The question became then, what style do I use? Until recently, lentils were viewed as a food of mourning and famine in the Ashkenazi world, and were thus disdained until the early 20th century – though by 1938, when Fania Lewando’s vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish was published, lentils were common enough in Lithuania to appear in several recipes. A soup recipe was among them. In the Sephardic and Mizrahi realms, however, lentils were an everyday, quotidian, and celebrated food. The lentils used in the Mediterranean – and in Claudia Roden’s Egyptian recipe – were red, but brown and green lentils are more common elsewhere. And, of course, seasoning differed across the Jewish world – as well as the carbohydrate or presence of meat or dairy in the soup. There are as many Jewish lentil soups as Jewish communities.
I recently made my own lentil soup – a throwback to my grandmother’s recipe, but with more vegetables and a slightly sharper flavor than her very meaty and saltier soup. This soup is probably closest to a French lentil soup, but with Palestinian seasoning. I used the green lentils common in France, along with the very Nordic split peas and leeks in the place of onions. Leeks go well with lentils: their sharpness and vegetal flavor balance out the lentil’s starchy meatiness. Meanwhile, the sumac and za’atar add a pleasant bitterness to the soup – and the fenugreek adds an irresistible aroma.
Green lentils in a jar. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Sauteing the leeks and tomatoes. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Normally, I don’t tend to fall into cookbook or food book hype. Yes, I tell you about “Great Books” but that is because a lot of Jewish food books simply don’t live up to the hype promised to us by marketers, the media, and the priests and priestesses of the Cult of Authenticity. (Authenticity in cooking is bullshit.) So I was a bit nervous when I picked up a copy of The Gefilte Manifesto by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, promising that Ashkenazi cuisine was “one of the world’s great cuisines…right under our noses.” Another well-publicized book, a historical one, on Ashkenazi cooking earlier this year did not live up to hype. The authors, essentially professional Ashkenazi chefs, were proclaimed to be revitalizing Eastern European Jewish cuisine itself. That is quite a lot of hype.
Thus I was more than pleasantly surprised when I opened the book to find a true gem. This is a cookbook that celebrates the wonders and underrated glory of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine: some of the classic dishes, but some of them with a new twist. The crisp, delightful flavors of Eastern Europe are rendered lovingly, but not cloyingly. As someone who grew up with these tastes, this book is delightful. It must be even more so for those who were not as exposed to traditional Ashkenazi cooking. And the hype, if hyperbolic, was appropriate for the book. You should all buy a copy of The Gefilte Manifesto as soon as you are able.
Gefilte fish pre-khrayn…
…and post-khrayn. (Not the same ball) Photos mine, April 2016.
I will briefly state what the book is not before I go through all the things that it is. It is not a book on authenticity, it is not a book of manufactured memories, and it is not a book that makes demands of certain dishes for the reader’s Jewishness. Rather, it approaches Ashkenazi cuisine as a tradition embodied in methodology and memory, and for that alone it is valuable. As it happens, Yoskowitz and Alpern are excellent arbiters of memory and new taste. Recipes are preceded by and placed in the context of recollection – be they historical, personal, or somewhere in between. But the food that is remembered is not taken as a given – and homage is given to how memory in fact influences the way we eat.
The book is incredibly well-written, and practical too. Within the book’s contents, you have guides to dressing poultry, making kreplach, and braiding challah – and not to mention all types of pickling. Thus readers are taught at a variety of levels how to make all of the book’s tasty treats – and in language that is neither cloyingly saccharine nor sentimental.
And the recipes themselves? They are wonderful! Some of them are what are popularly called classics: matzah ball soup, savory blintzes, and the namesake gefilte fish. Others are inspired by the Ashkenazi tradition but are certainly welcome departures from the “canonical” dishes: Polish sour rye soup, kimchi-stuffed cabbage, or a gluten-free buckwheat bread. My current favorite new recipe is for a spiced blueberry soup, which promises all the tart-sweetness of yagdes and the creamy indulgence of dessert for dinner. In addition, many of the “basics” are covered – such as pickled cucumbers, farmer’s cheese, and bread. All are well-presented, and all have an eye not to the idol of authenticity in the past, but that Ashkenazi food is still in evolution.
It has been almost a year since I started this Jewish food blog, and I am only now making challah. This, I admit, is to the chagrin of many readers: since starting this blog I have been asked, harangued, flirted with, email, telephoned, texted, and Snapchatted (!) for my challah recipe. I deflected for a while: “I don’t often make challah,” I told myself. Then again, nor do I make quince jam that often. Besides, making challah is really fun.
