Modernist Jewish Cooking

I am starting this piece in Israel, where I am visiting my grandmother at the moment. Israel, as I have written before, is a really weird place in terms of food. There is plenty already written about the influence of Palestinian cuisine on Jewish cooking, continued diaspora traditions, and the “kashrut wars” in Israel. I have even watched a fantastic documentary about the pork industry in Israel. What I find most interesting, though, is that it is ground zero for industrial Jewish foods. Most of the canned gefilte fish, powder-mix matzah ball soup and latkes, and instant farfel have some link to industrial food companies here. If they were not invented here, they are certainly made here.

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables: a life saver for some. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

My grandmother is a fan. At the age of 91, she still enjoys her jarred gefilte fish on Passover, Mandelbrod from big boxes, and the smell of soup made from powdered mix. (She also eats some food that is unlikely to ever have an industrial market, like baked fish heads.) I used to dismiss these products as industrial dreck. But now I find them fascinating, because they still influence our homemade cooking. And just as Israel’s government uses nostalgia to drum up support for Zionism, so too do these food products use nostalgia to not just sell their wares, but redefine Jewish cuisine.

We who write about food are too quick to dismiss these products as unimportant to the grand story, or only negative. Except we often end up imitating them. For people whose first experience of Jewish food was these foods – and we have sixty years of this – that is the “benchmark” for whatever we make. It also becomes the norm. And we end up adding more of the things that people want … which often circle back to these products. Never mind that some people do not have the time, energy, ability, or resources to make everything “from scratch.” Making stock, making kneidlach, and making farfel takes time. The industrial manufacturers hit on a market – and the result is fascinating. Why? Because of how it plays with our psychology.

Makers take memories, smash them together, and create food products out of them. I find that fascinating. The company of course uses that “authentic” taste to sell the food. And eventually those tastes – which are often similar – become fixed. So then we have to adjust our handmade recipes to reflect those. We cannot remember the pre-industrial food that we never tasted! What we mistakenly call authentic is as much a product of marketing as anything else, even foods like p’tcha that do not have a version from the box. Some mourn this reality. I do not.

Five brown bouillon cubes in open wrappers.
Bouillon cubes – just as Jewish as homemade stock. (Photo Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

We have to remember that industrial food came about and stayed for a reason. Well, actually, it came about for many reasons, right alongside the development of capitalism, redistribution of wealth, and redistribution of cuisines. Food has also, in all civilizations, been industrial to a certain extent, with products being made, processed, and consumed in separate places. To return to the point though: industrial food made it far more efficient, practical, and possible to make food, make different types of food, and make a variety of food available. Canning made vegetables more regularly available during the winter. Dried pasta made noodles affordable. The packaging of rice made it shippable. Industrial bread made affordable bread without dangerous or unsavory additives that often caused illness or debilitating pain from indigestion. (The latter was common in Europe before the 19th century.) The natural next step in some ways was to industrialize other foods. That went well with the faith in scientific everything of the early and mid-20th century. True, these foods were seen as suspicious, and the women who were first to embrace them were often criticized for not doing things “the real way.” But the ease and simplicity of cooking them made industrial foods much more popular. Women, who still do most of the housework in homes today, had more time. (The use of industrial food maps closely to the ability of women to enter the workforce.) Fewer people were malnourished than before – a fact that goes contrary to many screeds about the obesity epidemic. Things that were once rare for most common people, such as chicken in the United States and pasta in Italy, became common. For Jews, festival foods also became more common – though the gefilte fish from the jar was certainly quite different. In Israel, industrialized food got a population of refugees dumped by the Israeli state into transit camps through a long period of austerity. Industrial food also ameliorated the malnutrition common in Palestinian refugee camps – as it still does today. The high-end “organic, handmade” cuisine that later developed in Italy, France, and the Bay Area is not natural or historic. It is an elitist reaction to a new common availability of food, which happens to be industrial. And though industrial food can improve, we should not simply dismiss it.

What would Jewish cooking look like today without industrial food? The honest truth is, I do not know, and nor do you. Industrial food has changed our tastes: it is so common that it is part of all of our memories of taste. It has been around and popular for generations. I would hazard that what we considered the central parts of Jewish food would have a lot less meat, a lot less complexity, and many more foods reserved only for the most important holidays. Perhaps there would also be less salt. I do not think it is useful, though, to recreate pre-industrial Jewish cooking. We are at five generations of cooks who have grown up with stock cubes and bouillon powder, canned tomatoes and packaged noodles, jams from the store and premade matzah meal. Those tastes are in all of our palates – even the ones with organic, fair-trade labeling. We cannot reconstruct that taste. We simply have to move on and acknowledge that these jarred and canned foods, whether or not we like them, a part of our cuisine. We should partake, and participate in how they are developed.

20180316-142253-supermarket-israel-2018
The lines of Israeli industrial dairy. The fruit yogurts at bottom left are a personal favorite. (Photo Rakoon via CC/Wikimedia, 2018)

In short, we should embrace what I call modernist Jewish cooking. (The term is an adaptation of Rachel Laudan’s term “culinary modernism”). It is pointless and unhygienic to masturbate to fantasies of the authentic Jewish kitchen. Why complain about frozen gefilte fish, when we can make it different or better for us? Why judge the person who makes matzah ball soup from the box? (Would you rather they not eat?) Why should we be so scared of the shortcuts our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew better to malign? Why should we romanticize the misogynist misery of cooking “in the old days,” a misery that hundreds of millions of women still live? Why should we embrace the myths of the “natural” kitchen, when nothing about human cooking is ever fully “natural”? And can we even run away from these tastes, that shape us as much as anything that is celebrated?

