My maternal grandmother left a mountain of recipes. I wrote about some of these for Handwritten Magazine before. The recipes are delicious and replete with typos or forgotten ingredients. Mysteriously, 0s are doubled or removed, so the recipe ends up calling for “20 grams flour” rather than 200. Entire ingredients, like flour, are forgotten. So are basic steps, like frying onions. When one cooks from the recipe, it is an experiment of trial and much error. It took nearly twenty attempts to get her pumpkin fritters right.
So, to this year. My mother and I were tasked with bringing stuffed matzoh balls to a Passover seder. These kneidlach are stuffed with fried onions and garlic and are very, very tasty. We opened the sheaf of my grandmother’s typewritten papers with her recipes to the matzoh ball to find that … mysteriously, she seemed to call for as much margarine as matzoh meal. Being experienced enough to know that this couldn’t be right, we consulted other recipes for a more sensible ratio. We realize now that my grandmother meant 20 grams.
As I reflected on this bizarre typo (and imagining fat globules swimming through my soup), I thought about all the ways Jewish cuisine might have been shaped by mistakes. We often think of cuisine as some sort of unbroken tradition. I have written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, why that is bunk. We also valorize the creativity of our ancestors in using and taking in new ingredients, or making things out of limited ingredients, or having the bravery to try something new. That is somewhat more accurate, but there is still something lacking. And so I would say this:
Mistakes have shaped Jewish cuisine. They may be typos, omissions, spills, accidental omissions, or random accidents. Sometimes they change it for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes we never know. A dish might end up being better with the accidental addition of a spice, or leaving out something else. It might become a longstanding tradition – I suspect that whoever first made the gelled broth of gefilte fish probably left the broth out for too long by mistake. A mistake may also turn into someone’s “secret ingredient.” My formerly-secret ingredient of black pepper in applesauce started as an accident.
That said, people make mistakes more often than they withhold secrets. When a recipe does not work out, some people’s first instinct is to assume that the cook left out an ingredient to preserve their domination over a dish. The mythical “secret ingredient.” I doubt that this is usually the case, though ardent cooks can be as vain and petty as anyone. Rather, I am more convinced of the fact that cooks forget that they do things in a way, or that they add something in such and such a way, because it is so natural to them. I beat eggs in a certain way, so that the whites get a bit puffier, but I never thought to include that in a recipe, for example. That mistake will change the final product, unless you too beat your eggs in the exact same way. In addition, you can always mess up when cooking from someone else’s recipe. And these mistakes determine, I think, a bit of what gets cooked and what does not. If a mistake makes a dish hard for someone to recreate, then that dish will likely not appear on the table – or appear in altered form. Likewise, if a mistake leaves you with a bad impression of a dish, then you will not be inclined to cook it again. As I write this, I wonder how many creative, tasty, and wondrous dishes have been lost to mistakes by author or cook. My grandmother’s pumpkin fritters very nearly met this fate, because she forgot to mention flour at all.
Things get lost in translation, too. One thing that often never gets really appreciated is how different “eyeball” quantities can be in different languages – ktzat in Hebrew is not necessarily a bit in English, and that is not un poquito in Spanish either. Now, apply that measure to salt, or pepper, or nutmeg (as I have witnessed), and see what results. The same goes for directions: meng in Afrikaans can be expressed by several words, not just mix, in English. And, of course, “to taste” is impossibly personal and extremely cultural. So when parents give their children recipes, or friends give their friends recipes, or someone squints over a newspaper in a language they speak imperfectly (guilty as charged), unintentional mistakes can be made quite easily. And the end product is different. Sometimes the change is not so great, but sometimes it is better or tastier.
And then there are the dishes you end up forgetting to make for years at a time. I have not made brownies, for example, for about five years. (Shocking, I know.) I know that when I make them the first time, I will probably mess something up. If I make them for someone, they might not like “my brownies” – even if I try to convince them that my brownies are normally delicious. If that person is my boyfriend, I might not end up making them for quite a while, or ever again. Transpose this idea to a rarer dish, or one that might not be easily made. It is quite possible that many things have been given up, because they are too hard to make right, or so hard to recreate that they are easily messed up. Beyond changing ideas of “good” and “bad” and assimilating a cultural aversion to wobbliness, one reason that p’tcha is probably no longer as common, for example, is that it is actually quite easy to mess up. Other dishes or variants of extant ones have probably been lost in the recesses of many memories. Still others are changed by the mistakes that you make in re-creation.
Part of me wants to think only of the happy accidents – after all, which genius realized that gefilte fish is perfectly paired with horseradish? But cooking and cuisine are not only happy or happy accidents. A lot of learning to cook, and researching food history, is not noticing a thing and then making a disaster of your dish. These disasters help us figure out what to cook, how to cook, and how not to cook. And when we learn from others how to eat, what to eat, and how not to eat, these disasters can add up to a cuisine. Mistakes have changed the way Jews talk about, cook, eat, and remember food, and that is something worth noting – just like my grandmother’s missing 0.
