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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shana tova!

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Apple Honey Cake

This recipe has been requested by at least seven people – I do not remember by whom exactly. My sincerest apologies.

Rosh HaShanah in the Ashkenazi world is a rather sweet and sticky holiday. Of course there is the tradition of eating sweet foods to signify a good New Year, and, like any Jewish holiday, the amount of saccharine sentimentality seems to spike on Rosh HaShanah. Sometimes, this is translated into food, including the extreme stickiness and sweetness of taiglakh, or the inexplicably sugary cookies that suddenly morph everywhere, uncontrollably, across tables in the Jewish world. And then you have the apple and honey cakes. Ever-present, sometimes delicious, and quite a vehicle for the nostalgia of many a middle-aged congregant in my childhood synagogue. (“This takes me back!”)

Apples on a tree
Apples in Upstate New York – some of these will end up in my apple cake this year for Rosh HaShanah. (Photo mine, September 2016)

The apple cake also happens to be easy to make – and delicious.

Apple cakes and honey cakes have been traditional in Ashkenazi cooking for centuries – in fact, we have records of both from the 12th century in Germany. The latter cake dates to at least the medieval era, when it was part of a ceremony called the Alef-Beyzn, which commemorated a young boy’s first day at school. Lekach, the Yiddish word for honey cake, is a homonym of the word for “good instruction” in the Book of Proverbs, and so the cake had special significance. The practice of giving cake on this day has since died out; a contemporary practice of having the young boy lick honey off a board with the Hebrew alphabet lasted quite a bit longer. (The Israeli musician Victoria Hanna references this custom in her incredible Hosha’ana music video.) The idea of a sweet cake, however, stuck around, and began to be served at Rosh HaShanah and Sukkot, in order to get the year off to a sweet start.

The apple cake’s place at the Rosh HaShanah table probably had similar origins – and the cake itself is an adaptation of non-Jewish recipes in the region. Even today, almost every Central and Eastern European culture has at least ten common apple cake recipes. The similar apple charlotte recipe – perhaps known to many readers for being referenced in Downton Abbey – became popular in England and France in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, “Jewish” Apple Cake has been popular in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States since that time. These cakes are similar but not quite an exact match to the many family recipes for simple apple cakes that Ashkenazi families use across the English-speaking world. In any case, it is delicious.

Apple cake
An apple cake made with half buckwheat and half wheat flour. It makes for a very nice breakfast. (Photo mine, September 2016)

In homage of the Rosh HaShanah tradition of eating apples with honey – one to initiate the sweet new year – I am going to give you a recipe that uses both apples and honey. The apples and honey play well of each other – although an apple cake without honey is certainly no curse to a dinner table. I make many variations of this incredibly easy recipe. I have a vegan version with no honey or eggs but with raisins, date syrup, and turmeric to approximate the taste of honey. I also have another version that uses grated apples and ground almonds. My grandmother’s recipe is slightly simpler and doesn’t use honey, but I find that the honey adds both a nuttiness and a lovely weight to the cake. In the spirit of variation, I have a gluten-free and gluten-friendly version of the recipe listed below. The buckwheat version may seem new, but in fact buckwheat – in the form of kasha – has been on the Ashkenazi Jewish table for centuries.

 

Apple Honey Cake

loosely based on a recipe by Esther Back

Gluten version

3 medium-sized tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced into 1cm (~1/3 inch) chunks (you can leave them unpeeled)

1/3 cup honey

3/4 cup sugar

3 eggs

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2 cups flour

1/4 tsp table salt

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp baking powder

 

Gluten-free version

3 medium-sized tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced (you can leave them unpeeled)

1/3 cup honey

3/4 cup sugar

4 eggs

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2.5 cups buckwheat flour

1/4 tsp table salt

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp baking powder

 

Vegetable oil for greasing your pan

  1. Preheat your oven to 375F/190C.
  2. Grease your pan – generally, I use a 9 inch by 9 inch (23 centimeters) pan for a deeper, square cake, but generally any medium-sized cake pan will do.
  3. Scatter a few of the apple chunks at the bottom of a pan.
  4. Mix the remaining apple chunks and the rest of the ingredients together. For a more carefree process, I recommend the following order: honey and sugar, then the eggs and oil, then the apple chunks, then the flour you are using, then the salt, cinnamon, and baking powder.
  5. Pour that mixture on top of the apples at the bottom of the pan.
  6. Bake the cake for about 45 minutes, or until the top is browned and a toothpick comes out clean. Serve warm or cold.

