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.

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Fun With Pickles

Pickled kohlrabi and turnip in an orange brine
Pickled kohlrabi and turnip. (Photo mine, July 2017)

It finally happened: I made pickles. It is such a Jewish category of food – and so tasty – and I had simply skipped it. No longer.

Jews have been preserving food since Jews have … been Jews. The pickles that we enjoy today are all ultimately related to methods of food preservation from ancient times. In the Ancient Near East, people Jewish and non-Jewish alike dried, salted, and fermented foods for long-term use. (Some ancient ferments like feseekh in Egypt are still with us today.) Cabbage has been fermented in Eastern Europe since ancient times, and foods have been preserved in vinegar or whey from Iceland to India to Ethiopia since at least the medieval era. As salt became cheaper because of colonialism and expanded trade networks, pickling in Europe and North Africa became far more affordable and thus common. New pickles often joined existing pickles and preserved foods – pickles eggplants alongside preserved lemons in Morocco, pickled radishes alongside sauerkraut in Eastern Europe, pickled herring alongside … other pickled herring in Germany. The invention of the boiling water bath certainly helped. By the early 19th century, a scepter was haunting Europe – the scepter of many preserved vegetables.

Even today, each Jewish community’s pickles have a strong toehold on Jewish tables around the world. In Ashkenazi communities, cucumber pickles are found seemingly everywhere – at Shabbat tables, in sandwiches, as snacks. In the United States, the “kosher dill” pickle has transcended ethnic boundaries to become something of a regional food in the Northeast. (I remember a Catholic friend from New Jersey who brought back a jar to the United Kingdom from a visit home.) In other countries, but especially France and Israel, meanwhile, many preserved Mizrahi foods are popular: pickled eggplants from Iraq, preserved lemons from Morocco, and preserved onions from everywhere among them. Today, in any food shop catering to Israeli expatriates, you can find cans of Kvutzat Yavne pickles for sale. At all stages of assimilation and cultural and culinary change, pickles have accompanied Jews for the ride – even if the pickles themselves have changed.

In an age of mass pickling and a stronger food supply (both of which are good things), fewer people are pickling. I do not hold by arguments that something is lost here: let’s not romanticize a past in which death by food poisoning was common and nutrition more lacking than today. This is a view that Rachel Laudan correctly described as ahistorical in her wonderful book Cuisine and Empire. What is true, though, is that pickling is a lot of fun. The work is satisfying, and a new generation of millennial picklers are bringing new flavors to the table. Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, for example, included not only classical Ashkenazi cucumber pickles and sauerkraut in their book The Gefilte Manifesto, but also kimchi-like sauerkraut and shallots in red wine. Not authentic at all, totally Jewish, and stunningly delicious. Other cultures, too, are playing with their pickles – I recently found a recipe for Iranian torshi that used Fuji apples!

In this recipe I used some pickling spices from South Africa. The blend includes turmeric and paprika, which lend the pickles I made a spicy undertone and a bright color. You, of course, can have your pickles as plain as possible. Remember to use the freshest vegetables for the best flavor. This recipe is very easy since the fermentation and preservation all take place in the refrigerator. This recipe is suitable for canning – remember to follow safe canning guidelines.

Happy Pickling!

Easy Refrigerator Pickles

Makes one quart

2 cups chopped and peeled vegetables (I used kohlrabi and turnips for one pickle, onions for another, cucumbers for another, and lettuce – yes, lettuce – for the last. The recipe is easily scalable.)

1 cup water

1 cup vinegar (any should do)

1 tablespoon coarse salt (do not use table salt)

1 tablespoon pickling spices of choice (optional)

  1. Wash thoroughly and dry a liter- or quart-sized container with a lid. This can be a jar, Tupperware, former peanut butter vessel… you name it.
  2. Stuff the chopped vegetables into the container, leaving room between them and at the top for the brine.
  3. In a saucepan, blend the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. This makes the brine.
  4. When the brine is boiling, stir again, then turn off the heat.
  5. Ladle the brine into the container with the vegetables until full, leaving a bit of space at the top. Close the container completely.
  6. Place the container in the back of the refrigerator for three days at least before eating. The pickles keep for up to six weeks.

Remember to can safely if you can!

Thank you to Evan Bialostozky and Jessie Thompson for selling me the vegetables used in this recipe.

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.

