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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And enjoy it – for fenugreek is delicious!


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

Hilbeh (Fenugreek Paste)

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

2 tablespoons fenugreek seeds

2 cups hot water

1 large clove garlic

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp white vinegar

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

½ tsp coriander seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herring is proof that Jewish cuisine is anything but pure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Barrel Always Smells of Herring I: How Do You Remember A Fish?

“La caque sent toujours le hareng.”

“The barrel always smells of herring.” – A French proverb about how a person’s origins are never forgotten

Blynai with sour cream and herring
Blynai – potato pancakes – in Vilnius, served with red onions, pickled herring, sour cream, and mushrooms. These are all considered to be delicious things in the non-Jewish and Jewish Lithuanian palates alike. That was a good lunch. Photo mine, March 2015.

I grew up with herring. I’m not saying this to be a snob or prove my authenticity. I say this because pickled herring was constantly present in the house where I grew up. I was introduced as a young child to herring by my South African grandfather, who would stay with us for two months a year in our house in New York. He ate pickled herring almost every day for breakfast at the time – and he still, at 94, enjoys all forms of pickled or salted herring immensely. So by the age of six, I was hooked on pickled herring – be it with dill, cream sauce, “wine sauce,” or juniper berries. (As I wrote for Roads and Kingdoms, herring anywhere can send me back to my childhood.) My grandparents did not have to be present for herring either – my mother constantly kept pickled herring in the refrigerator. This was partly because she herself enjoyed the saltier varieties of herring on a sandwich. In addition, guests were often served, especially on Jewish holidays, a forshpizer of chopped herring – the leftovers of which were happily consumed by someone in the family. By the time I left for college, I had an insatiable and very homely love of pickled fish. One could say this was unusual for my generation – unless I had, like so many of my fellow hipsters, been introduced to herring at IKEA or a modern Jewish deli. (The former is not bad, the latter often does well too.) But one could also say that having grown up in New York, undoubtedly the preserved fish capital of North America – that it was destined to happen.

Russ and Daughters herring platter
A platter of herrings at the Russ and Daughters cafe extension in New York. Expensive but worth it! (Photo mine, August 2015.)

For many New Yorkers of all faiths, herring is a Jewish food. The city was introduced to pickled herring first by the Dutch colonists and Scottish and Irish migrants, but the most common forms of pickled herring today are those that Eastern European Jews brought with them from Poland and Lithuania in the late 19th century along with techniques for smoking fish, uses of fish, and myriad preparations of river fish. Today, shops like Russ and Daughters and Raskin’s do brisk business with a Jewish clientele seeking pickled herring, and most supermarkets with a large Jewish clientele carry at least a few brands of mass-market pickled herring. Herring is remembered by many Ashkenazi Jews as a mark of some bygone era of proper Judaism – or as a taste of a now-dying generation. Others use herring to prove their adherence to either Orthodox authenticity or a vaguely-shaped idea of Ashkenazi or “Yiddish” culture (which are sometimes combined). Meanwhile, the great Nordic obsession of the 21st-century Anglo-American bourgeoisie has catapulted the herring – also a food of “ordinary” Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Icelanders – into the realm of “gourmet” cuisine. You can now spend too much money on “Scandinavian” or “Jewish” herrings at the chic boutiques of SoHo and the Upper East Side. Herring is Jewish and homely and Scandinavian and haute cuisine all at the same time. And by some, it is loved.

We forget – I too forget – in these reveries that herring was once an oft-maligned food of poverty. In Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries – and far before that – herring, salted or pickled, was the everyday staple of the Ashkenazi working and peasant classes. It was cheap – incredibly cheap, as it was fished, preserved, and shipped in huge quantities for the day. It was readily available and filling. And, it was consumed by pretty much everyone in much of the region – herring was a common protein source for Jews and non-Jews alike in Lithuania, Poland, and Germany. As documented by Michael Wex, Gil Marks, and Claudia Roden separately, a fairly typical meal for a Jew in late 19th-century Lithuania – be he in a yeshiva, working at a factory, or at a shop – would have been a piece of herring on black bread. The fish was so common that the Latvian-born British Jewish columnist Chaim Bermant described the diet of his childhood as such: “On Sunday, one had a pickled herring, on Monday soused herring, on Wednesday baked herring, on Thursday herring fried in oatmeal and on Friday herring with sour cream.” Herring was so common as to almost be hated by many who ate it every day. Meat was the luxury that was craved, as one Yiddish-language song opines, by those who only had “a spoiled little herring.” That said, herring also tied Ashkenazi Jewry to a wider world that spanned the Baltic and North Atlantic – an entire economy based on herring and cod, and a network of cultural influence from northern Iceland to Russia closely paralleled by the fish. (This world was brilliantly documented by Douglas Murray in his recent book Herring Tales.) Thousands of Jews across Baltic Europe, and in England, the Netherlands, and France, were also employed by the herring industry, including the father of the Lithuanian Jewish artist Marc Chagall.  Herring was, for many, the food on the table and what put food on the table.

