Snapshots of Jewish Cuisine in the Indian Ocean

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.

A sailing dhow on blue waters
A dhow – one of the many traditional ships used for trade and transit across the region. (Photo CC/Steve Monty)

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.

Samosas 

Samosas around a green dip
(Photo Sean Choe via Flickr/CC)

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

Cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon
Photo CC/Public domain

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.

Stuffed Chickens

A series of serving plates with vegetables
All separate, all able to go into a chicken. (Photo CC)

When Jews migrated across the ocean basin, they brought their cuisines with them. Sometimes it was a taste for a spice or a way of serving bread. And sometimes it was the habit of stuffing a chicken to near-capacity with delicious things.

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?

If you want to read more about the Indian Ocean trading economy, Dan Brockett’s Twitter thread is an incredible place to start. I also talked about this last year in a post about Southeast Asian ingredients in Jewish cooking.

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 cinnamon, see my book recommendations for unlearning myths about Medieval Jewish cuisine.

For stuffed chickens, Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food has 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.

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Eggplant Salad

Eggplant salad with peppers and garlic
Eggplant salad with peppers and garlic. Photo mine, April 2017.

Recently, I have found myself craving eggplant all the time – and I have perhaps become addicted to the tannic and earthy taste of a vegetable that is actually a giant berry. And so, given my passions and my interests, I have also been researching the Jewish history of this most extraordinary plant. Today, the eggplant is so associated with Israel that it is difficult to believe that eggplants were not, in fact, present during the First and Second Temple period. Rather, the plant is from India – and the word “aubergine” in English and French comes via Arabic and Persian from the Sanskrit vatiga-gamah, which might be related to the word for flatulence. I cannot speak to that effect, but I can say that eggplants reached the Jewish Mediterranean in about the 7th century CE.

White, five-petaled flower of a wild eggplant, with little green fruit behind.
Flower of a wild eggplant. (Photo Michael Khor/CC-Flickr)

Eggplants have long been a beloved mainstay of Sephardic cooking – and show up in all sorts of pastries, stews, and salads. Folk songs wage a fight between the eggplant and tomato (another newcomer), which were long considered the two favorite vegetables of the Sephardi community. In Morocco, Jews and non-Jews make a pungent and delicious salad called za’alouk with eggplant, as well as a lovely eggplant jam. Moroccan Jews even candy eggplant! Ashkenazi Jews historically only ate eggplant in Hungary and Romania, but developed an attachment to the plant there as well. Eggplants were one of the first foods adopted by settlers in Israel and Palestine in the early 20th century, and today eggplant might as well be a food group in Israel.

Eggplant pieces
Delicious eggplant, before cooking. (Photo mine, March 2016.)

This salad is a riff on a recipe more typical in Israel today – one often called a “Moroccan” eggplant salad, though it is somewhat different from typical salades cuites. As in North Africa and Turkey, “salad” in Hebrew, or salat, can also refer to small plates of vegetable dishes served at the beginning or as part of a meal. Even in English, the term salatim is now frequently used among Hebrew-speaking Jews. The eggplant used in Israel is smaller and fried more deeply in oil, whereas I have used the larger Mediterranean eggplant. I also have added more garlic, because garlic is delicious. In any case, this eggplant salad – though given that it is cooked I hesitate to say “salad” – is easy, delicious, and goes well with many other dishes.

Fried Eggplant Salad (Salat Khatzilim Metuganim)

2 small-to-medium eggplants, chopped into 1cm/ 1/3 inch slices (optionally salted)

1 bell pepper, finely chopped

1 chili pepper, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tbsp lemon juice

Salt, to taste

Olive or vegetable oil

  1. Heat a wide skillet or pan, then add about 2cm/1 inch of oil. Fry the eggplant in the oil until soft and darkened on both sides, flipping as necessary.
  2. Remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil in the pan. Set the eggplant aside to cool.
  3. In the same oil, sauté the peppers and garlic until the pepper begins to soften and the garlic is thoroughly browned. Remove, with the oil, from the heat. Set aside to cool.
  4. Mix the leftover oil-garlic-pepper mixture with the lemon juice. Then, pour this “dressing” over the eggplant, and mix well.
  5. Add salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Simple Chickpeas for Purim

Purim is soon upon us; in true Leibowitzian fashion, Purim is quite possibly my least favorite holiday in the Jewish calendar. The noise! The gaudiness! The drunken shenanigans! I am perhaps too serious to truly appreciate Purim as anything other than a day for calmly reading the story of Esther and eating some delicious traditional foods. The famous food here in the United States is hamantaschen, for which I gave a recipe last year – delicious cookies that really should be consumed whenever it is not Passover or a fast day. (Including Hanukkah.)