For more reading on industrial food, I highly recommend the work of Rachel Laudan and Josh Ozersky. “A Plea for Modernist Cuisine” (Laudan) and “In Defense of Industrial Food” (Ozersky) are two of my favorite articles ever written about food. For more on how industrial food products emerged, read Laura Shapiro’s Something From the Oven. For more on industrial food in Israel, Yael Raviv’s Falafel Nation is spectacular. For a lovely, if incomplete, takedown of “locavore” thought, The Locavore’s Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroki Shimizu is quite good.

 

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A Few Thoughts on Deadly Food

A pink bunch of oleander flours are open with some buds against thin green leaves
Oleander flowers – they smell sweet, and they can kill you. Some people learned that the hard way. (Photo Wikimedia commons)

I have wanted, for a long time, to research how people figured out which foods were safe to eat. How were unsafe foods found? How were necessary preparations found? It is a huge topic, and my hubris became clear rather soon. There are scientists who have spent their entire lives figuring this out.

Even then, I have now spent a few weeks down the rabbit hole of poisonous food, poisons, and food. The big thing is that the historical study of food poisoning is completely bonkers. For example: we find a lot of early pottery that sort of looks like a colander. Turns out the items were used to make cheese, which is one of the first safe ways people had to eat milk. Before then, people would eat milk and get really sick, from lactose intolerance. But diarrhea when you are malnourished is dangerous, and people died. Cheese saved lives. Later, lactose tolerance became a more common genetic mutation in Europe and India.  This was probably because that in resource scarce areas, where milk was one of the only reliable foods, people who could not digest it died. Then there are other mysteries. Corn was bred from teosinte grass in what is now Central Mexico several thousand years ago. At some point, ancient Mesoamericans figured out how to soak the corn in various alkaline substances. This process, nixtamalization, makes corn more nutritious and flexible. The initial moment was very likely an accident. But later “research” was probably toxic at times – too much alkaline, or not enough washing afterwards. Alkaline substances are sometimes fine for you. There were also certainly instances when someone burned the wrong tree for ash, with terrible consequences. This goes toward the major theme of a lot of what I read: what happens later.

Something that has struck me is how often people die after we know what foods are safe. Mushrooms are one example. We know that some mushrooms are poisonous, and they look like safe mushrooms. There are details that distinguish them. These were important things to learn in communities that relied heavily on foraging. (Communities in Eastern Europe and the Balkans foraged through modern times.) This knowledge was mostly transmitted orally through folk tales and folk wisdom. The knowledge was not always right! People were confident, forgetful, or rushed to assuage hunger or finish the day’s work. And people died. Elderly people, disabled people, and young children were most at risk. When even a mouthful of a deadly mushroom can destroy one’s kidneys, those most at risk died. People of all ages and bodies died, though, centuries after it became common knowledge that a mushroom could be deadly. Monarchs died, composers died, and countless ordinary people died. Even now, many people die from relying on folk legends about mushrooms, such as the idea that all deadly mushrooms are brightly colored. We also have known for millennia that ergot can render rye and barley dangerously unsafe. Yet it still ends up in flour – often under conditions of hunger – and was responsible for several medieval epidemics. Today, occasional incidents still pop up. And let us not forget the people who eat fish that is plainly rotten, drink raw milk despite the risks we know, and consume unwashed salad greens, e. coli and all.

17 poisonous mushrooms of various colors on two pages, illustrated to show all parts
Poisonous mushrooms in a Czech-language encyclopedia from 1897 (Public domain)

You may have noticed that I switched into the present tense. This is a current topic: people still die from food poisoning every day. Besides, more than half of all food poisoning comes from food prepared at home. Obviously, this is relevant now. Our concern about restaurant safety needs to come alongside giving people the knowledge and tools to prepare food safely at home. Methods include an accessible kitchen, simpler and less risky food, or industrial food. But it also is important from a historical perspective. Until recently, almost all people mostly ate food prepared in domestic settings. The risk then was from the family hearth. The food that killed people was the peasant food, the mother’s food, and the grandmother’s cooking of yesteryear. This is where that oral knowledge comes in – and where it was forgotten.

In the Jewish world, this is no different. Deadly food is mentioned in the Bible. In II Kings 4, the prophet Elisha throws some flour into a pot of gourds and herbs to ward off “death.” Scholars now think that the plant mentioned is colocynth, whose flesh can cause severe gastrointestinal distress. Flour may reduce the distress. The story is didactic: that some of G-d’s creations can kill you. In the Holy Land with sweet and toxic oleander, and colocynth with poisonous flesh and edible seeds, this was important and life-saving knowledge.

Later Jewish communities had to deal with the dangers of their local environments. In Europe, one found deadly mushrooms, dairy products made with rotting milk, and badly brewed alcohol. In the Middle East, you had the risks of oleander, colocynth, and algal blooms in the sea. Adulterated or diseased grain was a threat everywhere. Many Jewish foodies have embraced a romantic history of Jewish food. We rue lost traditions of food preservation and certain delicacies and ties to the land. And while the traditions are beautiful and worth keeping, it is also important to remember why our grandparents embraced industrial foods. Homemade killed, and food was risky. Abundant, relatively safe food was the promise that pushed immigration. The idea of clean, Jewish food contributed to the rise of Zionism. The search for safe bread motivated Bundist movements in Europe and leftist Jewish movements in the Middle East. Food was, and is, life.