Author’s note: this recipe is an excellent one for a potluck or other event to which one brings food. For best transport, wrap when cool in aluminum foil with some looseness for the cake to “breathe.”

Tzimmes (with Meat)

As a Jewish food blogger I usually get the same questions. They are about matzoh balls, authenticity, and the food of childhood. Among the more common ones in that last category are requests for two recipes: one for brisket and one for tzimmes. Both are considered classic Ashkenazi home cooking, both are centerpieces of many a festive meal. Readers want to relive their childhoods or feel “authentic” or just eat really good food, and they think of brisket and tzimmes. And until today…I had made neither for this blog.

Brisket is good- and even though I titled a prior blog piece “Beyond Brisket,” I cannot argue with this. Tzimmes is really good – third-helping good, stuff-your-face good, drown-in-prune-and-carrot good. And many recipes…well…they ask, “why not both?”

This is one of those recipes.

The backstory on tzimmes and brisket begins in medieval Germany, which is in some ways the Urheimat of Ashkenazi culture. There, cooking fruit with meat has been traditional for at least a thousand years, and the original tzimmes – derived from zum essen, “for eating” – was probably a spinoff of another local dish. As Jews migrated eastwards into what is now Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, the dish stuck – and became an institution. Brisket, in or out of tzimmes, was often consumed. It was from an undeniably kosher part of the animal, fatty, and somewhat cheap. That said, the large cut made it not a meat for every Shabbat – but rather one for special occasions. Hence, it became reified – and some would say deified. Today, both tzimmes and brisket have a legendary status in the Ashkenazi mindset. Many consider these dishes – especially the brisket – mandatory for any Jewish holiday celebration, and will be confused should a festive meal not include them. (Every Ashkenazi vegetarian I know has been asked the brisket question.)

I tend to serve dairy meals at festivities: nothing says “celebration” quite like butter. But tzimmes’ sweetness and heartiness makes it an excellent complement to meat – and the fattiness of a brisket or stew meat adds quite a bit of weight to tzimmes. That said, if you do have a dairy meal, a vegetarian tzimmes is still quite a hit.

Tzimmes on noodles
Tzimmes on noodles. Delicious. (Photo mine, September 2016)

This tzimmes with meat is a hodgepodge of Polish recipes. A Lithuanian recipe would be less sweet and somewhat more peppery, and feature more turnips and beets. I often use chuck meat, because kosher brisket is expensive and your author is a civil servant. I will be using brisket, however, this Rosh HaShanah.


Tzimmes with Meat

2 tsp salt + 1 tsp more for seasoning

1 tsp pepper + 1 tsp more for seasoning

1.5 lbs (750g) beef chuck or brisket, coarsely chopped

2 medium onions, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tbsp white flour

3 cups boiling water

1/4 cup honey

7 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 medium-large turnip or 1 medium-large potato, peeled and diced

12 dried apricots, soaked in hot water* and chopped into quarters,

12 dried prunes, chopped

1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced

1 tsp cinnamon for seasoning (optional)

Vegetable oil or schmaltz

  1. Rub half of the salt and half of the pepper into the beef brisket.
  2. Heat a Dutch oven or deep cast-iron pot. Add oil, then the onions or garlic. Sauté for one minute.
  3. Add the beef and the rest of the salt and pepper. Brown the meat with the onions over medium heat.
  4. Add the flour and mix in thoroughly.
  5. Add the water and stir until the mixture reaches a boil.
  6. Cover and simmer on a low flame for one hour.
  7. Mix in the honey with the meat.
  8. Cook for one minute, then add the carrots, turnip/potato, apricots/prunes, and sweet potato.
  9. Bring to a boil, then simmer for one hour, or until the vegetables have softened and the water has reduced. The sauce should be quite thick. Stir occasionally, and add the salt, pepper, and cinnamon at some point during that hour. You can also bake it for one hour in a 375F/190C oven. Serve hot.**

 

*You can get away with doing this within fifteen minutes of using the apricots.