Herring + tea + apple
Herring on rye toast with tea and an apple – the Ashkenazi meal of champions. I used this photo for my herring article for Roads and Kingdoms. Normally I would put less herring on, but I was celebrating finishing my master’s degree. (Photo mine, June 2015)

I’ll discuss global herring and the herring economy in a later post. For now, let us return to the United States and Canada, where memories and tastes shifted. Firstly, tastes shifted away from herring and foods like it. In the years after World War II, increasingly prosperous Ashkenazi Jews assimilated both into whiteness and “middle-class values” in America and the food habits and tastes of their Christian neighbors. Herring – that sour, fishy, smelly food of poverty and un-Americanness, was out, canned pears and mayonnaise were in. But then herring became stylish. Firstly, the increasing fascination with new flavors by the post-hippie yuppies of the 1980’s soon expanded beyond spicy and savory to the pickled – exactly where herring sat. Then there was the fact that Scandinavian products – including herring – became an increasing marker of class status in the late 20th century. Professionals who bought Scandinavian furniture and worshipped “Swedish design” also became interested in the herring sandwiches that fed the architects of Göteborg and Norrköping. These expanded tastes showed what Pierre Bourdieu would consider a marker of elite status, a proof of high social and economic capital that was a far cry from herring’s proletarian origins. Meanwhile, a new generation of Ashkenazi Jews, became interested in the food of their own ancestors and that of their Sephardi brothers and in other aspects of their heritage like Yiddish – encouraged, of course, by the increasing commodification and celebration of heritage in the 1980’s and 1990’s – became enamored of herring as well. In addition, in a time when the tastes of Jews in the US had shifted – both to new spices and flavors and to the mainstream sweet and bland flavors of white America, herring also provided access to a memory of the “good old days” for those disturbed by the change. Russ and Daughters was now not just an excellent place for pickled fish, but the preserved proof of a “more Jewish” time on a changing (and less white) Lower East Side. Of course, some Jews – Haredim, South Africans, and an older generation – had never stopped eating herring in the first place – or doing any of the other things a generation curious as to what it considered “authentically Jewish” (read: “Ashkenazi”).

Finally, the large-scale migration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to the United States and Canada also changed the perceptions and memories of herring. Herring – selyodka – had remained on the menu in the USSR, and Russian-speaking Jews brought their pickled herrings with them as they moved to New York, Toronto, Montréal, and Chicago. So now, there is also a whole other Jewish communal memory associated with herring – not the Yiddish yesteryear, but that of a Russian Jewish memory shaped by seven decades of novy byt.

Herring fridge
The herring fridge at a Russian supermarket in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of New York. I got … excited. (Photo mine, May 2015)

I wondered as a child why most of my other friends were not fond of herring. To a certain extent, the tart and fishy pickled herring is – was – for many of their palates a very foreign tastes. As I had noted, tastes in North America had shifted as Ashkenazi Jews largely assimilated into whiteness – which themselves were changing in what they ate and how they ate it. As Bee Wilson in First Bite and Donna Gabaccia in We Are What We Eat have written, flavor preferences in North America and Europe, led by the restaurant and food manufacturing industries, have largely centered around a trifecta of sweet, fatty, and salty flavors in the past fifty years. These tastes – along with social cues that I discussed in a post about Arab desserts – play heavy roles in everything from the flavors of a child’s first foods – formula, baby food, and “kid food” like chicken nuggets and children’s cereal – to the hip foods their parents may eat in wealthy neighborhoods. It is into this context, as Avery Robinson has noted in his work on kugel and “Jewish American foodways,” that North American Jews, their tastes, and their idea of “good Jewish food” have been assimilated. So the tart-sour, fishy-briny taste of pickled herring would be well outside this flavor profile. Perhaps – though South African Jews are very assimilated themselves in terms of food – it is my South African parents that introduced me to herring. Perhaps I was just an unusual child. The most likely thing is that I was simply introduced very early. Now, as more of my friends come to like pickled herring, the dish is used to recall not a simpler time, but rather one of different tastes.

Herring on an English muffin
Herring on an English muffin. (Photo mine, June 2016)

But herring, as you may realize, is also mobilized as a mark of authenticity and continuation – in a manner I’d rather eschew. I’ve seen a few Jews discuss how they are sad “no one eats herring anymore” or claim that they are doing Judaism properly or more authentically by eating herring. This idea, of realness, is rooted in a nostalgia that the theorist Svetlana Boym noted has a habit of “colonizing the present.” This authenticity, rooted in nostalgia, does exactly that – more so than anything truly reflective of the material past. Yes, herring is traditional in Ashkenazi communities. Yes, herring has great symbolism in our culture. But eating herring doesn’t make you any more Jewish than the person who doesn’t eat it, nor is it more right than say, only eating your fish “on sushi or a bagel.” Eat herring because you enjoy it, because you want it, and share it with your friends as something to enjoy and want, not to perform your superior authenticity to address your own insecurity at something we Jews all feel bad at doing: being Jewish. Besides, let’s not forget that for generations those “authentic” ancestors you seek to ape, those “real” Jews, were often quite keen to swap herring for canned tuna and rye bread for Wonder Bread. Or that the herring they preferred may well have been sourer and fishier than the one you do. (We are also affected by changing tastes.) What you remember when you eat herring – like what I remember – is always a “colonization of the present.”

