DC had its first Capital Jewish Food Festival the day before Sukkot this year. A new museum, the Capital Jewish Museum, is about to open Downtown, and this institution put together and hosted this festival. The goal: celebrate Jewish food loudly, publicly, and in a fun and delicious way in the nation’s capital.
I bought tickets as soon as I heard that this event was happening. After all, how often is there going to be a brand-new Jewish food festival near me – and five blocks from my office, no less? I had a lot of fun, and thought I would write up my experience to share with you. For those of you local to Greater Washington, the festival was held on F Street NW between 3rd and 2nd Streets, right by the Judiciary Square Metro. I got there a bit early – but the crowd really started packing in shortly after I arrived. There were throngs of people!
About fifteen to twenty vendors were present, offering samples for ticket holders and additional delicious things for purchase. Some of my favorites included a fantastic challah apple bread pudding from Bread Furst, Venezuelan flan (very Shavuot-appropriate!) from Immigrant Food, and a fantastic hummus with winter squash from Little Sesame. For those who did not want to limit themselves to samples, there was more to buy. If my pantry had not been already packed, I would have absolutely gotten some delicious baked goods from Baked by Yael (what fantastic challah!).
What I loved about the vendors is that they were neither limited to explicitly Jewish vendors, nor to specific interpretations of Jewish tradition. One stall had a delicious Venezuelan-style flan – which some Jews probably eat at Shavuot, but it was not marketed as either Jewish or for Shavuot. It was a delicious flan that you could eat Jewishly! In addition, other community groups were there as well with their wares – including a Chinese-American heritage association with delicious mooncakes. The message seemed to be “these things are part of Jewish tables too.” This mixing also gave rise to some pairings most would not think of – that flan was an excellent counterweight to the bread pudding I just mentioned.
There were keynote speakers too – including the inimitable Joan Nathan and Michael Twitty. Both held book signings after their talks. I was not able to make Twitty’s because of a prior conflict with his speaking time – though I’ve had the fortune to meet him before, in 2016 – but I was able to meet Joan Nathan! As longtime readers know, I have relied quite a bit on her work over the years as I’ve developed my own Jewish culinary practice and knowledge. She, like Twitty, is incredibly sweet in person. If you have a chance to meet Twitty or Nathan, take it! Meeting your heroes is a fabulous opportunity.
The crowd was awesome – and though it got a bit overcrowded, it was wonderful to see people enjoying the joyfulness of Jewish tradition. A lot of Jewish tradition is indeed “Remember that we suffered,” but there is a streak of joy too, and that is what I like to share. Food is a huge part of that, and this festival amplifies that opportunity for joy. It was really awesome to see Jews and their friends just enjoying a very public day out, eating tasty Jewish things. I heard people introducing their friends to Jewish foods, or talking about what they learned or particularly enjoyed. It was also wonderful to hear folks say things like “I’m not Jewish but I love Jewish food.” The joy of Jewish food really should be for everyone, and I appreciate that the Museum consciously pushed back on the often insular and exclusionary approaches to Jewish cultural celebrations. After all, we are never just Jewish either.
I hope the festival continues next year. I am planning to write to the museum for two suggestions: one on space and one for accessibility. The festival was popular – which is good – but the street space was perhaps too small for the number of folks who wanted to attend. Next year, if possible, I would suggest that they spread out along more than one block to accommodate everyone. Related to that, the seating areas were a bit hidden, which made it hard for folks who cannot stand for a while or eat and walk. These areas should be more clearly marked.
I hope to see you at the festival next year!
The Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum will open soon at 575 3rd Street NW in Washington DC, by the Judiciary Square station on Metro’s Red Line.
This post is based on several reader requests. A number of folks have told me that they, or their partners or roommates, have trouble with reading recipes and end up with kitchen disasters, bizarre results, or taking an extremely long time to make something.
I’m working on a longer-term project to address some of these issues from a neurodivergent lens (more coming soon!). That said, I want to share a checklist on what to check before you make a recipe, so that you are prepared for the recipe and what it entails, and make the recipe in a way that works for you. (Or not! Sometimes you might realize that a recipe isn’t for you. I’ve been cooking since I was six, and even I have that realization sometimes.)
This list has ten questions that I ask myself when I read a recipe. The answers to this question inform not just whether I make a recipe, but what I do before I make it, and how I make sure that I do all the steps to make it. I hope that this helps you, too.
Before I begin: whenever I make a new recipe, I always read over the entire recipe at least twice (and usually many more times. Recipes are often complicated little beasts, and you should have a general idea of the shape of the recipe, even before you start asking these questions, and certainly before cooking.
