aisles or more food storage space than before in an accessible kitchen. These are all to be determined, and hopefully, will improve upon the current paradigm, which is unacceptably inaccessible.
*A note to readers: I tend to be ecumenical about using “person-first language” – people with disabilities – and identity first language – “disabled people,” though I tend to prefer the latter since it points out that people are disabled by the societies around them. This idea is called the social model of disability. As an autistic person, I find myself switching when I even describe myself. That said, I know many people with disabilities prefer person-first language, and as a compromise, I switch between the two now. For certain disability communities, there are proper protocols: The descriptor Deaf people is always identity-first in English, the descriptor people with cognitive disabilities is always person-first in English. These rules are based on community decisions. Please do not use “differently-abled,” as it implies that there is something wrong with being disabled!
**The first folks to be listened to on issues affecting disabled people of color are disabled people of color themselves. For a clear explanation as to why, and the intersection of race and disability, see this fantastic piece by Imani Barbarin. Ditto for issues affecting women with disabilities, disabled transgender people, and working-class disabled people. I should not be your primary source here!
***Resources by and for people with cognitive disabilities often expressly discuss pantry storage and food purchasing. However, many assume regular grocery access – which may not be possible during the pandemic.
Here is a simple, straightforward cookie recipe. This type of rolled sugar cookie shows up often in American Jewish community cookbooks from the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. Though such recipes are often dismissed as a sign of “assimilation,” I think they offer a lot of knowledge about exactly how Jewish folks, and mostly the women who were doing most of the cooking, were still trying to maintain community ties and get people to communal events in this new framework. Besides, there is no shame in enjoying a cookie.
I did not see a cookie of this specific flavor in the books, but I have made a variant of these a few times in the past months, and was quite happy with the result. You can make a dairy-free/pareve version by using oil and one small egg instead of the milk, or use a plant-based milk and oil for a vegan cookie.
½ cup (3.5oz/100g) granulated cane sugar + 2-3 tbsp for rolling
⅔ cup maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp whole milk
2 cups (8.5oz/240g) white flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground allspice
½ tsp ground cloves
Preheat your oven to 350F/175C. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl until combined. You can use a pastry knife or an electric hand mixer. Here is a guide for how you can do that with a wooden spoon if you have neither.
Add the maple syrup, vanilla extract, and whole milk, and mix until combined.
In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and spices together.
Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and work together with the pastry knife, spoon, or hand mixer until combined. You should have a sticky but pliant dough.
Pour the 2-3 tbsp of sugar for rolling onto a plate and spread it evenly.
Take a piece of dough and roll it into a 1 inch/2.5cm ball. Then, roll it briefly in the sugar until covered. Place it on the parchment paper. Repeat until you use the dough – spread the dough balls about 2 inches/5 cm apart.
Use a fork to lightly “squash” each of the balls.
Bake for 10-13 minutes in the oven, or until the cookies are brown but not burned on the bottom, and the cookies are solid but still soft.
Remove from the heat and let cool for 15-20 minutes before serving. Store any remaining cookies in an airtight container or bag for up to four days.
Thank you to my classmates, colleagues, housemates, and boyfriend for trying several iterations of this recipe.
This is a stew that, like many things called “goulash,” would not be called “goulash” by everyone. But maybe it would. In any case, it is a variation on a delicious theme.
Stewed meat with vegetables in a red sauce is a fairly common Central European dish. The dish started off as a Hungarian herder’s stew – although, with its meaty content, it may have been somewhat of a nobleman’s dish too after the Magyars settled on the Pannonian plain. The dish spread, by dint of the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires (and massive, centuries-long migrations across Central Europe) throughout the region, and similar names largely stuck. When chili pepper was introduced in the early modern period – and paprika became particularly popular – the dish evolved again in Hungary and other countries, to include the modish spice. That practice – and the common use of tomatoes – spread as well, to Germany and Austria, to Russia, and to the United States. The dishes were often quite far from what is typical in Hungary – for example, American goulash often contains pasta, and Scandinavian ones are less piquant. (Though goulash in Hungary has evolved into dozens of related dishes, like pörkölt and halászlé!) Across these countries, Jews often cooked versions of these stews with kosher meats, and likely contributed to their development in many countries by introducing additional ingredients or cooking methods from other Jewish communities.