How do we remember our humble little fish? For some, it is the food that fueled Ashkenazi Jews in the past in di alter heim – “the old country,” and a reminder of a lost taste palate or an authentic culture. For others, as it might be for me, a taste of childhood in New York or Moscow. And for others a reminder of our complex statuses as Ashkenazi Jews in North America – assimilated and not. It can be all of these or none of these. And what is forgotten when we remember is just as important – whether it is the crushing poverty that most Jews in Eastern Europe faced, the headlong rush into white Americanness the “authentic” Yiddish-speaking generation of grandparents encouraged and initiated (including the change of tastes!), the class dynamics of eating the “authentic” version an often pricy pickled delicacy, or the simple fact that in a sweet-fatty world, the tart-fishy pickled herring has a different place.

And as we remember herring, we keep eating it. At least I do.

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A school of herring. (Photo Arild Finne Nyboe via Creative Commons)

Shavuot II: Cheesecake!

Me with cheesecake
I’m really excited about this cheesecake. (Photo Gabi Kirk, June 2016)

Mention Shavuot to a Jew in the United States or Canada, and their first response is often “cheesecake.” The holiday associated with dairy foods has now become, for many, only associated with a creamy concoction of cheese, eggs, and sugar, soft and yet mysteriously solid. In fact, I’m pretty sure that for many American Jews the cheesecake on Shavuot matters more than the important event the holiday actually celebrates: revelation. This connection may seem modern, but – as I noted in my last post, when I made cheese and talked about dairy on Shavuot – dairy and this holiday have a long history together, and cheesecake and Jewry also have a long and delicious relationship.

Cheesecake has a long Jewish history spanning the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds – in fact, the longest of any recipe yet profiled on the blog. In Ancient Greece, combinations of flour, fresh cheese, and honey were baked and dried; this recipe was likely known in the Holy Land. (The Priestly Source may himself have eaten this.) Similar desserts were eaten across the Roman Empire, probably including by those Hellenized Jews who sought to assimilate into access to imperial power. Later on, Jews settled in many cheese-eating parts of the world: and so you ended up with Italian Jews making ricotta-based cheesecakes (more on that later), and Ashkenazi Jews – as Claudia Roden notes in her book – absorbing and reimagining the cheesecakes of their non-Jewish neighbors. English Jews before the expulsion of 1290 probably made a cake like the sambocade found in medieval cookbooks; medieval Spanish Jewry probably ate cheesecakes not unlike the quesada pasiega (video in Spanish) still common in Spain today. By the 19th century, cheesecakes were popular Shavuot and festival dishes in many places of the Jewish world.

Three cheesecakes
Cheesecakes, ready to go. (Photo Gabi Kirk, June 2016)

Cheesecake is now considered in many places a “Jewish” food. In Rome, the traditional ricotta-based cassola  and crostata di ricotta (video in Italian) are both recipes that originate in the Jewish quarter of that city. The recipe is based on the Shavuot and Sabbath delicacies of the Sicilian Jews that arrived in Rome after being expelled from their home island in the fifteenth century. Today, the Jewish cheesecake has become a Roman Christmas tradition, one that has even attracted the attention of the New York Times. Across the ocean, in New York City, Toronto, and Montréal, the cream cheese-based cheesecake of North American Jewry is considered a “Jewish” food of the first order – and in the rest of the United States, “real” cheesecake is often “New York, and Jewish.” Indeed, as Joan Nathan notes in Jewish Food in America, cheesecake was first popularized in the United States by Jewish delis in New York.  (In college, the first question one non-Jewish friend asked of me, when he learned I was Jewish, was for a cheesecake recipe.)

Cheesecake on a plate
Eating cheesecake – a bit of the almond base fell off to the side! (Photo mine, June 2016)

For this recipe, I made a simple ricotta cheesecake with an almond base, using the homemade cheese I made for the last post. Of course, you can also use store-bought ricotta and/or quark cheese. One of the great things about ricotta cheesecakes or quark cheesecakes is that you don’t need to have a water bath for them, as you do for the far more delicate cream cheese-based cakes common here in the United States. This means that the recipe is both far quicker to make, and far easier – especially for beginning cooks. The recipe here resembles in some ways the ricotta cheesecakes from Italy I mentioned earlier, and in some ways the quark-based Käsekuchen or sernik common in Germany and Poland. Perhaps it also resembles the cheesecakes of pre-war, pre-Holocaust Lithuania – Fania Lewando’s recipe also uses farmer’s cheese (tsvorekh). The innovation I made is using an almond base. Not only does this provide a wonderful nutty counterpart to the light, sweet cheese – with which the almonds meld wonderfully – but also makes the cake gluten-free. Feel free to make a dough or biscuit crust, like that in the Baked Apple Pudding, but the almonds really do work.

Ricotta and Quark Cheesecake with an Almond Base

Almond base:

1/3 cup whole, raw almonds, soaked in water

1 tbsp butter

2 tbsp sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

 

Cheesecake:

1 1/2-2 cups fresh ricotta

1-1 1/2 cups fresh quark cheese (you can also use ricotta only, it should add up to three cups of cheese)

5 eggs

1 cup white sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

 

Butter for greasing the pan.