Death and deadly foods are a glaring omission from romantic histories of food. I get that it is not fun to think about the food that kills people. A food activism that focuses on yesteryear why we have to go forwards, not backwards. We are all familiar with the horrors of industrial food, but let us take a moment to remember the horrors it reduces. People died trying to figure out what we can eat, and people die figuring out what they are able to eat. Should we not avoid meeting our fate at dinner too?

The Southeast Asian Origins of Jewish Cooking

I first ask my readers to forgive the click-bait title. This post is a look at the various ingredients in Jewish cuisines that were first domesticated in Southeast Asia. It is not a crackpot attempt to attribute Jews to an origin in that region. It should be noted that this attempt probably exists somewhere.

Many foods that we think of as “classically” or “immemorially” Jewish are assumed to have originated at some point in Europe or the Middle East. Indeed, a few things do originate in these areas; rosemary, wheat, chestnuts, rye, and onions are among them. Yet others come from further afield. For example, apricots are from China, apples from Kazakhstan, buckwheat from Siberia or Korea, and potatoes, tomatoes, and corn all come from the New World. And a whole host of foods come from Southeast Asia. Yes, you read correctly, Southeast Asia. Though long assumed in the popular imagination to have been relatively isolated before about 2000 years ago, Southeast Asia is actually the origin of many of our most cherished ingredients. I define Southeast Asia with the common academic definition: Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, and East Timor. These countries share a common history of Indianization (except Vietnam) and colonialism, were often parts of the same pre-modern trade networks based on the use of the Malay and Sanskrit languages, and share similar families of climates and crops. It is from this region that much of modern food began.

Map of southeast asia, with the eleven countries and their capitals
Map of Southeast Asia (Cacahuate via Wikimedia/CC)

The trade and exchange of foodstuffs – and their spread – has occurred for several millennia. Initially, it started quite simply: one would give the other, say, a tasty nut in exchange for a bolt of cloth. By the time of the Romans, trade networks were bringing spices all the way across Eurasia and sending back bolts of cloth. Among the spices and cloth and other goods were also various crops and animals that would be quickly adopted – for their taste, their ease, or their popularity. Some of these came from Southeast Asia and traveled a long, intermediary-filled journey to Europe and North Africa.

The role of Southeast Asia in much of world history – and especially that in food and material culture – has been obscured for several reasons. One is that a lot of the physical evidence is inaccessible: documents and structures decay due to moisture and termites in the tropics, which is a challenge for anyone studying the medieval or ancient eras in tropical environments. (Even if we have copious evidence of advanced civilizations.) Secondly, of course, is racism and colonialism: other than Thailand, the region’s eleven countries were all colonized by European powers for significant amounts of time. Our Eurocentric food history has left little room for the true and magnificent tales of the peoples who Europe colonized – and brutally so. Finally, there is simply not yet enough work done on how the trade networks that spanned from the Moluccas to Portugal operated before the modern era. We have an idea, but because of the decay and Eurocentric history, our picture of food trade and agricultural ideas in Southeast Asia and anywhere that is not Europe or Northern Asia is sadly deeply incomplete – even as we know from archaeology and anecdotes that this was deeply important.

But that is enough blathering from me. You, I am sure, want to know the foods I am discussing! What was traded and spread from their original homes in Southeast Asia?

Chicken

Confused chicken looking quizzically at camera
This rooster cannot believe his 23andMe report! (Matt Davis via Flickr/CC, March 2012)

Chicken is often seen as an ancient food in the Middle East and Europe – after all, the Egyptians consumed it – but it originates somewhere in Southeast Asia. There is a bit of a debate as to whether it was first domesticated in what is now Thailand, what is now southwestern China, or what is now Sumatra in Indonesia. Like many crops such as corn and wheat, it is likely that there were several moments of domestication. Maritime peoples spread the useful bird wherever they went: speakers of Austronesian languages took chickens from Southeast Asia to East Africa and Madagascar at one extreme, and through the South Pacific to Ecuador on the other. Indian traders brought the bird through India to the Middle East, from which it was brought to Europe. Chickens were likely somewhat known to Jews in the First Temple period and were certainly present by the Roman era, and have remained popular in the Mediterranean ever since. (Geese were more common in Eastern Europe, where chickens were a somewhat rare luxury.)

Citrus

Etrog on a branch
Etrog (Daniel Ventura via Wikimedia CC)

The lemon and orange are quintessentially Mediterranean. They are also Burmese. Well, not quite – but the likely origin of all citrus fruits is somewhere in what is Burma today. Back then, it was just the citron. From Southeast Asia, traders brought it to the Middle East by ancient times, where citrons – called Etrog in Hebrew – became indispensable for the rituals of the holiday Sukkot. Greeks and Romans then grew citrons in their areas, but only Jews continued to grow citrus fruits in Europe through much of the Middle Ages. Arab rules reintroduced citrus fruits to Spain during the Moorish period in Spain, by which time talented farmers had developed lemons and oranges in India and on the Arabian Peninsula. Other lovely citrus fruits, like the lime and kumquat, were bred elsewhere. Jewish communities across the world not only used citrus fruit for rituals, but inserted citrus at various levels in everyday cuisine. Marmalade was initially introduced by Portuguese Jews to the rest of Europe, where it became very popular among Jews and non-Jews alike.

