Snapshots of Jewish Cuisine in the Indian Ocean

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.

A sailing dhow on blue waters
A dhow – one of the many traditional ships used for trade and transit across the region. (Photo CC/Steve Monty)

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.

Samosas 

Samosas around a green dip
(Photo Sean Choe via Flickr/CC)

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

Cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon
Photo CC/Public domain

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.

Stuffed Chickens

A series of serving plates with vegetables
All separate, all able to go into a chicken. (Photo CC)

When Jews migrated across the ocean basin, they brought their cuisines with them. Sometimes it was a taste for a spice or a way of serving bread. And sometimes it was the habit of stuffing a chicken to near-capacity with delicious things.

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?

If you want to read more about the Indian Ocean trading economy, Dan Brockett’s Twitter thread is an incredible place to start. I also talked about this last year in a post about Southeast Asian ingredients in Jewish cooking.

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 cinnamon, see my book recommendations for unlearning myths about Medieval Jewish cuisine.

For stuffed chickens, Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food has 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.

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People Eat Treyf for Their Own Reasons. They All Think About Their Judaism.

The first piece on Jewish treyf can be found here. The second piece, with your funny stories, can be found here.

A lot is said about Jews who eat treyf. Most of this stuff is said by Jews who keep kosher, who claim that our bacon-eating brethren are somehow unengaged, or not Jewish enough, or somehow wrong. Yet there is not enough from Jews who eat treyf themselves. So as I read the stories of Jews, perfectly engaged and perfectly Jewish, who eat treyf, I wanted to find patterns. Some patterns were pretty easy to find. Location mattered. Treyf had its own traditions. Ham was controversial. And some were harder. I was excited to hear from so many people who had stopped keeping kosher, but was also overwhelmed. Each story was different enough that a pattern, of un-koshering, was not clear. I spent a few days, doodling in the margins of my work notebooks, trying to figure it out. The answer, which was there all along, was only noticed by me when I stopped.

The obvious truth is that there is no one reason people stop keeping kosher.

brown meat lot
Some Jews eat this. (Photo by Nicolas Postiglioni on Pexels.com)

Grasping stories about kashrut ricochet through the Jewish community like schoolhouse rumors. They tend to rely on tired narratives of rebellion, assimilation, distance, and a lack of commitment. Like the rumors, these tales read at once too much and too little. Some Jews are rebellious, for sure. But is that any different from the ba’alei teshuva who vex their parents by refusing, in their newfound Orthodoxy, to eat from their treyf kitchens? Perhaps some Jews want “assimilation.” But here’s the catch – there is no one that does not assimilate. Some people argue that Israel is a giant project in assimilation. A Jewish state, for sure, but one built along European lines, in a European framework. I am writing in English after study in a solitary fashion, not at a yeshiva or in a chavruta. Hence, assimilation can only be a small-scale explanation. Some Jews probably want to distance themselves from the community. Others find commitments in it too tiring. This idea seems too facile, especially given how many meals happen in the small confines of the home. In all these, where are the people?

bowl close up cooked cuisine
Photo by Dana Tentis on Pexels.com

Jews are individuals. Treyf eaters have their own reasons for eating treyf. Sometimes these are the reasons I outlined above. Folks leave a community that does not work for them, or want to be more like their neighbors, or cannot keep up. There should be no shame in those types of choices: coercion is not a mitzvah. Sometimes, though, the choices are deeply personal. Maybe a treyf food is something that lets one be closer to a partner, Jewish or not. A job may require one to eat treyf. If you do keep kosher, imagine yourself in this situation. If you are a restaurant short-order cook, you may not have choice in what you taste. If you are an archaeologist working on Classic Maya sites in Campeche, you are both way cooler than me, and hard-pressed not to eat pork. A few people told me about eating treyf to not offend a relative they adore, or a relative they would rather not cross. And then the most boring answer is sometimes the truth: now and again, someone just wants to eat a shrimp. I have come quite close to throwing my version of kashrut out the window for the orgasmic delights of linguini with clams.