** One of my favorite heresies is to serve tzimmes with lokshen (noodles). Delicious!

Thank you to Ziva Freiman and Jeannie Cogill for participating in User Acceptance Testing.

Red Cabbage With Apples

Rosh HaShanah is coming up, and with it, hours upon hours of cooking in Jewish households across the world. The Jewish New Year is a traditionally a time for much feasting and many dishes, and is more generally two days of deliciousness. Over the next few weeks, this blog will feature a few recipes common to Rosh HaShanah and the subsequent holiday of Sukkot.

Red cabbage with apples, cooking in the pan
Red cabbage with apples, cooking in the pan – the delicious smell had already taken over the apartment! (Photo mine, August 2016)

One of the “classic” dishes in the Ashkenazi tradition is cabbage with apples. It is made from simple, accessible ingredients, and exhibits the sweet-and-sour combination frequently found in much of Eastern European Jewish cuisine. Though not as celebrated as chicken soup, kugel, or even tzimmes, the dish is a recognizable one for many Ashkenazi families. Similar recipes exist across Central and Eastern Europe – from Hungary to Germany to Finland. Cabbage, after all, was a winter mainstay for centuries in this part of the world. The combination is so common, in fact, that it is apparently referenced in a video-game called Skyrim. (I ask my readers who are gamers to confirm this.)

Red cabbage and apples, served with fenugreek-spiced rice.
Red cabbage and apples, served with fenugreek-spiced rice. (Photo mine, August 2016)

Hundreds of variations of this dish exist. Even within my own family, three generations disagree on what best constitutes this dish. My grandmother’s recipe has a strong taste of caraway; my mother prefers the dish without any caraway. I myself the additions of both caraway and garlic for a more pungent final product. Others use pepper and vinegar for a sour taste, or raisins for a sweeter one. Across the variations, however, a sweet-and-sour taste is maintained.

On a recent trip to Atlanta, I found a most interesting cookbook in a secondhand bookstore: the 1973 cookbook of the employees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book itself is beautiful, and provides a really great insight into what the intellectual class of the 1970’s liked to eat. Some of the recipes are quite quaint to American readers nowadays – think “molded rice” and other wobbly “salads” – and many are quite familiar, such as the Korean Spinach Soup. Yet others are extremely complex, and generally of Continental European origin – even including the infamously difficult Sauerbraten. Among this cornucopia of recipes, I found a not unfamiliar – albeit not kosher – recipe for red cabbage! It is said to be a Hungarian recipe. This version is unusual, however, in that it uses pears, which makes the final product far sweeter. “Sweet and sour” indeed!

I provide my somewhat more garlicky recipe here. This recipe is based on my grandmother’s, which was very heavy on the caraway – a taste, though welcome, which can become quickly overpowering. The garlic and caraway balance each other out well.

Red cabbage and onions, just beginning their cooking process
Red cabbage and onions, just beginning their cooking process. (Photo mine, August 2016)

Red Cabbage With Apples

Based on the recipe by Annushka Smit Freiman

1 medium-sized white onion, finely diced

7 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon table salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried caraway seeds

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 medium-sized red cabbage, diced

2 medium-sized tart apples (Granny Smith or Antonovka*)

 

2 tablespoons butter or a vegetable seed oil, for frying

2 cups water

  1. Heat a saucepan or other broad, slightly deep pan on a high heat. Then, add the butter and melt across the pan’s bottom, or add oil and spread evenly across the bottom of the pan.
  2. Add the onions and garlic to the pan and sauté.
  3. When the onions and garlic begin to soften, add the salt, pepper, and thyme. Mix thoroughly into the onions. Sauté for 30 seconds, then add the vinegar.
  4. Once the pan stops sizzling, add the apples and cabbage to the pan and mix thoroughly with the onions, garlic and spices. Then, add the water.
  5. When the water is boiling, reduce the heat to medium and braise for 20-30 minutes, or until the cabbage and apples are soft and the water has reduced. Serve hot.

*If you are so lucky as to have access to Bramley cooking apples – which are easy to find in the United Kingdom but not so much in the United States – you can use one of those large ones instead.