Coconut

Green coconuts with the tops peeled off
These coconuts are not quite ready to be turned into Passover macaroons! (Photo MaxPixel/CC)

Coconuts likely originated in the region of Sumatra or Peninsular Malaysia. They were spread initially by the sea – coconuts can float in the sea and stay fertile despite being salty for 120 days. The coconut was a pretty popular foodstuff wherever it was adopted, and from India and Indonesia it spread throughout the Indian Ocean basin and the tropical Pacific. Spanish and Portuguese traders later brought it to the Americas. In Jewish cuisine, until the late 19th century, it was mostly only present in communities where coconuts were common, in India and coastal Yemen. Coconuts were found in curries, chutneys, and stews. However, dried coconut spread in the 19th century around the world, and began to be commonly incorporated in Jewish baked goods. Machines to more efficiently process coconut were invented by American Jews in the late 19th century, which led to the popularization of coconut in cold climates. Coconut milk also emerged as a popular pareve substitute for milk.

Sugarcane

Sugar cane crop with mountain in background at Cairns, QLD.
Sugarcane in Queensland, Australia (Photo Gregory Heath/CSIRO)

Sugar has a long and checkered history that all begins with the independent domestication of sugar cane at several locations across what is now Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The use of sugar and sugarcane spread from there to India by ancient times, and with Arab traders during the Umayyad Caliphate across the Middle East and North Africa to Spain. From there, colonizing European powers took sugarcane to the New World – which also accelerated the institutionalization of the slave trade. (Sidney Mintz’ Sweetness and Power is an informative history here.) Growing and refining sugar was backbreaking, dangerous labor that Europeans were only too happy to slough off to enslaved people. Jews in Suriname were among these slaveholders. By this time, Jews had already developed a taste for sugar in Spain during the Moorish period – and after the expulsion, they took sweets made from sugar and the use of sugar as a spice everywhere they went. Sugar in Eastern Europe, meanwhile, was sourced until recently from beets.

Bananas

Purple bananas and banana leaves on a table.
Not your Curious George banana – these are purple bananas and leaves for sale at a market in Thailand. (Photo Takeaway via Wikimedia/CC)

This is a bit of a controversial inclusion: bananas were domesticated in what is now New Guinea, which is usually not considered Southeast Asia. (Definitions vary.) Evidence of domestication of bananas and sugar cane comes from the Kuk Swamp in the highland regions of Papua New Guinea from several thousand years ago, and it is likely that domestication occurred independently at several places through the island. Contrary to popular assumptions about “uncontacted peoples,” New Guinean people traded with peoples to the east and west, and bananas reached Indonesia and the Philippines no later than four thousand years ago. By the medieval era, banana leaves were in frequent use as plates, food wrappers, and materials across the Indian Ocean basin – and bananas were a popular staple food as well. Jewish communities in India and the Arab world did eat some bananas, but bananas really “took off” with their introduction to the Americas in the 16th century, and their incorporation into local diets across the Americas. Immigrant Jews adopted bananas quickly upon arrival into the United States and Argentina, and the banana found itself both as a beloved snack and incorporated in baked goods.

Taro

Taro plants with big leaves
Taro leaves – yes, they are that big. (Photo Pixabay 2016)

Another controversial inclusion for a different reason: many people do not realize that yes, Jewish communities cook with taro! Taro was initially domesticated at least three times, in Northeast India, New Guinea, and in what is now Malaysia or Indonesia. The starchy roots are stunningly portable; hence, it spread quickly across tropical and semi-tropical regions, and was established from Polynesia all the way to Ancient Egypt and Cyprus. The Romans ate it much as Italians eat potatoes today. Taro’s use in Europe mostly declined after the fall of the Roman Empire, although it remained common in Portugal. Today, most North Americans associate taro with Chinese cooking. Egyptian, Indian, and Syrian Jews have all historically used taro in hearty stews.

Cloves and Nutmeg

Medieval illumination of noblemen in traditional tunics and boots around tables eating meats and breads under trees and drinking. Dogs are drinking at a creek in the foreground. The trees are tall and in full foliage, the image has red and blue illuminated borders.
Noblemen eating a sumptuous picnic that may have included some cloves and nutmeg because they could. Note: this was not normal. (Image from Le Livre de chasse de Gaston Phébus, 15th century.)

Cloves and nutmeg are both native to Indonesia – cloves to Ternate and Tidore, and nutmeg to the Banda Islands. I talked about the history of the spice trade around these in a post on medieval cuisine last year. Both have been part of Sephardic and Mizrahi cuisines for centuries, and became incorporated into some Ashkenazi dishes after the 18th century. Dutch Jews and Arab Jews use cloves especially in savory dishes. The love of cloves, in fact, also goes back as far as Biblical times – evidence of cloves from the period has been found in the Holy Land. For thousands of years,

Indonesia was the only source for both spices, and an entire trade network built up between the Molucca Islands and Europe and North Africa, trading the spices. The Dutch used brute violence and genocide to establish a monopoly during the 17th century, which also encouraged other European powers to transplant nutmeg and cloves elsewhere.

Black Pepper

Illuminated section of manuscript of Latin calligraphy, laid on a cerulean blue tile. Top section is drawings of unicorns on a blue background. Bottom section is serpents wrapped around frond-like trees on red ground.
To be fair, a snake around the tree is easier than some pepper grinders. This is what medieval Europeans thought getting pepper entailed: snakes around trees and unicorns! (Photo from 12th-century “Marvels of the East”)

Black pepper is native to South India and Sumatra, where locals figured out that the dried berries of the pepper plant add a wonderful spark to food. By the high ages of New Kingdom Egypt (mid-2nd millennium BCE), a thriving trade in pepper stretched across the Middle East. Greeks, Romans, and Medieval Europeans all loved pepper – and used it heavily in foods. Jews, too: it was the traditional prized flavoring of German and Lithuanian Jewry. In fact, it was pepper that spurred Europe’s first colonial ventures, in part – the Portuguese went on their sailing adventures, as did the Spaniards, partly in pursuit of pepper. Today, black pepper is used across Jewish cuisine – but especially in Ashkenazi cooking, in which it is the main source of piquancy. And though most Europeans moved away from heavily spiced food in the 18th century, many Jewish communities continue to use black pepper in quantities now unknown in Europe, but still common in India. In Southeast Asia, the chili pepper – native to Mexico – has taken predominance.


