Breakfast Farina

Semolina piled on a white surface.
Semolina. (Wikimedia Commons)

I am about to go on a trip, but here is a quick recipe for a good breakfast farina. Farina is more commonly called “cream of wheat” in the United States. It has a long Jewish history: semolina, the middlings of milled wheat, has been used in Jewish cooking since ancient times. It is hardy, and it is tasty. In Kurdish and Turkish Jewish cooking, semolina is used both in savory foods like kubbeh and sweet foods like halva (the Turkish semolina halva, un halvası, is my favorite dessert of all time). In Ashkenazi cooking, farina is generally served sweet, and often to the very young and very old. Like in the United States, it has often been seen as a “morning” food – even though breakfast was not a “distinct meal” in European Jewish communities until the early 20th century.

What I like about this recipe is that you can make a lot in advance, and heat it up each day. I generally make four or five days’ worth and have a portion each day. Keep leftovers in the fridge. Here, heating in the microwave is better than heating on the stove if you have a microwave – add a splash of milk if you want your farina softer.

Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food was the main source consulted for this post.

Farina in a bowl with cranberries and cheese on a flowered tablecloth
(Photo mine, July 2018)

Breakfast Farina
Makes 5 servings
1 1/4 cups fine semolina
1 cup whole milk
3 cups water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
2 fistfuls raisins or dried cranberries
2 tablespoons farmers cheese (optional)
1. Put the semolina, milk, water, sugar, salt, and butter into a medium saucepan. Place on high heat.
2. Bring to a boil. Stir regularly while it is coming to a boil.
3. When it is boiling, cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring throughout.
4. When the mixture is thick and gloopy, turn off the heat. Mix in raisins and cheese.
5. You can store the farina in the refrigerator for a few days.
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Potato Frittata for Passover

Potato frittata with cilantro and chilies in a cast-iron pan with a missing section cut out
Potato frittata with cilantro and chilies – the missing bit was eaten by yours truly. (Photo mine, March 2018)

And now for the second in our series of potato dishes for Passover – a dish most people associate with Spain, the potato omelet. In Spain, this dish is made with chunks of potato and known as a tortilla española. It is a common favorite at tapas bars around the world. However, a similar dish exists across Italian, North African, and Middle Eastern Jewish communities. It is called frittata de patate by Italian Jews, kuku sib zamini by Persian Jews. It is also named makroud fil-batates in North African Arabic or a variety of things in Ladino.

A slice of frittata on a blue plate
Enjoying a slice of frittata. (Photo mine, March 2018)

Some may ask if this dish originated in Spain. I would say no – the expulsion of the Jews in Spain happened before the introduction of the potato to Europe. Recipes for large omelets served like cakes,  however, were spread widely in the Mediterranean by travelers, traders, and soldiers during the Umayyad caliphate. In addition, the use of eggs to “wrap up” vegetables was found in Italy since at least the time of the Romans, when eggs tended to be used by the wealthy. So when the potato came along, it was incorporated into omelets just like eggplants, spinach, and onions.

One of the great things about many of the Jewish versions of the frittata is that it is made with mashed potato instead of potato chunks, which does wondrous things for the texture. Instead of admittedly delicious chunks of potato, you get a creamy, almost mousse-like texture. I based my recipe off of Claudia Roden’s, but with a few adjustments. I swapped the parsley with cilantro, and added a touch of another New World introduction – chili peppers – to give it a bit of a spicy kick. This dish makes for a great sharing food, or as breakfast for Pesach and the whole year. However, I skipped the onions in the North African version and made a riff off of the deceptively simple Italian version. I have been eating it for breakfast, piece by piece. Enjoy!

Potato Frittata for Passover

Based on several recipes by Claudia Roden

2lbs/1kg potatoes, peeled

5 cloves white garlic, minced

2 fresh hot chili peppers, finely diced

4 tablespoons olive oil or sunflower seed oil

1 fistful fresh cilantro, chopped

8 eggs, beaten

Salt and black pepper to taste (I used about 2 teaspoons of salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper)

  1. Boil the potatoes in water until soft. Then, drain the potatoes and rinse them under cold water to cool them. Mash the potatoes and set aside to cool further.
  2. In the meantime, heat a deep non-stick or cast-iron skillet and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Then, add the garlic and chili and sauté for 1-2 minutes, or until the garlic is browned. Pour out the oil, garlic, and chili, and mix them into the mashed potatoes.
  3. Mix the cilantro, eggs, salt, and pepper into the mashed potatoes until you get a thick batter.
  4. Heat the skillet again, and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Then, pour the egg-potato mixture into the skillet. Cook for 15-20 minutes on a medium-to-high flame, or until the omelet is set and browned on the bottom. If you want it brown on top, you can bake the frittata afterwards for a few minutes. Alternatively, you can bake the frittata in the skillet or a pan for 35-45 minutes in an oven preheated to 425F/220C.
  5. Remove from heat. Serve the frittata in slices, hot, warm, or cold.

Challah

Three baked challahs
Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin. A fall combination. (Photo mine, October 2016.)