A refrigerator with four shelves stacked with packaged dairy products
Some customers for this kosher dairy might pour the yoghurt on meat. Is that really so bad? (Photo Rakoon via CC/Wikimedia, 2018)

Sure, there are common trends. These touch on many different experiences. Many Jews stop keeping kosher when they realize they cannot afford it. Like it or not, keeping kosher is way easier when you have wealth. A friend of mine did a calculation that, to keep a kitchen kosher enough according to some Orthodox authorities, one must spend $12,000 a year. For many people, that sum is impossible. Many people start eating treyf when their beliefs about halacha or what Jewishness is changes. My own form of kashrut became far more liberal when I realized that, frankly, the specifics of halacha are not important to my Judaism. Many converts resume eating treyf to make interactions with their family easier. That does not make them less Jewish, it makes them a Jew with a deeply Jewish experience. Born Jews have this experience too. There are those who begin eating treyf when they move to a new place, far from other Jews. These experiences seem common, but are always deeply personal, and different between people. Everyone eats treyf for their own reasons.

Really, the one big commonality is how much thought people have given to their Jewishness. This is no disconnected, unengaged group of unrepentant bacon eaters. Jews who eat treyf confront their contradiction with tradition every time they eat treyf, with every bite. As a result, what Jewishness means in practice to treyf eaters is something that requires a lot of work. How does one insert themselves into the tradition? What are the parts that make Jewishness Jewish for them? And how do they engage with the community, if they choose to do so? I received many answers, from treyf eaters who attend Orthodox synagogues to those with no communal involvement at all.

Medieval illumination of noblemen in traditional tunics and boots around tables eating meats and breads under trees and drinking. Dogs are drinking at a creek in the foreground. The trees are tall and in full foliage, the image has red and blue illuminated borders.
Even back then, some Jews ate treyf. (Image from Le Livre de chasse de Gaston Phébus, 15th century.)

But not one has simply not thought about their Jewishness. Hand-wringing pessimists who spin tales of assimilation tragedy assume otherwise. These people claim that those who assimilate in any way do not give real thought to their Jewishness. I see this pattern with religious zealots jumpy as a Golden Retriever for the faith of the fathers. Secular Yiddishists mirror them, while speaking a stilted Yiddish few actually speak, and hacken a Tschainik for all us “uneducated” yokels. Hipsters go with them, and seem to think adding elitist buzzwords reinvents a millennia-old practice. In every case, they are full of shit.

If a Jewish person does not do the “traditional” thing, it does not follow that they have not thought about their Judaism or are uneducated. In fact, the person doing the untraditional thing has often thought about their Judaism a great deal more than the person hawking tradition. In any case, no one is immune from assimilation, as I noted earlier. Your unassimilated Jew does not exist.

Besides, we cannot talk about Jewish cuisine without assimilation, or without treyf. Communities have always adapted the local cuisine to Jewish needs, and incorporated what was there. Other than kashrut, Jewish cuisine was not always that different – and sometimes, the kashrut was not there either. So many Jewish dishes, like cholent, p’tcha, and albondigas, derive from ­treyf ancestors. It is highly unlikely that those dishes were not developed partly by Jews who ate treyf. Jews encountered the food of the rest of the locale all the time. They saw these foods in their trading, in their farming, in their homes, when they went to the market, when they went to the court, and even, when they went to the brothel. Many communities said that treyf was unwelcome, yet willfully ignored that many members did, in fact, eat treyf from time to time. For itinerant traders, those far from other communities, or the very poor, it was probably unavoidable. We do not know it now, because our communities would rather us hear about the kitschy, suspect stories of the peddlers who brought their own pans and the maids who would rather die than eat pork with their employers. Those stories, like other lies, do not do much good for anyone.

cooked foods
Photo by Dana Tentis on Pexels.com

There are all sorts of reasons people eat treyf. Maybe we should listen. We can learn a lot about the Jewish community, about foods, and about the people around us who we love. We can build a more inclusive Jewish community, one that is truly welcoming to all Jews and anyone who wants to join us. Kashrut can finally be a choice, and celebrated, and not something that is forced, mandatory, or insincere. And most of all – we can ask ourselves, “why do we do this?” The answer might not be what we expect, or what we want to hear. Maybe, under the religiosity we perform, we do not want to keep kosher. Maybe, under the secularism we preach, we do. Most likely, we are more in-between than we want to be. Which is okay: Judaism is often about the in-between. We eschew defined dogmas and boxes, and it makes us beautiful. If we can express and listen to each other’s in-betweens, we can make the in-between better, and a place for building.