Challah occupies a vaunted place in the American Jewish imagination. It is challah that is the marker of Shabbat, challah that is the marker of holidays, challah that non-Jews ask Jews about, challah that goes in French toast, challah that every Ashkenazi cookbook seems to include. As a bread, it’s pretty delicious, and it’s not the worst symbol of Judaism out there. That said, challah is also a very interesting example of how class and luxury intersect with Jewish practice to create a tradition that evolved quite a bit over the 19th and 20th centuries.
Challah evolved from the tradition of serving special bread on Friday night to commemorate the showbread used in Temple ceremonies in ancient times. The name itself commemorates the Biblical commandment to “separate the challah” as a tithe to the Kohanim, or priestly class. (Today, those that still follow this commandment burn the challah instead.) At some point in the Middle Ages, challah came to refer to braided, wheat-based breads with egg in the Ashkenazi world. These breads have also been called kitke, berkhes, and koylatch at various points. It should be noted here that non-Ashkenazi communities have their own “challahs” and other Shabbat breads. (Note: the Hebrew plural is challot, sometimes Yiddishized as khales,but “challahs” has entered colloquial American usage. I use the latter here.)
Challah before rising…
…and after. (Photos mine, October 2016)
Ultimately, challah is not unique. Other Central and Eastern European cuisines have similar braided, egg-based breads, such as the Hungarian kalács and the Lithuanian velykos pyragas. The recipes that we know today probably came from interactions with our neighbors and was certainly not a Jewish invention alone. Challah was historically a bread of luxury: in a region where rye was the predominant grain and wheat was pricy, one did not simply eat challah every day. Moreover, the eggs – another commodity that was not cheap before the 20th century – made challah that much more of a treat. Thus the bread became part of the special nature of Shabbat: a culinary way to set the day aside from the rye-filled workdays of the week. Having challah or any wheat bread more frequently was a sign of prosperity, having “black bread” on the table on Friday night was a sign of poverty.
Challah started out as a celebratory ritual, but has become a culinary force of its own in the United States. In a country and era with plentiful wheat flour and eggs, challah has gone from being a marker of celebrations and good fortune to being a frequent treat. One can buy challah every day in New York – fulfilling the claims of early immigrants, as documented by Michael Wex, that the United States was a country “where one could eat challah every day.” You can find challah French toast, challah bread pudding, challah grilled cheese, and I have even seen deep-fried challah. Those in the 19th century who celebrated having a challah every week would probably be stunned by this abundance. Even then, for most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States, challah is firmly a “Shabbat food.”
The tradition of making challah at home, by hand, has continued strong in this environment of industrialized plenty. Some use family recipes passed down through generations. Others add new ingredients first encountered in the United States – like chocolate chips. Some braid new patterns, others use food coloring to make “rainbow challahs” for gay pride. Making challah, like all Jewish cooking, is still a gendered practice: historically, like other culinary pursuits, it was considered a “women’s practice.” Many still consider it as such.
Many “schools” of challah exist. Some challahs are braided with three strands, others with the far more intricate six strands, and for Rosh HaShanah, braided round challahs are served. Some challahs are large and fluffy – aided by a second rising of the dough. Other challahs are dense and tightly packed – but still sweet and soft. Many people fill their challah with raisins, cinnamon, or even – as one colleague did – fig paste. Density varied historically, but sweetness – like that of gefilte fish – was a Polish trait, encouraged by the 19th-century proliferation of the sugar beet industry there. In all forms, though, challah is delicious.
This recipe is for a denser, smaller challah. The salted egg-wash gives it a pretzel-like twang; indeed, “pretzel challah” is increasingly popular. As for the density, I like challah to be cute and soft, but also able to absorb a good amount of soup, stew, or sauce. After all, I too cannot resist a piece of challah dipped into lentil soup.
5 1/2-7 cups (23-30oz/660-840g) white bread flour, plus more for kneading
1 egg, beaten
1/5 cup (50mL) cold water
1/2 tsp table salt
Sesame seeds or poppy seeds for garnish (optional)
In a large mixing bowl, mix the yeast and 1/4 cup of the water. Leave alone for ten minutes. Your yeast should “proof” and start to bubble in the water. (If it does not, you need new yeast.)