I originally wanted to write a comprehensive post about the history of Jewish cuisine in the Indian Ocean. I realized that would need to be the length of a book. So I tried to do a shorter version. I ran into a similar problem. Instead, I have decided to do something a tad simpler. Rather than go into a drone, I will look at a few foods or things that show the influence of Indian Ocean trade routes on Jewish cooking. Though we do not think about the Indian Ocean much in Jewish history or Western history, it is important that we do so.
As many scholars have pointed out before, the Indian Ocean was the center of world trade for a thousand years, and much of that had to do with food. The flow of spices from Indonesia to India to Arabia and Africa to Europe – and within and between those places – set the stage for much of early global trade. Cloves and pepper were already traded across vast distances in Biblical times – and sugar would follow by the Roman period. After Islam came about and spread with seafarers, the region gained a common language – Arabic – and an even bigger network of traders, based in what is now Oman and Yemen. Meanwhile, Tamil emperors ruled for lengthy periods over South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. Later, the region would be a patchwork of kingdoms and empires which built their own powers on trade and maritime prowess. From there, spices, minerals, and people moved from Ethiopia to India to Malaysia to Arabia to Iran to China. Europe dealt with this world through intermediaries – and it was Portuguese and Spanish ambitions to enter this trade that influenced Columbus’ voyage to the Americas and the start of European imperialism. Nowhere was this more apparent than food. Spices were an attainable goal, and often these were spices native to faraway lands along the ocean’s shores. Cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, and cloves were items that tinged local cuisines across the basin and beyond. Dishes from traders were common from Zanzibar to Timor. Merchants from Portugal to Japan craved the same tinge of pepper.
Jewish cuisine the world over was influenced by this trade. In some cases, Jews were living on the trade routes themselves: in Egypt, Ethiopia, Yemen, India, Iran, Iraq, and Burma. In other cases, as was true of Ottoman, Venetian, and Ukrainian Jews, trade with other communities connected them to the ocean. For all these communities, the spices and foods, recipes and ideas, methods and knowledge that travelled on the seas transformed their kitchens. For examples, I will look at a snack, a spice, and a method.
A few years ago, I wrote about sambusak, a savory, filled Iraqi pastry, and its ties to triangular pastries elsewhere. The snack started its journey as a triangular pastry in Central Asia, and first became popular in the Persian-speaking world. From there, it travelled with soldiers, merchants, and migrants to India, the Middle East, and North Africa, where it sometimes went by different names. Eventually, it reached Greece and the Balkans as the boreka – named after a different Turkish pastry, the börek, which is made with boiled dough. It also reached Spain, and later the Americas, as the empanada. Jewish communities not only partook in sambusak and empanadas, but adapted them to Jewish holidays. In many communities, pastries like these are common on Shavuot.
The samosa was a seafarer, too, and became popular in the Indian Ocean region. From India, the recipe travelled eastwards to Southeast Asia, where it is still extremely popular in Indonesia. In Burma, too, it became popular – and the Baghdadi Jewish community would often serve their recipe on Shabbat. That version mixed flavors of three samosas: the local Burmese one, a Bengali one, and the sambusak recipe from Iraq. (If anyone has the recipe, please let me know!) Westward, the samosa made its way across the sea to Yemen, which already had a different version that probably came from the Gulf. There, Jewish writings mention triangle pastries as a delicacy enjoyed in urban areas like Sana’a. From Yemen, or via what is now Somalia, it hopped over to today’s Ethiopia and Eritrea, where Jewish communities also adapted the dish to local ingredients. Today’s Ethiopian Jews have brought their version of the recipe – filled with delicious lentils – to Israel and Chicago. It is also a plot device in a wonderful film about a Jewish boy named Solomon in the Ethiopian highlands, called Lamb. Later Jewish communities would also bring their own triangle pastries to the Indian Ocean shores. Portuguese Jews in Cochin mixed local samosas with empanadas, and Jews from Rhodes made borekas in the colonial cities on the African coast they went to in the early 20th century.
Why was the samosa popular? After all, cooking oil was expensive until the modern era, and samosas are often fried. (Though some are baked, steamed, or cooked in a Dutch oven-type way.) They are also surprisingly annoying to make, with thin dough and a habit of breaking at the worst possible moments. On the other hand, they are delicious. The carb-forward softness of the dough – substantial and yielding – gives way to a filling that can be spiced to almost any specification. They are most easily made in bulk, which makes them ideal for celebrations or anything in which people may be social. The effort required – even with our modern pre-made wrappers and equipment – makes the pastries special for occasions, and easily incorporated into the many Jewish traditions of elaborate foods for Sabbaths and holidays. More broadly, they are also the perfect street food.