Thank you everyone for your stories about treyf.

 

When Bacon, Shrimp, and Whale Are Perfectly Jewish Eating

Bowl of meaty Cincinnati chili with cheddar cheese on top.
Cincinnati chili. (Photo CC/Wikimedia Commons)

This piece starts with the young man I have been dating for a few months, David. He is very Jewish. David is also from Cincinnati, and one of his favorite foods is Cincinnati-style chili. For those of you who are not familiar, Cincinnati chili is more of a meat sauce than a chili. The delicacy is Mediterranean-spiced ground beef served on spaghetti, with any or all of beans, onions, and mild cheddar cheese on top. The combinations are culturally set in stone. Though Cincinnati chili has its detractors, it is widely loved. The local Skyline chain has a following so big that it has expanded to nearby cities, and the Cincinnati diaspora in Florida. The chili is also not kosher, given that it mixes meat and milk. Even so, David and his family love it, and it is in his family tradition.

Learning about Cincinnati chili from David – who makes and eats it at least once a week – got me thinking about Jewish treyf. Not in the Orientalist and perhaps overanalyzed ‘safe treyf’ of white Jews eating Chinese food in New York. Nor was I thinking about the real and life-saving practice Conversos in Spain adopted: Jews in hiding added lard to traditional dishes to avert the deadly eyes of the Inquisition. I did think of the famous Treyf Banquet that heralded the split between Reform and Conservative Judaism in the late 19th century. I also thought of the newer version held in San Francisco quite recently, with wondrous bacon treats. Rather, I was curious about treyf as an everyday practice. How did it get inserted into family and community traditions? How did folks relate to treyf with their Jewish identity, and vice versa? Could I discuss this without the tired discourse of “reconciling”? On a more basic level, were there Jewish treyf recipes that I could discover? Also, which treyf?

Brown closed clams
Clams – forbidden to some, delicious to others. (Photo Michael Dorausch via Flickr/CC)

I was also exhausted over the level of judgment that went into Jewish treyf. Recently, I fell off the “traditional egalitarian” bandwagon, much of which seemed to involve ever-more-performative kashrut. The consistent dismissal of Reform and Reconstructionist practice appalled me. So did the judgment against our parents’ and grandparents’ not-echt-halachic practices. Handwringing about authenticity bothers me more and more nowadays. The endless jabs about Jews who had “forgotten their heritage” strike me as cruel. Nothing in our communities, not even the halachically-shaky ban on microphones on the Sabbath, would be totally recognizable to a religious person from two centuries ago. So I figure it would be more interesting to answer the questions I raised above. For certain, it would be more useful to do so. The Jewish community may not always have a given interpretation of kashrut. But we will always have treyf-eaters.

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
These might be treyf. Who cares? (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

I set out to find some answers, beginning with a post on Facebook. I asked my Facebook following to answer a few questions. If they were a Jew who ate treyf: why? What did they eat? What did they do before or after, if anything different? Do they have any neat traditions or recipes involving treyf? What about some funny stories? At the end, I threw on an addendum reminding folks not to judge fellow Jews for not keeping kosher. I expected a few responses.

A few shares and many comments later, several dozen people responded. Most of these responses were by private message. (I have made all respondents anonymous.) In fact, as I begin writing this piece, I still have a few responses to read! I was really touched to see how many people responded to my hasty request. What was better though was to see the variety of stories, perspectives, and ideas that people from all walks of Jewish life shared with me. I am going to be thinking about all the wonderful things I learned and was struck by for a long time.