 

  1. In a food processor, blend the almonds, butter, sugar, and cinnamon until you have a thick paste. You do not need to peel them.
  2. Preheat your oven to 400F. Grease the bottom of a 9″ round pan. You can use a springform pan for easier cutting or a normal deep round cake or casserole pan for easy transport.
  3. Press the almond base into the bottom of your pan. Your almond base should be pretty soft and a bit of a paste, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. The almond mix should be evenly distributed.

(Author note: for a thicker base, use 1/2 cup of almonds and a tad more butter and sugar.)
If you are using a dough base, cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of dough of about ½ an inch thickness.

  1. Mix together all of the cheesecake ingredients until you have a batter of medium thickness.
  2. Pour the cheesecake batter into the pan over the almond base. Make sure the batter is level on top.
  3. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the cheesecake is set (meaning it no longer jiggles when moved) and the top is browned. Let cool before serving.

The author would like to thank Sara and Lisa Wolovick for assisting in the User Acceptance Testing for this recipe, and Gabi Kirk for User Acceptance Testing, photography, and helping me make this year’s Shavuot cheesecakes.

Shavuot I: Make Your Own Cheese

Shavuot is fast upon us! For those of you who don’t know, Shavuot celebrates the revelation of the Torah unto Israel, and the time of the Biblical wheat harvest. Though oft-forgotten in secular American Jewish culture, Shavuot is one of the holiest holidays in the Jewish calendar, and was one of the three Pilgrimage festivals – along with Pesach and Sukkot. Many traditions exist for Shavuot, including pulling an all-nighter of Jewish study, the tikkun leil, decorating the house and synagogue with flowers, and eating copious amounts of dairy food. It is absolutely my favorite Jewish holiday, not least because my favorite prayer and favorite Biblical text are both read in the holiday’s ritual.

But this blog is about food, not archaic Aramaic prayers or the Biblical injunction against slut-shaming, so let’s return to our topic at hand: dairy. Now, multiple explanations exist for why we eat milk products on Shavuot. Some say it is because the Torah is like G-d’s way of giving to Jews what a mother’s milk gives to her child. The Song of Songs does call the Torah “honey and milk” that “are under Your (G-d’s) tongue” (4:11). Others argue that it comes from the fact that Mount Sinai is Har haGavnunim in Hebrew, the name of which is similar to gvina – cheese. I prefer a more practical explanation: before modern times, Shavuot was soon after the time of year most cows gave birth to calves, and milk would have been in most plentiful supply at this time in most Jewish societies across the world.

Most Jewish communities, other than those of Yemen and Ethiopia, have various dairy-eating traditions on Shavuot. These tend to revolve around the various forms of cheese and milk products each Jewish cuisine uses. Cheesecake, a very Jewish dish whose history will be discussed in the next post, is common across many Ashkenazi, Italian, and Sephardi communities, and is taken as synonymous with Shavuot in the American Jewish community. Other delights include blintzes in the  Ashkenazi sphere, rice pudding (sütlaç) among Sephardim, and qatayef – very sweet fried and syrup-soaked pancakes – among Syrians. All of these are delicious, and many often involve local forms of soft cheese.

Soft cheese is a very traditionally Jewish thing. Quark cheeses, called tvarog in Russian,  tsvorekh in Yiddish, and gvina levana in Hebrew, is a curd cheese that is often confused with ricotta. It is soft, sweet-tart and slightly tangy, and quite tasty. The cheese comes at various levels of hardness and sweetness – I tend to prefer a softer, tangier quark. Tsvorekh is traditionally used in kugels, blintzes, and on bread. In fact, quark on black bread was one of the most common meals of poor Jews in Lithuania and Poland for centuries. [The same cheese was used for Shavuot.]

Ricotta, that famous soft Italian cheese, is a frequent ingredient in Italian Jewish dishes. Ricotta – which means “twice cooked” in Italian – is actually made from the whey left over from making other cheeses. When you make cheese, it separates into curds – the white stuff that we eat – and whey, the acidic component. (Think of the nursery rhyme.) Whey is cooked again to separate out the curds, and then the curds are strained out and sometimes played around with. Italian Jews traditionally used ricotta both for Hanukkah cheese pancakes, cheesecakes for Shavuot, and with bread year-round.

Both cheeses are ridiculously easy to make and taste quite good. In fact, you can make them both at the same time, as I shall show you below. It’s not an everyday thing, but certainly a fun thing to do when you get the chance. This is how you do it:

How to Make Two Cheeses at Once 

Makes one pound quark cheese (tvarog/tsvorekh/gvina levana), one pound ricotta, and about four cups whey

Refer to pictures at the beginning of the post for parts of the process.