It has been almost a year since I started this Jewish food blog, and I am only now making challah. This, I admit, is to the chagrin of many readers: since starting this blog I have been asked, harangued, flirted with, email, telephoned, texted, and Snapchatted (!) for my challah recipe. I deflected for a while: “I don’t often make challah,” I told myself. Then again, nor do I make quince jam that often. Besides, making challah is really fun.

Challah occupies a vaunted place in the American Jewish imagination. It is challah that is the marker of Shabbat, challah that is the marker of holidays, challah that non-Jews ask Jews about, challah that goes in French toast, challah that every Ashkenazi cookbook seems to include. As a bread, it’s pretty delicious, and it’s not the worst symbol of Judaism out there. That said, challah is also a very interesting example of how class and luxury intersect with Jewish practice to create a tradition that evolved quite a bit over the 19th and 20th centuries.

Challah evolved from the tradition of serving special bread on Friday night to commemorate the showbread used in Temple ceremonies in ancient times. The name itself commemorates the Biblical commandment to “separate the challah” as a tithe to the Kohanim, or priestly class. (Today, those that still follow this commandment burn the challah instead.) At some point in the Middle Ages, challah came to refer to braided, wheat-based breads with egg in the Ashkenazi world. These breads have also been called kitke, berkhes, and koylatch at various points. It should be noted here that non-Ashkenazi communities have their own “challahs” and other Shabbat breads. (Note: the Hebrew plural is challot, sometimes Yiddishized as khales, but “challahs” has entered colloquial American usage. I use the latter here.)

Ultimately, challah is not unique. Other Central and Eastern European cuisines have similar braided, egg-based breads, such as the Hungarian kalács and the Lithuanian velykos pyragas. The recipes that we know today probably came from interactions with our neighbors and was certainly not a Jewish invention alone. Challah was historically a bread of luxury: in a region where rye was the predominant grain and wheat was pricy, one did not simply eat challah every day. Moreover, the eggs – another commodity that was not cheap before the 20th century – made challah that much more of a treat. Thus the bread became part of the special nature of Shabbat: a culinary way to set the day aside from the rye-filled workdays of the week. Having challah or any wheat bread more frequently was a sign of prosperity, having “black bread” on the table on Friday night was a sign of poverty.

Challah started out as a celebratory ritual, but has become a culinary force of its own in the United States. In a country and era with plentiful wheat flour and eggs, challah has gone from being a marker of celebrations and good fortune to being a frequent treat. One can buy challah every day in New York – fulfilling the claims of early immigrants, as documented by Michael Wex, that the United States was a country “where one could eat challah every day.” You can find challah French toast, challah bread pudding, challah grilled cheese, and I have even seen deep-fried challah. Those in the 19th century who celebrated having a challah every week would probably be stunned by this abundance. Even then, for most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States, challah is firmly a “Shabbat food.”

Unbaked challah on a tray
Challahs, braided, waiting to be egg-washed and baked. (Photo mine, October 2016.)

The tradition of making challah at home, by hand, has continued strong in this environment of industrialized plenty. Some use family recipes passed down through generations. Others add new ingredients first encountered in the United States – like chocolate chips. Some braid new patterns, others use food coloring to make “rainbow challahs” for gay pride. Making challah, like all Jewish cooking, is still a gendered practice: historically, like other culinary pursuits, it was considered a “women’s practice.” Many still consider it as such.

Many “schools” of challah exist. Some challahs are braided with three strands, others with the far more intricate six strands, and for Rosh HaShanah, braided round challahs are served. Some challahs are large and fluffy – aided by a second rising of the dough. Other challahs are dense and tightly packed – but still sweet and soft. Many people fill their challah with raisins, cinnamon, or even – as one colleague did – fig paste. Density varied historically, but sweetness – like that of gefilte fish – was a Polish trait, encouraged by the 19th-century proliferation of the sugar beet industry there. In all forms, though, challah is delicious.

This recipe is for a denser, smaller challah. The salted egg-wash gives it a pretzel-like twang; indeed, “pretzel challah” is increasingly popular. As for the density, I like challah to be cute and soft, but also able to absorb a good amount of soup, stew, or sauce. After all, I too cannot resist a piece of challah dipped into lentil soup.

Three baked challahs
Baked challahs. Bottom to top: one with black sesame, one with poppy-seed, and one with both black sesame and poppy-seed. (Photo mine, October 2016)

Challah

Based on recipes by Jay Stanton, Dana Katz, Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern in The Gefilte Manifesto, and Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Food.