Tamatiebredie

Finished and plated tamatiebredie with mieliepap.
Finished and plated tamatiebredie with mieliepap. (Photo mine, June 2017)

My grandmother is of the soup-and-stew school of cooking. Even today at 90, when she lives in a retirement home in Israel, she still helps herself to a generous portion of soup in the cafeteria at each meal. Back when she and my grandfather used to come to our house in New York for months at a time, the kitchen would be filled with South African and Ashkenazi Jewish soups and stews – lentil soup, cabbage soup, and fish curry among them. This food was hearty – and tasty. One that I perhaps remember best, however, was not the soup, but the sweet and meaty taste of the South African tamatiebredie – a throwback to my grandmother’s childhood in the Cape, and very delicious.

Tamatiebredie is the history of Cape Town in a bowl. The recipe itself is a classic stew that could come from any of the city’s cultural influences. The meat comes from both the pastoral traditions of San and Xhosa peoples that originally inhabited the Cape and the Eastern Cape, but also the European livestock then imported to South Africa. The sweet flavor with the meat comes from Indonesia, from where the Dutch imported thousands of enslaved people to the Cape in the 18th century. The tomatoes, star of the show, came from the New World via Spain to the Dutch, who then brought it both to South Africa and to Indonesia, partly with the assistance of Jewish traders. Cinnamon and cloves recall Cape Town’s original purpose: to stock Dutch trading ships going to Indonesia for its spices (and, unfortunately, to perpetuate genocide and take away people to be enslaved in South Africa). Like the Afrikaans language, this is not a pure product of Europe, but rather a mix of Europe, Asia, and Africa brought together by colonialism, yet perhaps beautiful in subverting all its norms.

Tamatiebredie recipe in Afrikaans, with a picture

Tamatiebredie and other dishes – such as kerrievis – are primarily associated with the Cape Coloured community, an ethnic group descended from Africans, Asians, and Europeans that form the majority of Afrikaans speakers. Many, often called “Cape Malays,” trace most of their descent to enslaved Indonesians brought to South Africa in the 18th century, and form the better part of Cape Town’s community of 400,000 Muslims. Though now claimed by many white Afrikaners as “their own,” this dish – like the Afrikaans language – really began in this community.

It is often said that Ashkenazi Jews in South Africa “kept” a certain “authentic” Eastern European cuisine alive in South Africa. But beyond that, many Jews adopted local dishes into their repertoire, often with an idea that these were donated by Afrikaners. Indeed, a few – such as rusks, melktert, a custard tart, or the doughnut skuinkoekdid come from Afrikaners. But many more, such as mielie pap, samp and beans, fish curries, and tamatiebredie, were often given or taken from Cape Coloured and Black domestic workers and laborers Jews encountered in South Africa – not just those who could afford domestic labor, but also those who encountered these groups as customers in small shops and in their daily lives. (It should be noted here that Ashkenazi Jews have been considered “white” in South Africa since the 1880s.) My own great-grandmother, for example, served dozens of Black and Cape Coloured laborers every day from her small food shop in the 1930s. This history has largely been forgotten – and conveniently so, since it also avoids the thorny topic of Jews having domestic workers or white privilege in South Africa. But the influence is still there – and is now, perhaps, more celebrated. Even in the 1960s, South African Jewish cookbooks cited tamatiebredie and kerrievis as classic “Malay” dishes.

 

My tamatiebredie is a tad sweeter and a tad more piquant than my grandmother’s sultry version. I not only add more sugar, but I also add more pepper and paprika – the latter of which is a perhaps unorthodox addition. You can vary the spice content as you wish – I prefer the sweetness of the tomatoes to come out – and serve it with any carbohydrate. Rice is traditional and probably the best, but when I last made tamatiebredie I served it with mieliepap – the polenta-like corn gruel that is a staple in Southern Africa. A heretical combination by a heretical cook, but delicious.

Tamatiebredie

Based on recipes by Esther Katz, Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker, and Barbara Joubert

2.5 lbs/1 kg lamb stew meat, chopped into pieces

2 large onions, diced

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons table salt

2 teaspoons ground pepper

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground paprika

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground pepper

2 fresh tomatoes, chopped

2 cans canned whole tomatoes, chopped + any juice (separate the tomatoes and the juice)

2 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons table sugar

1lb/500g small potatoes, chopped

Vegetable oil

  1. Heat a deep pot over high heat, and add oil. Then, add the lamb. Brown the meat until just brown, about 2 minutes. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  2. Add a bit more oil, then add the onions. Sauté until just soft, about 2 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic and spices. Sauté for another minute, or until the garlic begins to soften and release its smell.
  4. Add the tomatoes but not the juice. Mix well, and then sauté for 4-5 minutes or until the fresh tomatoes start to soften.
  5. Add the lamb back in and mix thoroughly. Sauté for another two minutes.
  6. Add the tomato juice, chicken stock, and sugar and mix well. The meat-tomato mixture should be just covered now by the “broth.” Bring to a boil.
  7. Once the mixture is boiling, lower the heat and simmer the stew, covered, for one hour, stirring occasionally. The meat should soften and the tomatoes will “melt” a little.
  8. After the hour, add the potatoes and mix in well. Simmer for another 40 minutes uncovered, or until the sauce is reduced and thick and the potatoes are soft. The bredie is now ready, serve hot over rice, or if you’re a heretic like me, mieliepap.

