Please Shut Up About Authenticity

I hate authenticity, and I especially hate it when people ask me about it. Sometimes it is in the form of a compliment – my blog is “so authentic” or has so many “authentic” recipes! Others critique me for things like having a recipe for quince jam but not one for brisket. The blog is not “authentic” enough – a coded way too often of saying “Ashkenazi” enough. And some just ask for my most “authentic” recipe. This all irritates me, because authenticity is just such a boring performance, and a race for the lowest common denominator. It is also deeply problematic and tied with the same dangerous nostalgia, even if more distantly, that got Trump elected. (Indeed, this post’s timing is not accidental.) I write this blog for good food and good history, not to make my Jewishness a product that can be certified as the most Jewish. And besides, one simple fact is at the heart of why authenticity sets my teeth on edge:

Authenticity does not make food Jewish. Please shut up about authenticity.

Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Challah: deeply Jewish, but another Eastern European egg bread. (Photo mine, October 2016.)

You speak of “authentic” Jewish food. But what makes a food Jewish? A Jewish food is nothing more than a dish or an item or an ingredient that finds itself part of the common memory of a Jewish community, tied to other parts of Jewish culture, and/or referent to the Jewish faith. It is not essentially Jewish, and it is not Jewish to the core. This could be a celebratory dish, or an ordinary dish, kosher or trefah, but it is Jewish. This definition is admittedly an uncomfortable one – I myself cannot wrap my head around any Jewish dish with bacon – but it is the closest thing to Jewish food we’ll get. Foods become Jewish – just think of Wiener Schnitzel, the German middle-class cutlet turned into Israeli street food. Foods are shared – and hence I tire of the hummus wars that are really the province of competing nationalisms skirting around the unmistakable bogeymen of foreign influence and the truly unknown. And Jewish foods become universal – which anyone who has found frozen bagels in a rural Midwestern grocery store can attest to. Authenticity is not a defining factor of the Jewishness of food, it is simply something attached to it. Maybe authenticity makes the food sell, maybe authenticity allows you to make fun of your neighbors, when it probably makes you feel better about yourself.

Pihtije
P’tcha? Nope, pihtije – the Serbian p’tcha. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

But here’s the thing: the only thing eating p’tcha – the Ashkenazi calf’s foot aspic – definitely does to you is it makes you someone who eats p’tcha. The dish is definitely Jewish – and if I may say, delicious – and is tied to memories of communities and is deeply tied to Jewish history. But you’re not more Jewish for eating it, and p’tcha is only authentic insofar as you ignore the Turkic origins of the aspic, or the fact that every Central European, Eastern European, and Balkan culture has some variant of chilled foot jelly: Serbian pihtije, Hungarian kocsonya, Ukrainian kholodets, Turkish soğuk paça. The authenticity is about you and what you want alone.

And, of course, authenticity is about power. Too often a complaint about authenticity is a complaint that we are not adhering to the relentless centering of Jewish narratives around a white, whitewashed Ashkenazi experience. Even in rebellion – be it in Yiddishism or Zionism – the focus on the “authentic” is still, despite other value, a focus on that which can be performed as European. And, despite the ravages of the Israeli state on Yiddish culture or the very real anti-Semitism here, Ashkenazi culture still benefits from power within the Jewish world. So authenticity becomes a gatekeeper – such that an African-American Jew’s perfectly delicious and perfectly Jewish, not to mention perfectly heimish, collard greens for Shabbat are simply “not authentic.” Is it really that something prepared for the honor of Shabbat is not authentic? Or is it not the Jewishness we think should be performed?

Quinces being candied
Quinces being candied for future use in pastries. Someone told me that this was not authentic enough. I guess more quinces for me. (Photo mine, November 2015)

Besides, authenticity makes for terrible Jewish cooking and terrible Jewish history. I have already outlined why this is terrible Jewish history, but I would also wager that our ancestors in Vilnius, Cordoba, and Baghdad would laugh to the point of wheezing at their descendants’ obsession and puritanical concern for the authentic. Jewish cooking has always been enriched by their neighbors’, simply because you only got to eat a lot of that food a few times a year. Until recently, food was drab and grim for most people most of the time, even if wondrous preserved foods could sustain communities for months. Exotic ingredients from afar and new techniques closer to home not only promised honor to the festivals and occasions that meant eating well, but new ways to nourish appetites long since tired of “ordinary food.” Authenticity, to eat only what your group produced, to fit 19th-century boxes of Nation and Folk, was so anachronistic. Mixing and matching within the bounds of kashrut were the mark of eating Jewishly, and eating well.