Now, the checklist itself.
How much time do I have to cook? This is important to know. If you have 45 minutes, for example, you probably do not want to do a very complicated recipe. If you have a whole afternoon, then obviously you have more options. I ask myself this question, especially given that recipe preparation times in cookbooks are often wildly off (and vary from person to person which is why I do not give them). To be safe, I tend to multiply any prep time by 1 ½.
What ingredients do I need, and in what forms do I need them? The first reason I ask this of myself is to know what I need to buy, if I am going shopping, and to make sure I did not miss anything. Pay special attention to the forms of the ingredients since oftentimes, they are not interchangeable (for example, tomato paste versus fresh tomatoes). When you do substitute them, you will need to take special care – which brings me to my next question.
What substitutions do I need to make? You might not have an ingredient, you might have an allergy or aversion, or you might have another reason you need to swap something out. Always start with any substitute the author suggests, and then go to the internet and do some searches if there are no suggestions. Only trust your guess with a substitution if you have done it before – for example, I can usually substitute eggs in baked goods because I have done so dozens of times. I have a common substitutions list.
Do I have to prepare ingredients first or is that in the recipe? Most recipes are written with some directions as to how an ingredient should be prepared – a chopped onion, a drained can of beans, and so on. Often this makes sense, because the recipe itself quickly assembles and changes these prepared items. That said, preparation takes time (and is never properly reflected in time estimates). Check to see what things you need to do there – such as chopping vegetables. Account for that in your time if you can. If you’re new at cooking, or haven’t cooked for a while, I recommend observing and noting how much time it takes for you to do things like chopping, and how much energy. Factor these things in when reading a recipe – you may want to avoid a recipe for which the preparation is particularly intense. (Confession: my knife skills are still slower than average even though I’ve cooked for over 20 years now. I sometimes skip recipes that require tons of chopping as a result.)
What equipment do I need? Always good to check – not just to make sure you have it in your kitchen. Chopping and prepping your ingredients only to find that your pot needs washing is a frustrating experience.
What are the steps? I read this in advance to know how much energy it will take to make a recipe, and also how much I will need to concentrate, or if I can cook other things during parts or take it a bit easy. For example: a stew that cooks for an hour with only some stirring leaves a lot more room than, say, a stir-fry with lots of quick motions.
What steps might I need time or help with? Some things can be tricky – it is good to know if, say, a long kneading process is involved. If you live with someone else who can help you, you can also check if you can get their help with a particularly tricky step – for example, draining pasta from a large pot.
Have I made recipes like this before? What did I learn then that can help me now? This is always good to ask yourself, so that you can both apply new skills and remember from past mistakes. For example, I remembered from making a miso eggplant that extra miso burns in the oven really easily, so I made extra sure to make sure not too much miso dripped off when making miso-glazed salmon.
What do I need to do before I start cooking? For example, do you need to go shopping – or wash a lot of things you’re bringing out from the closet? Or are you ready to go? This process takes energy and time.
Do I have the time, energy, and things I need to cook this recipe? Consider the answers to questions 1-9. No shame if the answer to number 10 is no.
I hope this helps you as you go forth, explore recipes, and make great and delicious things in your kitchen.
It’s hard to feel like you have “made it” during a global pandemic and a world-historical crisis. The crushing disappointment of not being able to see one’s loved ones, of goals gone and dreams deferred, and of plans spilled out like milk is truly taxing. And even for me – I have things pretty good, compared to most – it can be rough, with all the uncertainty and being far from my partner and my mother. So I have turned to the familiar comfort of cooking, and to a dessert that is at once very assimilated and very Jewish: chocolate cake. When I eat my cake, I – like many other Jews since the 1880’s – can feel like, for a moment, that I have “made it.”
One way that chocolate became a status symbol was through cake. Home baking became far more common in the 19th century, with new types of ovens coming into homes and a more ready availability of sugar, dairy, and sources of fat. Middle-class families often served – withthe assistance of domestic labor – cake as a way of being “civilized” or showing off their success. Jews were no exception – this was also a time of fervent assimilation into certain norms of decorum and class across Europe and North America. (Reminder: assimilation is not necessarily a bad thing.) The earliest Jewish-authored cookbooks I found in online archives to contain chocolate cake recipes are German-language examples from the 1880’s; English-language examples follow a decade later. By the early 20th century, respectable Jewish housewives on both sides of the Atlantic, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, were expected to make – or direct a domestic worker to make – chocolate cakes. In a short time, such cakes became a keyword for luxury and comfort, and began to be served on Sabbath tables and at major events. Since then, different communities have developed different chocolate cakes. Yiddish-speaking bakers in interwar New York often baked certain loaves from Yiddish-language cookbooks, just as well-off Salonican and Cairene Jews educated in French-language schools made decadent cakes in their homes. Italian Jews had chocolate cake recipes, too, for special occasions. By the 1950’s, most Jewish cookbooks contained at least one chocolate cake recipe – and chocolate had found its way into traditional cakes that originally did not have chocolate, like marble cake and sour cream cake. A chocolate cake was not only a food of deliciousness, but a potent symbol of success and plenty for many. I think we all know people for whom that still rings true today.