Given that they are best made in bulk, and that frying was quite dangerous in homes until recently, samosas were, like other fried foods, a thing eaten outside the house in urban areas. Sellers, enterprising vendors, or housewives needing another line of income set up samosa stands in markets as early as the 12th and 13th centuries in Persia, and later elsewhere. The samosa joined a long line of other fried foods – doughnuts, fritters, dumplings, and so on – that extended back to the early days of Islam. Though many Jewish communities eschewed eating outside the community – and though many other communities had similar rules – Jews were likely in the markets, eating samosas, and picking up those ideas. Perhaps, they were selling them too – and giving other communities a taste for new things that Jews brought with them, from wherever they came. Like cinnamon.
Cinnamon is the unlikely star of Ashkenazi holiday food. It is strange, when you think about it, that the bark of a tree native to Sri Lanka and Indonesia would be so frequent in the festive cooking of an Eastern European minority thousands of miles away. And yet – Tzimmes mit Flanken is not quite the same for some without the cinnamon to accompany the carrots; Mandelbroyt gain a zing with it; red cabbage with apples is spruced up with a touch of cinnamon; some enterprising cooks even add them to their matzoh balls. In Lithuania, a tradition arose of stuffing matzoh balls and Kreplach with onions fried with … cinnamon. How did this community, so far from where cinnamon is grown, come to add it to their food?
Lithuania, Poland, and the Ukraine were tied through long spurs to the Indian Ocean trade networks thousands of miles away. The trade routes shifted over time, but in the 17th century, they looked something like this: Spices from Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent were bought and sold in Cochin and other ports in Kerala, from where they were shipped to what is now Oman, Iraq, and Yemen. From there, they went over land, river, and sea to Istanbul and other Ottoman centers in Anatolia and the Balkans. From there, another round of buying and selling would happen, and traders – often Jewish – would bring the spices from there, by land or sea, to what is now the Ukraine. Then, well-worn paths would carry the spices to the centers of Poland and Lithuania. Many of the communities on these paths were Jewish, and were already trading other things as well – etrogim for Sukkot, books and halachic literature, cloth, and goods. Spices were always a mainstay. Ideas spread too – not just recipes, which flowed back and forth, but also religious ones. The heresy of the false Messiah Shabtai Zvi spread from the Ottoman Empire elsewhere on these very circuits. Contrary to the Ashkenormative and, honestly, rather twee history spun of homely Ashkenazi communities hewing to some sort of tradition that they themselves would have found laughable. Our ancestors were aware of an extraordinary world – even if they were usually too poor to access its fruits. They took what they could, and made it their own. Cinnamon was one of them.
It started, like black pepper and ginger, as a luxury good in the Middle Ages. But increased trade – especially after the Dutch and Portuguese used colonization, genocide, and slavery to monopolize the market – made the spices cheaper in Europe. Now, the trade networks flowed from Amsterdam and Lisbon through Germany to Eastern Europe, and in much greater supply. By the 16th century, Martin Luther mixed his anti-Semitism with complaints about peasants becoming addled and lascivious on black pepper. Thus cinnamon went from a luxury good for a few Jews to a luxury good for many Jews. Soon, it began popping up in many goods. Later, when sugar became more common after the introduction of the sugar beet in Eastern Europe, cinnamon became a mainstay of Ashkenazi sweet foods, and substantial foods that were sweet but often served as a meal or holiday dish, like noodle kugel. The availability of cinnamon for a comparatively cheap price from the 19th century on also made cinnamon far more common in day-to-day cooking, just like other former luxuries like sugar, meat, and white bread. Even today, much of the cinnamon we consume comes from Indian Ocean countries like Sri Lanka. One reason cinnamon became cheaper, in fact, was the reduced shipping cost of spices to Europe after the opening of the Suez Canal.
Of course, cinnamon is frequent in the Jewish cuisines of the Indian Ocean itself. The spice makes frequent appearances in Indian Jewish curries and soups, and it is sometimes included in Ethiopian spice mixtures. It is also used with some frequency by Jewish communities in Iran, especially with fruit-heavy dishes.
This recipe started in Iraq. Medieval Arabic cookbooks from Baghdad record poultry stuffed with bread or rice as a festival dish, or a frequent dish on the tables of nobility and the wealthy. (Among other delicacies that, sadly, did not stay popular.) Jews probably picked up this dish there, and adapted it for cooking on the Sabbath and the restriction rabbinic Jews follow on not mixing dairy and poultry. (Most Islamic schools of thought allow that combination.) The dish stayed a local delicacy for a few centuries.
