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.
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.
By the early twentieth century, a herring economy stretched from Florø, in Norway, to Kazan, in Russia, to New York, to London, and to Helsinki. Many coastal towns in Northern Europe were dependent upon, and grew rich from, the fishing industry that grew upon their herring-rich waters. Some places, such as Siglufjörður and Neskaupsstaður in Iceland, Rotterdam (link in Dutch), and Great Yarmouth in England saw huge population growth as fishing promised money to a generation of working-class men. Coastal towns – sometimes these fishing centers, but also places like Dieppe (link in French), Stavanger, Gdańsk, and Lunenberg, Nova Scotia not only had industries centered around processing and preserving herring for shipment far afield, but also provided a generation of women employment outside the home and their hometowns – and by extension, a newfound liberation. Networks of traders – many still Jewish – then brought herring from Reykjavík to Copenhagen, Cherbourg to Lyon, Rīga to Siberia, Norway to Jamaica, and Halifax to New York. Herring peddlers – memorialized in Yiddish literature – and fishmongers and shopkeepers then sold the fish to an ever-hungrier public.
Jews were involved at all points in this process, but were especially active in the preservation and distribution of the fish – which still played a key part in the diet of the poor Jewry of Eastern Europe. Many families depended on herring beyond nutrition – including Marc Chagall’s, whose father sold herring in Vitebsk. Yet as much as herring was Jewish, herring was also part of a huge economy. Such was the size and importance of herring as a fish that Iceland’s industrialization, urbanization, and independence was largely fueled by the herring and cod fisheries of the country. Even today, much of the country’s infrastructure dates from the days when that infrastructure was needed … for fish. And no doubt some of that herring ended up “Jewish.” Meanwhile a similar, also-Jewish-influenced herring industry grew in Seattle and Alaska on the bones of thousands of years of Salish and Tlingit fishing for the slightly different Pacific herring. Some of that herring certainly also ended up “Jewish,” in San Francisco and New York.
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.
Forshmak (Chopped Herring)
“La caque sent toujours le hareng.”
“The barrel always smells of herring.” – A French proverb about how a person’s origins are never forgotten
I grew up with herring. I’m not saying this to be a snob or prove my authenticity. I say this because pickled herring was constantly present in the house where I grew up. I was introduced as a young child to herring by my South African grandfather, who would stay with us for two months a year in our house in New York. He ate pickled herring almost every day for breakfast at the time – and he still, at 94, enjoys all forms of pickled or salted herring immensely. So by the age of six, I was hooked on pickled herring – be it with dill, cream sauce, “wine sauce,” or juniper berries. (As I wrote for Roads and Kingdoms, herring anywhere can send me back to my childhood.) My grandparents did not have to be present for herring either – my mother constantly kept pickled herring in the refrigerator. This was partly because she herself enjoyed the saltier varieties of herring on a sandwich. In addition, guests were often served, especially on Jewish holidays, a forshpizer of chopped herring – the leftovers of which were happily consumed by someone in the family. By the time I left for college, I had an insatiable and very homely love of pickled fish. One could say this was unusual for my generation – unless I had, like so many of my fellow hipsters, been introduced to herring at IKEA or a modern Jewish deli. (The former is not bad, the latter often does well too.) But one could also say that having grown up in New York, undoubtedly the preserved fish capital of North America – that it was destined to happen.