Makes three small-medium loaves

1 packet active dry yeast

1.5 cups (350mL) lukewarm water

1/3 cup (80mL) honey

1 tsp table salt

1/3 cup (80mL) canola oil

3 eggs, beaten

5 1/2-7 cups (23-30oz/660-840g) white bread flour, plus more for kneading

 

Egg wash:

1 egg, beaten

1/5 cup (50mL) cold water

1/2 tsp table salt

 

Sesame seeds or poppy seeds for garnish (optional)

 

  1. In a large mixing bowl, mix the yeast and 1/4 cup of the water. Leave alone for ten minutes. Your yeast should “proof” and start to bubble in the water. (If it does not, you need new yeast.)
  2. Add the honey, salt, oil, eggs, and the rest of the water. Mix well until thoroughly blended. You can use a whisk or wooden spoon for this step.
  3. Now, add the flour, one cup at a time. Mix it in first with the spoon, and then with your hands. Flour your palms to prevent the dough from sticking. You should have a thick, but not too sticky dough, by the end.
  4. Now you should knead the dough on a well-floured surface with your hands, also floured. Knead for ten minutes, or until you have a smooth and elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe (yes, I am serious, as are others). If your dough gets sticky, add a tablespoon of flour to your hands and the dough. If you have never kneaded bread dough before, I recommend this video.
  5. Place the dough ball into a clean bowl, and cover with a towel or cheesecloth. Leave alone at room temperature to rise for one hour or until doubles in size.
  6. Punch the dough down, then knead for a few minutes on a well-floured surface with well floured hands. You should once again have a smooth, elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe. Split the dough into nine equally-sized balls. If you want longer loaves, split into six equally sized balls – this will make two long loves.
  7. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Prepare a large tray – cover the bottom in either tin foil or, preferably, parchment paper.
  8. Now it is time to braid the challah. Roll three of the balls into ropes about 8-9 inches (20-23cm) long (or longer for bigger loaves) and lay out side by side on your baking tray. Lay the right rope over the middle rope close to the top, so that the right strand becomes the new middle strand. Then, lay the left strand over the new middle strand so that the left strand becomes the new middle strand. Repeat, alternating, until you can’t loop the ropes anymore without extending them. Then, pinch the ends together. (Here is a nice video from Once a Month Meals.)
  9. Repeat for the other two loves as you did for the first one. Give a few inches/centimeters space between the loaves, since they will expand while baking.
  10. Mix your ingredients for the egg wash.
  11. Brush the egg wash on your loaves so that the surface is “glistening” but not dripping. You can do this with a pastry brush, cheesecloth, or a paper towel. At this point, you may choose to sprinkle sesame or poppy seeds on top.
  12. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown, the intersection between the ropes is no longer doughy, and the challah sounds hollow if hit on the bottom with a spoon or the backside of a fork.

Thank you to the 17 of you who participated in User Acceptance Testing for this challah.

Apple Honey Cake

This recipe has been requested by at least seven people – I do not remember by whom exactly. My sincerest apologies.

Rosh HaShanah in the Ashkenazi world is a rather sweet and sticky holiday. Of course there is the tradition of eating sweet foods to signify a good New Year, and, like any Jewish holiday, the amount of saccharine sentimentality seems to spike on Rosh HaShanah. Sometimes, this is translated into food, including the extreme stickiness and sweetness of taiglakh, or the inexplicably sugary cookies that suddenly morph everywhere, uncontrollably, across tables in the Jewish world. And then you have the apple and honey cakes. Ever-present, sometimes delicious, and quite a vehicle for the nostalgia of many a middle-aged congregant in my childhood synagogue. (“This takes me back!”)

Apples on a tree
Apples in Upstate New York – some of these will end up in my apple cake this year for Rosh HaShanah. (Photo mine, September 2016)

The apple cake also happens to be easy to make – and delicious.

Apple cakes and honey cakes have been traditional in Ashkenazi cooking for centuries – in fact, we have records of both from the 12th century in Germany. The latter cake dates to at least the medieval era, when it was part of a ceremony called the Alef-Beyzn, which commemorated a young boy’s first day at school. Lekach, the Yiddish word for honey cake, is a homonym of the word for “good instruction” in the Book of Proverbs, and so the cake had special significance. The practice of giving cake on this day has since died out; a contemporary practice of having the young boy lick honey off a board with the Hebrew alphabet lasted quite a bit longer. (The Israeli musician Victoria Hanna references this custom in her incredible Hosha’ana music video.) The idea of a sweet cake, however, stuck around, and began to be served at Rosh HaShanah and Sukkot, in order to get the year off to a sweet start.

The apple cake’s place at the Rosh HaShanah table probably had similar origins – and the cake itself is an adaptation of non-Jewish recipes in the region. Even today, almost every Central and Eastern European culture has at least ten common apple cake recipes. The similar apple charlotte recipe – perhaps known to many readers for being referenced in Downton Abbey – became popular in England and France in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, “Jewish” Apple Cake has been popular in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States since that time. These cakes are similar but not quite an exact match to the many family recipes for simple apple cakes that Ashkenazi families use across the English-speaking world. In any case, it is delicious.

Apple cake
An apple cake made with half buckwheat and half wheat flour. It makes for a very nice breakfast. (Photo mine, September 2016)

In homage of the Rosh HaShanah tradition of eating apples with honey – one to initiate the sweet new year – I am going to give you a recipe that uses both apples and honey. The apples and honey play well of each other – although an apple cake without honey is certainly no curse to a dinner table. I make many variations of this incredibly easy recipe. I have a vegan version with no honey or eggs but with raisins, date syrup, and turmeric to approximate the taste of honey. I also have another version that uses grated apples and ground almonds. My grandmother’s recipe is slightly simpler and doesn’t use honey, but I find that the honey adds both a nuttiness and a lovely weight to the cake. In the spirit of variation, I have a gluten-free and gluten-friendly version of the recipe listed below. The buckwheat version may seem new, but in fact buckwheat – in the form of kasha – has been on the Ashkenazi Jewish table for centuries.