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

Kook soos ‘n Jood: Jewish Snapshots in Afrikaans Recipes

Your author has been on holiday for two weeks in South Africa visiting his relatives and taking a break from all the stress and tsuris of New York. While here, I’ve also been brushing up on my much-forgotten Afrikaans, and delighting in all the delicious food of the Afrikaans-speaking cultures: the peppery and sumptuous Cape Malay cuisine, the hearty Afrikaner cuisine, and the many delicious things Cape Town has to offer. Anyway, while brushing through Afrikaans cookbooks I’ve also spotted a few parallels with Jewish foods that I’ve felt compelled to share.

“Welna se saadbeskuit” – Sonskynkafee, Mariëtte Crafford

“Coffee in our world is not “coffee” unless there is a biscuit that goes with”

The recipe: a more refined take on the traditional South African rusk, with lots of seeds. South African rusks (“beskuit” in Afrikaans) are somewhat plainer, although still absolutely delicious. Crafford’s version contains sesame, rapeseed, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, and linseed alongside coconut and bran – and the final version is probably quite nutty, though still sweet.

The Jewishness: I’ve often opined that the rusk/“beskuit” is different from the Ashkenazi “Mandelbrot” – the former is chunky and rich and very rustic, the latter is refined and nutty and terribly elegant. But this recipe reminds us: authenticity is bullshit. This is an Afrikaans rusk with many elegant seeds, this is a delightfully chunky Mandelbrot with buttermilk. Buttermilk! Our ancestors in Eastern Europe would have certainly approved – especially of the poppy seeds.

Tamatiebredie recipe in Afrikaans, with a picture

“Tamatiebredie” Kook saam Kaaps, Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker

“If you are not satisfied, you will not be very happy either.”

The recipe: a Cape Malay classic, the tamatiebredie, a luscious meat stew cooked in a surprisingly sweet tomato sauce. Sometimes it is cooked with beef, but more often – and here too – it is cooked with mutton The dish is a blend of the flavors brought by Malay slaves taken to South Africa during Dutch colonial rule, Dutch cooking methods, African meat, tomatoes from the New World, and a stewing method common to many cultures. (This admixture – contrary to apartheid and white nationalist lore – is also what produced the Afrikaans language, with its melodic rhythms and endless diminutives.) The recipe here is deceptively simple and utterly delicious.

The Jewishness: similar sweet meat dishes with a tomato sauce are common across Europe and North Africa – it is a formula for many recipes that Jewish traders brought with them from their own participation in early transatlantic trade. Sometimes it is cooked with okra, sometimes it is cooked with beans, and sometimes other ingredients are added. Of course, it is also sometimes very simply stewed meat with tomatoes – like the tabikha of Algerian Jews. This recipe may have been introduced to Dutch Jews, and then the Dutch, from the Ottomans or the Venetians – where Jews first encountered the tomato in the 16th century. Nowadays, tamatiebredie itself has been adopted by many South African Jews: I remember eating my grandmother’s slightly piquant take on it as a child.

Eierbootjies recipe in Afrikaans

“Eierbootjies” – Uitgerys, by Mareli Visser

“I like a runny egg, because egg yolk is, for me, the tastiest sauce in the world.”

The recipe: a lovely, puffy bread filled with cheese with a cracked egg on top, based on “several versions found on the internet.” The name is literally “little egg boats.” It’s hardly a traditional South African recipe, but uses the bread and eggs in such a familiar way. Like other places, South Africa too has had quite an “internationalization” of food in recent years. This recipe is presented as somewhat Italian – what with the mozzarella cheese and everything.

The Jewishness: this is basically a ­khachapuri – a delightful Georgian Jewish cheese boat often served with a fried egg on top. Differently, the cheese used is a slightly saltier and lighter sulgumi. But essentially, the recipe is the same. And wherever it is from, this is a delicious concept.

Bonus: another recipe in this book, for the South African doughnut skuinskoek, is essentially a classic recipe for the Yiddish pontshik with the delightful additions of anise and butter. I am absolutely making these for Hanukkah this year!