A chickpea field in Israel with a hill in the background
A chickpea field in Israel – notice the luscious green of the leaves! (Photo Eitan F via Wikimedia commons)

But other food traditions exist too – among them, eating beans. It is said in Talmud and Midrash that Esther ate legumes whilst in the palace of King Ahasuerus so as not to ingest food that was not kosher. Hence many Jewish communities choose to eat beans and nuts on Purim in commemoration of the Purim heroine. Among those beans are chickpeas – a legume that has been part of the Jewish diet for thousands of years – as I wrote five months ago for another recipe. From the agriculture of the Second Temple Period to medieval Spain, from 19th-century Eastern Europe to today’s stylish Jewish restaurants in Buenos Aires, chickpeas have a long and storied history on the Jewish table. In the context of Purim, chickpeas have long been specifically associated with Esther herself as the food that she ate while in the palace – and have thus been considered traditional to Purim in Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities for centuries.

Chickpeas in a tomato sauce in a Pyrex bowl
The chickpeas – completed. I prefer to chop the onions very roughly; you can dice them if you would like. (Photo mine, March 2017)

Anyway, here is a simple and delicious recipes for chickpeas that you can make for Purim – or whenever. The hearty beans are paired with a piquant tomato sauce not unlike that served with chickpeas or other beans in parts of Turkey. It is very easy to make and is a good weekday dish that will also keep well for leftovers for lunches. On the other hand, it is also a very good and reliable dish for a dinner party that can please folks with many habits of diet – it is vegan and gluten-free. Even Esther, I hope, would approve in all her glory!

Spicy Garlicky Chickpeas

1 medium onion, roughly chopped

8 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon table salt

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more, to taste – I like a bit more)

1 teaspoon white wine or apple cider vinegar

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup water

6 cups cooked chickpeas (1 pound dried*)

Olive oil

  1. Heat a saucepan and add the olive oil. Then, add the onion and garlic and sauté for two minutes, or until the onion begins to wilt.
  2. Add the salt and red pepper flakes and stir in thoroughly. Sauté for another 30 seconds, then add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute, or until the onions are softer.
  3. Add the tomato paste and mix in thoroughly, then add the cup of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
  4. Remove from the heat and add the chickpeas. I recommend that the chickpeas be hot when you add them. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. When hot, the chickpeas go well with rice or noodles; when at room temperature they are particularly good with a dense bread.

*If you are using dried beans, soak the chickpeas overnight or for eight hours in water with 2 inches/5 centimeters to cover. Then, drain the beans and boil in four quarts/four liters of salted water for one hour or until soft.

Lentil Soup with Leeks and Split Peas

Happy New Year! Let us hope that 2017 is less terrible than 2016.

Lentil soup with a challah roll.
Lentil soup with a challah roll. Ugly but delicious! (Photo mine, December 2016)

Lentil soup is one of the oldest Jewish dishes – it is probably the “pottage” mentioned during the story of Esau and Jacob in Genesis, and we have recipes from ancient Greece that may date back as far as the second millennium BCE. It has remained a “classic” – and one that I was recently asked to make.

Red lentils
Red lentils. (Photo Brian Snelson via Flicker/CC, February 2007)

The question became then, what style do I use? Until recently, lentils were viewed as a food of mourning and famine in the Ashkenazi world, and were thus disdained until the early 20th century – though by 1938, when Fania Lewando’s vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish was published, lentils were common enough in Lithuania to appear in several recipes. A soup recipe was among them. In the Sephardic and Mizrahi realms, however, lentils were an everyday, quotidian, and celebrated food. The lentils used in the Mediterranean – and in Claudia Roden’s Egyptian recipe – were red, but brown and green lentils are more common elsewhere. And, of course, seasoning differed across the Jewish world – as well as the carbohydrate or presence of meat or dairy in the soup. There are as many Jewish lentil soups as Jewish communities.