Then, starting as early as the 17th century, but especially in the 18th and 19th century, Iraqi Jews migrated in large numbers to India, Burma, and Malaya – which were then under British rule. The cuisine came with them, and as these communities became established as traders, merchants, and doctors, so too the cuisines began to change. The stuffed chicken gained new versions as spices were changed, fillings were changed, or even the method was changed. (Instead of roasting, say, baking in a covered pot.) As a result, many varied versions of the recipe now exist that we have a record of.
As Jews migrated in the past across the Indian Ocean basin, other recipes probably went through similar shifts. We are lucky to have a sense of it with stuffed chicken – and the copious writing of Baghdadi Jews across the region to tell us about it. Here, we can see an example of how a recipe might have travelled. Now, too, though those Jewish communities are mostly elsewhere, other recipes travel among those countries’ majorities too. Whereas in the 19th century, it was a stuffed chicken, now, it is noodle dishes with vegetables – brought from Southeast Asia through South Asia to become popular in the Middle East. Perhaps the noodles could be a chicken filling?
For samosas: on Netflix, there is a cute Indian series called Itihaas ki Thali se, with short animated films on the history of various South Asian delicacies. It is in Hindi with English subtitles. There is a really fun samosa episode, that makes for a perfect break between episodes on a Netflix binge, before you realize that you should make some food – or get some prepared food.
For stuffed chickens, Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Foodhas a recipe. I have not had the time or energy to try it yet – to say the least, it is not a recipe one simply walks into the kitchen to make. So, here, I leave you to the trusted care of Queen Claudia, who I trust with all my heart to guide you like the captain of a ship on calm waters.
One of the things I do not get about Christmas, or Christian winter in general, is why gingerbread is not a year-round food. It is so very delicious. The depths of the molasses cheer me. The perk of the spices gladdens me. The scent sends me into a madeleine-like reverie. In cake or in cookie form, gingerbread is wonderful. Why should we limit it to one time a year, particularly for a holiday filled with rather irksome things? Even then, I do enjoy the sheer breadth of gingerbread products in winter. As I told one friend, gingerbread is one thing I wish we just had more of in Jewish tradition. “Picture it: American Jews, 5779. Gingerbread for Sukkot, gingerbread for Purim, gingerbread for Shavuot, ginger matzoh for Passover,” I said. I think my friend thinks I have a proverbial “spider on my ceiling” now.
So imagine my surprise when I found out that gingerbread cakes have been eaten for many holidays by Jews for a thousand years. Not to mention non-Jews, too. Spiced cakes have been eaten in Europe since at least the Classical period in Greece, and became newly popular alongside other heavily spiced foods in the 12th century. Ginger itself was traded from Asia since Roman times. Some historians claim that Crusaders brought back the treat from the Middle East, but it seems more likely that Armenian monks brought the recipe to monasteries earlier in the medieval era. (Attributing everything to the Crusaders obscures how much contact there was, and how extensive contact was, between Western Europe and the Islamic World before that.) Gingerbread became a traditional gift between lovers, and popular at taverns and at fairs and festivals. Indeed, Shakespeare alludes to it in a play. Gingerbread was also medicine: many monks and nuns baked it as a tonic for indigestion. We may scoff now, but it was probably safer than many contemporary “medicines.” And, medicinal or not, gingerbread has remained popular for longer than all but a few foods.
Among Ashkenazi Jews, ginger-based pastries and gingerbread have traditionally been popular for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, as well as for celebrations and life cycle events. Another common Ashkenazi dish, lekach or honey cake, shares an ancestor with today’s gingerbread. In fact, they were probably the same until a few hundred years ago. Jewish gingerbread and lekach derive from an Italian Jewish cake called panforte, a heavily spiced gingerbread that was introduced by Italian Jewish traders to Jews in France and Germany by the 11th century. These cakes were sold by Jews in what is now Southern Germany to a wide audience – and were widely consumed – by the start of the 13th century. However, Jews were then banned from the guilds that made gingerbread. As a result, Jewish gingerbread and honey cakes were largely only for internal consumption. These cakes were given to young boys on their first day of school, and served at weddings and circumcisions. Later agricultural advancements, such as the mass conversion from barley and rye to wheat in Europe, introduction of alkaline leavening, and the spread of sugar, changed these cakes. They became lighter, sweeter, and bigger. Ginger-based and honey-based cakes also largely separated around this time.
I find gingerbread interesting because it is a “throwback” to medieval styles of eating. Heavily spiced, darkly spiced cakes were a fixture of European elite and festive cuisine in the Middle Ages. Spices were said to carry holy odors and symbolized riches, good grace, and good living. Those who could afford it imported huge quantities of spices, and Jews were no exception. However, when imperialism made spices cheap enough for many peasants – such that Martin Luther blamed commoners’ degeneracy on pepper – the elite switched, to a much blander and less spiced diet. Gingerbread, along with mulled wine and a few bizarre Dutch cheeses, stuck it out. I am so ever grateful.