You will need:

Ingredients

1/2 gallon/2 liters milk

1 pint/500 ml heavy cream

1/2 tsp salt

Juice of 2 large lemons

1/2 tsp white vinegar

Equipment

A big soup pot

Two colanders – one should be quite big

A giant bowl

Cheesecloth

Big wooden spoons

  1. Line one of your colanders – the big one – with cheesecloth, and then place over the bowl so that there is a good two-three inches between the bowl floor and the bottom of your colander.
  2. Pour all the milk and all the cream into the pot. Add the salt and stir in.
  3. Bring the milk mixture to a low boil. When the milk begins to froth, start stirring rapidly to prevent it boiling over.
  4. When the milk is boiling, add the juice of the two large lemons, and stir rapidly in. Simmer for one minute.
  5. You should notice the milk start to curdle. This is the curds separating from the whey. The curds are the cheesy bit. The whey is the leftovers* from which we will make more cheese.
  6. Turn off the heat and let the mixture sit for five minutes. It will look weird – white clumps and white fluid. This is how we make cheese, do not worry one bit!
  7. Pour the entire mixture into your big, lined colander. Then let sit and have the whey drip out for anything between fifteen minutes and two hours – the longer it sits, the harder your cheese. I go for 30-40 minutes since I like my cheese super soft.
  8. When your time is up, scoop up the cheese in the colander and put into a container, and refrigerate. Don’t throw the whey (liquid below) away! Congratulations! You have made quark cheese! It keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
  9. Now it’s time to make the ricotta. Pour your whey – you should have about six cups – back into the pot, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  10. When the whey is boiling, turn off the heat and quickly stir in the 1/2 tsp of vinegar.* Then leave alone for ten minutes.
  11. You should have a lot of green mixture (whey) and then more white curds clumped around!
  12. Pour the mixture through a colander, preferably a fine-meshed one – with a bowl underneath if you want to save your whey. The curds should collect in the colander right away. Scoop them out into a container and refrigerate. Congratulations! You have made ricotta! It keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
  13. You can save your whey – it is really great for making hearty breads and baked goods when you use it instead of water.

*Traditionally many cooks allow their whey to sit for a few hours to allow it to acidify, which negates the need for additional vinegar. However, this can be a rather smelly process that is not conducive to relaxing cheese-making.

P’titim and How We Do Food History

I have a particular love for small doughy pastas. Growing up, orzo was by far my favorite kind of pasta; the mere mention of couscous can send me into an excited tizzy. I once tried and failed at making farfel from scratch – the traditional grated dough of Ashkenazi cuisine is not friendly to sticky-phobic hands – but I have scarfed many a plate thereof. In a recent conversation on the topic of this pasta, a friend of mine asked if I could write a post about “Israeli couscous” – p’titim – and where it came from. I do wish to point out that part of this post’s purpose stems from my reaction:

“Did you mean maftoul?”

Stewed meatballs with eggplant and fruit, served with maftoul.
Stewed meatballs with eggplant and fruit, served with maftoul. The maftoul is covering the biggest piece of eggplant from the pot! Photo mine, May 2016.

In Israel, p’titim are attributed to a particular origin. The tale is as follows: In the years after the formation of the state in 1948, food shortages were rampant throughout the country – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Rice was in short supply throughout the country, and the Israeli government commissioned food companies to create a substitute based on wheat, which was in better supply in the early State. The Osem food company – famous for its bouillon-esque “soup powder” (avqat maraq) – developed a substitute by toasting tiny balls of wheat paste in an oven. The p’titim – nicknamed Ben-Gurion rice – became popular, and remained so after austerity ended. Today, they are considered a children’s food in Israel. Here in the United States, however, they are popular across age groups.

Here’s the thing: Palestinians were already eating something pretty close, called maftoul or mugrabiyeh. This pasta – technically a coated couscous – came about after Moroccan migrants brought couscous to the area in the early modern period. Maftoul developed as Palestinians adapted the pasta from semolina (used in Morocco) to the more common bulgur. For the past century and a half, maftoul has been a traditional holiday or festive food in Palestine and across the Levant generally. Many families continue to make maftoul at home. In Lebanon and Syria, maftoul are called mugrabiyeh – literally “that from Morocco.”

P'titim
P’titim. (Photo NSaum75, from English wikipedia via Creative Commons)

Purists will point out the difference in the pastas. Maftoul is a couscous, p’titim are made from a dried paste. Maftoul are largely uniform in shape; p’titim are now made in more than one shape. The Wikipedia article on p’titim maintains that considering the pastas the same is a common mistake. But I would like to respond with a question: is it a mistake? Or is it simply politically inconvenient? In other cases, we seem to be only too happy to acknowledge the similarities in different foods – be it the Jewish origins of the very porky Spanish cocido or the common love for pickled fish shared across Ashkenazi and Christian cuisines in Eastern Europe. Yet here – and I admit that maftoul and p’titim are slightly different – we are urged to distinguish between the two. Yet the fact is that before the Nakba, Zionists settlers were probably exposed to Palestinians – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish – eating maftoul. I sincerely doubt that there was no crossover.

Maftoul with chicken and chickpeas
Maftoul with chicken and chickpeas. (Photo Ebushnaq via English Wikipedia and Creative Commons)

What’s so scary about acknowledging the Palestinian and Moroccan origins of an “Israeli” food? Some of it is that we don’t get to be as particularist as we like, or particularist in a certain way. But there’s also a very real power dynamic at play here: once you acknowledge the little things that come from Arab cultures, you have to acknowledge the wider dynamics of the occupation and how Zionism plays into that. And for many, that’s a very uncomfortable conversation.