 

Apple Honey Cake

loosely based on a recipe by Esther Back

Gluten version

3 medium-sized tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced into 1cm (~1/3 inch) chunks (you can leave them unpeeled)

1/3 cup honey

3/4 cup sugar

3 eggs

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2 cups flour

1/4 tsp table salt

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp baking powder

 

Gluten-free version

3 medium-sized tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced (you can leave them unpeeled)

1/3 cup honey

3/4 cup sugar

4 eggs

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2.5 cups buckwheat flour

1/4 tsp table salt

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp baking powder

 

Vegetable oil for greasing your pan

  1. Preheat your oven to 375F/190C.
  2. Grease your pan – generally, I use a 9 inch by 9 inch (23 centimeters) pan for a deeper, square cake, but generally any medium-sized cake pan will do.
  3. Scatter a few of the apple chunks at the bottom of a pan.
  4. Mix the remaining apple chunks and the rest of the ingredients together. For a more carefree process, I recommend the following order: honey and sugar, then the eggs and oil, then the apple chunks, then the flour you are using, then the salt, cinnamon, and baking powder.
  5. Pour that mixture on top of the apples at the bottom of the pan.
  6. Bake the cake for about 45 minutes, or until the top is browned and a toothpick comes out clean. Serve warm or cold.

Author’s note: this recipe is an excellent one for a potluck or other event to which one brings food. For best transport, wrap when cool in aluminum foil with some looseness for the cake to “breathe.”

“Yagdes!” And the Jam That They Become

Picture this: it’s the late 1960’s, and my mother and her family are in a car driving through Western Europe. They immigrated to Israel a few years before from South Africa, and its their first trip together out of the country they had just moved to. For my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, it is her first time in Europe since the Second World War. As they pass through the Swiss and French countryside, her eyes are on the landscapes and plants familiar from her Lithuanian childhood (Europe is remarkably uniform in its middle latitudes). And, as they drive along a country road – at my grandfather’s characteristic crawl of 20 kilometers an hour – my grandmother yells in her strong accent:

“Darling, you must pull over! The bushes are full of yagdes! Shvartze yagdes!”

That is to say, “berries! Black berries!” Which were regularly made into jam during my grandmother’s childhood.

Bilberry in a bush
A bilberry – the blueberry-like fruit native to Lithuania. (Photo Ilena via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

Jams and preserves are, to put it simply, a pretty big deal in Ashkenazi Jewish cooking. Some of these jams and preserves might be familiar to North American or South African readers: plum jam, strawberry jam, and cherry jam. Others – such as the radish or beet ayngemakhts still served by many families at Passover – may seem a little foreign. (Even more foreign to some is the Yiddish term preglen ayngemakhts – literally “frying jam” – for cooking the beets in a sugar and honey mixture.) Fruits would be picked in their seasons and made into lekvar (povidl), jams, or preserves, which would then be sealed and preserved for the whole year. This practice paralleled that of local gentile communities – whose diasporas in America still import jams from the homeland to this day. Historically, for some Jews jam was a frequent part of the diet; however, for others – in fact, until the 19th century, for most Jews in Eastern Europe, it was a special treat.  When sugar became cheaper in the 19th century after the development of industrial refineries to process sugar from beets, jams became far more economical to make – and began to more frequently appear on Jewish tables. By the time of the great emigrations of Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th century, fruit jams and preserves were frequently found on Jewish tables. In her 1937 Yiddish-language vegetarian cookbook, published in Vilnius, Fania Lewando thought it useful to include an entire section on jams and preserves – perhaps indicative of her audience’s need for them.

Homemade strawberry-blueberry jam on farina
Homemade strawberry-blueberry jam on farina. Breakfast of champions! (Photo mine, August 2016)

Even today, preserved fruit shows up in a lot of places in Ashkenazi cooking, be it in desserts like hamantaschen to new recipes in books like Leah Koenig’s Modern Jewish Cooking. And, of course, Eastern European Jews in North America have assimilated into another jam-eating culture: that of White America. Though Smuckers and Welch’s, or even Bonne Maman, hold hardly a candle to homemade jam, they all draw on a long American tradition – white and black – of jam-making that dates to the earliest years of the colonial era. Much of this tradition was first expressed in the eighteenth-century marmalade – which, more often than not and like every other White American food, was made by enslaved people in the South and often the North – and not only by white housewives, as later myth would have it. This marmalade itself was brought to England by Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition there – and the fruit was originally quinces, not oranges. (Colonial cookbooks contain recipes for quince jam, and so does this blog – albeit an Iranian version.) So in many ways there is an interesting dichotomy: jam is from the “old country” of Europe, but also something that is a very old Jewish influence on American cuisines.