Ready to go
This gingerbread recipe is vegan. I made it for my colleagues, a few of whom are vegans, so I swapped out the egg and butter for applesauce and oil-based substitutes. The result is a very moist, spicy cake. You can serve it warm or at room temperature, and if you want, with a nice cream-cheese frosting or vanilla ice cream. Best of all, it is pareve, so if you keep kosher, it can end a solid meat meal. Enjoy!
Gingerbread Cake with Raisins
⅔ cup raisins
1 cup cold water
1 teaspoon rum extract
½ cup granulated white sugar
½ cup melted butter substitute or canola oil (I use Earth Balance)
1 cup applesauce
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon table salt
⅔ cup hot water
Oil, to grease pan
Powdered sugar, for garnish
Soak the raisins in a bowl with the cold water and rum extract for 20 minutes, or until they are puffy. Drain the raisins and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease a 9 inch/23-25cm round cake pan, or a 9inch/23-25cm square cake pan.
In a big bowl, mix together the white sugar, oil or butter substitute, apple sauce, and baking powder until thoroughly combined. Then, fold in the molasses slowly, until thoroughly combined. It will turn a gothic dark color, and the batter will be thicker.
Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Sifting will ensure an even distribution throughout the mixture. If you do not know how to sift, here is a useful video. I use a wire sieve.
Fold the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until thoroughly combined. You will have a thick batter.
Fold in the raisins into the batter, then the hot water. Mix until the distribution is thorough. The batter will be thick, but not as thick.
Pour into the prepared pan and place into the center of the oven. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Remove from the oven. Allow to cool in the pan before removing the cake. Garnish with powdered sugar and serve.
Thank you to my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.
Apples in Upstate New York – some of these will end up in my apple cake this year for Rosh HaShanah. (Photo mine, September 2016)
Greetings! I hope you had a lovely holiday season, be it with your family, your friends, or on a spaceship with kindly aliens.
I have been busy with applications for urban planning school, or volunteering for the Democratic Party, so I have not sat down to do quite as much food writing. However, I did make a very fun gnocchi dish using lots of traditional ingredients from Italian and German Jewry – apples, fennel, and cheese. Gnocchi and Parmesan are not Jewish per se. However, gnocchi has a long tradition in Italian Jewish cooking – though preparations with spinach or tomato sauces are far more common. I cannot find sources in a language I speak for the various hard cheeses of Italian Jewry (Italian speakers, hint hint), but Italian Jewish recipe collections in the languages I do speak use hard cheese heavily. In any case, I should not worry if Parmesan is “traditional” – authenticity is bullshit anyway. That said, this recipe would not be too out of place on an Italian Jewish table.
I have actually made an Italian Jewish dish with fennel and cheese in the past – I highly recommend it.
Autumn Gnocchi with Apple, Fennel, and Parmesan
2 tablespoons butter
1 large white onion, chopped roughly into small pieces
1 medium bulb fennel, chopped roughly into small pieces
2/3 teaspoon table salt
1/3 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
8 cloves garlic, chopped into bits (you can vary the size according to taste)
3 medium Fuji apples, cored and chopped into cubes (you can use another crisp, sweet apple such as a Honeycrisp or Cameo)
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary, chopped with stems removed
½ cup water + more to cook gnocchi
1 500g/17.5 oz package potato or sweet potato gnocchi
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Heat a deep saucepan, then melt the butter. Add the onions and fennel. Sauté for two minutes, or until they begin to soften.
Add the salt, pepper, and vinegar, and mix in. Sauté for two more minutes, or until they are slightly softer.
Add the garlic, apples, and rosemary, and stir to combine. When the pan starts sizzling again and the apples begin to soften, add the water, then cover.
Cook covered for ten minutes, then uncovered for ten minutes on a high flame. Stir every few minutes. The apples and fennel should soften and release their juices.
In the meantime, prepare the gnocchi according to package directions. (If you want to use homemade gnocchi, try this recipe here, but I am all for industrial food.)
When the apples and fennel are soft and the liquid has mostly reduced, turn off the heat. Add the gnocchi and parmesan, and stir thoroughly. Serve warm.
Thank you to Eric Routen for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
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.
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.
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.
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 Hebrew – lesaleq. 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.
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.
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.
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.
I get very lazy during the summer. Some of it is the heat, some of it is my rare-but-real Summer Seasonal Depression, and some of it is that things during the summer always feel a bit more hectic. So, as much as I love cooking, I do not necessarily have the energy for a long and involved preparation process. Hence, salads become central in my meals. Not a few leaves with a sad dressing, but weighty and substantial salads that are, in fact, very Jewish.