This assimilation of delicious cake shows how a food can become Jewish. A food is introduced, then tried because it means something in wider society, and because it looks delicious. (In this case, is delicious.) Other Jewish folks start making it, and soon, the food has a meaning in Jewish communities – even if it is not “authentic” per se, or shows off how well assimilated someone is. A few years later – well within the lifetime of an adopter – the food then becomes common across some spectrum of the Jewish world. Chocolate cake shows how creative people can be – and how even ordinary, Gentile foods can be infused with meaning in Jewish communities. You can see a similar process with coffee cakes, lamb stews with chestnuts, and potato salads. Even p’tchaprobably started as an imitation of a nobleman’s dish introduced by the Tatars to Central Europe.
Chocolate cake is a mechayeh– something that gives life – in this time. It is sweet, and tasty, and those are sources of solace enough. But I also think that we can eat it as a sense of worth and achievement: that whatever we are, we are enough, and that we have done a lot – each in our own way. It is also a reminder of the creativity and good taste of our grandparents and great-grandparents in the Jewish world – and that having a community that can find joy in such simple pleasures is having “made it” indeed. You have decades of chocolate cake being used for solace and celebration in the Jewish world to back you up. Stay safe, and eat some cake.
And now, a cake.
I based this recipe on one by Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen, but simplified it to not require a mixer – and to add chocolate from chips as well as cocoa powder. I also added some things from a fluffier recipe at TasteMade. The red wine adds a lovely warmth. Going for simplicity, I left it unadorned and cut the sugar slightly. I like these straightforward, comforting cakes as the sign that I made it. Serve it with whatever you want though – I’ve had mine with homemade ice cream, and a simple sour cream glaze would work well too, as would whipped cream or a lovely dusting of powdered sugar. However you eat it, I hope you feel like you have “made it.”
Chocolate Red Wine Cake
Adjusted from recipes by Deb Perelman and Tastemade
6 ounces/170g salted butter (about ¾ of a stick)
⅓ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
⅔ cup white sugar
¾ cup red wine
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 ⅛ cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ¼ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
Oil or butter to grease the pan
Preheat your oven to 325F/165C. Line the bottom of a round 8” or 9”/20-23cm cake pan with parchment paper, then grease with butter or a non-stick spray.
In the microwave or a bain-marie, melt the butter and chocolate chips together. (I use the microwave – cut the butter up, mix with the chocolate chips, and microwave for one minute on high in a microwave-safe bowl, then stir together.)
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the butter and chocolate mixture with the sugar until thoroughly combined.
Add the red wine. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
Add the eggs. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and cinnamon together. (You do not have to do this but it distributes the cocoa powder more evenly.)
Fold the flour mixture into the mixing bowl with the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon or a mixer. You can also whisk them together, but make sure that everything gets incorporated properly.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven, and then flip onto a cake rack after cooling in the pan for 20 minutes. Let cool for about 30 minutes, at least, before serving. Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, powdered sugar, or on its own.
Thank you to my housemate AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.
This recipe was updated in March 2021 based on additional experimentation.
Here is a simple, straightforward cookie recipe. This type of rolled sugar cookie shows up often in American Jewish community cookbooks from the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. Though such recipes are often dismissed as a sign of “assimilation,” I think they offer a lot of knowledge about exactly how Jewish folks, and mostly the women who were doing most of the cooking, were still trying to maintain community ties and get people to communal events in this new framework. Besides, there is no shame in enjoying a cookie.
I did not see a cookie of this specific flavor in the books, but I have made a variant of these a few times in the past months, and was quite happy with the result. You can make a dairy-free/pareve version by using oil and one small egg instead of the milk, or use a plant-based milk and oil for a vegan cookie.
½ cup (3.5oz/100g) granulated cane sugar + 2-3 tbsp for rolling
⅔ cup maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp whole milk
2 cups (8.5oz/240g) white flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground allspice
½ tsp ground cloves
Preheat your oven to 350F/175C. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl until combined. You can use a pastry knife or an electric hand mixer. Here is a guide for how you can do that with a wooden spoon if you have neither.