If you want to read more about the history of cooking, Southeast Asia, and trade of foodstuffs in the ancient and medieval Old World, I highly recommend the following resources:

Kestaneli Kuzu (Lamb with Chestnuts)

Kestaneli kuzu, served with rice and bread.
Kestaneli kuzu, served with rice and bread. (Photo mine, February 2018)

In my fourth year of college, I made the slightly unorthodox decision to study Turkish. Maybe it was because I loved Ottoman history, maybe because I loved the writing of Orhan Pamuk and Yaşar Kemal, and maybe because I was extremely obsessed with modern Turkish history for much of high school. Probably, it was for the food.So over the course of a year, I filled my elective slots in my schedule with an intensive Turkish language course. My Turkish is not fluent, but I have managed to get by in Turkey, watch a few delightful soap operas, and of course, read recipes.

A kestaneci, or roasted chestnut vendor, in Istanbul. He is wearing a blue jacket with roasted chestnuts and a roasting pan on a blue cart.
A kestaneci, or roasted chestnut vendor, in Istanbul. (Photo Brian Russell via Creative Commons)

Much of Turkey’s cuisine is very famous, but even more of it unfortunately rarely gets translated into English or taken outside Turkey. Turkish food is highly regional – after all, Turkey is a country twice the size of Montana with a huge diversity in climates, landscape, and crops. Turkish food also carries all the influences of the various ethnic groups, rulers, and trades the country has seen. In some ways, it is more accurate to talk about Turkish cuisines rather than a single tradition. In the north by the Black Sea, one finds heavy dishes with karalahana (collard greens) or pakla (corn bulgur). In the center, one finds deep meaty stews and gruels like the barley-based aşure. In the south, many dishes are prepared with tangy nar ekşisi (pomegranate molasses) and spicy peppers. Turks are often immensely proud of their home regions’ delicacies.  This diversity carries over to the Jewish cuisines of Turkey.

The Mayor Sinagogu in the city of Bursa. There is a painted dome in blue, green, and red, with white columns with green heads above the bima, which is red. There is a chandelier in the middle and white walls with blue glass windows.
The Mayor Sinagogu in the city of Bursa. (Photo Türk Musevi Cemaatı via Creative Commons)

Turkish Jews – who before the 1940’s were a major population in the country – are a diverse community: from Kurdish Jews in the East to Sephardim on the Mediterranean coast to Ashkenazim and Arab Jews who had fled persecutions or left economic turmoil further north or south. The vast majority of Turkish Jews are Sephardim, descendants of the Jews who were welcomed by the Ottoman sultan after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Their cuisines vary significantly, but all make good use of the local products of Turkey’s incredibly rich agriculture. I have found many of my favorite recipes from across the Jewish world in Turkish collections – from tripe soups to candied pumpkin. And now, I have another recipe to add to that list: kestaneli kuzu, lamb with chestnuts, beloved by Turks Jewish and Muslim alike.

chestnuts on a tree, still in their spiky green outer shell
Chestnuts on a tree – these are horse chestnuts, not the ones that are commonly eaten (photo Efraim Stochter via Creative Commons)

Chestnuts are found across the Mediterranean basin, but the ones most common today originate in the Taurus Mountains (Toros Dağları) of western Turkey.  These have been eaten since ancient times, and are often found in Ancient Greek and Roman literature and ruins. In many poor mountain communities, they were the most common source of starch until the introduction of the potato. Indeed, in Turkish Sephardic cooking chestnuts make many appearances, especially in desserts. But this recipe, kestaneli kuzu, combines two old favorites: chestnuts and lamb stews. Jewish and non-Jewish Turks alike treasure this recipe for festivals, celebrations, and nice dinners alike.

Chopped chestnuts in a glass bowl
Chopped chestnuts (with raisins hiding underneath) waiting to be added to the kestaneli kuzu. (Photo mine, February 2018)

In Turkey today, kestaneli kuzu is associated with the city of Bursa, as are all chestnut dishes, but it is common across much of the country. Jewish women often foraged in forests near their communities in Turkey (as they did for berries in Lithuania) and would include their finds in foods daily and festive alike. This dish, known widely among locals, was an easy way to use these finds. Today, this hearty stew remains common, and is particularly popular on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. A similar dish exists in Moroccan-French Jewish cooking – in fact, in Israel it is associated by some with Aryeh Deri, the disgraced co-founder of the religious Shas party. It is, apparently, his favorite dish. The recipe by his wife, Yaffa (née Cohen), became popular after being published a few years ago. Though I strongly disagree with Shas’ religious-nationalist and conservative politics, the recipe is top-notch. (The recipe is cited below.)

I made a few small adjustments off the recipes I found in my research. Firstly, as do many TurksI added raisins to the stew – which gives a lovely body to the dish and provides a sweet counterpoint to the starchy chestnuts and earthy lamb. The second decision I made was to use chestnuts that were already peeled and roasted and packaged – the quality does not suffer, and peeling chestnuts takes a lot of time. Besides, the chestnuts used for packaging are particularly starchy and tasty. The third, and most unorthodox, decision I made was to add a cup of sweet red wine to the stew – this adds a lovely undertone to all the other flavors and really brings out the meatiness in the lamb. Of course, I have written this recipe in English. Enjoy, or, better yet, afiyet olsun!