Fried bacon on a white plate
Bacon: a perennial favorite of treyf eaters. (Photo Kim Ahlstroem via Flickr/CC)

Here are a few patterns that emerged.

Firstly, guilt was a less common emotion than defiance or pride. Many past works talk about guilt as a driving emotion around Jewish treyf consumption. But my (admittedly unscientific) sample seemed to be less guilt-ridden about the whole thing. Though one person did note, “we Mexijews [Mexican Jews] talk about it all the time.” Rather, many people were proud of the fact that they did not keep kosher and were still totally Jewish. “I’m as Jewish as a rabbi,” one person said, while another said that “Judaism isn’t about diet for me.” Both then happily listed their preferred treyf. Others felt defiant, especially if they had left religious communities, where kashrut wars are often the sour undercurrent of daily life. “Halachic chops – not as tasty as pork chops!” one person commented. For many people, treyf is a symbolic way of defying the things that defined their past. So an ex-Orthodox Jew might eat pork ribs on Yom Kippur, or someone leaving an abusive household may eat treyf as a symbol of their liberation.

White salo with pepper
Salo, preserved pork fat from Eastern Europe, with pepper. (Photo Roland Geider/Wikimedia CC)

Defiance and pride are hints to a larger thing. Treyf is always interpreted through a Jewish prism. People took into account all the communities they lived in, and all their lived experience, and filtered their Judaism through it. This went to treyf. Even people who always ate treyf interpreted their treyf in line with their Jewishness, not as a resistance to it. For Russian Jews, it was a part of their heritage of Soviet eating and nostalgic cooking. “I love salo,” my colleague said, “whatever the rabbis say.” For Israelis, it was a treasured memory of being secular and Jewish in the ‘60s. My mother, who lived in Israel then, recounted with glee the delight of eating grilled pork chops on kibbutzim. (I highly recommend the Israeli documentary Praise the Lard about pork in Israel.) For diasporist Jews, treyf is often a central part of being diasporist. One person noted that the Reuben – famously treyf – made them feel Jewish.

Judgment from others was mentioned, sure, but largely negatively. “Judaism isn’t a diet,” and “I’m just as Jewish as a 613 mitzvot keeping Jew” were two of many statements. And in return for people judging their Judaism, treyf-eaters shared some wonderful humor about their position. A few people reminded me of various kashrut scandals, like the chronic worker and animal abuse in Postville, Iowa. On a more humorous note, one respondent from Maine mentioned the blessing her father recites for shellfish. (How regionally appropriate.) And of course, one of my closest friends cherishes his San Francisco family’s tradition of Dungeness crab. I would too.

A shrimp cocktail with a lemon over lettuce
The shrimp cocktail, with a treyf fan favorite. (Photo Jon Sullivan, released to public domain)

On a day-to-day level, certain treyf is more common than others. Some of this is seasonally and financially based – Dungeness crab, for example, is expensive and seasonal. Otherwise it is a taste thing. Most treyf-eaters seem to love bacon and shrimp. Some common treyf however – like canned clams – was rarely mentioned. The most beloved treyf for many is bacon. It is a love that I do not quite share, since pre-kashrut me never got the hype around it. Bacon ends up in soups, in breakfasts, on sandwiches, and in lentil soup and matzah balls. One very nice bacon-maker even told me about his business making bacon, and experiments with flavor! Jewish recipes were often improved with bacon or shellfish. I received recipes for lentil soup, cholent, matzah balls, brisket, shakshouka, latkes, and even hamantaschen with bacon. Similarly, an appetizing spread, hraime, or again, shakshouka benefited from shrimp. I guess then that bacon-wrapped shrimp is the ultimate treyf. Not because of the combination, but because of the crowd of treyf enthusiasts pleased.