Add the honey, salt, oil, eggs, and the rest of the water. Mix well until thoroughly blended. You can use a whisk or wooden spoon for this step.
Now, add the flour, one cup at a time. Mix it in first with the spoon, and then with your hands. Flour your palms to prevent the dough from sticking. You should have a thick, but not too sticky dough, by the end.
Now you should knead the dough on a well-floured surface with your hands, also floured. Knead for ten minutes, or until you have a smooth and elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe (yes, I am serious, as are others). If your dough gets sticky, add a tablespoon of flour to your hands and the dough. If you have never kneaded bread dough before, I recommend this video.
Place the dough ball into a clean bowl, and cover with a towel or cheesecloth. Leave alone at room temperature to rise for one hour or until doubles in size.
Punch the dough down, then knead for a few minutes on a well-floured surface with well floured hands. You should once again have a smooth, elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe. Split the dough into nine equally-sized balls. If you want longer loaves, split into six equally sized balls – this will make two long loves.
Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Prepare a large tray – cover the bottom in either tin foil or, preferably, parchment paper.
Now it is time to braid the challah. Roll three of the balls into ropes about 8-9 inches (20-23cm) long (or longer for bigger loaves) and lay out side by side on your baking tray. Lay the right rope over the middle rope close to the top, so that the right strand becomes the new middle strand. Then, lay the left strand over the new middle strand so that the left strand becomes the new middle strand. Repeat, alternating, until you can’t loop the ropes anymore without extending them. Then, pinch the ends together. (Here is a nice video from Once a Month Meals.)
Repeat for the other two loves as you did for the first one. Give a few inches/centimeters space between the loaves, since they will expand while baking.
Mix your ingredients for the egg wash.
Brush the egg wash on your loaves so that the surface is “glistening” but not dripping. You can do this with a pastry brush, cheesecloth, or a paper towel. At this point, you may choose to sprinkle sesame or poppy seeds on top.
Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown, the intersection between the ropes is no longer doughy, and the challah sounds hollow if hit on the bottom with a spoon or the backside of a fork.
Thank you to the 17 of you who participated in User Acceptance Testing for this challah.
Firstly an apology: for the past while, this blog has been very, very Ashkenazi. I of course did not mean to fall into a trap of Ashkenormativity, but alas, I did and I am sorry about that. Many readers have complained that this blog can skew “too Ashkenazi” and I agree. Ashkenazi numerical dominance does not play out into Ashkenazi cultural monopoly. I will make more of an effort to be “balanced” in the future – especially because – contrary to popular misconception – Sephardi and Mizrahi ingredients and customs have informed Ashkenazi cooking for hundreds of years. One need only look at a chickpea soup recipe in Yiddish, which uses a Turkic word – via Russian – for the bean.
Sukkot, which is happening now, is a pretty fabulous holiday, and fruit is only one tiny reason for it. The holiday is of course better known for the waving of the lulav and etrog, and the eating in huts (sukkot), but it started out as an a harvest festival on the ultimately very agrarian Jewish calendar. This tradition is still maintained in that many choose to eat a “new” fall fruit (or spring in the Southern Hemisphere) in the sukkah – which may be apples, pears, or my favorite, the quince.
I talked about the Jewish history of quinces last year, when I made quince jam. These fruits have been part of the Jewish imagination since the time of the Talmud, and have remained common on Jewish tables from Morocco to Spain to Iran. Quinces have also stayed as a Sukkot treat – the fruit is in season in the fall, and smells like the etrog (citron) used in the holiday’s ceremonies.
We in the West normally think of quinces as an ingredient in sweet dishes, but in many Jewish cuisines it is also a savory ingredient – for example, the Moroccan quince tagine (link in French). This recipe is from Iran, where quinces are also cooked with rice or in a tas kabob stew. Other Persian recipesalso make good use of fruits and nuts that Westerners or Ashkenazim would normally place into savory dishes: for example, the deliciousadas polo, a lentil pilaf with raisins. The use of fruit in savory dishes is a culinary habit shared with Ashkenazim – one need only look at the red cabbage and apple recipe on this blog.
Though this recipe is normally made with meat, I made this khoresht-e beh vegetarian. It is traditionally cooked with beef and is absolutely delicious that way as well. Persian cooking and other Iranian cuisines, however, have a long vegetarian tradition as well – and in this form, a kosher-keeper could pour delicious Persian yogurt on top. (Recommended! – but with that said, the recipe itself happens to be vegan and gluten-free.)