I don’t want to leave this post on a completely sad note, so here are five ways to serve your p’titim/maftoul/mugrabiyeh:

  1. Serve p’titim with a good meat stew – from this blog you can serve either the Beef with Eggplant, Apricots, and Dates or Stewed Meatballs with Eggplant and Fruit;
  2. This recipe for mugrabiyeh with lamb by Kano at Syrian Foodie is divine.
  3. Kitchen of Palestine has an awesome recipe for chicken and maftoul that shows you how to make homemade
  4. Taste of Palestine has a Maftoul and Lentil Salad similar to something I’ve made for myself before.
  5. Liz Steinberg has a recipe for leek and pumpkin p’titim that looks like an excellent recipe for the autumn.

Great Books: The Book of Jewish Food, by Claudia Roden

Fenugreek seeds
Fenugreek seeds, which are common in Yemeni, Ethiopian, and Indian Jewish cooking, and Palestinian cuisine as well. Roden gives several recipes involving fenugreek. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons via CC Open Domain, undated)

This book is the grand monarch of all Jewish cookbooks, for The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, by the Egyptian-British Claudia Roden, is enormous. And amazing. The book contains 800 recipes from across the Jewish world – and neatly flips the demographics of the Jewish world too. Though the majority of Jews are Ashkenazi – and what we in the United States think of as “Jewish food” is often Ashkenazi – the book is only one-third Ashkenazi recipes, and two-thirds from the Sephardi and Mizrahi worlds. One Israeli reviewer called the Book “the Sephardim’s revenge.”

The book itself is well-written, if a bit romantic at times. But the real reason to acquire this book is that it is almost encyclopedic – it has everything from the Ashkenazi p’tcha (underrated!) to the curious Almond and Spinach Dessert of Florence. The only Jewish cuisine not covered is Ethiopian. But beyond that one short-coming there are recipes from most of the Jewish world for every major food ingredient in Jewish cuisines. I’m currently hankering after a turnips in date syrup recipe from Iraq after reading this book.

Claudia Roden herself is one of the greatest living food writers today. Born to an Egyptian family in Cairo, she has dedicated her life to researching the food cultures of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Jewish world. Her books on Middle Eastern and Jewish food are now considered standard in English-speaking kitchens, and it is well worth your time and money to invest in several of her volumes.

The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, by Claudia Roden. New York, Knopf: 1998.

Author’s note: this book goes very well alongside Joan Nathan’s Jewish Food in America, which I wrote about back in February. Roden’s book is far more Sephardi- and Mizrahi-centric, whereas Joan Nathan is more interested in Ashkenazi cuisine in the United States.

“It Gives Flavor, It’s Good!” – Samneh, Diaspora, and the Memory of Yemeni Tel Aviv  

"Atzel Nekhama" - in comfort - and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv.
“Etzel Nekhama” – “At Nekhama’s” – and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv. Photo mine, April 2016.

It’s my last evening in Israel, and my friend Tom and I are walking through the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Kerem ha-Teimanim, the Yemenite Quarter. The district was founded in 1906 by Yemenite immigrants to the Holy Land, who chose to settle in an area near Jaffa. Founded before the “original” start of the (European, Ashkenazi) city of Tel Aviv in 1906, Kerem ha-Teimanim was the center for a growing Yemenite immigrant community in the Holy Land. The Yemenite Jews who came were and still are excluded from the state-sponsored history of Zionism and Israel: they spoke Arabic, brought traditions from Yemen rather than Europe, and integrated and cooperated with Jaffa’s Palestinian population. The migration was not under the auspices of European organization, but rather as residents of the Ottoman Empire’s farthest-flung province moving to the major centers of Jaffa and Jerusalem. This, if it was Zionism, was a very different kind of Zionism. Later, Kerem ha-Teimanim was the poorer dumping ground for some of the thousands of Yemenite Jews who arrived in Israel after 1948. Even today, the neighborhood has a strong Yemenite population; streets and public art commemorate both the area’s Yemenites and the communities of the homeland, like Aden, Sana’a, and Ta’izz. However, gentrification – and the occupation of the neighborhood by Ashkenazim with money – is changing the character of Kerem ha-Teimanim. It is still, however, a center of Yemenite-Jewish culture in a Tel Aviv known for erasing all that is not secular and Ashkenazi.

But back to the walk Tom and I were taking. We had walked from Tom’s home in the north of Tel Aviv all the way down to Kerem ha-Teimanim. It was a quiet Shabbat afternoon, and the neighborhood was mostly silent. We saw the public art scattered throughout Kerem ha-Teimanim that commemorates the Yemenite Jewish people of Tel Aviv and the balad – homeland – of Yemen. On this walk, we passed by a homespun sign for an eatery that sold traditional Yemenite Jewish foods. These include the breads lakhukh, jakhnun, and malawwakh, soups, and other savory goods. The eatery itself was closed for Pesach and Shabbat, but Tom – whose ancestry is Syrian and Sephardic – and I, the consummate Litvak, busied ourselves with discussing the foods on the menu. Our eyes then turned to the bottom of the sign, which read – and here is my annotated translation:

To take away:

Lakhukh – a spongey flatbread made from a yeasted, fermented batter. It is not unlike the injera consumed in Eritrea and Ethiopia, and has the same soft, bouncy texture. Across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen in Somalia, the same recipe is called canjeero. When my mother was a teenager in Israel in the 1970’s, this was one of her favorite foods, along with another Yemenite bread – the fried, oily malawwakh.