For many people, eating and making treyf is also a part of livelihood. Many people worked or work in food service. Treyf is on the menu, treyf gets eaten. Others work in jobs where they often have to eat with clients, coworkers, or consultants – and it would be rude not to share in the shellfish soup. As I noted, one respondent had a bacon-making business. Another had spent time cooking shellfish in his first job as a restaurant chef. These respondents often had the greatest insight into how expensive it was to keep kosher.

Clam chowder with oyster crackers in a smiley face
The clam chowder is smiling! Treyf has never been this happy! (The photo is CC/Flicker from The Cooking of Joy. Joy, the author, has posted her clam chowder recipe here.)

And how often times, it is a privilege. If your job depends on it, you will eat treyf. It is rather baroque and classist to critique someone’s Jewishness based on that. Some did not keep kosher because of a history of eating disorders. In that case, imposing new dietary restrictions can be quite dangerous. If anything, because it is to save one’s life, Jewish tradition would also prefer that one not keep kosher if it is unsafe. Also, many treyf eaters stopped keeping kosher because of the labor and expense involved. The bacon and shrimp were less interesting to them. To them, there was no controversy at all in eating cheaply, well, and Jewishly, with the added benefit of canned clams or bacon. Judging someone based on that would be markedly cruel. Keeping kosher does not make you a better person. Being mean does make you a worse one. Especially being mean over someone enjoying or even celebrating treyf that is affordable, accessible, and tasty food.

Not all cheap treyf is celebrated though. Some treyf is more controversial. Several different respondents did not “get” ham. They found it it was “the weirdest meat” or bizarrely sweet. Others loved ham, and fondly recalled eating it at weddings and b’nai mitzvah. I was surprised to see how many respondents were uncomfortable with ham, although pre-kashrut me also found ham a tad “wiggy” in big quantities. One person said that the gelatinous-meat-sweetness of ham was an aversion for them. That aversion carries over into kosher foods like ptcha and gefilte fish.

Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
If you do not like ham, you might not like p’tcha – or pihtije, p’tcha‘s Serbian cousin. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

Milk-meat combinations seem to go unnoticed. Sure, a few people did comment on cheeseburgers. I, for one, will always remember my college classmate’s Brie and ham on matzah. Here is the thing: it is far lower on the “forbidden” list than whole categories of animals. A milk and meat combination can also be harder to spot. Someone who does not keep kosher might not guess that the pumpkin cheese soup had chicken stock. The bacon bits, though, will be noticed. So will any other treyf, as was discovered at a synagogue a respondent attended as a child, where an order mix-up led to quite a bit of shrimp lo mein at the synagogue’s door. Compared to incidents like these, a cheeseburger is minor.

A cheeseburger
This cheeseburger is comparatively no big deal. (Photo in public domain)

I will have a separate post for funny stories, and a third one for stopping kashrut. Too many anecdotes were received to do justice to them in this post. Besides, many people provided insight into why they do not keep kosher now. But already, we can see some patterns, and some avenues for inquiry. We also are reminded of one thing: you can eat as much treyf as you want, and still be as Jewish as anyone else.

The outcome of this research has made me question my own kashrut practice, and why I keep kosher at all. I do not eat treyf animals, I keep a kosher kitchen, and in New York I eat kosher or halal meat, which I consider equal. The kitchen is for my more traditional friends. That said, I do not have a reason why I personally do not eat treyf. It used to be emotional, but that has gone with my own realignment of Jewish values. The judgmental environment I left, or to quote the youth, “yote out” from has dissolved any feeling of “upholding tradition” through my diet. For me, Judaism is a lived and evolving tradition, not a diet, weekly lifestyle practice, and set of givens. Pork is off the table forever, because of a traumatic and rather gross incident in my teenage years. But I do not have any negative feelings about shellfish, catfish, beef stroganoff, or kangaroo. At this point, kashrut is habit. I do not know how long it will stick outside of my home kitchen.

