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?

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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:

Kestaneli Kuzu (Lamb with Chestnuts)

Kestaneli kuzu, served with rice and bread.
Kestaneli kuzu, served with rice and bread. (Photo mine, February 2018)

In my fourth year of college, I made the slightly unorthodox decision to study Turkish. Maybe it was because I loved Ottoman history, maybe because I loved the writing of Orhan Pamuk and Yaşar Kemal, and maybe because I was extremely obsessed with modern Turkish history for much of high school. Probably, it was for the food.So over the course of a year, I filled my elective slots in my schedule with an intensive Turkish language course. My Turkish is not fluent, but I have managed to get by in Turkey, watch a few delightful soap operas, and of course, read recipes.

A kestaneci, or roasted chestnut vendor, in Istanbul. He is wearing a blue jacket with roasted chestnuts and a roasting pan on a blue cart.
A kestaneci, or roasted chestnut vendor, in Istanbul. (Photo Brian Russell via Creative Commons)

Much of Turkey’s cuisine is very famous, but even more of it unfortunately rarely gets translated into English or taken outside Turkey. Turkish food is highly regional – after all, Turkey is a country twice the size of Montana with a huge diversity in climates, landscape, and crops. Turkish food also carries all the influences of the various ethnic groups, rulers, and trades the country has seen. In some ways, it is more accurate to talk about Turkish cuisines rather than a single tradition. In the north by the Black Sea, one finds heavy dishes with karalahana (collard greens) or pakla (corn bulgur). In the center, one finds deep meaty stews and gruels like the barley-based aşure. In the south, many dishes are prepared with tangy nar ekşisi (pomegranate molasses) and spicy peppers. Turks are often immensely proud of their home regions’ delicacies.  This diversity carries over to the Jewish cuisines of Turkey.

The Mayor Sinagogu in the city of Bursa. There is a painted dome in blue, green, and red, with white columns with green heads above the bima, which is red. There is a chandelier in the middle and white walls with blue glass windows.
The Mayor Sinagogu in the city of Bursa. (Photo Türk Musevi Cemaatı via Creative Commons)

Turkish Jews – who before the 1940’s were a major population in the country – are a diverse community: from Kurdish Jews in the East to Sephardim on the Mediterranean coast to Ashkenazim and Arab Jews who had fled persecutions or left economic turmoil further north or south. The vast majority of Turkish Jews are Sephardim, descendants of the Jews who were welcomed by the Ottoman sultan after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Their cuisines vary significantly, but all make good use of the local products of Turkey’s incredibly rich agriculture. I have found many of my favorite recipes from across the Jewish world in Turkish collections – from tripe soups to candied pumpkin. And now, I have another recipe to add to that list: kestaneli kuzu, lamb with chestnuts, beloved by Turks Jewish and Muslim alike.

chestnuts on a tree, still in their spiky green outer shell
Chestnuts on a tree – these are horse chestnuts, not the ones that are commonly eaten (photo Efraim Stochter via Creative Commons)

Chestnuts are found across the Mediterranean basin, but the ones most common today originate in the Taurus Mountains (Toros Dağları) of western Turkey.  These have been eaten since ancient times, and are often found in Ancient Greek and Roman literature and ruins. In many poor mountain communities, they were the most common source of starch until the introduction of the potato. Indeed, in Turkish Sephardic cooking chestnuts make many appearances, especially in desserts. But this recipe, kestaneli kuzu, combines two old favorites: chestnuts and lamb stews. Jewish and non-Jewish Turks alike treasure this recipe for festivals, celebrations, and nice dinners alike.