Jam on toasted bagel
Committing true New York heresy and eating my jam on a toasted bagel! (Photo mine, August 2016)

For this post, I made a berry jam in honor of my grandmother’s love for yagdes. The strawberries and blueberries from farms here in New York State are in season, and I bought a big batch of fresh berries to make into a jam. Blueberries themselves are native to North America; my grandmother would have probably had the very similar bilberry. My jam is a little tart, though I certainly added more sugar than my grandmother, who loved tart food, would have wanted. Feel free to add more sugar to your taste – or enjoy the tart bite that could send my grandmother into a nostalgic reverie.

Strawberry-Blueberry Jam

makes about five cups – this recipe can be easily multiplied

 

1 pound / 450 grams strawberries, with the leaves removed

14 ounces / 400 grams blueberries

2 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar

1 cup white sugar

3/4 cup water

  1. In a large pot, mash the strawberries and blueberries together until you have a thick pulp. If your strawberries are large, it may help to chop them into chunks first.
  2. Pour in the lemon juice or vinegar, sugar, and water, and mix thoroughly with the berry-pulp.
  3. Bring the mixture to a boil on a high flame. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to have the mixture simmer.
  4. Simmer the mixture, stirring regularly, for 30-35 minutes, until the mixture has thickened into a jam. Here is how to check: dip a cold metal spoon into the mixture, then hold it on its side. If, instead of drops, a “sheet” comes off the spoon, the jam is at your desired thickness. Otherwise, continue simmering the jam.
  5. When the jam is done, remove from the heat and let cool. Scrape off some of the foam (“jam scum”*) and place it on a separate plate or bowl.
  6. Once cool, pack the jam into containers. The jam keeps in the refrigerator for about two weeks and in the freezer for three months. You can also can it using a safe method to do so, though I would recommend slightly increasing the amount of lemon juice in the initial recipe for canning, and doing so with a larger batch. This jam goes very well at the bottom of a quark-based cheesecake, between the cheese and the crust.

*”Jam scum” – the “useless” foamy bit at the top of the jam that is trapped air – has a hallowed place in much of 19th-century Russian and American literature – for in this period jam scum was a special treat for many children. One of my favorite scenes in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – and one of my favorite scenes of food in literature – is Dolly’s thought-monologue on the delights of jam scum as she supervises her maid Agafea/Agatha’s jam-making at her country house in Part Six.

The author thanks Brian Pritchett, Robbie Berg, Amy Estersohn, and Kate Herzlin for participation in User Acceptance Testing.

“The Sweat Smells”: Hilbeh and the Politics of Smelly Food

“Doesn’t fenugreek make your sweat smell?” This was the question I received from an incredulous friend as I ate my lunch one workday in Lower Manhattan: this time, a sandwich in which I had included hilbeh, the Yemenite fenugreek paste. Indeed, many ask if the pungent spice will cause their sweat to be “nasty” or if the smell might be repulsive to potential partners. Others, perhaps, see a good sign in a partner that smells like fenugreek. I’ll leave the merits of a fenugreek- or not-fenugreek-scented paramour aside to come back to the fact that everyone agrees – and biology confirms – that fenugreek is a food that “smells,” and the hilbeh I am about to introduce has a whole aspect to it beyond its garlicky, pungent taste and delightfully gelatinous texture.

Hilbeh on a spoon
Homemade hilbeh. (Photo mine, August 2016)

Before I continue, I should mention that hilbeh is one of the more fascinating dishes in the Jewish culinary canon. It is a jelly made from the ground and soaked seeds of the fenugreek plant, which has been cultivated in the Middle East since at least six thousand years ago. Fenugreek is mentioned as a typical food of the Galilee during the Second Temple period in Josephus and as common in the Mishnah, in which the plant is called tiltan. In Yemen, fenugreek, which is called hilbeh in the local variety of Arabic, became a basic part of everyday food: the dip hilbeh was and is eaten daily, and by some Yemenite Jews, at festivals as well. Even today, hilbeh is considered the mark of Yemeni identity among Jews and non-Jews alike. In the world of Jewish cooking, though, fenugreek is not a Yemenite spice alone. Fenugreek is common as a seasoning in North African, Iranian, and Turkish Jewish cooking, and also makes an appearance in the Jewish cuisines of South India. On Rosh HaShanah, many Sephardi Jews eat fenugreek as a matter of ritual – for one of the words for fenugreek in Hebrew and Aramaic, rubya, resembles the word that means “to increase in merit.”

Brown fenugreek seeds in a container
Fenugreek seeds before soaking – notice their rusty color! (Photo mine, August 2016)

It is a biological fact that fenugreek alters the smell of one’s sweat. Raw fenugreek contains sotolone – a chemical that causes your sweat to smell, faintly, of maple syrup once you consume it. Factories that process fenugreek can also emit this smell – as most famously discovered here in New York in 2009. (This smell is also why fenugreek shows up in imitation maple syrup.) The plant itself also has a particularly pungent odor. So, though delicious, fenugreek also carries the risk of changing one’s “body odor” – and many think for the worse.