For many New Yorkers of all faiths, herring is a Jewish food. The city was introduced to pickled herring first by the Dutch colonists and Scottish and Irish migrants, but the most common forms of pickled herring today are those that Eastern European Jews brought with them from Poland and Lithuania in the late 19th century along with techniques for smoking fish, uses of fish, and myriad preparations of river fish. Today, shops like Russ and Daughters and Raskin’s do brisk business with a Jewish clientele seeking pickled herring, and most supermarkets with a large Jewish clientele carry at least a few brands of mass-market pickled herring. Herring is remembered by many Ashkenazi Jews as a mark of some bygone era of proper Judaism – or as a taste of a now-dying generation. Others use herring to prove their adherence to either Orthodox authenticity or a vaguely-shaped idea of Ashkenazi or “Yiddish” culture (which are sometimes combined). Meanwhile, the great Nordic obsession of the 21st-century Anglo-American bourgeoisie has catapulted the herring – also a food of “ordinary” Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Icelanders – into the realm of “gourmet” cuisine. You can now spend too much money on “Scandinavian” or “Jewish” herrings at the chic boutiques of SoHo and the Upper East Side. Herring is Jewish and homely and Scandinavian and haute cuisine all at the same time. And by some, it is loved.
We forget – I too forget – in these reveries that herring was once an oft-maligned food of poverty. In Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries – and far before that – herring, salted or pickled, was the everyday staple of the Ashkenazi working and peasant classes. It was cheap – incredibly cheap, as it was fished, preserved, and shipped in huge quantities for the day. It was readily available and filling. And, it was consumed by pretty much everyone in much of the region – herring was a common protein source for Jews and non-Jews alike in Lithuania, Poland, and Germany. As documented by Michael Wex, Gil Marks, and Claudia Roden separately, a fairly typical meal for a Jew in late 19th-century Lithuania – be he in a yeshiva, working at a factory, or at a shop – would have been a piece of herring on black bread. The fish was so common that the Latvian-born British Jewish columnist Chaim Bermant described the diet of his childhood as such: “On Sunday, one had a pickled herring, on Monday soused herring, on Wednesday baked herring, on Thursday herring fried in oatmeal and on Friday herring with sour cream.” Herring was so common as to almost be hated by many who ate it every day. Meat was the luxury that was craved, as one Yiddish-language song opines, by those who only had “a spoiled little herring.” That said, herring also tied Ashkenazi Jewry to a wider world that spanned the Baltic and North Atlantic – an entire economy based on herring and cod, and a network of cultural influence from northern Iceland to Russia closely paralleled by the fish. (This world was brilliantly documented by Douglas Murray in his recent book Herring Tales.) Thousands of Jews across Baltic Europe, and in England, the Netherlands, and France, were also employed by the herring industry, including the father of the Lithuanian Jewish artist Marc Chagall. Herring was, for many, the food on the table and what put food on the table.
I’ll discuss global herring and the herring economy in a later post. For now, let us return to the United States and Canada, where memories and tastes shifted. Firstly, tastes shifted away from herring and foods like it. In the years after World War II, increasingly prosperous Ashkenazi Jews assimilated both into whiteness and “middle-class values” in America and the food habits and tastes of their Christian neighbors. Herring – that sour, fishy, smelly food of poverty and un-Americanness, was out, canned pears and mayonnaise were in. But then herring became stylish. Firstly, the increasing fascination with new flavors by the post-hippie yuppies of the 1980’s soon expanded beyond spicy and savory to the pickled – exactly where herring sat. Then there was the fact that Scandinavian products – including herring – became an increasing marker of class status in the late 20th century. Professionals who bought Scandinavian furniture and worshipped “Swedish design” also became interested in the herring sandwiches that fed the architects of Göteborg and Norrköping. These expanded tastes showed what Pierre Bourdieu would consider a marker of elite status, a proof of high social and economic capital that was a far cry from herring’s proletarian origins. Meanwhile, a new generation of Ashkenazi Jews, became interested in the food of their own ancestors and that of their Sephardi brothers and in other aspects of their heritage like Yiddish – encouraged, of course, by the increasing commodification and celebration of heritage in the 1980’s and 1990’s – became enamored of herring as well. In addition, in a time when the tastes of Jews in the US had shifted – both to new spices and flavors and to the mainstream sweet and bland flavors of white America, herring also provided access to a memory of the “good old days” for those disturbed by the change. Russ and Daughters was now not just an excellent place for pickled fish, but the preserved proof of a “more Jewish” time on a changing (and less white) Lower East Side. Of course, some Jews – Haredim, South Africans, and an older generation – had never stopped eating herring in the first place – or doing any of the other things a generation curious as to what it considered “authentically Jewish” (read: “Ashkenazi”).