Kestaneli Kuzu (Lamb with Chestnuts)

Recipe based on those by Binnur Tomay (in Turkish), Selin Kutucular (in Turkish), Aslı Balakin (in Turkish), Claudia RodenAysha Dergi (in Turkish), Mehmet Yaşin (in Turkish), Chaim Cohen (in Hebrew), and Yaffa Cohen Deri (in Hebrew)
 

3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil

2-3 lbs (1-1.5kg) lamb stew meat, cut into chunks with the bones separated out

2 onions, diced

8 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon table salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground paprika

1 cup sweet red wine

4 cups vegetable or chicken stock (you can substitute soup powder)

Water

9 oz (250g) roasted, peeled chestnuts

1 cup raisins, soaked in water for 10 minutes

  1. Heat a deep pot over a high flame. Then, add the oil.
  2. Add the meat but not the bones. Sauté the meat on high heat for ten minutes, until the meat is lightly browned on all sides. Remove the meat from the pot and set aside for a moment.
  3. Add the bones, onions, and garlic to the pot. Sauté on high heat for five minutes, or until the onions are translucent.
  4. Add the spices and wine, and cook for one more minute, by which time the wine should be boiling.
  5. Add the meat back into the pot and mix with the onions. Add the stock, and water to cover the meat about 1 1/2 inches/4 centimeters.
  6. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 1 hour, stirring regularly. Skim off the fat that accumulates at the top. (You can use the fat to make rice that goes with the stew, or dip bread into it.)
  7. Add the chestnuts and raisins after the hour is up. Then, simmer for 15-20 more minutes.
  8. Turn off the heat. Serve with rice and/or bread.
Thank you to Ziva Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe. 
Son olarak, tüm Türk ve Türkçe konuşan arkadaşlarıma yardımları ve tavsiyeleri için de kalpten teşekkür ederim. Hikmetinizle mizahınız bana çok fayda sağladı. İnşallah, gelecekte bir hayli yemekler beraber yemeye devam edebiliriz. Teşekkürler ve afiyet olsun!

Pumpkin Spice, But Jewish

Pumpkins on wooden shelves arranged in rows
(Photo Petr Kratochvil – Public Domain)

Here is a historical oddity for you: “pumpkin spice” is sometimes Jewish.

“What?” you might say. “Isn’t pumpkin spice a thing for ‘basic bitches’? Isn’t that, like, so late-capitalism-2017?” In fact, pumpkins served sweet with spices have a long history.

The oddly metallic and rather lackluster syrup at Starbucks – and the much better versions at bakeries across North America – is simply a mass-market rendition of a long American and European tradition. This spicing is a hangover from a medieval trend of heavily spicing sweet goods with cinnamon, cloves, and other seasonings from afar. This practice was still normal in the 17th and 18th century, when Old World seasoning met the New World pumpkin, which melded in the desserts and stews of Colonial America. It certainly helps that Massachusetts and New York a major shipment center for spices, fish, and sugar – and thus exposed to all sorts of spicing. From the dessert tradition of New England – which gave us both well-spiced pumpkin pie and apple cider doughnuts – we can then go forwards, to the pumpkin spice lattes of today, and backwards, to the Jewish and indigenous influences that are melded in pumpkin spice – and reflected elsewhere. Pumpkin desserts were popular beyond American shores as well.

Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Pumpkin, next to some older Jewish foods – challah and etrog (Photo mine, October 2016.)

When the squash arrived from Mexico in the Mediterranean on Spanish ships in the late 16th century, it was a hit among Jews and non-Jews alike. Pumpkins and zucchini – which are both types of squash – were delicious, easy to grow in a Mediterranean climate, and lower-maintenance than other vegetables. The starchiness of the fruit stretched grains that were often too thin, while the elegance of squash fruit and flowers found its way onto the tables of the wealthy. Squash spread across the Mediterranean, including to Jewish communities, which hitherto had been using bottle gourds (dela’at in the Talmud) and muskmelons. The squash largely replaced those melons – though the related cucumber remained popular. As zucchini, squash found itself on Sephardic Shabbat tables in fried rounds, stuffed, or cooked with eggs in quajadas and frittatas. As pumpkin, squash found itself in tagines, stewed with meat, and sweets. Among these was a preparation of pumpkin that imitated the other ways of preparing quinces, apples, and nuts: in dulces, or thick and syrup-laden preserves. Dulce de calabasa, or candied pumpkin, became a venerable tradition for Rosh HaShanah and Hanukkah – and blended Old World preparation with New World crops.

Candied pumpkin, served with slivered almonds in the Sephardic style
Candied pumpkin, served with slivered almonds in the Sephardic style. (Photo mine, November 2017)

The methods used to candy pumpkins, quinces, and other fruits in pastes and purées probably came from Spain, where they were introduced with sugar cane by the Almoravids by the 11th century. From Spain, Sephardim took this method wherever they went – to the Netherlands, where it was new, or to the Ottoman Empire, which already employed similar methods. So too other “Spanish” but Moorish methods travelled, such as pickling in vinegar, salted fish, and the use of lemons. These Sephardic cooking methods influenced Dutch cooking (link in Dutch), which itself influenced the cooking of the Puritans and New Amsterdam. Though the cooking of the Netherlands in the 17th century was heavily influenced by the spice trade, many of the methods and flavors that became and remain common in Dutch cooking: the cloves, the cinnamon, and the sweet-savory combinations. The wealth and power of the Netherlands made it influential in Northern Europe – and especially for the Puritans who came to the Netherlands en route to America. The culinary influence they picked up there, and also gained from nearby New Netherland, influenced the sweets and cooking of Colonial America. And there, pumpkin was preponderant too. Thus Sephardim in Turkey and Pilgrims in Taunton both candied their pumpkin.