Vegetarian Khoresht-e Beh (Quince and Split Pea Stew)
2 large quinces (you can peel, core, and dice them in advance but I will tell you why not to do that)
2 tablespoons table sugar
Juice of 2 large lemons
1 bunch fresh spinach, chopped
Grapeseed or olive oil (about 4 tablespoons)
Fresh cilantro for garnish (optional)
1. Heat a deep saucepan or 4-quart pot. Add 2 tablespoons or so of oil to the bottom, then the onions and garlic.
2. Sauté the onions and garlic for 3-4 minutes, or until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the salt, paprika, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, sumac, and honey and mix in thoroughly.
3. Sauté for another minute, or until the onions begin to brown.
4. Add the split peas and mix in thoroughly, then add the hot water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. While the split peas are cooking, peel, core, and dice the quinces. You can do this in advance but they tend to oxidize fairly quickly.
6. Heat a skillet, then add 2 tablespoons of oil. Then, add the quinces, sugar, and juice of one lemon.
7. Sauté the quinces for 8-10 minutes, or until the pieces turn golden and have softened.
8. By this time the split peas should be quite tender and the water will have reduced somewhat. Add the quince mixture and the juice of the other lemon, and mix in thoroughly. If a lot of water has cooked off, add a cup of water.
9. Bring to a boil again, then simmer for 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
10. At this point, the water should be reduced, the stew thickened, and the split peas should be very tender. At this point, you should stir in the spinach so that it is evenly distributed throughout the stew. Cook for one minute, then remove from the heat. (You can also stir in the spinach with the heat off, it will still cook in the heat of the stew.) Serve with rice or a good bread – the traditional noon-e barbarior another doughy flatbreadwould work really well for this. Garnish with fresh cilantro if you so desire.
*Do not use canned or soaked split peas! They tend to fall apart in this recipe and in other Persian stews. You don’t need to soak split peas before cooking, in any case – it is a common misconception that that is needed.
Thank you to Ariel Goldberg, Francesca Littman, Jessica Belasco, Abigail Teller, and Benjamin Chaidell for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
Picture this: it’s the late 1960’s, and my mother and her family are in a car driving through Western Europe. They immigrated to Israel a few years before from South Africa, and its their first trip together out of the country they had just moved to. For my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, it is her first time in Europe since the Second World War. As they pass through the Swiss and French countryside, her eyes are on the landscapes and plants familiar from her Lithuanian childhood (Europe is remarkably uniform in its middle latitudes). And, as they drive along a country road – at my grandfather’s characteristic crawl of 20 kilometers an hour – my grandmother yells in her strong accent:
“Darling, you must pull over! The bushes are full of yagdes! Shvartze yagdes!”
That is to say, “berries! Black berries!” Which were regularly made into jam during my grandmother’s childhood.
Jams and preserves are, to put it simply, a pretty big deal in Ashkenazi Jewish cooking. Some of these jams and preserves might be familiar to North American or South African readers: plum jam, strawberry jam, and cherry jam. Others – such as the radish or beet ayngemakhts still served by many families at Passover – may seem a little foreign. (Even more foreign to some is the Yiddish term preglen ayngemakhts – literally “frying jam” – for cooking the beets in a sugar and honey mixture.) Fruits would be picked in their seasons and made into lekvar (povidl), jams, or preserves, which would then be sealed and preserved for the whole year. This practice paralleled that of local gentile communities – whose diasporas in America still import jams from the homeland to this day. Historically, for some Jews jam was a frequent part of the diet; however, for others – in fact, until the 19th century, for most Jews in Eastern Europe, it was a special treat. When sugar became cheaper in the 19th century after the development of industrial refineries to process sugar from beets, jams became far more economical to make – and began to more frequently appear on Jewish tables. By the time of the great emigrations of Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th century, fruit jams and preserves were frequently found on Jewish tables. In her 1937 Yiddish-language vegetarian cookbook, published in Vilnius, Fania Lewando thought it useful to include an entire section on jams and preserves – perhaps indicative of her audience’s need for them.