In the past seventy years or so, Jewish communities have been having a bit of a…salad frenzy. Some of this has to do with the central place salad takes in Zionist cooking, as a way of “becoming of the land.” Salad is also part of Jewish assimilation into surrounding countries. And though some Jewish communities have had “salads” for centuries, salad is far more popular and central now. The ingredients have, of course, changed with the times. The three salads here use three ingredient combinations popular in Israel and the United States at different points since World War II.
1950s: Potato Salad with Yogurt
In the 1950s, Israeli cuisine was in a strange moment. In a completely Eurocentric state, certain Middle Eastern and North African foods were still considered unhealthy or unsanitary, and new immigrants were encouraged to “switch” to European, Ashkenazi food. Yet at the same time, that food was being amended with ingredients and recipes taken from local Palestinian cuisine. Hence you ended up with beet salads with cilantro, hummus with European bread, and recipes in which original ingredients were swapped with Middle Eastern ones. This potato salad with yogurt and za’atar would not be out of place in this environment.
In a pot, boil the potatoes in the water until soft to the fork, but not mushy. Drain the potatoes, then let cool.
In a cup, mix together the lemon juice, yogurt, salt, za’atar, and pepper until thoroughly combined.
Put the potatoes in a large bowl, and pour the dressing over the potatoes. Mix to coat. Serve cold or at room temperature. The salad keeps for 4-5 days refrigerated.
1970s: Corn and Chickpea Salad with Carrots and Garlic
The midcentury was the time of canned corn – especially in the 1950s and 1970s. In the United States, it ended up in strange combinations; in Israel, it was campfire food (and my mother’s one true teenage love); in the Soviet Union there was an entire, extremely bizarre campaign featuring talking cans of corn. And so corn often found its way into salads, including a corn-chickpea salad one man at synagogue told me about. Without the recipe, I updated it with carrots and garlic for more contemporary tastes – and it is definitely delicious.
Corn and Chickpea Salad with Carrots and Garlic
2 cups cooked corn kernels (you can use canned)
2 cups cooked chickpeas (you can use canned)
1 cup chopped carrots
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or white vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon molasses or honey
½ cup water+1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Mix together the corn and chickpeas in a large bowl. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, place the carrots, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, oil, vinegar, molasses, and ½ cup water. Bring to a boil, then let simmer on low heat for 5 minutes, or until the carrots are soft and the “sauce” has reduced.
Mix the remaining water and cornstarch, and add to the carrots and mix in. You should notice the sauce thickening.
Remove the carrot mixture from the heat, and pour over the corn and chickpeas. Mix thoroughly, and then let the dish cool to room temperature before serving. This salad keeps for up to a week in the refrigerator.
1990s: Cucumber Avocado Strawberry Salad
Avocados were not just hip now, but in the 1990s too. At that time, avocados were first beginning to make themselves common in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods of the United States and Canada – and they were already common in the Southwest, Israel, Australia, and South Africa. And just like the avocado toast craze today, in the 1990s, avocado seemed to pop up everywhere – and especially in salads. Avocados, of course, were largely seasonal then due to pre-NAFTA import restrictions, and limited to the summer – just like strawberries. When NAFTA allowed for avocados to be imported year-round from Mexico, consumption exploded. Israel, meanwhile, had been growing avocados since 1924. This salad combines avocado with another 1990s trend – fruit in salad.
Cucumber Avocado Strawberry Salad
Serves 4-8 as a side dish or 1-2 as a main dish
1 large cucumber, diced
1 large avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced
2/3 cup chopped fresh strawberries
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Mix together the cucumber, avocado, and strawberries.
Mix the lemon juice, olive oil, and soy sauce separately.
Add the dressing to the cucumber mixture. Serve cold or at room temperature. This keeps refrigerated for a few days but is best served within 24 hours of preparation.
A bonus salad: last year, I published a recipe for a Chickpea Arugula Salad with the Jewish Daily Forward. It is very 2010s. Take a look!
Thank you to Dov Fields and Dana Kline for participating in User Acceptance Testing.
Your humble author has been on a bit of a “spice binge” over the past month – in that he has been steadily gobbling up books about the history of spice and sugar cultivation. And so much of this literature is on the medieval spice trade – one that spawned colonialism, far-flung trade, and globalization as we know it. Medieval Europeans, Arabs, North Africans, and Middle Easterners loved their spices, and couldn’t get enough of valuable aromatics traded through complex networks from halfway across the world. And from the spices, I have been learning about the deeply different – and yet eerily familiar – cuisine of Europe in the High Middle Ages.
Many traditional Jewish dishes are holdovers from medieval recipes. Ashkenazi recipes such as kugel and forshmak grew out of late medieval German-Jewish cooking, and many Sephardi recipes grew from the pre-expulsion late medieval food of Spain. (Spanish travelers were shocked to find Sephardim eating quince jam in the 19th century, just like Spaniards in the motherland.) Some Iranian Jewish recipes date back over a millennium. When I have told friends, in conversation, about the age of many Jewish dishes, they seem surprised. “Wasn’t medieval food…bad?” Well, not always.