Skhug or sahawiq – a deliciously spicy hot sauce made from fresh red or green chilies, augmented with cilantro, garlic, and cumin. Sometimes tomatoes are added too. Skhug is delicious and is also pretty easily found in Israel.

Hilbeh – this is a spread or a dip made from the raw seeds of the fenugreek plant. Those of you familiar with South Asian, Turkish, or Ethiopian cooking are probably familiar with this pungent spice. The spread is made by grinding the seeds and adding water and spices, which creates a thick sauce. If you have access to fenugreek seeds, it is quite easy to make at home – here is a good recipe.

Samneh

Here, Tom and I were a bit confused. What was “samneh?” Tom and I scratched our heads. Clearly, it was something that went on the lakhukh, but what was it? “I haven’t heard this word before,” Tom offered. Then, we heard a voice with behind us. “What are you wondering about?”

An older lady, conservatively dressed, stood behind us. We responded:

“Oh we were just wondering what samneh was.” She smiled.

“You know ghee? It’s like ghee, and it gives flavor.” And then she began to explain how she made it, by melting and straining the butter, and then adding fenugreek (hilbeh) for a smokier, tangier flavor. She was visibly happy as she explained it. “I eat it with the lakhukh and the hilbeh and the skhug, and I use it to cook sometimes too!” We thanked her for her explanation, and then she asked us a few questions before wishing us a shabbat shalom. Later, we figured out that she may well have been the Nekhama whose name is mentioned in the eatery’s name.

From later research, I learned that samneh is a clarified, fermented butter common across the Arab world – where it is also known as smen. The butter is sometimes salted after it is melted, boiled, and strained, and thyme is often added to provide a type of yeast. The result? A smoky, flavorful, fatty samneh. It seems that our passerby prepared a version that is particularly traditional to the Jews of Yemen (link in Hebrew). It sounds pretty good.

This type of encounter renews my interest in Jewish food cultures. It is all well and good to make the broad statements of who likes what, what “Yiddish” or “Sephardi” food mean, or that the younger generations “aren’t” eating your definition of traditional Jewish food. It is all well and good to buy expensive cookbooks and go to restaurants that make expensive reinventions of Jewish food. But the food ultimately comes from the people, and the way they engage with it and remember it. It is this – not any notion of authenticity or tradition – that makes Jewish food worth writing about, and I am grateful to this passerby that took the time to tell us about her samneh.

Great Books: Herring, A Love Story

Cover of book in French
The cover of the book in French, with some of the herring plates portrayed. The image is from Merci.

Firstly, mo’adim le-simkha – a Happy Passover – to all of the readers. I hope you are having a pleasant and joyous Passover!

Anyone who knows me well knows my lifelong obsession with herring – one that I’ve documented for several publications, New Voices Magazine and Roads and Kingdoms among them. I eat some form of preserved herring – pickled, smoked, canned, or dried – at least a few times a week, and for long stretches the fish is part of my daily diet. I grew up with herring, and still love it. You should all look forward to a herring series in June.

Now, herring was long part of the Ashkenazi Jewish diet, since at least the Middle Ages. The fish – whose industry, pickling, and trade has encompassed most of Northern and Central Europe for a millennium – was incredibly cheap in its preserved forms across the regions where Yiddish-speaking Jews were settled. Herring was so common that the British-Jewish columnist Chaim Bermant claimed, “On Sunday, one had a pickled herring, on Monday soused herring, on Wednesday baked herring, on Thursday herring fried in oatmeal and on Friday herring with sour cream.” This herring also produced, in the 19th and 20th century, a whole corpus of artistic media evolved around the fish.

It is this media that Daniel Rozensztroch and Cathie Fidler profile in their new book, Herring: A Love Story. The book was originally published under the title Hareng, une histoire d’amour  in France – another country which also loves its herring. In the coffee-table book, Rozensztroch and Fidler exhibit the former’s enormous collection of “herring art.” The bulk of this collection are the beautiful, 19th– and 20th-century ceramic serving dishes that factories across Central Europe produced for a rising consumer class that wanted their daily herring plated nicely. Alongside these, you have postcards, posters, stamps, and paintings that depict the fish, its fishing, and its consumption in all its glory. From the herring industry of Iceland to the newfound popularity of herring among many American Jews, the artistic heritage surrounding this fish is celebrated.

I have the English translation from the original French, and the writing between the postcards is, to me and others fluent in both languages, very obviously translated from the French. That aside, the information in the book is fascinating, and the art is beautiful and magnificent. Some of it is also quite funny! I strongly urge you to buy this book, and explore with me the history of the glorious herring.

 

Herring: A Love Story, by Daniel Rozensztroch and Cathie Fidler. New York, Pointed Leaf Press: 2015.

Disponible en français en Europe.