Thank you to Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing.

 

“Yagdes!” And the Jam That They Become

Picture this: it’s the late 1960’s, and my mother and her family are in a car driving through Western Europe. They immigrated to Israel a few years before from South Africa, and its their first trip together out of the country they had just moved to. For my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, it is her first time in Europe since the Second World War. As they pass through the Swiss and French countryside, her eyes are on the landscapes and plants familiar from her Lithuanian childhood (Europe is remarkably uniform in its middle latitudes). And, as they drive along a country road – at my grandfather’s characteristic crawl of 20 kilometers an hour – my grandmother yells in her strong accent:

“Darling, you must pull over! The bushes are full of yagdes! Shvartze yagdes!”

That is to say, “berries! Black berries!” Which were regularly made into jam during my grandmother’s childhood.

Bilberry in a bush
A bilberry – the blueberry-like fruit native to Lithuania. (Photo Ilena via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

Jams and preserves are, to put it simply, a pretty big deal in Ashkenazi Jewish cooking. Some of these jams and preserves might be familiar to North American or South African readers: plum jam, strawberry jam, and cherry jam. Others – such as the radish or beet ayngemakhts still served by many families at Passover – may seem a little foreign. (Even more foreign to some is the Yiddish term preglen ayngemakhts – literally “frying jam” – for cooking the beets in a sugar and honey mixture.) Fruits would be picked in their seasons and made into lekvar (povidl), jams, or preserves, which would then be sealed and preserved for the whole year. This practice paralleled that of local gentile communities – whose diasporas in America still import jams from the homeland to this day. Historically, for some Jews jam was a frequent part of the diet; however, for others – in fact, until the 19th century, for most Jews in Eastern Europe, it was a special treat.  When sugar became cheaper in the 19th century after the development of industrial refineries to process sugar from beets, jams became far more economical to make – and began to more frequently appear on Jewish tables. By the time of the great emigrations of Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th century, fruit jams and preserves were frequently found on Jewish tables. In her 1937 Yiddish-language vegetarian cookbook, published in Vilnius, Fania Lewando thought it useful to include an entire section on jams and preserves – perhaps indicative of her audience’s need for them.

Homemade strawberry-blueberry jam on farina
Homemade strawberry-blueberry jam on farina. Breakfast of champions! (Photo mine, August 2016)

Even today, preserved fruit shows up in a lot of places in Ashkenazi cooking, be it in desserts like hamantaschen to new recipes in books like Leah Koenig’s Modern Jewish Cooking. And, of course, Eastern European Jews in North America have assimilated into another jam-eating culture: that of White America. Though Smuckers and Welch’s, or even Bonne Maman, hold hardly a candle to homemade jam, they all draw on a long American tradition – white and black – of jam-making that dates to the earliest years of the colonial era. Much of this tradition was first expressed in the eighteenth-century marmalade – which, more often than not and like every other White American food, was made by enslaved people in the South and often the North – and not only by white housewives, as later myth would have it. This marmalade itself was brought to England by Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition there – and the fruit was originally quinces, not oranges. (Colonial cookbooks contain recipes for quince jam, and so does this blog – albeit an Iranian version.) So in many ways there is an interesting dichotomy: jam is from the “old country” of Europe, but also something that is a very old Jewish influence on American cuisines.

Jam on toasted bagel
Committing true New York heresy and eating my jam on a toasted bagel! (Photo mine, August 2016)

For this post, I made a berry jam in honor of my grandmother’s love for yagdes. The strawberries and blueberries from farms here in New York State are in season, and I bought a big batch of fresh berries to make into a jam. Blueberries themselves are native to North America; my grandmother would have probably had the very similar bilberry. My jam is a little tart, though I certainly added more sugar than my grandmother, who loved tart food, would have wanted. Feel free to add more sugar to your taste – or enjoy the tart bite that could send my grandmother into a nostalgic reverie.