An Icelandic postage stamp with herring.
An Icelandic postage stamp with herring. Iceland’s independence was partly funded by herring, much of it purchased by Jews. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Jews have always skirted the boxes of nation, ethnicity, and religion: we are an entity that defies easy categorization. Zionism sought to fit us into the box of nation, Bundism into ethnicity, the Ottoman millet system into religion. All have failed to capture, though, the fact that Jews and Jewish culture are defined in an ever-evolving dialogue, and that extends to food as well. To firmly establish Jewish cuisine as a set table is to declare that we are what precisely we are not. We also defy authenticity, and that is something to take pride in. This fact, perhaps, hearkens back to why precisely 19th-century European nationalists were so frightened by Jews: that we made short shrift of every romantic narrative attached to material culture. That includes food – our tables have always been shared.

Text: An Easy And Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Upon Strictly Orthodox Principles
The Book of Jewish Cookery, from 1874, contains many German and British recipes that readers today would find “inauthentic.” I say: fabulous.

A lot of the food I make on this blog, and will continue to make, happens to be “authentic.” But there is nothing authentic about this blog. I insist on a Jewish food history that recognizes where we have borrowed and learned from our neighbors, and recognizes where we have taught them. You cannot begin to narrate the history of Jewish food without the borrowing, and we also gave many things to our Gentile compatriots – recipes for duck in Poland, fennel and coffee in Italy, or slow-cooked stews in Spain. Our concern about authenticity is that we do not look like any of the other false nationalisms with the fake authentic cuisine. And that’s a beautiful thing. We have defied boxes ever since someone tried to make them. I will make hamantaschen and I will fill them with heretical sprinkles, and they will be just as Jewish. Authenticity is about insecurity, but not Jewishness. Authenticity is about whiteness and class, but not Jewishness. Authenticity is about fitting us into a box. I intend on cooking Jewishly, and whiteness and insecurity should not be celebrated parts of Jewish life. And I will not place Jewish food into a box.

We do not need to “make Jewish food great again.” We need to resist Trumpism and keep eating Jewishly, whatever that means to us. To make Jewish food about authenticity is to fall into the same trap that got us into Trump, that got us into a violent state in Israel, that got us into so much acrimony in the Jewish community: it’s about your whiteness or power or insecurity. And not about the fact that authenticity is really a bullshit concept that is too often used to excuse terrible cooking. Cook to eat and if you can, cook to eat well. Food should feed your body and soul, not build walls. And Jewish food can do so much better than build walls – it feeds a group that has defied all the walls yet built around it.

So, please, shut up about authenticity.

Qatayef in syrup
Delicious qatayef bathing in glorious attar. Enjoyed by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike without authentic kitsch for centuries. (Photo Hasan Isawi via Wikimedia Commons and Hebrew Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

 

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.

Khoresht-e Beh (Quince and Split Pea Stew)

Khoresht-e beh
Khoresht-e beh, freshly prepared. A little caramelized onion from the base is peeking out! (Photo mine, October 2015.)
Firstly an apology: for the past while, this blog has been very, very Ashkenazi. I of course did not mean to fall into a trap of Ashkenormativity, but alas, I did and I am sorry about that. Many readers have complained that this blog can skew “too Ashkenazi” and I agree. Ashkenazi numerical dominance does not play out into Ashkenazi cultural monopoly. I will make more of an effort to be “balanced” in the future – especially because – contrary to popular misconception – Sephardi and Mizrahi ingredients and customs have informed Ashkenazi cooking for hundreds of years. One need only look at a chickpea soup recipe in Yiddish, which uses a Turkic word – via Russian – for the bean.
quince-61574_960_720
Quinces on a tree. (Photo Hans Braxmeier via Pixabay/Creative Commons)
Sukkot, which is happening now, is a pretty fabulous holiday, and fruit is only one tiny reason for it. The holiday is of course better known for the waving of the lulav and etrog, and the eating in huts (sukkot), but it started out as an a harvest festival on the ultimately very agrarian Jewish calendar. This tradition is still maintained in that many choose to eat a “new” fall fruit (or spring in the Southern Hemisphere) in the sukkah – which may be apples, pears, or my favorite, the quince.
I talked about the Jewish history of quinces last year, when I made quince jam. These fruits have been part of the Jewish imagination since the time of the Talmud, and have remained common on Jewish tables from Morocco to Spain to Iran. Quinces have also stayed as a Sukkot treat – the fruit is in season in the fall, and smells like the etrog (citron) used in the holiday’s ceremonies.
Quinces being candied
Quinces being candied for future use in pastries. (Photo mine, November 2015)
We in the West normally think of quinces as an ingredient in sweet dishes, but in many Jewish cuisines it is also a savory ingredient – for example, the Moroccan quince tagine (link in French). This recipe is from Iran, where quinces are also cooked with rice or in a tas kabob stew. Other Persian recipes also make good use of fruits and nuts that Westerners or Ashkenazim would normally place into savory dishes: for example, the delicious adas polo, a lentil pilaf with raisins. The use of fruit in savory dishes is a culinary habit shared with Ashkenazim – one need only look at the red cabbage and apple recipe on this blog.
Though this recipe is normally made with meat, I made this khoresht-e beh vegetarian. It is traditionally cooked with beef and is absolutely delicious that way as well. Persian cooking and other Iranian cuisines, however, have a long vegetarian tradition as well – and in this form, a kosher-keeper could pour delicious Persian yogurt on top. (Recommended! – but with that said, the recipe itself happens to be vegan and gluten-free.)
Stirring the khoresht-e beh
Stirring the khoresht-e beh after adding the quinces. (Photo mine, October 2016.)
 