Chopped chestnuts in a glass bowl
Chopped chestnuts (with raisins hiding underneath) waiting to be added to the kestaneli kuzu. (Photo mine, February 2018)

In Turkey today, kestaneli kuzu is associated with the city of Bursa, as are all chestnut dishes, but it is common across much of the country. Jewish women often foraged in forests near their communities in Turkey (as they did for berries in Lithuania) and would include their finds in foods daily and festive alike. This dish, known widely among locals, was an easy way to use these finds. Today, this hearty stew remains common, and is particularly popular on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. A similar dish exists in Moroccan-French Jewish cooking – in fact, in Israel it is associated by some with Aryeh Deri, the disgraced co-founder of the religious Shas party. It is, apparently, his favorite dish. The recipe by his wife, Yaffa (née Cohen), became popular after being published a few years ago. Though I strongly disagree with Shas’ religious-nationalist and conservative politics, the recipe is top-notch. (The recipe is cited below.)

I made a few small adjustments off the recipes I found in my research. Firstly, as do many TurksI added raisins to the stew – which gives a lovely body to the dish and provides a sweet counterpoint to the starchy chestnuts and earthy lamb. The second decision I made was to use chestnuts that were already peeled and roasted and packaged – the quality does not suffer, and peeling chestnuts takes a lot of time. Besides, the chestnuts used for packaging are particularly starchy and tasty. The third, and most unorthodox, decision I made was to add a cup of sweet red wine to the stew – this adds a lovely undertone to all the other flavors and really brings out the meatiness in the lamb. Of course, I have written this recipe in English. Enjoy, or, better yet, afiyet olsun!

Kestaneli Kuzu (Lamb with Chestnuts)

Recipe based on those by Binnur Tomay (in Turkish), Selin Kutucular (in Turkish), Aslı Balakin (in Turkish), Claudia RodenAysha Dergi (in Turkish), Mehmet Yaşin (in Turkish), Chaim Cohen (in Hebrew), and Yaffa Cohen Deri (in Hebrew)
 

3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil

2-3 lbs (1-1.5kg) lamb stew meat, cut into chunks with the bones separated out

2 onions, diced

8 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon table salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground paprika

1 cup sweet red wine

4 cups vegetable or chicken stock (you can substitute soup powder)

Water

9 oz (250g) roasted, peeled chestnuts

1 cup raisins, soaked in water for 10 minutes

  1. Heat a deep pot over a high flame. Then, add the oil.
  2. Add the meat but not the bones. Sauté the meat on high heat for ten minutes, until the meat is lightly browned on all sides. Remove the meat from the pot and set aside for a moment.
  3. Add the bones, onions, and garlic to the pot. Sauté on high heat for five minutes, or until the onions are translucent.
  4. Add the spices and wine, and cook for one more minute, by which time the wine should be boiling.
  5. Add the meat back into the pot and mix with the onions. Add the stock, and water to cover the meat about 1 1/2 inches/4 centimeters.
  6. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 1 hour, stirring regularly. Skim off the fat that accumulates at the top. (You can use the fat to make rice that goes with the stew, or dip bread into it.)
  7. Add the chestnuts and raisins after the hour is up. Then, simmer for 15-20 more minutes.
  8. Turn off the heat. Serve with rice and/or bread.
Thank you to Ziva Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe. 
Son olarak, tüm Türk ve Türkçe konuşan arkadaşlarıma yardımları ve tavsiyeleri için de kalpten teşekkür ederim. Hikmetinizle mizahınız bana çok fayda sağladı. İnşallah, gelecekte bir hayli yemekler beraber yemeye devam edebiliriz. Teşekkürler ve afiyet olsun!

Pumpkin Spice, But Jewish

Pumpkins on wooden shelves arranged in rows
(Photo Petr Kratochvil – Public Domain)

Here is a historical oddity for you: “pumpkin spice” is sometimes Jewish.

“What?” you might say. “Isn’t pumpkin spice a thing for ‘basic bitches’? Isn’t that, like, so late-capitalism-2017?” In fact, pumpkins served sweet with spices have a long history.