Even today, preserved fruit shows up in a lot of places in Ashkenazi cooking, be it in desserts like hamantaschen to new recipes in books like Leah Koenig’s Modern Jewish Cooking. And, of course, Eastern European Jews in North America have assimilated into another jam-eating culture: that of White America. Though Smuckers and Welch’s, or even Bonne Maman, hold hardly a candle to homemade jam, they all draw on a long American tradition – white and black – of jam-making that dates to the earliest years of the colonial era. Much of this tradition was first expressed in the eighteenth-century marmalade – which, more often than not and like every other White American food, was made by enslaved people in the South and often the North – and not only by white housewives, as later myth would have it. This marmalade itself was brought to England by Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition there – and the fruit was originally quinces, not oranges. (Colonial cookbooks contain recipes for quince jam, and so does this blog – albeit an Iranian version.) So in many ways there is an interesting dichotomy: jam is from the “old country” of Europe, but also something that is a very old Jewish influence on American cuisines.
For this post, I made a berry jam in honor of my grandmother’s love for yagdes. The strawberries and blueberries from farms here in New York State are in season, and I bought a big batch of fresh berries to make into a jam. Blueberries themselves are native to North America; my grandmother would have probably had the very similar bilberry. My jam is a little tart, though I certainly added more sugar than my grandmother, who loved tart food, would have wanted. Feel free to add more sugar to your taste – or enjoy the tart bite that could send my grandmother into a nostalgic reverie.
makes about five cups – this recipe can be easily multiplied
1 pound / 450 grams strawberries, with the leaves removed
14 ounces / 400 grams blueberries
2 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar
1 cup white sugar
3/4 cup water
In a large pot, mash the strawberries and blueberries together until you have a thick pulp. If your strawberries are large, it may help to chop them into chunks first.
Pour in the lemon juice or vinegar, sugar, and water, and mix thoroughly with the berry-pulp.
Bring the mixture to a boil on a high flame. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to have the mixture simmer.
Simmer the mixture, stirring regularly, for 30-35 minutes, until the mixture has thickened into a jam. Here is how to check: dip a cold metal spoon into the mixture, then hold it on its side. If, instead of drops, a “sheet” comes off the spoon, the jam is at your desired thickness. Otherwise, continue simmering the jam.
When the jam is done, remove from the heat and let cool. Scrape off some of the foam (“jam scum”*) and place it on a separate plate or bowl.
Once cool, pack the jam into containers. The jam keeps in the refrigerator for about two weeks and in the freezer for three months. You can also can it using a safe method to do so, though I would recommend slightly increasing the amount of lemon juice in the initial recipe for canning, and doing so with a larger batch. This jam goes very well at the bottom of a quark-based cheesecake, between the cheese and the crust.
*”Jam scum” – the “useless” foamy bit at the top of the jam that is trapped air – has a hallowed place in much of 19th-century Russian and American literature – for in this period jam scum was a special treat for many children. One of my favorite scenes in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – and one of my favorite scenes of food in literature – is Dolly’s thought-monologue on the delights of jam scum as she supervises her maid Agafea/Agatha’s jam-making at her country house in Part Six.
The author thanks Brian Pritchett, Robbie Berg, Amy Estersohn, and Kate Herzlin for participation in User Acceptance Testing.
Read the first part of the herring series here, and the Chopped Herring (Forshmak) recipe here.
I’m wary of particularism, and particularly when it’s seasoning my food – ironic, perhaps, for an ethnic food blogger. And yet in Jewish cuisine we are plagued with the particular: this is Jewish, that is “authentic,” yet something else is a sign of “assimilation.” Any Google search can return you blog after tweet after article with this hackneyed approach to food. And in all this herring is a token of an idealized past – a lieu de mémoire that takes one back to a time when “Jews ate Jewish food, and that food was herring, and people cared about our heritage.” (I paraphrase here this rendition of history that is unapologetically centered on Ashkenazim.) Herring is “special” and “Jewish,” even if the Lithuanian and Polish jars of pickled herring taste pretty much just the same as the “Jewish” ones. What is with this search for purity and authenticity in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, made manifest in herring? It cannot just be the ghost of the fear of “assimilation” – as we happily buy into the ideas of “nation” and “heritage” Christian Europe pushes on our own myriad uses of the terms. There’s something – in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu – of trying to prove one’s status as a better Jew by showing that one’s tastes are more correct, more pure. But to do that nebulous task with herring?
Herring is proof that Jewish cuisine is anything but pure.