We believe a lot of myths about medieval European and Arab cooking. Some of these myths have a kernel of truth to them – and, of course, the food consumed in 1200 was very different to that consumed today. We know this from manuscripts, archaeology, and surrounding history. But many of these myths are the exact opposite of what actually happened – both in Jewish food and more generally in the food of the old world. Many Jewish recipes offer counterpoints to these myths, and serve as an example of what happened to food more generally in European and Middle Eastern history. So, here I will briefly discuss the five myths I’ve heard most frequently – with the Jewish foods and books that offer lessons in the other direction.
Medieval Europeans did not eat things from outside their area – and hence their food was bland. Food trade is as old as civilization itself: imported spices were found in archaeological digs at Sumer. Medieval people were no different – and there was plenty of movement of people and goods in medieval times that also brought different foods and different methods of preparing food throughout medieval realms. Exotic spices and foods were much-prized, and many crops were introduced by new rulers, such as citrus in Spain by Arab rulers. This did not make a bland cuisine – and besides, people in all civilizations had been seasoning their food with local goods for millennia.
Jewish food: P’tcha. This calf’s foot aspic is famous for turning heads and stomachs, but many Ashkenazi Jews – including myself – find it quite delicious. In my experience, it is often trotted out by nationalists as an example of “declining” Jewish culture – because people “do not eat it anymore” – and by others as an example of “weird” or “lost” Jewish food. In the 18th and 19th century, p’tcha was a delicacy that was saved for special occasions, for it took a long time to make. Now, it’s still common enough in Haredi communities and making a hipster comeback. This dish, however, is not really Jewish in origin – but Tatar. Turkic tribes, ancestors of today’s Tatars, introduced soups made of cow or sheep feet to Eastern Europe in the 13th century during Mongol rule. Hence the name p’tcha – and the similar Serbian pihtije – comes from the Turkic word for “leg” (paça in Modern Turkish). And while Sephardim eat calf’s foot soup hot, Ashkenazim and other Eastern European peoples developed an aspic out of it. Heads up: p’tcha is an upcoming blog recipe.
Book recommendation: A Taste for Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice,by Michael Krondl. This book is a wonderful biography of the spice trade in Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam, and how each of these cities was really made important initially by their trade in spices. He also takes copious notes in Venice of the city’s medieval cooking – and how much of Italian food today is from the late 19th century. He also does excellent due diligence in noting the Indonesian influences on Dutch culture that go back centuries.
Medieval people used spices to hide the taste of meat or fish that had gone off. This myth is based on the assumption that because medieval people did not have refrigeration, they were constantly dealing with food that was rotten, so pickling and spicing developed to hide the rotten taste. In fact, the opposite is true in some part: pickling and spicing preserved foods that were liable to go off quickly. Many spices were used with salt to preserve meat, and many foods were pickled and thus able to “keep” for longer. Such is the origins of today’s salted meats, sausages, herrings, lox, and other goodies. In any case, those who could afford spices generally could afford the freshest meat. Here, too, spices came to play other roles: they were seen as correcting “harmful” qualities of a fresh food, thus bringing their “humors” into balance. Spices were as essential to the medieval Galenic medical system as they were to cuisine – and humors were discussed as nutrients are today. Those most likely to deal with rotting food – the poor and peasants – generally did not have spices either.
Medieval peasants and medieval kings ate mostly the same food. I’ve heard this myth peddled by a few starry-eyed leftists who believe that everything “pre-capitalist” was good. (This is also a terrible reading of Marx.) But in medieval times, the starkest inequality was in food. Nobility, the wealthy, and those of other privileged classes generally enjoyed a much higher standard of nutrition – and a much more varied and secure diet – than their less fortunate counterparts. For the majority, poor and peasants, food was much more monotonous, much less secure, and of lower quality across the board. Even if famine was rare, diseases related to malnutrition such as pellagra were not. In fact, the lot of the rural poor would not significantly improve in many parts of Europe and the Middle East until the twentieth century – and despite problems, food is far more equally distributed now than in the Middle Ages. In the cultural realm, divisions of food by class were cemented by ideologies that someone naturally “born” into a station should not eat food of other stations. According to this narrative, nobility would be sick if they ate gruel, and a peasant would be sick if they ate white bread. Inequality in food was not only a fact of life, it was taken as the order of the world.