Other fruits are more common now among many Sephardic communities, but candied pumpkin remains popular in Turkey. There, you can find kabak tatlısı served with the clotted cream kaymak and a variety of nut-based pastries. Turkish and Greek Jewish communities still serve dulce de calabasa in Israel. I have also seen Israeli recipes that add tehina to the candied pumpkin. In Mexico, similar preserves are also prepared.

And, of course, the heritage is alive here in the United States, in pumpkin spice.


I made this rendition of dulce de calabasa on the request of my friend Jay, who asked for it in advance during a stay in the hospital, during which he could not eat and resultantly seemed to fantasize about food! I kept it on my mind until the pumpkins and squashes here in New York were at their best, and then made it from cobbling three recipes together. Jay was pleased with the result, and I hope you are too.

Candied Pumpkin (Dulce de Calabasa/Kabak Tatlısı)

Based on the recipes by Claudia Roden, Elia Tabuenca (in Spanish) and Hamarat Abla (in Turkish)

Note: The amounts per ingredient vary by the quantity of pumpkin you cook. The number of servings also varies. For one pound/500 g of pumpkin flesh, you get about 10 servings.

Fresh pie pumpkin, kabocha, acorn squash, or other winter squash

White sugar

Water

Ground cinnamon

Ground nutmeg

Cloves

Star anise

  1. Cut the top and bottom off the pumpkin, then cut into quarters. Peel each quarter, and remove the seeds and stringy stuff around the seeds. Discard the tops, bottoms, peels, and seeds. (You can save the seeds for roasting.)
  2. Cut the pieces of pumpkin flesh into chunks. Then, weigh the chunks if you have a scale. If you do not have a scale, then you can make a calculation. Take the weight of the pumpkin you started with and divide by five, then multiply by four. (The peels and seeds account for about 20% of a pumpkin’s weight.)
  3. Put the pumpkin chunks into a large bowl.
  4. Over the pumpkin, pour an amount of white sugar that is half of the weight of the pumpkin flesh. One cup of white sugar weighs 200g or 7oz. So, for 1lb/500g of pumpkin flesh, you would pour over 250g of sugar, or 1¼ cups. Mix the sugar between the pumpkin flesh.
  5. Cover the bowl and let sit for an hour. During this time, the sugar will draw the juice out of the pumpkin flesh and will become somewhat wet.
  6. After an hour, pour the pumpkin-sugar mixture into a pot, and add water to just cover the pumpkin. For each pound/500g of pumpkin, add: 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, 4 dried cloves. You only need one star anise for anything less than 3kg/7lb.
  7. Put the pot on a high flame and bring to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, uncovered, or until the pumpkin is very soft to the spoon. Stir every few minutes.
  8. Remove the star anise from the pot. Then, use a potato masher or another implement to mash the pumpkin in the pot until the pumpkin is thoroughly puréed under the “sauce.”
  9. Simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the mixture is thicker. It should be sweet and pumpkin-y to the taste.
  10. Remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm, or cold with soft, sweet cheese, pancakes, custard, ice cream, or rice pudding. It is traditional in many communities to mix in roasted walnuts, hazelnuts, or slivered almonds. Some also add pistachios. Keep refrigerated for up to ten days, or frozen for up to four months.

Thank you to Jay Stanton, Naomi Barnett, Sara Liss, Robbie Berg, Kate Herzlin, and Ben Wohl for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe. Thank you to my fellow group members on Writing the Kitchen for spicing suggestions. Thank you to Amram Altzman and Tory Cross for encouraging me in all things pumpkin.

Apple Cake 2.0

Update: there was a typo in the measurements that caused some of you to make dry cakes. Many apologies! This has now been corrected.

I usually do not tend to update my recipes that often, but Rosh HaShanah is a time of renewal, and as it happens, I have significantly changed my apple cake recipe. It is a big shift – from a dense, weighty cake to a fluffier cake. I am pretty pleased with the result, which I served this year for Rosh HaShanah.

In addition, I made the cake in a Bundt pan. Though Bundt pans come from 1950s America, they are based on the pan for the German-Jewish Kugelhopf cake, and were created in Minnesota partly as a modernized Kugelhopf! So it turns out that Jewish influence on the coffee circles in the Midwest extends even further than what I talked about when I made Sour Cream Cake.

An apple Bundt cake with glaze on parchment paper.
Redone. And delicious. (Photo mine, September 2017)

Apple Cake

Cake:

8 oz/250g butter or margarine, melted + more for greasing the pan

1¼ cups/250g white sugar

4 large eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup milk or soy milk

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 3/4 cups white flour, sifted

2-3 medium-sized apples, peeled, cored, and diced

Glaze:

1 cup/125g powdered sugar

2 tablespoons/30 mL water

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Grease a large cake pan – you can use a 9 inch/23cm spring-form cake pan, a large Bundt pan, or a big square pan.
  2. In a bowl, mix the butter and sugar together until thoroughly combined.
  3. Add the eggs, cinnamon, vanilla, and milk. Mix thoroughly until combined.
  4. Add the baking powder and flour. Add the flour a little bit at a time, while mixing. Mix thoroughly, until combined.
  5. Pour half the batter into the cake pan.
  6. Spread the apples over the batter in the cake pan until evenly distributed.
  7. Pour the rest of the batter on top of the layer of apples.
  8. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the cake is brown on top and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
  9. Meanwhile, make the glaze: mix the water and powdered sugar together until thoroughly combined into a thick liquid.
  10. Remove the cake from the pan. Pour the glaze over the cooled cake. Allow the glaze to become solid (about 20 minutes) before serving. The cake lasts for six days in an airtight container.