Fenugreek is hardly alone in the realm of “smelly Jewish food” – every community has its foods, from odorous herrings and pickles in the Yiddish realm to the peppery sauces of Bukharan cuisine – that is, to say, more scented than Wonder Bread. (Your author politely points out, though, that the digestive aftereffects of Wonder Bread can be very malodorous indeed.) Yet fenugreek has also been one spice that is noted as pungent, in Israel and elsewhere in the Jewish community. Of course part of this is simply because fenugreek is pungent. But the lasting power is inseparable from the fact that fenugreek is strongly associated with the Yemenite community – whose food, like other non-Ashkenazi foods, was considered smelly and unsanitary for a long time, particularly in Israel. Thus I shall delve into a bit of history:

In 1950s Israel, the odors and scents of non-European cooking were heavily policed and societally scrutinized – even as those of Ashkenazi cooking were often given a “pass.” One could begin with the “reeducation” that governmental and quasi-governmental organizations like WIZO sponsored and sought to spread in the communities of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants to the new Jewish state – which largely meant pushing immigrants towards a Central or Eastern European norm of cooking. The State also subsidized European foodstuffs  – like European bread – but not, for example, the Middle Eastern pita. Meanwhile, commentary on the “unsanitary” and “unhealthful” nature of non-European cuisine was common in the media, in education, in state policy, and from more established Ashkenazi residents of the state. This, of course, all happened in a context where state policy simultaneously selectively appropriated and reworked Arab Palestinian cuisine to create a separate “natural Israeli” culinary norm.” In all of this, scent was a major factor in the day-to-day policing of food. Arab Jewish food was “smelly,” “odorous,” “caused a stink.” The smells were associated with uncleanliness, a “lack of civilization,” and ultimately – race. Fenugreek was simply one part of this history: another Middle Eastern food whose smell was not suited for the “modern” Israeli table. Even as other Arab and Middle Eastern foods became popular among all groups in Israel later on, the idea of “smelliness” or “uncleanliness” remained strong – particularly for Yemenite and Ethiopian Jewish food. A similar tendency exists in the United States, where an effective class ceiling exists for many so-called “ethnic cuisines” – fine for cheap eats, but not for an expensive dinner. Smell is a key part of that trend.

"Atzel Nekhama" - in comfort - and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv.
“Atzel Nekhama” – in comfort – and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv. Hilbeh is listed as an item available. Photo mine, April 2016.

Smell is ultimately biological. But whose smell matters and whose foods’ smell matters is, like sweetness, inextricable from the racialized social and cultural context that embeds the people with whom a food is associated. Thus the odor of fenugreek, delicious as it is, is more weighted and in some ways more maligned than what many consider the equally malicious odors of brie cheese, fish and chips, mayonnaise, hamburgers, or something with the French mushroom paste duxelles. (Or, as one reader pointed out, herring in the Jewish context – may Hashem bless the non-Ashkenazim whose nasal functions have been temporarily destroyed by our pickled fish.) The fact that fenugreek is consumed by groups not at the top of the sociocultural hierarchy in Israel or the United States, and the fact that the consumption of such spices is highly ethnicized and racialized as “other,” means that the scent associated with fenugreek and its consumption thus becomes a marker of “otherness” and marginalization. And in comparison to the smelly foods of the less-maligned, there is also an element of class: after all, blue cheese is favorably racialized and made elite in a way fenugreek is not. Or, as Pierre Bourdieu might say, fenugreek is not part of an élite habitus. So, the next time you eat and smell fenugreek – or if you do so for the first time, think about how its smell is also a sign of power – or lack thereof.

And enjoy it – for fenugreek is delicious!


Here is a recipe for hilbeh, based on those of an amalgam of Hebrew-language recipes from Yemenite Jews.

Hilbeh (Fenugreek Paste)

Based on the recipes of Hadassa Mishmor, Rahamim Keta, and “Savta Berakha” (links all Hebrew-language)

2 tablespoons fenugreek seeds

2 cups hot water

1 large clove garlic

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp white vinegar

1 red chili pepper, chopped, or 1 tsp strong chili powder

½ tsp coriander seeds

  1. Soak the fenugreek seeds in hot water, in a covered dish, for up to 24 hours. I sometimes stick the seeds into the fridge. The water will cool but needs to start off hot to bring out the fenugreek’s gelatinous quality.
  2. Drain the seeds and place into a food processor with the remaining ingredients. Blend until you have a frothy, unified mixture. If you’re using a mortar and pestle, grind the fenugreek and garlic first together, then add in the other ingredients. (In terms of time, I recommend the food processor.)
  3. Decant into a container and allow to sit for twenty minutes before serving, on bread. You can eat the hilbeh with samneh and/or z’houg. Hilbeh keeps, refrigerated, for about a week. I find that hilbeh is the perfect accompaniment to a fried egg.

Thank you to Tzeyeen Liew, Amram Altzman, Sumaya Bouadi, Mikaela Brown, Aaron David Lerner, and Yün-ke Chin-Stern for help with a few bits of this piece.

The Cosmopolitan Herring (The Barrel Always Smells of Herring II)

Read the first part of the herring series here, and the Chopped Herring (Forshmak) recipe here.