Of course many cultures also have their own variant on these stews – South African bredies, Argentinian carbonadas criollas, Filipino calderetas, and so on. The sticking power of the name “goulash” is probably from the influence of Hungarian cuisine and culture across a wide area as a result of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Cookbooks for early 20th-century Jewish housewives often have a variant of this dish in them. These sorts of stews, and goulash in particular, were a mainstay of German-speaking middle class families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – it is raised in nearly every major book about German Jewish cuisine. Many Ashkenazi Jews explicitly sought to assimilate into this culture, and in some cities were a key part of the middle class and its practices. Housewives were expected to maintain a certain type of cultural refinement and practice in the home, and cookbooks were key parts of communicating this. So was what you ate – and goulash, which would have been considered luxurious by working-class families – was one of many recipes that were part of there. When German-American Jews wrote similar cookbooks for settlement houses where Eastern European Jews studied (or were pressured to study at), goulash was often included.
This recipe is my variant on these dishes. Like even Hungarians before the 18th century, when paprika was introduced to Central Europe, this goulash is made without paprika. Instead, I gain sharpness and depth from the leeks and the dill, but it is compensated by sweetness. Leeks are a delicious, hearty addition to any stew – just be sure to wash them properly! I served this stew with egg noodles, but it would probably be wonderful on rice as well.
Beef and Leek Goulash
2.2lbs/1 kg beef chuck stew meat, cut into 1 inch/2.5cm or so pieces
1 tablespoon soup powder OR 1 tablespoon bouillon base
1 ½ teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried dill
1 tablespoon white sugar
Water as needed
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil (depends on fattiness of meat)
Prepared egg noodles, rice, potatoes, or bread (for serving)
Place a stewing pot or casserole pot over a high flame. When hot, add 2 tablespoons oil, and then add the meat. Brown the meat, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and set aside. If not much fat has melted off the meat, or you are low, add some more oil.
Add the onions and garlic and sauté, stirring frequently, until wilted and softening, about 5 minutes.
Add the leeks and carrots, and mix in thoroughly with the onions. Then, add the vinegar. Cook covered, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes, or until the leeks have wilted.
Add the tomatoes and spices and mix thoroughly. Bring to a boil.
Add the meat, and then water to cover (about 1 or 1 ½ cups). Mix in thoroughly, then bring to a boil.
Lower the heat to a simmer, and then simmer, half- or loosely covered, for 1 to 1 ½ hours, stirring occasionally.
Serve hot with egg noodles, rice, potatoes, or bread.
Thank you to Ziva Freiman and AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.
So, it is time to post one of my favorite childhood recipes: a zucchini casserole called pashtidat kishuim. It is an odd favorite dish for a child: a soft, eggy, slightly bitter, zucchini-based pudding. But to me, this is childhood: it was a frequent feature on the dinner table. I am not given to nostalgia, but I will say that 14-year-old me and 28-year old me are equally enthusiastic about this dish. I am excited to share it with you!
I discussed the history of pashtidot in one of the earliest posts on this site, a recipe for pashtidat tiras (corn casserole). To review: the dish is rooted in some sort of baked dish from medieval times, mentioned by Rashi and other scholars. In modern Israel, that morphed into a casserole made from various readily available, often processed, and nationally encouraged ingredients. In the 1950s, classes and media encouraged pashtidot as a food, and soon, the casseroles became a staple of dinner tables. They remain as such today – one of Israel’s best-selling cookbooks is simply titled Pashtidot.
Pashtidot are different from kugels but are often similar. Some Israelis use pashtida to refer to kugels, and many Americans use “kugel” to refer to pashtida. I draw the difference by two means. One is that the history is different – kugels were originally and sometimes still are cooked in a Sabbath stew, while pashtidot are generally baked separately. The other is that kugels tend to have a mainly starch base, while pashtidot tend to be egg-based for their structure. As a result, pashtidot tend to be a lot softer than kugels – even those made from mashed potato tend to be firmer. But who knows – the boundary is in the eye of the beholder. Authenticity is still bullshit, anyway.