The oddly metallic and rather lackluster syrup at Starbucks – and the much better versions at bakeries across North America – is simply a mass-market rendition of a long American and European tradition. This spicing is a hangover from a medieval trend of heavily spicing sweet goods with cinnamon, cloves, and other seasonings from afar. This practice was still normal in the 17th and 18th century, when Old World seasoning met the New World pumpkin, which melded in the desserts and stews of Colonial America. It certainly helps that Massachusetts and New York a major shipment center for spices, fish, and sugar – and thus exposed to all sorts of spicing. From the dessert tradition of New England – which gave us both well-spiced pumpkin pie and apple cider doughnuts – we can then go forwards, to the pumpkin spice lattes of today, and backwards, to the Jewish and indigenous influences that are melded in pumpkin spice – and reflected elsewhere. Pumpkin desserts were popular beyond American shores as well.

Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Pumpkin, next to some older Jewish foods – challah and etrog (Photo mine, October 2016.)

When the squash arrived from Mexico in the Mediterranean on Spanish ships in the late 16th century, it was a hit among Jews and non-Jews alike. Pumpkins and zucchini – which are both types of squash – were delicious, easy to grow in a Mediterranean climate, and lower-maintenance than other vegetables. The starchiness of the fruit stretched grains that were often too thin, while the elegance of squash fruit and flowers found its way onto the tables of the wealthy. Squash spread across the Mediterranean, including to Jewish communities, which hitherto had been using bottle gourds (dela’at in the Talmud) and muskmelons. The squash largely replaced those melons – though the related cucumber remained popular. As zucchini, squash found itself on Sephardic Shabbat tables in fried rounds, stuffed, or cooked with eggs in quajadas and frittatas. As pumpkin, squash found itself in tagines, stewed with meat, and sweets. Among these was a preparation of pumpkin that imitated the other ways of preparing quinces, apples, and nuts: in dulces, or thick and syrup-laden preserves. Dulce de calabasa, or candied pumpkin, became a venerable tradition for Rosh HaShanah and Hanukkah – and blended Old World preparation with New World crops.

Candied pumpkin, served with slivered almonds in the Sephardic style
Candied pumpkin, served with slivered almonds in the Sephardic style. (Photo mine, November 2017)

The methods used to candy pumpkins, quinces, and other fruits in pastes and purées probably came from Spain, where they were introduced with sugar cane by the Almoravids by the 11th century. From Spain, Sephardim took this method wherever they went – to the Netherlands, where it was new, or to the Ottoman Empire, which already employed similar methods. So too other “Spanish” but Moorish methods travelled, such as pickling in vinegar, salted fish, and the use of lemons. These Sephardic cooking methods influenced Dutch cooking (link in Dutch), which itself influenced the cooking of the Puritans and New Amsterdam. Though the cooking of the Netherlands in the 17th century was heavily influenced by the spice trade, many of the methods and flavors that became and remain common in Dutch cooking: the cloves, the cinnamon, and the sweet-savory combinations. The wealth and power of the Netherlands made it influential in Northern Europe – and especially for the Puritans who came to the Netherlands en route to America. The culinary influence they picked up there, and also gained from nearby New Netherland, influenced the sweets and cooking of Colonial America. And there, pumpkin was preponderant too. Thus Sephardim in Turkey and Pilgrims in Taunton both candied their pumpkin.

Other fruits are more common now among many Sephardic communities, but candied pumpkin remains popular in Turkey. There, you can find kabak tatlısı served with the clotted cream kaymak and a variety of nut-based pastries. Turkish and Greek Jewish communities still serve dulce de calabasa in Israel. I have also seen Israeli recipes that add tehina to the candied pumpkin. In Mexico, similar preserves are also prepared.

And, of course, the heritage is alive here in the United States, in pumpkin spice.


I made this rendition of dulce de calabasa on the request of my friend Jay, who asked for it in advance during a stay in the hospital, during which he could not eat and resultantly seemed to fantasize about food! I kept it on my mind until the pumpkins and squashes here in New York were at their best, and then made it from cobbling three recipes together. Jay was pleased with the result, and I hope you are too.