Add the maple syrup, vanilla extract, and whole milk, and mix until combined.
In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and spices together.
Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and work together with the pastry knife, spoon, or hand mixer until combined. You should have a sticky but pliant dough.
Pour the 2-3 tbsp of sugar for rolling onto a plate and spread it evenly.
Take a piece of dough and roll it into a 1 inch/2.5cm ball. Then, roll it briefly in the sugar until covered. Place it on the parchment paper. Repeat until you use the dough – spread the dough balls about 2 inches/5 cm apart.
Use a fork to lightly “squash” each of the balls.
Bake for 10-13 minutes in the oven, or until the cookies are brown but not burned on the bottom, and the cookies are solid but still soft.
Remove from the heat and let cool for 15-20 minutes before serving. Store any remaining cookies in an airtight container or bag for up to four days.
Thank you to my classmates, colleagues, housemates, and boyfriend for trying several iterations of this recipe.
This is a stew that, like many things called “goulash,” would not be called “goulash” by everyone. But maybe it would. In any case, it is a variation on a delicious theme.
Stewed meat with vegetables in a red sauce is a fairly common Central European dish. The dish started off as a Hungarian herder’s stew – although, with its meaty content, it may have been somewhat of a nobleman’s dish too after the Magyars settled on the Pannonian plain. The dish spread, by dint of the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires (and massive, centuries-long migrations across Central Europe) throughout the region, and similar names largely stuck. When chili pepper was introduced in the early modern period – and paprika became particularly popular – the dish evolved again in Hungary and other countries, to include the modish spice. That practice – and the common use of tomatoes – spread as well, to Germany and Austria, to Russia, and to the United States. The dishes were often quite far from what is typical in Hungary – for example, American goulash often contains pasta, and Scandinavian ones are less piquant. (Though goulash in Hungary has evolved into dozens of related dishes, like pörkölt and halászlé!) Across these countries, Jews often cooked versions of these stews with kosher meats, and likely contributed to their development in many countries by introducing additional ingredients or cooking methods from other Jewish communities.
Of course many cultures also have their own variant on these stews – South African bredies, Argentinian carbonadas criollas, Filipino calderetas, and so on. The sticking power of the name “goulash” is probably from the influence of Hungarian cuisine and culture across a wide area as a result of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Cookbooks for early 20th-century Jewish housewives often have a variant of this dish in them. These sorts of stews, and goulash in particular, were a mainstay of German-speaking middle class families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – it is raised in nearly every major book about German Jewish cuisine. Many Ashkenazi Jews explicitly sought to assimilate into this culture, and in some cities were a key part of the middle class and its practices. Housewives were expected to maintain a certain type of cultural refinement and practice in the home, and cookbooks were key parts of communicating this. So was what you ate – and goulash, which would have been considered luxurious by working-class families – was one of many recipes that were part of there. When German-American Jews wrote similar cookbooks for settlement houses where Eastern European Jews studied (or were pressured to study at), goulash was often included.
This recipe is my variant on these dishes. Like even Hungarians before the 18th century, when paprika was introduced to Central Europe, this goulash is made without paprika. Instead, I gain sharpness and depth from the leeks and the dill, but it is compensated by sweetness. Leeks are a delicious, hearty addition to any stew – just be sure to wash them properly! I served this stew with egg noodles, but it would probably be wonderful on rice as well.
Beef and Leek Goulash
2.2lbs/1 kg beef chuck stew meat, cut into 1 inch/2.5cm or so pieces
1 tablespoon soup powder OR 1 tablespoon bouillon base
1 ½ teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried dill
1 tablespoon white sugar
Water as needed
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil (depends on fattiness of meat)
Prepared egg noodles, rice, potatoes, or bread (for serving)
Place a stewing pot or casserole pot over a high flame. When hot, add 2 tablespoons oil, and then add the meat. Brown the meat, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and set aside. If not much fat has melted off the meat, or you are low, add some more oil.
Add the onions and garlic and sauté, stirring frequently, until wilted and softening, about 5 minutes.
Add the leeks and carrots, and mix in thoroughly with the onions. Then, add the vinegar. Cook covered, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes, or until the leeks have wilted.
Add the tomatoes and spices and mix thoroughly. Bring to a boil.
Add the meat, and then water to cover (about 1 or 1 ½ cups). Mix in thoroughly, then bring to a boil.
Lower the heat to a simmer, and then simmer, half- or loosely covered, for 1 to 1 ½ hours, stirring occasionally.
Serve hot with egg noodles, rice, potatoes, or bread.
Thank you to Ziva Freiman and AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.
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.