Vegetarian Khoresht-e Beh (Quince and Split Pea Stew)
based on recipes on Mastering Persian Cooking, and by Sally Butcher and Azita from Turmeric & Saffron
Serves 4-8
1 white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 tbsp ground salt
1.5 tsp ground paprika
1.5 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground sumac (optional)
1/2 tsp honey
1 1/3 cups (250g/9 oz) dried split peas*
5 cups (1.2 liters) hot water
2 large quinces (you can peel, core, and dice them in advance but I will tell you why not to do that)
2 tablespoons table sugar
Juice of 2 large lemons
1 bunch fresh spinach, chopped
Grapeseed or olive oil (about 4 tablespoons)
Fresh cilantro for garnish (optional)
1. Heat a deep saucepan or 4-quart pot. Add 2 tablespoons or so of oil to the bottom, then the onions and garlic.
2. Sauté the onions and garlic for 3-4 minutes, or until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the salt, paprika, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, sumac, and honey and mix in thoroughly.
3. Sauté for another minute, or until the onions begin to brown.
4. Add the split peas and mix in thoroughly, then add the hot water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. While the split peas are cooking, peel, core, and dice the quinces. You can do this in advance but they tend to oxidize fairly quickly.
6. Heat a skillet, then add 2 tablespoons of oil. Then, add the quinces, sugar, and juice of one lemon.
7. Sauté the quinces for 8-10 minutes, or until the pieces turn golden and have softened.
8. By this time the split peas should be quite tender and the water will have reduced somewhat. Add the quince mixture and the juice of the other lemon, and mix in thoroughly. If a lot of water has cooked off, add a cup of water.
9. Bring to a boil again, then simmer for 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
10. At this point, the water should be reduced, the stew thickened, and the split peas should be very tender. At this point, you should stir in the spinach so that it is evenly distributed throughout the stew. Cook for one minute, then remove from the heat. (You can also stir in the spinach with the heat off, it will still cook in the heat of the stew.) Serve with rice or a good bread – the traditional noon-e barbari or another doughy flatbread would work really well for this. Garnish with fresh cilantro if you so desire.
*Do not use canned or soaked split peas! They tend to fall apart in this recipe and in other Persian stews. You don’t need to soak split peas before cooking, in any case – it is a common misconception that that is needed.
Thank you to Ariel Goldberg, Francesca Littman, Jessica Belasco, Abigail Teller, and Benjamin Chaidell for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Lentils With Okra

In much of the Jewish world, the Rosh HaShanah menu tends to skew heavily towards meat. Among Ashkenazim, brisket and tzimmes cooked with meat are almost de rigueur – and are sometimes combined into one dish. In Morocco, a delicious tagine with prunes is the custom; among Persian Jews, there is even a tradition to eat cow’s lung.  Then, of course, there are also all of the traditions with fish: the fish’s head for a good “head of the year,” gefilte fish and forshmak (chopped herring) among Ashkenazim as appetizers, or spicy hraime in the Libyan and Tunisian traditions. Suffice it to say that Rosh HaShanah is not the most vegetarian-friendly of holidays.