I recently made my own lentil soup – a throwback to my grandmother’s recipe, but with more vegetables and a slightly sharper flavor than her very meaty and saltier soup. This soup is probably closest to a French lentil soup, but with Palestinian seasoning. I used the green lentils common in France, along with the very Nordic split peas and leeks in the place of onions. Leeks go well with lentils: their sharpness and vegetal flavor balance out the lentil’s starchy meatiness. Meanwhile, the sumac and za’atar add a pleasant bitterness to the soup – and the fenugreek adds an irresistible aroma.

Enjoy!


Lentil Soup with Leeks and Split Peas

Serves 12-25

Vaguely based on the recipe of Esther Katz

2 medium-sized leeks, washed, diced, and washed again

2 tablespoons table salt

2 teaspoons black pepper

2 teaspoons white sugar

1 teaspoon ground smoked paprika

1 teaspoon ground thyme

1 teaspoon sumac

1 teaspoon za’atar

1 teaspoon fenugreek (dried seeds or ground)

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 tablespoon vinegar (rice wine or apple cider should do)

13oz/370g canned diced tomatoes (about one medium-sized can)

1 large turnip, peeled and diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

3 cups vegetable stock (you can use water)

2 cups dried green or brown lentils

1/3 cup dried split peas

1 cup rice (sweet brown or another short-grain rice is best)

1 tbsp rosemary, chopped if fresh

 

2-3 tbsp olive or vegetable oil

8-10 cups water

Salt and pepper to taste

Grated cheese for garnish (optional)

 

  1. In a large, deep soup pot, sauté the leeks in olive oil until they begin to wilt and soften, about two minutes.
  2. Add the salt, pepper, sugar, paprika, thyme, sumac, za’atar, fenugreek, and nutmeg, and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for another minute or until the leeks are uniformly soft.
  3. Add the vinegar and stir in thoroughly. Then, add the tomatoes and stir in thoroughly. Cook for another minute, stirring throughout.
  4. Add the turnip and garlic and mix in thoroughly with the tomato mixture. Then, add the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil.
  5. Add the lentils, split peas, and 8-10 cups water. Mix in thoroughly, then bring to a boil.
  6. Simmer for 45 minutes, or until the lentils are thoroughly cooked and the water has reduced slightly. The turnips should also be soft to the fork or tooth.
  7. Stir in the rice and the rosemary and another cup of water. Simmer for another 45 minutes, or until the rice is soft. The soup should be quite thick.
  8. Turn off the flame and let it sit for fifteen minutes. Then, serve hot with salt and pepper to taste. You can add a bit of grated cheese. The soup tastes best on the second day.

 

Thank you to Jay Stanton and Julia Clemons for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Iraqi Beet Salad

img_0050
Iraqi Beet Salad (Photo mine, November 2016)

Life goes on. Despite the election there are still friends to feed, Shabbats to observe, and foods to comfort us. Trump can take away our dreams but he can never take away our ability to use our hands to rebuild love, even by means of the easiest recipes. Like this one.

In Pittsburgh there is a little restaurant – kiosk, really – called Conflict Kitchen. At this restaurant, the food of whatever country the US is “at conflict with” – armed, political, or social – is served on a rotating basis. When I visited Pittsburgh, Conflict Kitchen were serving delicious Venezuelan arepas; currently they are honoring the water protectors of Standing Rock (donate!) and other indigenous resistance by serving the food of the Haudenosaunee – whose lands historically reached their southern extent at Pittsburgh. Other versions have included Iran, Cuba, and Palestine. The effort allows those in Pittsburgh to see a more human side of the oft-demonized “enemy” – and call into question the way US power works. But one cuisine seemed obviously missing: the bright, fresh flavors of Iraqi cuisine – much of which is also Iraqi Jewish cuisine, found in the diaspora centers of Ramat Gan, London, and Los Angeles. As I watched another one of Trump’s speeches as I browsed the Conflict Kitchen website, looking for the Iraqi version that never was, I wondered: how could I use Jewish food and cooking to recreate their mission in my kitchen?