Candied Pumpkin (Dulce de Calabasa/Kabak Tatlısı)

Based on the recipes by Claudia Roden, Elia Tabuenca (in Spanish) and Hamarat Abla (in Turkish)

Note: The amounts per ingredient vary by the quantity of pumpkin you cook. The number of servings also varies. For one pound/500 g of pumpkin flesh, you get about 10 servings.

Fresh pie pumpkin, kabocha, acorn squash, or other winter squash

White sugar

Water

Ground cinnamon

Ground nutmeg

Cloves

Star anise

  1. Cut the top and bottom off the pumpkin, then cut into quarters. Peel each quarter, and remove the seeds and stringy stuff around the seeds. Discard the tops, bottoms, peels, and seeds. (You can save the seeds for roasting.)
  2. Cut the pieces of pumpkin flesh into chunks. Then, weigh the chunks if you have a scale. If you do not have a scale, then you can make a calculation. Take the weight of the pumpkin you started with and divide by five, then multiply by four. (The peels and seeds account for about 20% of a pumpkin’s weight.)
  3. Put the pumpkin chunks into a large bowl.
  4. Over the pumpkin, pour an amount of white sugar that is half of the weight of the pumpkin flesh. One cup of white sugar weighs 200g or 7oz. So, for 1lb/500g of pumpkin flesh, you would pour over 250g of sugar, or 1¼ cups. Mix the sugar between the pumpkin flesh.
  5. Cover the bowl and let sit for an hour. During this time, the sugar will draw the juice out of the pumpkin flesh and will become somewhat wet.
  6. After an hour, pour the pumpkin-sugar mixture into a pot, and add water to just cover the pumpkin. For each pound/500g of pumpkin, add: 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, 4 dried cloves. You only need one star anise for anything less than 3kg/7lb.
  7. Put the pot on a high flame and bring to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, uncovered, or until the pumpkin is very soft to the spoon. Stir every few minutes.
  8. Remove the star anise from the pot. Then, use a potato masher or another implement to mash the pumpkin in the pot until the pumpkin is thoroughly puréed under the “sauce.”
  9. Simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the mixture is thicker. It should be sweet and pumpkin-y to the taste.
  10. Remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm, or cold with soft, sweet cheese, pancakes, custard, ice cream, or rice pudding. It is traditional in many communities to mix in roasted walnuts, hazelnuts, or slivered almonds. Some also add pistachios. Keep refrigerated for up to ten days, or frozen for up to four months.

Thank you to Jay Stanton, Naomi Barnett, Sara Liss, Robbie Berg, Kate Herzlin, and Ben Wohl for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe. Thank you to my fellow group members on Writing the Kitchen for spicing suggestions. Thank you to Amram Altzman and Tory Cross for encouraging me in all things pumpkin.

Great Books: The Cooking Gene

I’ve been excited about Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene for over a year now: I’ve made squealing tweets, excitedly brought it up at opportune moments, and may or may not have had a countdown for the book’s release. Twitty himself is one of the best young Jewish food writers out there, and his blog Afroculinaria is beyond fabulous. His work to document the contribution of black people to American kitchens – and how it was really African-American folks who made American cuisine as we know it – is controversial and extraordinary. So, when I finally got the book courtesy of Amazon Prime, I was quite excited.

The Cooking Gene cover

And what’s even better? The book lives up to the hype.

The Cooking Gene chronicles the contribution of black people to American cooking – and the way that enslaved people built American cuisine, willingly and unwillingly. Twitty uses his own family history, both documented and found through genetic testing, to document the rise of soul food and Southern food (which are in many ways one and the same). In a beautifully woven narrative, Twitty charts the influence of African methods of cooking, native and African vegetables, methods to ensure food security, and others. At the same time, Twitty pulls no punches in describing the horrors of slavery and the intense oppressions visited upon enslaved black people and their descendants: the imprisonments, rapes, abuse, racism, and erasure are all described without the equivocation found with many white authors.  Twitty, who is a Jew by Choice, also weaves his own Jewish experiences into the narrative – and also points out the complex role of Jews in regards to both slavery and Southern cuisines.