 

Pesach of Colors 4: Gefilte Fish (Pink)

Ah, gefilte fish, the much-maligned dish of Ashkenazi tradition. When I’ve told people that I absolutely adore the dish – minced fish patties, often served cold in a gelled fish broth with carrots, sometimes with khrayn (horseradish and beets) – I have seen far more reactions of disgust than delight. “How could you like it?” I am asked. “It’s so gross?” I usually respond with one or another narrative about my love for fish, or that I just grew up with it, or that, well, I’ve had the not “jar” stuff. Yet in the Jewish America of today it seems that gefilte fish is sometimes forgotten as a “gross” dish. I want to tell you that it is actually amazing – and is the pink addition to our Pesach of Colors – the color coming from both the raw ground fish used to make it and the khrayn we add on top. Gefilte fish may seem “gross” – but I promise, it’s really not.

(Let us not forget though, that in the Jewish world a “gross” Ashkenazi dish will still be more respected than a “gross” Sephardi or Mizrahi dish. Please don’t use this erasure to say otherwise.)

The homemade patties are far better than the industrialized jars, whose contents I find leave a rather metallic aftertaste. Yet industry has also led us to sometimes forget gefilte fish’s pre-industrial origins as a dish to dress up the nearly-rotten fish many Jews bought for the Sabbath, lacking access to or money for fresher or more fish. The dish also allowed the fish to be consumed without picking apart the bones, an activity technically forbidden on Shabbat. The cooked, gelled, and sometimes-stuffed-into-skins fish mince dressed up the fact that, maybe, you shouldn’t eat this fish. The traditional fish has been, for centuries, freshwater fish like the carp or pike. Yet wealthier Jews or Jews who had access to fresher freshwater fish continued to eat the dish – alongside the nearly ubiquitous pickled fishes like herring that were on Ashkenazi tables, rich and poor, from at least the Late Middle Ages. (Nota bene: a herring series might be in the works.) This dish migrated with Ashkenazim wherever they went: to North America, to South Africa, even to Manchuria.

Gefilte fish is also the cause of one of the great culinary rivalries of Ashkenazim. “Traditionally,” Polish and Galitzianer Jews from today’s Poland, Ukraine, and Slovakia eat a sweeter gefilte fish, whereas the Litvaks of today’s Lithuania and Belarus eat a more savory, peppery version. This idea has been mapped both to dialects of Yiddish and to ideas of the “cold” Litvak and “warm-hearted” Galitzianer. The truth – though the myths are compelling – is simpler – and was wonderfully outlined by NPR’s The Salt last year. Sugar beets became a major industry in the 19th century in Poland, in which Jews were rather involved. In that part of Europe, sugar soon became cheap – and ended up in all sorts of dishes, gefilte fish among them. That sugar beet industry never made it to Lithuania.

I make a Lithuanian version here. But the Polish/Galitzianer version is not that hard, and is also pretty good. I’ve actually never made a sweet gefilte fish myself – only partook. See after the recipe, however, for a link to a good-looking Polish version from Gefilteria – perhaps the only artisanal hipster gefilte fish maker in the world! Of course, it’s based in Brooklyn.

Gefilte Fish – Lithuanian-Style

Makes 20-30 patties

Fish

1 ½ pounds filleted white fish (carp or pike are traditional, but trout really works), skinned and boned – keep the skin and bones

½ carrot, peeled

1/3 of a leek

1/3 of a medium onion

2 tsp salt

1 ½ tsp black pepper

3 eggs

1 cup matzah meal

 

Broth

Skin and bones from your white fish

1 ½ medium-sized carrots, peeled and cut into thin slices

2/3 of a leek, finely chopped

2/3 of a medium onion, finely chopped

1 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

1 tsp thyme

1 cup vegetable stock (or more water)

Water

 

Grated horseradish (khrayn), preferably with beets, for serving*

  1. Set a medium stockpot filled half-way with water and the cup of stock on a high flame. Bring to a boil. Add the other stock ingredients, then simmer.
  2. Meanwhile, grind the carrot, leek, and onion in a food processor until they are finely grated – almost a purée. Empty out into a large mixing bowl.
  3. Now, chop the fish into chunks and place into the food processor. Mix until the fish is finely ground, even sort of puréed. Then, mix with the carrot mixture in the mixing bowl.
  4. Add the eggs and matzah meal and mix into the fish mixture with a spoon or your hands. You should have a thick, solid, and moist mixture.
  5. Pick up a chestnut-sized piece of the fish mixture and roll into a ball or patty with your hands. Set aside, and repeat for the rest of the mixture.
  6. Drop the patties into the simmering stock, and cook for 15-20 minutes. Occasionally push the floating patties back into the broth to prevent them from drying out.
  7. Remove the gefilte fish from the broth and set aside to cool.
  8. Meanwhile, strain the broth into a bowl, and cool until thickened or gelled. Keep the carrots to decorate the gefilte fish. You can decide what you do with the broth “leftovers.”

*I generally use a high-quality store-bought version – I eat enough khrayn on sandwiches where grating my own is too much effort – but this recipe for a traditional khrayn is both easy and delicious.

Gefilteria, which is run by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, provided a recipe to the Forward in 2012: http://forward.com/articles/162573/tale-of-two-gefiltes/