Jewish food: Rye and wheat bread. Bread was the truly the medieval staff of life – and bread and gruels often accounted for 80-90% of a peasant’s calorie intake. Across much of Central and Eastern Europe, the “base grain” for such bread was rye. Though we often think of dark rye breads as a somewhat upscale “ethnic” food, rye was often specifically not a luxurious or even slightly special food for most medieval Europeans. Rather, it was a base grain for an often impure bread filled with other additives – seeds, nuts, and so on – that wrecked digestive systems. Poorer folks often relied on grain that had gone off, leading to ergot poisoning. The wealthy, however, tended to eat higher-quality bread – rye breads, mixed breads, and above all white breads – for whiter flour was far more expensive. The breads tended also to have fewer additions, and were generally better proportioned with the rest of the diet. No wonder then that in the 19th century, when mass-produced white bread first became available to the working class, it was incredibly popular – it was far less dangerous and seen as healthier.
Book recommendation: Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire is magnificent, and very informative to this particular discussion. Laudan is very firm about the fact that food for the hoi polloi until very recently, by and large, was monotonous and not always secure, whilst the food of nobility, kings, and the wealthy was far better.
There were no noodles in Italy or the Mediterranean before Marco Polo brought them in the late 13th century. One of the most commonly attributed traits to Marco Polo is “the man who gave Italians pasta” – but by this time, Italians had been eating pasta for centuries. Noodles spread from China through the Silk Road to Persia during the fifth century, and are first mentioned outside China by the Jerusalem Talmud as itriyot, and later in the Babylonian Talmud as rihata – both words of Persian origin. Pastas such as rishta, lissan, and couscous were common in the medieval Arab world, from which they were introduced to Sicily, Spain, and Southern Italy by the tenth century. Pastas became popular in Sicilian and Sephardic Jewish cooking. Meanwhile, lokshen – the Ashkenazi noodle – reached Eastern Europe both from Central Asia and Provence via Germany by the fourteenth century. The Yiddish lokshen derives from the Persian word lakhsha, or “to slide.” In any case, by the time Marco Polo came back from China in the 1290s, Jews and non-Jews alike in Italy were chowing down on all sorts of pastas and noodles – though the explorer may have introduced new varieties of noodle to Venice, from which recipes spread throughout Europe. Arab Jews continued to eat their own ever-evolving noodles.
Jewish food: Jerusalem Kugel – a noodle kugel made with a tantalizing caramel with a heavy dose of ground black pepper. Though the recipe only dates to the early 19th century, Jerusalem kugel has a most medieval spice combination of black pepper and sugar – one that would not have been out of place for the many sweet-spicy pasta recipes of Medieval Italy. In some ways, the Chasidic families who invented it travelled back in time. I recommend this recipe by Giora Shimoni.
Book recommendation: Oddly enough, Claudia Roden’s A Book of Jewish Foodhas many recipes for noodles that are somewhat similar to the noodle dishes consumed by Arab Jews in the medieval world.
What constitutes national culinary traditions now is directly descended from what people ate in these places in the Middle Ages. One of the more outrageous claims of nationalism and the cult-like worship of “authenticity” is an idea that the “national” culinary traditions of today have a history that stretches back to the medieval. This is quite far from the truth. The ingredients, prevailing norms, and social context of food in the Middle Ages, across the Christian and Islamic worlds in which Jews lived, were very different from today. The boundaries of dishes and foods were different. Communities were identified differently. And how people related to the food on their plate was very different. National culinary traditions – including the “French” and “Italian” traditions we often think of as seminal and timeless – were largely invented in the 19th century, products of increased wealth, nationalism, and romantic and ahistorical ideas of country life. Widespread education spread these dishes, because they were “taught.” And though many of the recipes themselves reach back to the medieval era, it is likely that a Venetian or Parisian from the 15th century dropped into Venice or Paris today would not only not recognize the “national cuisine” of her home city, but would find that their tastes hewed much closer to North African or Turkish food today.
Jewish food: Spinach with raisins and pine nuts. This was a recipe that was indeed eaten in the Middle Ages, and all these ingredients were popular at the time as well. The preparation itself came with Jews from Catalonia to Italy through trade. However, the sweet-savory combination in Italy later lost favor, and the dish became a largely Jewish recipe that only gained widespread popularity after World War II. Italian cuisine, meanwhile, moved from a sweet-sour complex to an herbal one, and began to limit sweet foods to dessert in imitation of the French from the 18th century. So now, this spinach dish, Jewish in origin, is “Jewish” once again – though it was very popular in Northern Italy during the late Middle Ages.
Book recommendation: Sidney Mintz’s classic Sweetness and Poweris important for two reasons: one, it clearly outlines how sugar played an integral part in colonialism and the slave trade; two, it shows how the European diet was fundamentally altered by a regular sugar supply for the poor and the introduction of tea and coffee, both of which often “needed” sugar. The entry of sugar, just like changing performances of class and adjustments in the commonality of spices, radically rejigged European cuisine, and as a result what was common in 1700 was very different from what was common in 1800. Jam, for one.