Finally, the large-scale migration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to the United States and Canada also changed the perceptions and memories of herring. Herring – selyodka – had remained on the menu in the USSR, and Russian-speaking Jews brought their pickled herrings with them as they moved to New York, Toronto, Montréal, and Chicago. So now, there is also a whole other Jewish communal memory associated with herring – not the Yiddish yesteryear, but that of a Russian Jewish memory shaped by seven decades of novy byt.
I wondered as a child why most of my other friends were not fond of herring. To a certain extent, the tart and fishy pickled herring is – was – for many of their palates a very foreign tastes. As I had noted, tastes in North America had shifted as Ashkenazi Jews largely assimilated into whiteness – which themselves were changing in what they ate and how they ate it. As Bee Wilson in First Bite and Donna Gabaccia in We Are What We Eat have written, flavor preferences in North America and Europe, led by the restaurant and food manufacturing industries, have largely centered around a trifecta of sweet, fatty, and salty flavors in the past fifty years. These tastes – along with social cues that I discussed in a post about Arab desserts – play heavy roles in everything from the flavors of a child’s first foods – formula, baby food, and “kid food” like chicken nuggets and children’s cereal – to the hip foods their parents may eat in wealthy neighborhoods. It is into this context, as Avery Robinson has noted in his work on kugel and “Jewish American foodways,” that North American Jews, their tastes, and their idea of “good Jewish food” have been assimilated. So the tart-sour, fishy-briny taste of pickled herring would be well outside this flavor profile. Perhaps – though South African Jews are very assimilated themselves in terms of food – it is my South African parents that introduced me to herring. Perhaps I was just an unusual child. The most likely thing is that I was simply introduced very early. Now, as more of my friends come to like pickled herring, the dish is used to recall not a simpler time, but rather one of different tastes.
But herring, as you may realize, is also mobilized as a mark of authenticity and continuation – in a manner I’d rather eschew. I’ve seen a few Jews discuss how they are sad “no one eats herring anymore” or claim that they are doing Judaism properly or more authentically by eating herring. This idea, of realness, is rooted in a nostalgia that the theorist Svetlana Boym noted has a habit of “colonizing the present.” This authenticity, rooted in nostalgia, does exactly that – more so than anything truly reflective of the material past. Yes, herring is traditional in Ashkenazi communities. Yes, herring has great symbolism in our culture. But eating herring doesn’t make you any more Jewish than the person who doesn’t eat it, nor is it more right than say, only eating your fish “on sushi or a bagel.” Eat herring because you enjoy it, because you want it, and share it with your friends as something to enjoy and want, not to perform your superior authenticity to address your own insecurity at something we Jews all feel bad at doing: being Jewish. Besides, let’s not forget that for generations those “authentic” ancestors you seek to ape, those “real” Jews, were often quite keen to swap herring for canned tuna and rye bread for Wonder Bread. Or that the herring they preferred may well have been sourer and fishier than the one you do. (We are also affected by changing tastes.) What you remember when you eat herring – like what I remember – is always a “colonization of the present.”
How do we remember our humble little fish? For some, it is the food that fueled Ashkenazi Jews in the past in di alter heim – “the old country,” and a reminder of a lost taste palate or an authentic culture. For others, as it might be for me, a taste of childhood in New York or Moscow. And for others a reminder of our complex statuses as Ashkenazi Jews in North America – assimilated and not. It can be all of these or none of these. And what is forgotten when we remember is just as important – whether it is the crushing poverty that most Jews in Eastern Europe faced, the headlong rush into white Americanness the “authentic” Yiddish-speaking generation of grandparents encouraged and initiated (including the change of tastes!), the class dynamics of eating the “authentic” version an often pricy pickled delicacy, or the simple fact that in a sweet-fatty world, the tart-fishy pickled herring has a different place.