Assembling the ingredients - lentils, okra, onions, spices.
Assembling the ingredients – lentils, okra, onions, spices. (Photo mine, August 2016)
So, what to cook for your vegetarian friends and relatives – or yourself, if you are vegetarian? There are, of course, many options, but I am going to suggest this very simple adaptation of a Indian recipe: lentils with okra. Both lentils and okra are traditional in many Jewish cuisines, and both have that wonderful ability of being very easy to cook, yet tasting like something very complex indeed. I make a simpler version of this recipe quite regularly for guests, and the contrast of the green okra chunks against the brown lentils can, with a bit of arrangement, be beautiful. The original recipe I used many years ago had a completely different spice mixture; for this recipe I used a more Middle Eastern combination with sumac and paprika.
Cooked lentils and okra close-up with cilantro
The final product – the bright green is cilantro. (Photo mine, August 2016)
Lentils symbolize plenty to some, but unlike other beans in some Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, they are not actually a traditional Rosh HaShanah food. Instead, many consider the lentil to be a food of mourning, and eat lentils both during the shiva for a deceased relative, and at the traditional meal preceding the fast of Tisha b’Av. However, lentils also can and do show up on the table at joyous occasions – and perhaps, with this recipe, at yours as well.

Lentils with Okra

1 medium white onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound okra, chopped into chunks*

2 tsp table salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp turmeric

1 tsp cumin

½ tsp ground sumac (optional)

½ tsp ground thyme

1 tbsp white wine or rice vinegar

1½ cups dried lentils

3 cups water or vegetable stock

 

Olive or vegetable oil

Fresh cilantro (for garnish)

  1. Heat a deep saucepan, then coat the bottom with oil. Add the onions and garlic and begin to sauté.
  2. When the onions begin to soften, add the okra and mix thoroughly while sautéing.
  3. After the okra is mixed in thoroughly, add and mix in the salt, pepper, paprika, turmeric, cumin, sumac, and thyme. Sauté for two minutes.
  4. When the onions are significantly softer (beginning to brown under the spices), and the spices are sticking to the okra and onions, add the vinegar. Sauté for another two minutes, or until the okra begins to “look” and feel slightly softer against your mixing implement.
  5. Add the lentils and mix in, then add the water.
  6. Bring the mixture to a boil. Then, simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the lentils have absorbed most of the water and are soft, and the okra is soft. Stir every few minutes. (If the lentils and okra are very soft, and you still have some water left over, you can add 1 teaspoon of cornstarch or ground kuzu root to thicken the sauce.)
  7. Garnish with plenty of cilantro. Serve hot.

 

* The starch in the lentils naturally offsets the “slimy” part of the okra. If you want to know how to prepare okra to be less slimy, go to my bamia con limon recipe from January.

“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.

Great Reads and Herring

3kg bucket of Nutella
An essential ingredient of bourgeois sweetness around the world: Nutella. Perhaps not in the 3kg jar though. (Photo mine, May 2015)

So yours truly got featured on an incredible blog by Anny Gaul, Kitchening Modernity in North Africa. The wonderful blog – which discusses class, globalization, and food habits in the middle class of the Arab world – wrote a very flattering and intellectually stimulating response piece to my earlier piece about qatayef and how we discuss the sweetness of Arab and Sephardi desserts. Gaul brought up some really incredible points in light of her own doctoral work – and cited the late, great Sidney Mintz in regards to how sugar itself became woven into domestic “normalcy” through empire, and Krishnendu Ray’s new book on how race and class mediate the hierarchy of tastes today.

Check out the post, but also read the entire blog. There are some really wonderful discussions about: how we gender or don’t gender domesticity; how coffee contributes to a culture of timekeeping; how people in Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon actually perceive globalization and food tastes; and how food changes with class, wealth, and Westernization. Check it out!

“Sweetness and Prejudice” – Kitchening Modernity’s Response Post


The incredible Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria and “KosherSoul” fame recently posted what might be my favorite “fusion” recipe of 2016 – macaroni and cheese kugel. The recipe – which combines the African-American macaroni and cheese with the sweet flavors of an Ashkenazi noodle kugel – looks incredible, and despite the initial confusion (cinnamon and savory cheese?!?), very tasty. Twitty’s post is also worth a read for an important lesson on the origins of macaroni and cheese – as a dish made by black slaves for white tables, with a discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s slave cook James Hemings. Take a look (and make the recipe).

Michael Twitty’s encyclopedic historical cookbook of African-American Southern cuisine, The Cooking Gene, is coming out in November. You can pre-order it on HarperCollins’ website, linked below.

Mac and Cheese Kugel

The Cooking Gene – HarperCollins


Finally – as I’ve promised back in April and on Flavors of Diaspora’s Facebook page, there will be a herring series! The next few posts will be about herring, particularly pickled and salted, which has played a major role in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine for centuries. The posts will discuss memory and history, but also provide a few recipes with herring. Your humble author also loves pickled herring with a passion, and has written two pieces with herring themes, for New Voices Magazine and Roads and Kingdoms. Check them out:

“Herring. Yum.”

Eating Breakfast from the Old Homeland Around the World

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.