A piece of beet on the spoon
Eating the salad at work. The garlic made my colleagues hungry! (Photo mine, November 2016)

Channeling the spirit of Conflict Kitchen, I sought to start by making an Iraqi recipe myself – a beet salad that is simultaneously fresh and light, but hearty and deeply warming. I first had this salad in Israel, at the house of a friend of a friend; I had been surprised there to learn that beets and other root vegetables were part of everyday Iraqi fare. Then, with the first bite, I was stunned by the light, dancing flavor of the salad: the heaviness of the beets was offset by the sharpness of the garlic and the happy dance of the mint. When I got home, I did more research and found that Iraqis have been eating beets since well before my own Eastern European ancestors: recipes with beets are mentioned as early as 1500 BC. I have often thought of the salad since that day, but had never bothered to actually make it. But after the election of Trump, I decided that one way of resistance to his racism and demonization was to pay homage to those we have oppressed – and to our own heritage – in the kitchen. So I invited a few friends over for Shabbat, with the salad as the main centerpiece dish.

Beyond Iraq, beets have also been a food of Jewish comfort in the darkest times for millennia. The greens of the beet have been consumed since the time of the Second Temple, when beets were considered a prized delicacy. In fact, it is stated in the Talmud in Masekhet Shabbat that one can show delight in the Sabbath day with “beets, a large fish, and garlic.” (The rabbis and I have something in common.) In later centuries beets became a common food across Central and Eastern European Jewish cuisine – showing up in soup, pickles, and even confectionary. Even today, beets are key in the comfort food of many Jewish communities – from the Kurdish and Iraqi Jewish soup for kubbeh to the Ashkenazi borsht. This humble root is the bridge.

Cooking beets
Cooking beets. (Photo mine, November 2016)

And perhaps from beets other bridges can be built too.

Iraqi Beet Salad

Based on a recipe by Nawal Nasrallah

Serves 6-10

2 pounds beets, peeled and diced

1 fistful fresh mint, chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tsp lemon juice

1 tsp sumac

½ cup Greek yogurt or other plain yogurt (optional)

Salt and black pepper to taste

  1. Boil the beet pieces until soft. Drain and let cool.
  2. Mix with the other ingredients except the salt and pepper until thoroughly combined.
  3. Add the salt and pepper to your liking. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Beet juice stained hand
Nothing like beet juice to stain your hands! (Photo mine, November 2016)

Thank you to Derek Kwait, Meggie Kwait, Berakha Guggenheim, and Sara Liss for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Turnips with Date Molasses (Shalgham Helu)

Cooked turnips with date molasses
Shalgham helu or shalgham bi-dibs – turnips with date molasses. (Photo mine, June 2016)

I was browsing through Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food the other day and happened upon this delightfully simple and incredibly tasty Iraqi recipe. Shalgham helu – or, as it also seems to be known, maye al-shalgham or shalgham bi-dibs – is simply turnips cooked with silan, also known as dibis, rub, or date molasses. The latter is a syrup, made from dates, that acts as a sweetener in Iraqi cooking. Iraqi Jews frequently use silan in pastries, stews, and with bread – and also in their charoset for Passover. Turnips cooked with date molasses is a common Iraqi dish – and one recipe I found (Hebrew) says that some Iraqi Jews serve this as a dessert.

This dish is two things: incredibly delicious and ridiculously easy. I made this while making something far more complicated and talking to my future roommate on the telephone. The result is spectacular and I may have had some turnip pieces as my midnight snack that night. Even someone just getting started in the kitchen should not have too much trouble with this recipe.

You can buy date molasses at most Middle Eastern or Jewish shops. Many health food stores also carry date syrup.