The book is a strong rebuke to white food writers like myself.  Who has made our food? Who is responsible? And can we separate the sins of racism from which we still benefit from the way that we eat and talk about and write about food? Whose authenticity is it anyway? The Cooking Gene is an important intervention in this regard, and is also a wonderfully written book. I strongly urge you to buy it.

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael Twitty

Glimpses of the Jewish Kitchen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Just like many nerdy New Yorkers, I spend a fair amount of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are so many beautiful things to see and histories to learn there. Anyway, since apparently I cannot stop thinking about Jewish food at any point, I decided to spot some Jewish ties with various objects throughout the museum on a recent visit. Many of the things we consider “high art” today once had functional purposes – especially the ceramic, metal, and glass ware we now peer at through glass protective cases. These functions were, of course, largely for the upper crust of society – and in this case I will be generally referring to wealthier Jews. It should be noted that we do find plenty of “ordinary people” pottery and cookware in archaeological sites – they just do not make the vaunted cases of the world’s great museums.

Let us go take a look.

Brass ewer for wine or sherbets, 13th-century Iran

Brass ewer with harpies and astrological signs and a fluted neck

The object: A brass ewer with detailed mural-like inlays of silver and other compounds. The complex design includes medallion vines with rabbit heads, zodiacs with the planets, and harpies and astrological imagery. All of these were considered highly auspicious in the context of 13th-century Iran, and may be considered akin to similar decorative work on Kiddush cups today. (Jews, too, are superstitious.)

The Jewishness: Ewers and jugs like this would have been used for ritual purposes in many wealthier homes – especially for Kiddush wine. In addition, silver and silverwork was commonly a Jewish industry in many cities.

Iznik plates, Ottoman Empire, 16th century

A floral plate from Iznik with a bird and flowers and plants, blue pattern on the rim.
(Image public domain via Metropolitan Museum)

The objects: A circular stonepaste plate with a colorful pattern of flowers and birds. The plate was made in the late 16th century in Iznik, which was the center of the Ottoman pottery industry. Iznik ware was popular across the empire and abroad, and was influenced by prior Arab and Persian practices, as well as Chinese porcelain traded along the Silk Road.

The Jewishness: Iznik had a thriving Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire, many of whom would have traded these wares to other centers in Thessaloniki, Izmir, and abroad. Later, plates like this would become a “template” for early Zionists to use for serving “new Israeli cuisine.”

Porcelain teapots from China and Japan, and the German, English, French, and Dutch factories that imitated them, 18th century

12 porcelain teapots, some from China and Japan and some European imitations, in a glass case. Several are blue and have floral patterns.

The objects: This display compares imported Chinese and Japanese teapots with the European factories that imitated them in the 18th century. Porcelain was a luxury good, and the method for making it was originally invented in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), and a significant industry developed in modern-day Jiangxi province during the Song (960-1279 CE) and Ming (1368-1644) Dynasties. The technique spread to Korea in the medieval era and then to Japan in the 17th century. From there, the Dutch East India Company took porcelain wares back to Europe, where they met incredible demand from the élite of the day. A decades-long process began to establish porcelain manufacture in Europe, which was finally started in Meissen in Saxony in 1710. From there, porcelain spread across Europe – though it was still heavily imported from China and Japan as well. In this age, European élites underwent both a culinary revolution and an aesthetic one. First, they began to drink tea – newly imported in the 17th century – in larger quantities. In addition, Orientalism took hold as Europeans sought to imitate a rather paternalistic fantasy of “the East.” As a result, European factories plagiarized or imitated Chinese and Japanese imports to meet this dual demand.

The Jewishness: Tea is consumed traditionally in dozens of Jewish communities, and the consumption of tea greatly expanded in the 17th century among Russian and Sephardi Jews. Jewish communities in Uzbekistan and Georgia were involved in the Silk Road trade and many Jews in maritime and overland trade with Asia, including that of porcelain.