If you want to make the original apple cake recipe, click here.

May It Be The Divine Will: Auspicious Foods for Rosh HaShanah

Anyada buena, dulse, i alegre! A gut gebentsht yahr! Rosh HaShanah is fast upon us, and despite the sugary delight of nostalgia, I am more than happy to see the ridiculous year of 5777 end. And, of course, I hope that 5778 is at least … less basic. As the year passes, I will also continue a long Jewish tradition of eating special foods in honor of Rosh HaShanah.

Quinces on a tree
Quinces on a tree. (Photo Hans Braxmeier via Pixabay/Creative Commons)

Some of these foods, all Ashkenazi, are ingrained into the common American Jewish narrative: apples and honey, sweet cakes, and tzimmes among them. These signify the desire for a sweet and happy year. But there are traditions beyond this particular interpretation of the Ashkenazi tradition. The Sephardic tradition of the yehi ratzones – blessings to which the response is ken yehi ratzon, or “may it be the Divine Will” – includes up to fourteen different foods. Many Ashkenazim follow a similar practice, as do the various Jewish communities of North Africa. It might seem strange to pair these very metaphysical prayers with the deeply physical world of eating: and yet, as we walk through each hope, the foods make sense.

Apples on a tree
Apples in Upstate New York – some of which were made into a cake for Rosh HaShanah 5777. (Photo mine, September 2016)

That the year is sweet: and so we eat apples and quinces. As I have noted in prior posts, the quince occupies an honored place in Jewish cuisine. Not only is it a frequent guest in many festival dishes across North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, but candied quinces have long been a traditional treat of welcome and festivity in Sephardic and Iranian tradition. The sweet smell of quinces also recalls the idea of G-d as lover found in the Song of Songs. Meanwhile, the apple became, in medieval Europe, a symbol of the fertile yet complex relationship between G-d and Israel. They were also the available sweet substance across much of Europe – and befitting the greeting that became common in the 7th century, “a good and sweet year.” Hence apples and quinces became symbolic of the sweet year we want, and the sweet side of G-d we want to see.

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

That enmity to us and G-d should end: and so we eat spinach and beets. The word in Hebrew for beets – seleq – and the word in Aramaic for spinach – silka both sound like the word to “remove” in Hebrewlesaleq. One hopes that in the New Year, enmity and adversity towards us and G-d are removed from the earth, as called for by several of the Biblical prophets, who themselves are quoted in many of the Rosh HaShanah prayers. Some scholars hold that spinach was the original food for this tradition, and beets followed in Iran, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe as a more readily available vegetable in those colder climates. For similar reasons, some Jews often eat dates on Rosh HaShanah – the word for “date,” tamar, sounds like the word for “end,” tam.

Zucchini with za'atar, black and white
Zucchini with za’atar (Photo mine, January 2017)

That a decree of death is torn: and thus we eat pumpkins and zucchini. This is a pun, for the word for “to tear” (qar’a) in Hebrew sounds like the words for “squash” in Aramaic (qarah) and Ladino (kalavasa). Hence many Sephardic communities began to cook pumpkins and zucchini during the High Holidays after their introduction from the New World. Recipes include fried zucchini, pumpkin salad, and roasted pumpkin seeds.

Pomegranates on a tree in an orchard
Pomegranates on a tree. (Photo Bharji/Wikimedia Commons via CC)

That our offspring be plentiful and that our families be prosperous: and thus we eat pomegranates and black-eyed peas. Pomegranates are a symbol of fertility throughout the Tanakh – be it human virility as in the Song of Songs or agrarian fertility as in the description of the land in the Book of Numbers. Meanwhile, the Aramaic word for the black-eyed pea is “lubya” – which sounds like “rubya,” or plenty. African-Americans, Jews and non-Jews among them, meanwhile point out that the peas’ swelling when cooked should be mirrored by our own swelling of prosperity. The pomegranate, too, is also a symbol of prosperity for the numerous seeds it holds.

A school of herring.
A school of herring, as many as our merits. (Photo Arild Finne Nyboe via Creative Commons)

That we may be at the front of our destiny: and thus we eat fish heads. Rosh HaShanah literally means “head of the year” – and since ancient times, the consumption of a fish or lamb head has been traditional to the holiday. Nowadays, many Americans are a bit squeamish about the head, but other communities eat fish heads far more often than just Rosh HaShanah! My own South African grandmother baked them, Iraqi Jews grill them, and Dutch Jews stew them. They are a good sign of staying ahead of the game. And there is a second fish blessing: That we may be found meritorious: and so we eat the rest of the fish too. The idea is that just as schools of fish seem to multiply quickly and expand and become visible, so too may our good deeds and merits become visible before G-d as She completes the Book of Life. And so fish reminds us to be good.

And a final prayer: may it be the will of the Divine that all the readers of this blog have a year filled with blessing, nourishment, and sweetness. Ken yehi ratzon.

Shana tova!