Shalgham Helu (Turnips with Date Molasses)

Based on the recipe by Claudia Roden

1 ½ pounds small white turnips, peeled

3 tablespoons date molasses (silan)

½ tsp salt

Water

  1. Chop the turnips to the size you want – smaller pieces cook faster, larger pieces are prettier.
  2. Place the turnips in the bottom of a medium-sized sauce pan, and drizzle the date molasses over them. Then add the salt.
  3. Cover the turnips with water to 2 cm/2/3 inch, and set the pot on a high flame.
  4. Bring to a boil, then cook uncovered for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the turnips are tender and the liquid has reduced. Serve warm or cold with the “sauce.” (Note: The longer the turnip pieces sit in the sauce, even in a container in the refrigerator, the darker their color becomes.)

Thank you to Lexi Freiman, who participated in User Acceptance Testing of this recipe.

“Arab and Sephardi Pastries Are Too Sweet”: Sugar, Power, Taste, and the Politics of Sweets

Nota bene: this post takes a more academic turn than past posts.

This post starts because I wanted to make qatayef for Shavuot. (Sadly, I ran out of time before the holiday to make them.) Qatayef are pancakes, filled with sweet white cheese or walnuts, which are then fried and served with a rosewater-infused syrup. They are native to the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine – and are frequently served both for Ramadan, which is currently occurring, and by Syrian Jews for Shavuot. Qatayef are extremely popular in Arab communities around the world, and new types of the pastry are constantly created – for example, filled with Nutella. Like their Muslim and Christian neighbors, Jewish communities from Syria served them for festivals for centuries, and continue to do so in diaspora. The cheese variety is considered a specialty of Shavuot, and other Jewish communities have since taken on to eating them. When Shavuot coincides with Ramadan, as it does this year, one could also say it is qatayef season. Indeed, who would not want a season of delicious, spongey dough filled with luscious cheese and nuts, with the sugary taste of syrup dancing on your tongue?

Qatayef with cheese and pistachios
A more open qatayef with sweet cheese and ground pistachios – they look so yummy! (Photo Abbad Diraneyya via Wikimedia Commons)

In case you couldn’t tell, I personally think qatayef are awesome.

While looking up recipes for qatayef ­– which are also called atayef or ataif, I recalled the prior times I had eaten them: most notably, one time in an overheated Syrian pastry shop in Queens. I had been with an Ashkenazi Israeli acquaintance, who waved his hand dismissively as he told me “all these Arab and Sephardi pastries are far too sweet.” And indeed, I had heard many Ashkenazim claim that the traditional desserts of the Middle East, or North Africa, or the Balkans, and the sweets of the Jews of these regions were all a tad more sugary than tasteful. “Cloying.” “Intoxicating.” “Too sweet.”

“Too sweet,” you say?

Qatayef in syrup
Delicious qatayef bathing in glorious attar. (Photo Hasan Isawi via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

Okay, let’s back up here for a moment. “Too sweet” from Ashkenazim is kind of cute in a quaint and awkward way, given that we serve things like taiglach, little pastries that are literally doused and boiled in honey. I hate taiglach with a burning and fiery passion, but among things that I like from the Ashkenazi tradition, we find macaroons exploding with sugar, hamantashen stuffed with ever-sweeter fillings, and sour cream cakes that seem to have an expanding sugar topping as the years go by. You get the idea: we can be “too sweet.” That said, white Gentiles have also called our sweets “too sweet.” (And the food other things – this will be in two or three posts’ time.) This is also supremely awkward and tragically quaint. Let us not forget that White Middle America serves the dessert salad, which may even contain combinations of Cool Whip, Snickers bars, and Jell-O. Meanwhile, élite coastal America has gone on a juice craze in which ever-sweeter, ever-more-sugary drinks substitute for solid foods. Who has an oversized sweet tooth now?

To be fair, we shouldn’t be shaming people for having a sweet tooth. But the “proper amount of sweetness” – and whose food is “too sweet” – is always a very political determination. Just as Ashkenazim, who hold power and privilege in Israel, deemed Mizrahi food to be “too spicy” or “too peppery” in the 1950s, so too have other foods of the non-elite been called too extreme in flavor. The food of “Russians” (also Ashkenazi!) was too salty, the food of “Arabs” too fatty, the food of the Yemenites “too pungent.” And the sweets like qatayef, of course, were far too extremely sweet – or so it was said – for the Ashkenazi tongue. This is akin, as I noted above, to how Ashkenazi sweets (and sour foods too!) were held in low regard by American “reformers” in the early 20th century, or how the food of the black working class is considered “too fatty” or “too sweet” by the white middle class here in the United States. Sweetness is always political.