French porcelain partial tea service used in 18th-century America

French porcelain teapot, cup and saucer with a gold and black pattern

The object: This is a beautifully decorated porcelain teapot, cup, and saucer, from an 18th-century French factory, with a gold-and-back floral theme sparsely laid on a white background. Such examples come from the aforementioned European porcelain industry, which moved from “Chinoiserie” Orientalist designs to more localized European examples through the 18th century. These pieces are examples of the latter. This particular group belonged to the Loyalist Verplanck family in New York in the late 18th century, who was given the full tea service by the British commander of forces in New York, Sir William Howe.

The Jewishness: As mentioned above, tea consumption spiked in the 17th century among Jewish communities. By the 18th century, a small minority of Jews was wealthy enough to drink tea like the Christian élites they partly assimilated into. This sort of tea service would easily have appeared at the table of the Nathans or other wealthy Jewish families in 18th-century New York.

Pennsylvania Redware, 18th century

A large case with about 20 pieces of Pennsylvania redware dishware

The objects: German immigrants in 18th-century Pennsylvania began manufacturing practical ceramic wares from local red clay found throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, which soon gave rise to a local style now known as “Pennsylvania Redware.” These plates, bowls, and cups often utilized a technique known elsewhere as sgraffito, which involves scratching through one level of clay slip to reveal a lower level of slip. The ceramics were largely made for a local American market, which was readily receptive. Though these plates are from the 18th century, the industry’s golden age was in the early 19th century after American independence.

The Jewishness: The same wealthy families that might have owned the French tea service would have easily possessed some Pennsylvania Redware for everyday use – and middle-class families may have served their Shabbat and weekday meals on plates like these as well.

Spanish inlaid plates and bowls, 14th century

The objects: Inlaid plates and bowls with decorative patterns from Southern Spain in the 14th century, when the region was still under Almohad rule. The style of pottery is now known as Hispano-Moresque, and utilizes detailed patterning, tin glazes, and often a metallic after-glaze. In its era it was already a luxury good, and these wares influenced Italian styles that later became known as maiolica in the 16th century.

The Jewishness: The 14th century was the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry – and not only were some Spanish Jews wealthy enough to have owned such plates and bowls, but many more were involved in the production of such wares. Pottery and ceramics have been a Jewish industry since ancient times, and medieval Spain was no exception.

Farissol Haggadah, 16th century

A man holding maror in the Farissol Haggadah with Hebrew text on parchment
Image JTS via Forward.

The object: This is an incredible illuminated Haggadah from 15th-century Italy. The order of the Passover (Pesakh) Seder ritual is not only written, but accompanied by gilded and painted images from the story of the Exodus and of the Passover ritual foods. The margins also contain micrographic illustrations.

The Jewishness is obvious.

Images all mine, July 2017, unless otherwise noted.

Three Easy 20th-Century Jewish Summer Salads

I get very lazy during the summer. Some of it is the heat, some of it is my rare-but-real Summer Seasonal Depression, and some of it is that things during the summer always feel a bit more hectic. So, as much as I love cooking, I do not necessarily have the energy for a long and involved preparation process. Hence, salads become central in my meals. Not a few leaves with a sad dressing, but weighty and substantial salads that are, in fact, very Jewish.

In the past seventy years or so, Jewish communities have been having a bit of a…salad frenzy. Some of this has to do with the central place salad takes in Zionist cooking, as a way of “becoming of the land.” Salad is also part of Jewish assimilation into surrounding countries. And though some Jewish communities have had “salads” for centuries, salad is far more popular and central now. The ingredients have, of course, changed with the times. The three salads here use three ingredient combinations popular in Israel and the United States at different points since World War II.