I’m wary of particularism, and particularly when it’s seasoning my food – ironic, perhaps, for an ethnic food blogger. And yet in Jewish cuisine we are plagued with the particular: this is Jewish, that is “authentic,” yet something else is a sign of “assimilation.” Any Google search can return you blog after tweet after article with this hackneyed approach to food. And in all this herring is a token of an idealized past – a lieu de mémoire that takes one back to a time when “Jews ate Jewish food, and that food was herring, and people cared about our heritage.” (I paraphrase here this rendition of history that is unapologetically centered on Ashkenazim.) Herring is “special” and “Jewish,” even if the Lithuanian and Polish jars of pickled herring taste pretty much just the same as the “Jewish” ones.  What is with this search for purity and authenticity in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, made manifest in herring? It cannot just be the ghost of the fear of “assimilation” – as we happily buy into the ideas of “nation” and “heritage” Christian Europe pushes on our own myriad uses of the terms. There’s something – in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu – of trying to prove one’s status as a better Jew by showing that one’s tastes are more correct, more pure. But to do that nebulous task with herring?

Georg Flegel - Stilleben mit Hering und Bartmannskrug, 1600
Georg Flegel – Stilleben mit Hering und Bartmannskrug, 1600. Flegel spent part of his life in the major herring trade town of Utrecht, in the Netherlands.

Herring is proof that Jewish cuisine is anything but pure.

After all, this little fish is the one that “globalized” Northern Europe before “globalization.” Herring had been consumed on the shores of the North Atlantic and Baltic since time immemorial; by the ninth century CE, when records mention herring as an important foodstuff in today’s Norway, the fish was already locally pickled and traded around the Baltic. Around this time herring was a common food for Jewish and Gentile communities in today’s Germany, and was a staple food in Scotland and what is now Lithuania. (Pacific herring was heavily consumed in Japan and native North America, but the pre-modern herring cultures there merit separate discussions.) But at a certain point, more was needed: herring migrate long distances and often quite suddenly, and close-to-shore fishing no longer provided adequate supplies. At the same time, pickling and salting methods had improved such that the fish could now be kept for a long time, for lengthy distances of travel.

Soused herring in the Netherlands.
Soused herring in the Netherlands. (Photo Takeaway via Wikimedia/CC)

Thus herring – known as “silver darlings” in later years for their high value – quickly became a valued trading commodity: fish were brought in from the high seas, pickled, and then sold at massive markets in Europe’s fast-growing medieval hubs. Herring was one of the many commodities that fueled the medieval economies of cities like Bruges, Bergen, Riga, and London. In fact, herring was one of the main items traded within the Hanseatic League after that confederation of merchant guilds and towns was founded in 1358 – and the bounds of the League closely matched Europe’s herring capitals of the day. In later years, the development by Dutch sailors of shipboard fish preservation – and the spread of that technique across Northern Europe – again propelled herring as a commodity in the 17th century. Its quantity and cheapness also allowed the fish – highly profitable for its procurers – to become popular as a staple food across Northern Europe, from Northern France to Russia.  More grimly, British colonists included the fish as part of rations for enslaved Africans – which is partly why herring remains part of local cuisine in Jamaica today. (Though a Briton might have consumed herring at home, the performances of colonial rule and domination – and wealth as a colonist – meant he was less likely to do so abroad, and more likely to eat meat.) Meanwhile, trading networks dedicated to the fish had developed in Europe, which brought herring from ships through port and market towns to tables across the class spectrum in early modern Europe. Much of Europe’s poor – especially Jewish – became particularly dependent on herring, especially in Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Scandinavia, and Scotland. Meanwhile, movements across the continent – including the Ashkenazi Jewish migration from Germany into Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary in the 13th century, later German movements to the east Baltic coast,  and the 17th-century Swedish imperial expansion – also brought new preparations of herring to those areas – and expanded the trade connections around the fish.

An Icelandic postage stamp with herring.
An Icelandic postage stamp with herring. Iceland’s independence was partly funded by herring. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Jews were at the center of these trading networks – we were part and parcel of what made herring happen. Let’s start in Amsterdam – where this very “Ashkenazi” fish was traded by Sephardi Jews from their arrival in the Netherlands in the 16th century. By the 17th century, when Amsterdam was the major center for fish and pretty much everything else, several Sephardic families had become vastly wealthy through trading fish – though, at least in the Netherlands, few of a largely urban Jewish community became fishermen themselves. Many wealthy Ashkenazi families in Germany had themselves become rich from trading herring in Hamburg and Bremen. Further afield and of more modest means, salesmen and peddlers traded and moved barrels across the European continent, to Lithuania and Poland, the heartland of Ashkenazi Jewry (and herring), France, and elsewhere. Some of the first Jewish settlers in cities previously banned to Jews – such as Stockholm and Norrköping in Sweden – were herring merchants, as were some of the first Jews to arrive in England after readmission in the 17th century. As the herring industry and fishery continued apace in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did Jewish involvement – especially after “emancipation” in the early 19th century in many European states. Many of the first Jews to arrive in the Scottish Highlands, Iceland, Norway, and Finland had some connection to herring. But it was hardly Jews alone who were growing in terms of herring.