Black and white photo of a man in a fur parka standing under a wooden structure with drying meat hanging from the wood. The structure and man are on a grassy-muddy field.
A Yup’ik man in Western Alaska drying whale meat sometime in the early 20th century. Whale was caught, slaughtered, and dried for sustenance. The tradition is under threat but continues today. (Photo Public Domain/Library of Congress)

If I change, I do have something to keep. I promised my indigenous friends that, should I stop keeping kosher, whale and seal would be my first real treyf. In a world where colonialism is still very real, it is so important to keep native traditions alive, and I think that would be an important step of solidarity against continued colonial abuse. As a settler, I feel obligated to support the minhagei hamakom of the peoples from whose loss of land I still benefit. A mitzvah, in treyf. Afterwards, I will head on to my nearest Skyline, order a 5-Way – spaghetti, meaty chili, onions, beans, and cheddar cheese – and take a bite, and I will recite the prayer meant for everything:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro.

Blessed are you, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who created all per his will.

A heartfelt thank you to all of you who responded. As my gift to you, please enjoy my favorite song about treyf. It is by the Jerry Cans, a band from Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, and is in the indigenous Inuktitut language. It is called Mamaqtuq, and it is about hunting for seal to eat. Watch it here.

Great Books: Eat Up, by Ruby Tandoh

Ruby Tandoh is great. Ever since she was catapulted to food fame by her appearance on The Great British Bake-Off, I have been gleefully following her. Her recipes are straightforward and delicious, she is unapologetically queer and nerdy, and she celebrates food for what it is! Reading her writing or hearing her talk feels like one of my friends sitting on my famous metal mesh chair, holding a glass of wine and telling you that yes, fancy hazelnut porridge and Cream of Wheat with Raisinets are both great. (Confession: the second one is something I have eaten more than once.) So I was thrilled to finally read her new book, Eat Up.

cover of Ruby Tandoh's "Eat Up"

It was so good.

Eat Up is a manifesto, but it does not tell you what or how to eat. Instead, it tells you how to live ethically with food. Tandoh walks you through all the ways you relate to food: as sustenance, as a vehicle for emotions, as a vehicle for politics, and as something that engages all the senses. Sometimes, the book is political, arguing against fatphobia, ableism, classism, or racism as made manifest through food. Sometimes, the book is meditative, asking you to savor whatever it is that you are eating. And sometimes, it is a food memoir, and that is where the writing is best. I laughed as I read of Tandoh seeking her Ghanaian great-aunt’s groundnut soup recipe, and grimaced right alongside her as she ate eels by the seashore. Most of all, though, this book is a response to the same authenticity-obsessed, elitist, snotty food world that irritates me.

Tandoh makes short shrift of the cute world of the food movement, the tyrannical one of the diet industry, and all the ways status is disguised by concern. There are many books that talk about the sugar lobby and the corn lobby. One of Tandoh’s strongest points is when she points out how, contrary to a lot of scientific evidence, a diet lobby also exists. The world of health foods and weight loss plans is not just about fake concern, but a multibillion dollar industry. It just happens to be an industry supported by the elite. Tandoh’s point regarding this is pretty unusual in the food world, and it is welcome. She also skewers the food movement, pointing out how unrealistic the locavore, artisan world it promotes is for so many. Some of this is direct – but some of it is simply honoring the food that the food movement often ignores. Tandoh might sing the praises of home-baked cake, but you will find love for cheap tea, Wotsits, and Burger King here too. Above all, Tandoh has little patience for the fake concern of much of the food world. People in the food world, she rightly points out, are not actually concerned about your weight or your tastes or your exposure to something. They often just enjoy the power and making fun of you. And Tandoh proposes resisting that temptation – and eating while we do it. After all, we need to eat to be strong.

Like me, Tandoh traces an emotional world through food. Recipes interspersed throughout the book seek to summon up a feeling – of joy, of ease, or of comfort. More than that, she talks about the meanings of food, and how different foods are needed at different times. She also discusses, effortlessly, the distance between what is socially “acceptable” to eat and what we actually crave – and how the latter is sometimes more helpful than the former. Many food books tell you not to eat Kit-Kats. Tandoh reminds you that, of course, it is okay to have one – and that your attachment to them is not a bad thing. This is the book’s strongest point: that food and emotion does not always go in a specific marketable, status-oriented direction.