1950s: Potato Salad with Yogurt

In the 1950s, Israeli cuisine was in a strange moment. In a completely Eurocentric state, certain Middle Eastern and North African foods were still considered unhealthy or unsanitary, and new immigrants were encouraged to “switch” to European, Ashkenazi food. Yet at the same time, that food was being amended with ingredients and recipes taken from local Palestinian cuisine. Hence you ended up with beet salads with cilantro, hummus with European bread, and recipes in which original ingredients were swapped with Middle Eastern ones. This potato salad with yogurt and za’atar would not be out of place in this environment.

(For more history, I highly recommend Yael Raviv’s Falafel Nation.)

Potato salad with yogurt and za'atar

Potato Salad with Yogurt

Serves 4-8

2 lbs/1 kg new potatoes, chopped in halves

Juice of 2 lemons

1 cup thick plain yogurt or Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon table salt

1 teaspoon za’atar

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Water

  1. In a pot, boil the potatoes in the water until soft to the fork, but not mushy. Drain the potatoes, then let cool.
  2. In a cup, mix together the lemon juice, yogurt, salt, za’atar, and pepper until thoroughly combined.
  3. Put the potatoes in a large bowl, and pour the dressing over the potatoes. Mix to coat. Serve cold or at room temperature. The salad keeps for 4-5 days refrigerated.

1970s: Corn and Chickpea Salad with Carrots and Garlic

The midcentury was the time of canned corn – especially in the 1950s and 1970s. In the United States, it ended up in strange combinations; in Israel, it was campfire food (and my mother’s one true teenage love); in the Soviet Union there was an entire, extremely bizarre campaign featuring talking cans of corn. And so corn often found its way into salads, including a corn-chickpea salad one man at synagogue told me about. Without the recipe, I updated it with carrots and garlic for more contemporary tastes – and it is definitely delicious.

Corn and chickpea salad with carrots and garlic

Corn and Chickpea Salad with Carrots and Garlic

Serves 4-8

2 cups cooked corn kernels (you can use canned)

2 cups cooked chickpeas (you can use canned)

1 cup chopped carrots

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or white vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon molasses or honey

½ cup water+1 tablespoon water

1 teaspoon cornstarch

  1. Mix together the corn and chickpeas in a large bowl. Set aside.
  2. In a small saucepan, place the carrots, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, oil, vinegar, molasses, and ½ cup water. Bring to a boil, then let simmer on low heat for 5 minutes, or until the carrots are soft and the “sauce” has reduced.
  3. Mix the remaining water and cornstarch, and add to the carrots and mix in. You should notice the sauce thickening.
  4. Remove the carrot mixture from the heat, and pour over the corn and chickpeas. Mix thoroughly, and then let the dish cool to room temperature before serving. This salad keeps for up to a week in the refrigerator.

1990s: Cucumber Avocado Strawberry Salad

Avocados were not just hip now, but in the 1990s too. At that time, avocados were first beginning to make themselves common in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods of the United States and Canada – and they were already common in the Southwest, Israel, Australia, and South Africa. And just like the avocado toast craze today, in the 1990s, avocado seemed to pop up everywhere – and especially in salads. Avocados, of course, were largely seasonal then due to pre-NAFTA import restrictions, and limited to the summer – just like strawberries. When NAFTA allowed for avocados to be imported year-round from Mexico, consumption exploded. Israel, meanwhile, had been growing avocados since 1924. This salad combines avocado with another 1990s trend – fruit in salad.

Cucumber avocado strawberry salad

Cucumber Avocado Strawberry Salad

Serves 4-8 as a side dish or 1-2 as a main dish

1 large cucumber, diced

1 large avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced

2/3 cup chopped fresh strawberries

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon soy sauce

  1. Mix together the cucumber, avocado, and strawberries.
  2. Mix the lemon juice, olive oil, and soy sauce separately.
  3. Add the dressing to the cucumber mixture. Serve cold or at room temperature. This keeps refrigerated for a few days but is best served within 24 hours of preparation.

A bonus salad: last year, I published a recipe for a Chickpea Arugula Salad with the Jewish Daily Forward. It is very 2010s. Take a look!

Thank you to Dov Fields and Dana Kline for participating in User Acceptance Testing.