Siglufjörður harbor
The herring town of Siglufjörður in northern Iceland, which boomed in the early 20th century as a result of the herring trade. (Photo Hansueli Krapf via Wikimedia/CC)

By the early twentieth century, a herring economy stretched from Florø, in Norway, to Kazan, in Russia, to New York, to London, and to Helsinki. Many coastal towns in Northern Europe were dependent upon, and grew rich from, the fishing industry that grew upon their herring-rich waters. Some places, such as Siglufjörður and Neskaupsstaður in Iceland, Rotterdam (link in Dutch), and Great Yarmouth in England saw huge population growth as fishing promised money to a generation of working-class men. Coastal towns – sometimes these fishing centers, but also places like Dieppe (link in French), Stavanger, Gdańsk, and Lunenberg, Nova Scotia not only had industries centered around processing and preserving herring for shipment far afield, but also provided a generation of women employment outside the home and their hometowns – and by extension, a newfound liberation. Networks of traders – many still Jewish – then brought herring from Reykjavík to Copenhagen, Cherbourg to Lyon, Rīga to Siberia, Norway to Jamaica, and Halifax to New York. Herring peddlers  – memorialized in Yiddish literature  – and fishmongers and shopkeepers then sold the fish to an ever-hungrier public.

Jews were involved at all points in this process, but were especially active in the preservation and distribution of the fish – which still played a key part in the diet of the poor Jewry of Eastern Europe. Many families depended on herring beyond nutrition – including Marc Chagall’s, whose father sold herring in Vitebsk. Yet as much as herring was Jewish, herring was also part of a huge economy. Such was the size and importance of herring as a fish that Iceland’s industrialization, urbanization, and independence was largely fueled by the herring and cod fisheries of the country. Even today, much of the country’s infrastructure dates from the days when that infrastructure was needed … for fish. And no doubt some of that herring ended up “Jewish.” Meanwhile a similar, also-Jewish-influenced herring industry grew in Seattle and Alaska on the bones of thousands of years of Salish and Tlingit fishing for the slightly different Pacific herring. Some of that herring certainly also ended up “Jewish,” in San Francisco and New York.

herring refrigerator at a Polish supermarket
The herring refrigerator at a Polish supermarket in Brooklyn – with many herrings identical to the “Jewish” ones of an Ashkenazi synagogue kiddush. (Photo mine, January 2016.)

And much of what we know as “Jewish herring” – and cuisine, for that matter – comes from the contacts we facilitated or were introduced to during these heady centuries. Take herring in cream sauce – a “classic Jewish” preparation for the fish, with sour cream mixed into the pickling. Its origin? Sweden – and not  a moment of Jewish ingenuity. This recipe was possibly introduced to Ashkenazi Jews during the Swedish invasion of Lithuania and Poland – an event that also marked a downturn for tolerance of Jews in Poland. Later Jewish tables were then dependent on a herring industry by and large not dependent on Jewish labor; from that industry, recipes were also taken – for example, herrings with mustard or herrings with juniper berries. Even the very basic ingredients of the herring’s pickling reflected surrounding environments – such as the increasingly sweet herrings of Poland after the sugar-beet industry took off there in the 19th century. And well – though we adjusted, redid, and reworked herring – the very fact we eat the fish has plenty to do with our non-Jewish neighbors. There was no forshmak in the Mishkan.

In turn Jews left, through herring, an indelible mark on the tastes of Europe. In some cases, the tastes were a direct contribution: for example, forshmak is served in Finland and Estonia in local renditions of the Jewish chopped herring that are very much not kosher. Meanwhile, herring is prepared with Jewish recipes by Christian Russians and Ukrainians to this day, and were popular during the Soviet Union. Yet in other cases the mere presence of herring on the menu owes a lot to the Jewish trading networks that brought this cheap, pickled commodity inland – and kept it there. How else would the sea-bound herring have then ended up deep in the landlocked countryside around Minsk? Or the favored garlic of Ashkenazi cuisine in herring dishes across Eastern Europe? The entire industry depended on Jews; even after the ravages of the Holocaust, our tastes still linger across the region. Just as “authentic” Jewish cuisine is impossible without the Swedes, so too “authentic” Lithuanian silke is nothing without the Jews.

Herring on potato pancakes
Herring on potato pancakes in Vilnius. (Photo mine, March 2015)

Herring is a reminder that particularism never quite captures either the cosmopolitan majesty of Jewish history, nor the complexity of the context that inevitably surrounds it. Our tastes are not just shaped by halakha and tradition, authenticity and some “Yiddish” je ne sais quoi: they are inseparable from the Swedish military exploits of the 17th century, the herring factories of Iceland and Scotland, Russian appetites, and the spices brought by Dutch and Portuguese traders through Sephardi warehouses. Without any of these factors Jewish herring is not what it is: an element is missing, but so is the Jewishness. After all, we took in all these influences and combined them for hundreds of years – just as we did other things – taking us far from the idealized purity of yore that never quite existed. And certainly not in our barrels of fish.