A typical Israeli pashtidat kishuim is a little less firm than my rendition. This is because I add potato for solidity and for heartiness. This addition brings my pashtida closer to a kugel then other pashtidot, because of the carbohydrate. Again, the boundary is fuzzy – and even, then, such a heavy kugel would be classified differently, as a teygekhts, in some dialects of Yiddish. But I digress. The potato cuts the bitterness of the zucchini nicely, adds some weight and solidity, and also makes the whole thing even more delicious. You can decide whether or not it is a main course (serves 6) or a side (serves 12).
4 medium-large fresh zucchini
2 medium baking potatoes
1 medium onion, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
6 large eggs, beaten
1/3 cup neutral-flavored oil
1 heaping tablespoon avkat marak (soup powder) or 2 tbsp table salt, additional 1 tsp ground black pepper, ½ tsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp dried oregano
1 ¼ cups white flour
Additional salt, to taste
Oil, to grease the pan
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Grease a 13”x9”/33cmx25cm deep baking pan.
Grate the zucchini, then squeeze out all the water by hand. If you have a food processor, I strongly suggest you use it.
Grate the potatoes, but do not squeeze them. Mix with the zucchini.
In a large mixing bowl, mix together the onion, garlic, eggs, oil, avkat marak, black pepper, and dried oregano.
Add the grated vegetables and mix until the egg mixture is distributed throughout.
Add the flour and mix in until thoroughly combined. Pour the mixture into the pan and distribute so that it is level.
Bake for 45 minutes, or until the top is beginning to become golden on the ridges and a knife comes out moist, but without zucchini or flour sticking to it. If you like a crispy top, bake for another fifteen minutes. Serve warm or hot.
A note: during Passover, you can swap the flour for an equivalent amount of matzah meal.
This blog is deeply political. In a time when the American President is saying nakedly anti-Semitic things, and that children are being incarcerated, it would be deeply irresponsible not to be. Besides, like it or not, food is political! I encourage all readers to do what they can to fight for a better society. For some people, that might include protests.
There are many articles that talk about how to go to protests. I want to add a bit of levity and sugar to this by suggesting you bring a babka to a protest. Yes, this article is ridiculous, but why not? Babkas are delicious, portable, and help you make new friends with whom you can fight – together. Different babkas are appropriate for different protests, so here is a guide for “which babka?”
If there are going to be many children at a protest, a chocolate babka is best. Children are often scared at their first protest: while it is fun, there are a lot of people, and a lot of noise! Chocolate is a nice treat that also helps children feel a little more comfortable with this new learning experience. Not to mention, the adults love chocolate babka too.
If the protest is mostly adults, a cinnamon babka also works. In adulthood, some begin to find a chocolate babka too cloying, and others – including myself – come to prefer cinnamon, which many children find a bit difficult. Chocolate also can trigger migraines in many adults, which is the last thing you want at a protest. Cinnamon is a good bet. (You can bring both.)
If the protest has many, many people, or will be outside for a long time, bring a babka from the store. It is fun to bake a babka, but in quantity, it is very hard to do. Home-baked babka also tends to be a tad more difficult to transport, unless you have the right equipment. No shame in popping to the store.
If the protest may have some right-wing counter-protesters, a plum babka, or any other kind of jam babka. If they try to shake your hand, their hands will be sticky! Pettiness is sometimes your friend. Also, Trump hates plums.
You can always bring multiple flavors! We are advocating for a world where all people have the freedom to live a fulfilling life, which ideally should include many babkas.
Remember to stay safe at protests! Follow these tips by Sam Killermann on your own safety, and don’t forget to have the contact information of a pro-bono lawyer, just in case. Your protest right is protected in the United States by the First Amendment. (In other countries, different local laws apply.) Don’t forget to hydrate. If you don’t feel safe going to a protest, or can’t make it, that’s okay! There are many other ways to contribute to a better society, and you should still have babka while doing it.
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 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.
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.