Strawberry-Blueberry Jam

makes about five cups – this recipe can be easily multiplied

 

1 pound / 450 grams strawberries, with the leaves removed

14 ounces / 400 grams blueberries

2 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar

1 cup white sugar

3/4 cup water

  1. In a large pot, mash the strawberries and blueberries together until you have a thick pulp. If your strawberries are large, it may help to chop them into chunks first.
  2. Pour in the lemon juice or vinegar, sugar, and water, and mix thoroughly with the berry-pulp.
  3. Bring the mixture to a boil on a high flame. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to have the mixture simmer.
  4. Simmer the mixture, stirring regularly, for 30-35 minutes, until the mixture has thickened into a jam. Here is how to check: dip a cold metal spoon into the mixture, then hold it on its side. If, instead of drops, a “sheet” comes off the spoon, the jam is at your desired thickness. Otherwise, continue simmering the jam.
  5. When the jam is done, remove from the heat and let cool. Scrape off some of the foam (“jam scum”*) and place it on a separate plate or bowl.
  6. Once cool, pack the jam into containers. The jam keeps in the refrigerator for about two weeks and in the freezer for three months. You can also can it using a safe method to do so, though I would recommend slightly increasing the amount of lemon juice in the initial recipe for canning, and doing so with a larger batch. This jam goes very well at the bottom of a quark-based cheesecake, between the cheese and the crust.

*”Jam scum” – the “useless” foamy bit at the top of the jam that is trapped air – has a hallowed place in much of 19th-century Russian and American literature – for in this period jam scum was a special treat for many children. One of my favorite scenes in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – and one of my favorite scenes of food in literature – is Dolly’s thought-monologue on the delights of jam scum as she supervises her maid Agafea/Agatha’s jam-making at her country house in Part Six.

The author thanks Brian Pritchett, Robbie Berg, Amy Estersohn, and Kate Herzlin for participation in User Acceptance Testing.

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

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

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

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

Herring is proof that Jewish cuisine is anything but pure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chopped Herring (Forshmak)

Here’s a recipe for a classic Ashkenazi forshpeizer – chopped herring. More of a herring mash, hash, or puree than simply chopped, this salad-shmear is both a fishy delight and a potent tradition at the tables of Eastern European Jewry around the world. Originally invented in medieval Germany as a hot dish with fried herring, the delicacy migrated east and became cooler by the 18th century, where it became common among Ashkenazi Jews – and so common that its name comes from the word for “appetizer” in German (Vorschmack). Today, regional variants are served around the world – from the tart one of Lithuania to the biscuit-laden one of South Africa. The dish has also become popular among non-Jews in Russia and Finland, where it is traditional to add ground meat. (This combination would be forbidden under most interpretations of Jewish law.)
Growing up, chopped herring was consistently one of my mother’s favorite things – and like many, she would usually buy a store-made version for any reason you could think of. We would eat the forshmak on sourdough bread or rye with gusto. Admittedly, there are many good ones out there, and they do save you the trouble of having your entire apartment smell like fish (and a good deal of money, too). However, chopped herring is quite easy to make, and it’s a lot of fun as well. Traditionally, bread is used, but I added matzah instead to make a Passover-friendly forshmak. The flavoring is a sweet-tart one, blending both the sweeter Polish and tarter Lithuanian versions; this combination is popular in parts of the former Soviet Union. Enjoy!
Forshmak and scallion
There’s no way to make chopped herring truly aesthetic – but here is some chopped herring, served on rye bread with a bit of scallion for each piece. (Photo mine, July 2016.)
 

Forshmak (Chopped Herring)

based partly on the recipe by Sonia Rozensztroch, in Herring: A Love Story

4 pickled or brined herring fillets
2 small Jonathan apples (or another tart apple), peeled and cored
1 piece matzah, soaked in water
3 hard boiled eggs, peeled
1 tbsp white or rice wine vinegar
1 tsp white sugar
Scallions and/or fresh dill, for garnish (optional)
1. Before mixing your ingredients: if you are using brined herring fillets, you should chop them and then rinse them for 30 seconds under running water. This removes unnecessary saltiness. If you are using pickled herring fillets, just remove them from the vinegar. Squeeze the water from the matzah until you only have the softened matzah.
2. In a food processor, blend the herring, apples, eggs, and matzah. You may have chunks of apple in the final product.
3. Add the vinegar and sugar and blend again.
4. Garnish with scallions or fresh dill. Keep refrigerated for up to a week.
Read the first part of the herring series here