semolina halva
Turkish sweets are also often called “too sweet” by Westerners – but they are often so delicious, like this nutty, toasty semolina halva (ırmık helvası) I enjoyed in İzmir. (Photo mine, May 2015)

But sweetness is also a way of showing “good taste.” After all, “taste” is about status at the end of the day – as the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu noted, “taste” and “knowledge” are the cornerstones of marking oneself as “elite.” So too – as Bourdieu himself noted, famously in his chart of the food space, that certain tastes showed more knowledge of food, more cultural and economic capital, and thus higher status. It is the same with sweetness in the Jewish world – a certain type of sweetness is othered and ethnicized as “Mizrahi” and “lower-class,” but that same “natural-sweetness” can be celebrated in an “Ashkenazi” or “elite” dessert. (Apply as you will to other ethnocultural contexts.) At the same time, it is also reversed: the love of something exotic and recherché, (which is for many folks Mizrahi and Arab sweets!) can also show higher-status standing whilst sticking with “traditional” or more well-known foods shows a lack of “cultural capital.” One interesting consequence of multiculturalism is that “knowing” an “exotic” dish – itself a deeply politically loaded term – can score you status points even as its key flavorings are dismissed as “bad taste” in the cultural economy. It is a show of high cultural and economic status to “know” and even be at ease– and I borrow Shamus Khan’s use of “ease” here – with the sweetness of a dessert, but at the same time be able to declare it “too sugary.” So it is good taste to know qatayef, but it is also good taste to recoil at the joyous sweetness it brings.

Whose “sweet” is “too sweet?” This, I have demonstrated, is as much a question of social status as it is of physical taste and ideologies of “what is good for you.” It is also perhaps biological – as Bee Wilson noted in her book First Bite, many of the base limits of our tastes are dependent on what we eat in early childhood. That might limit some of the kinds of sweetness we like, but it does not change the politics of how we express it. When qatayef and kanafeh and baklava are dismissed as too sweet in a Jewish context, it is inflected with a context that is not quite as present for other foods.

Permit me an anecdote: a few weeks after the qatayef incident, the same friend who called them “too sweet” brought me two macarons from a well-known bakery. At the time, white-collar New York was in the midst of a macaron craze – everyone, it seemed, wanted an airy almond-meringue cookie with different “elegant” flavorings. The macaron was “classy.” It was recherché. It was more “elegant” and “refined” than a chocolate chip cookie. I’d had a macaron or two before – they were fine. These macarons were supposed to be “the real deal,’ though. I took one bite and…the sugar rush went straight to my head in a way it did not for qatayef, or brownies, or jams. It was so sweet. I did not say anything – it would be rude to turn down such an expensive gift – but I silently cringed as I finished the two macarons. I wonder now: would the declaration “macarons are too sweet” be taken as axiomatic as it is for qatayef or any Arab or Arab-Jewish confections?

The moral? Let people have their tastes, but also recognize that tastes are always socially inflected. So when we say that a group’s desserts are “too sweet,” do we mean only that they are too sweet? No, because if the sweets are from a community that we have power over – Mizrahim for Ashkenazim, Arabs for Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, Jews and Arabs alike for White Gentiles in America – is it also a reflection that we have been taught, our tastes have been primed to find those things distastefully sweet. And part of unlearning that is to celebrate different tastes, but some of it is also to find where our own, in their power, can be critiqued.

Qatayef asafiri
A souped-up version of qatayef asafiri qatayef with cream – in Lebanon. (Photo Deed89 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

And in all this we should leave the qatayef in their proper place. Which is preferably within our easy reach.


I recommend the qatayef recipe by Hala’s Kitchen, which is simple and easy to follow. For a more involved recipe, take a look at the recipe by Anissa Helou, one of my food heroes, whose post from before the Syrian Civil War is a painful look back at the now-bittersweet delicious memories of Damascus many Syrians hold.

Enjoy! (And to this blog’s Muslim readers, Ramadan mubarak wa-karim!)