The book can get repetitive at points, and sometimes a bit wordy. Tandoh herself jokes about this as a former philosophy student. I also think the recipes may be a bit hard for some people to follow, since they are written in a highly narrative style. That said, the book is still incredible as a resource and as a way to think about food. Tandoh is young, and Tandoh is bursting with ideas, and I think this is going to be the first of many incredible books about food. You should absolutely read Eat Up, so that you can join me in eagerly waiting for more.

Eat Up, by Ruby Tandoh

A note: I may also going to write a Jewish commentary on Eat Up after this.

Fish Heads

Shana tova u-metuqah! Happy New Year! As an advance notice, I am going to be posting a little bit less in the start of 5779. I am applying for urban planning school, and need to focus on applications. That said, you should still see some updates from me! And I could not let the holiday season go by without at least one post.

It's a fish head on a board!
Yep. Although this is a wax fish, do not eat this. (Photo Toby Dylan, CC)

So as some of you know, fish heads are traditional in many Jewish communities for Rosh Hashanah. Like so many other Jewish food traditions, it is a pun. Rosh Hashanah is the “head of the year,” and the fish head symbolizes that we are at the start of the year. Fish are also traditionally a sign of parnasa, prosperity, in many Jewish legends. So the fish head symbolizes that we should be at the head of our luck and prosperity in the year. That is the simple explanation. In a historical context, we probably picked up this tradition from pagan and Christian neighbors in Europe and the Middle East in the early, pre-Islamic Middle Ages. Many food traditions then (and now) were iconographic: people ate in a way that imitated what was commemorated. Another culture probably had a fish head tradition, and we adoped it.

Fish heads also happen to be year-round food for some Jews. Including me, and my grandmother. No, we are not from communities where fish heads are celebrated fare, such as the Kerala Jewish communities or some Turkish communities. My grandmother is a South African Jew who grew up in the Afrikaans-speaking countryside outside of Cape Town, where fish was plentiful and part of everyday life. In Afrikaans, the word for fish head is viskop. Viskoppe are at once a very rustic food – associated with fishermen and down-home meals in fishing towns – but also refined, and elegant, and symbolic of the Cape. Jews happily adopted eating fish heads, in all sorts of ways – like anything South African, there is no one recipe for it. My family is among them.

My grandmother is 91, and still insists on making fish heads whenever I visit. I tell her she does not have to, but it will happen anyway. (After all, she is also making them for herself.) My grandmother is a happy user of industrial foods, and has recently embraced sweet chili sauce as her preferred seasoning for her fish heads. It is delicious. It is perhaps not authentic, but it would not be out of place in South Africa, where the so-very-irritating fetish for authenticity is thankfully not indulged. I have also had fish heads made by her over the years with a variety of seasonings. Find what works for you. But take my grandmother’s advice: get a fresh fish head, preferably salmon, from the fishmonger. Do not use any old fish head, and make sure that it is very fresh. And enjoy it!


My Grandmother’s Fish Heads

All measures are to taste.

Take a big fish head, preferably salmon. Have the fishmonger cut it in half for you.

Wash the fish heads, and trim off any excess gunk.

Oil a baking tray and lay the fish heads on top.

Chop some cherry tomatoes and lay them around and on top of the fish.

Pour over the fish some sweet chili sauce and some vegetable oil. Make sure the fish is coated! (I also add some salt.) If you want to do it without sweet chili sauce, I would add some red pepper flakes and honey, and perhaps some vinegar over the fish.

Bake in a hot oven (~400F/200C) or a hot toaster oven for about 20-25 minutes, or until the fish is cooked.

Eat with bread.

A Few Thoughts on Deadly Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Southeast Asian Origins of Jewish Cooking

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicken

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

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

Citrus

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

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

Coconut

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

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

Sugarcane

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

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

Bananas

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

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

Taro

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

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

Cloves and Nutmeg

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

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

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

Black Pepper

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

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


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