After all, this little fish is the one that “globalized” Northern Europe before “globalization.” Herring had been consumed on the shores of the North Atlantic and Baltic since time immemorial; by the ninth century CE, when records mention herring as an important foodstuff in today’s Norway, the fish was already locally pickled and traded around the Baltic. Around this time herring was a common food for Jewish and Gentile communities in today’s Germany, and was a staple food in Scotland and what is now Lithuania. (Pacific herring was heavily consumed in Japan and native North America, but the pre-modern herring cultures there merit separate discussions.) But at a certain point, more was needed: herring migrate long distances and often quite suddenly, and close-to-shore fishing no longer provided adequate supplies. At the same time, pickling and salting methods had improved such that the fish could now be kept for a long time, for lengthy distances of travel.
Thus herring – known as “silver darlings” in later years for their high value – quickly became a valued trading commodity: fish were brought in from the high seas, pickled, and then sold at massive markets in Europe’s fast-growing medieval hubs. Herring was one of the many commodities that fueled the medieval economies of cities like Bruges, Bergen, Riga, and London. In fact, herring was one of the main items traded within the Hanseatic League after that confederation of merchant guilds and towns was founded in 1358 – and the bounds of the League closely matched Europe’s herring capitals of the day. In later years, the development by Dutch sailors of shipboard fish preservation – and the spread of that technique across Northern Europe – again propelled herring as a commodity in the 17th century. Its quantity and cheapness also allowed the fish – highly profitable for its procurers – to become popular as a staple food across Northern Europe, from Northern France to Russia. More grimly, British colonists included the fish as part of rations for enslaved Africans – which is partly why herring remains part of local cuisine in Jamaica today. (Though a Briton might have consumed herring at home, the performances of colonial rule and domination – and wealth as a colonist – meant he was less likely to do so abroad, and more likely to eat meat.) Meanwhile, trading networks dedicated to the fish had developed in Europe, which brought herring from ships through port and market towns to tables across the class spectrum in early modern Europe. Much of Europe’s poor – especially Jewish – became particularly dependent on herring, especially in Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Scandinavia, and Scotland. Meanwhile, movements across the continent – including the Ashkenazi Jewish migration from Germany into Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary in the 13th century, later German movements to the east Baltic coast, and the 17th-century Swedish imperial expansion – also brought new preparations of herring to those areas – and expanded the trade connections around the fish.
Jews were at the center of these trading networks – we were part and parcel of what made herring happen. Let’s start in Amsterdam – where this very “Ashkenazi” fish was traded by Sephardi Jews from their arrival in the Netherlands in the 16th century. By the 17th century, when Amsterdam was the major center for fish and pretty much everything else, several Sephardic families had become vastly wealthy through trading fish – though, at least in the Netherlands, few of a largely urban Jewish community became fishermen themselves. Many wealthy Ashkenazi families in Germany had themselves become rich from trading herring in Hamburg and Bremen. Further afield and of more modest means, salesmen and peddlers traded and moved barrels across the European continent, to Lithuania and Poland, the heartland of Ashkenazi Jewry (and herring), France, and elsewhere. Some of the first Jewish settlers in cities previously banned to Jews – such as Stockholm and Norrköping in Sweden – were herring merchants, as were some of the first Jews to arrive in England after readmission in the 17th century. As the herring industry and fishery continued apace in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did Jewish involvement – especially after “emancipation” in the early 19th century in many European states. Many of the first Jews to arrive in the Scottish Highlands, Iceland, Norway, and Finland had some connection to herring. But it was hardly Jews alone who were growing in terms of herring.
Jews were involved at all points in this process, but were especially active in the preservation and distribution of the fish – which still played a key part in the diet of the poor Jewry of Eastern Europe. Many families depended on herring beyond nutrition – including Marc Chagall’s, whose father sold herring in Vitebsk. Yet as much as herring was Jewish, herring was also part of a huge economy. Such was the size and importance of herring as a fish that Iceland’s industrialization, urbanization, and independence was largely fueled by the herring and cod fisheries of the country. Even today, much of the country’s infrastructure dates from the days when that infrastructure was needed … for fish. And no doubt some of that herring ended up “Jewish.” Meanwhile a similar, also-Jewish-influenced herring industry grew in Seattle and Alaska on the bones of thousands of years of Salish and Tlingit fishing for the slightly different Pacific herring. Some of that herring certainly also ended up “Jewish,” in San Francisco and New York.
And much of what we know as “Jewish herring” – and cuisine, for that matter – comes from the contacts we facilitated or were introduced to during these heady centuries. Take herring in cream sauce – a “classic Jewish” preparation for the fish, with sour cream mixed into the pickling. Its origin? Sweden – and not a moment of Jewish ingenuity. This recipe was possibly introduced to Ashkenazi Jews during the Swedish invasion of Lithuania and Poland – an event that also marked a downturn for tolerance of Jews in Poland. Later Jewish tables were then dependent on a herring industry by and large not dependent on Jewish labor; from that industry, recipes were also taken – for example, herrings with mustard or herrings with juniper berries. Even the very basic ingredients of the herring’s pickling reflected surrounding environments – such as the increasingly sweet herrings of Poland after the sugar-beet industry took off there in the 19th century. And well – though we adjusted, redid, and reworked herring – the very fact we eat the fish has plenty to do with our non-Jewish neighbors. There was no forshmak in the Mishkan.
In turn Jews left, through herring, an indelible mark on the tastes of Europe. In some cases, the tastes were a direct contribution: for example, forshmak is served in Finland and Estonia in local renditions of the Jewish chopped herring that are very much not kosher. Meanwhile, herring is prepared with Jewish recipes by Christian Russians and Ukrainians to this day, and were popular during the Soviet Union. Yet in other cases the mere presence of herring on the menu owes a lot to the Jewish trading networks that brought this cheap, pickled commodity inland – and kept it there. How else would the sea-bound herring have then ended up deep in the landlocked countryside around Minsk? Or the favored garlic of Ashkenazi cuisine in herring dishes across Eastern Europe? The entire industry depended on Jews; even after the ravages of the Holocaust, our tastes still linger across the region. Just as “authentic” Jewish cuisine is impossible without the Swedes, so too “authentic” Lithuanian silke is nothing without the Jews.
Herring is a reminder that particularism never quite captures either the cosmopolitan majesty of Jewish history, nor the complexity of the context that inevitably surrounds it. Our tastes are not just shaped by halakha and tradition, authenticity and some “Yiddish” je ne sais quoi: they are inseparable from the Swedish military exploits of the 17th century, the herring factories of Iceland and Scotland, Russian appetites, and the spices brought by Dutch and Portuguese traders through Sephardi warehouses. Without any of these factors Jewish herring is not what it is: an element is missing, but so is the Jewishness. After all, we took in all these influences and combined them for hundreds of years – just as we did other things – taking us far from the idealized purity of yore that never quite existed. And certainly not in our barrels of fish.
Here’s a recipe for a classic Ashkenazi forshpeizer – chopped herring. More of a herring mash, hash, or puree than simply chopped, this salad-shmear is both a fishy delight and a potent tradition at the tables of Eastern European Jewry around the world. Originally invented in medieval Germany as a hot dish with fried herring, the delicacy migrated east and became cooler by the 18th century, where it became common among Ashkenazi Jews – and so common that its name comes from the word for “appetizer” in German (Vorschmack). Today, regional variants are served around the world – from the tart one of Lithuania to the biscuit-laden one of South Africa. The dish has also become popular among non-Jews in Russia and Finland, where it is traditional to add ground meat. (This combination would be forbidden under most interpretations of Jewish law.)
Growing up, chopped herring was consistently one of my mother’s favorite things – and like many, she would usually buy a store-made version for any reason you could think of. We would eat the forshmak on sourdough bread or rye with gusto. Admittedly, there are many good ones out there, and they do save you the trouble of having your entire apartment smell like fish (and a good deal of money, too). However, chopped herring is quite easy to make, and it’s a lot of fun as well. Traditionally, bread is used, but I added matzah instead to make a Passover-friendly forshmak. The flavoring is a sweet-tart one, blending both the sweeter Polish and tarter Lithuanian versions; this combination is popular in parts of the former Soviet Union.Enjoy!
2 small Jonathan apples (or another tart apple), peeled and cored
1 piece matzah, soaked in water
3 hard boiled eggs, peeled
1 tbsp white or rice wine vinegar
1 tsp white sugar
Scallions and/or fresh dill, for garnish (optional)
1. Before mixing your ingredients: if you are using brined herring fillets, you should chop them and then rinse them for 30 seconds under running water. This removes unnecessary saltiness. If you are using pickled herring fillets, just remove them from the vinegar. Squeeze the water from the matzah until you only have the softened matzah.
2. In a food processor, blend the herring, apples, eggs, and matzah. You may have chunks of apple in the final product.
3. Add the vinegar and sugar and blend again.
4. Garnish with scallions or fresh dill. Keep refrigerated for up to a week.