And as we remember herring, we keep eating it. At least I do.
So yours truly got featured on an incredible blog by Anny Gaul, Kitchening Modernity in North Africa. The wonderful blog – which discusses class, globalization, and food habits in the middle class of the Arab world – wrote a very flattering and intellectually stimulating response piece to my earlier piece about qatayef and how we discuss the sweetness of Arab and Sephardi desserts. Gaul brought up some really incredible points in light of her own doctoral work – and cited the late, great Sidney Mintz in regards to how sugar itself became woven into domestic “normalcy” through empire, and Krishnendu Ray’s new book on how race and class mediate the hierarchy of tastes today.
Check out the post, but also read the entire blog. There are some really wonderful discussions about: how we gender or don’t gender domesticity; how coffee contributes to a culture of timekeeping; how people in Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon actually perceive globalization and food tastes; and how food changes with class, wealth, and Westernization. Check it out!
The incredible Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria and “KosherSoul” fame recently posted what might be my favorite “fusion” recipe of 2016 – macaroni and cheese kugel. The recipe – which combines the African-American macaroni and cheese with the sweet flavors of an Ashkenazi noodle kugel – looks incredible, and despite the initial confusion (cinnamon and savory cheese?!?), very tasty. Twitty’s post is also worth a read for an important lesson on the origins of macaroni and cheese – as a dish made by black slaves for white tables, with a discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s slave cook James Hemings. Take a look (and make the recipe).
Michael Twitty’s encyclopedic historical cookbook of African-American Southern cuisine, The Cooking Gene, is coming out in November. You can pre-order it on HarperCollins’ website, linked below.
Finally – as I’ve promised back in April and on Flavors of Diaspora’s Facebook page, there will be a herring series! The next few posts will be about herring, particularly pickled and salted, which has played a major role in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine for centuries. The posts will discuss memory and history, but also provide a few recipes with herring. Your humble author also loves pickled herring with a passion, and has written two pieces with herring themes, for New Voices Magazine and Roads and Kingdoms. Check them out:
It’s my last evening in Israel, and my friend Tom and I are walking through the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Kerem ha-Teimanim, the Yemenite Quarter. The district was founded in 1906 by Yemenite immigrants to the Holy Land, who chose to settle in an area near Jaffa. Founded before the “original” start of the (European, Ashkenazi) city of Tel Aviv in 1906, Kerem ha-Teimanim was the center for a growing Yemenite immigrant community in the Holy Land. The Yemenite Jews who came were and still are excluded from the state-sponsored history of Zionism and Israel: they spoke Arabic, brought traditions from Yemen rather than Europe, and integrated and cooperated with Jaffa’s Palestinian population. The migration was not under the auspices of European organization, but rather as residents of the Ottoman Empire’s farthest-flung province moving to the major centers of Jaffa and Jerusalem. This, if it was Zionism, was a very different kind of Zionism. Later, Kerem ha-Teimanim was the poorer dumping ground for some of the thousands of Yemenite Jews who arrived in Israel after 1948. Even today, the neighborhood has a strong Yemenite population; streets and public art commemorate both the area’s Yemenites and the communities of the homeland, like Aden, Sana’a, and Ta’izz. However, gentrification – and the occupation of the neighborhood by Ashkenazim with money – is changing the character of Kerem ha-Teimanim. It is still, however, a center of Yemenite-Jewish culture in a Tel Aviv known for erasing all that is not secular and Ashkenazi.
But back to the walk Tom and I were taking. We had walked from Tom’s home in the north of Tel Aviv all the way down to Kerem ha-Teimanim. It was a quiet Shabbat afternoon, and the neighborhood was mostly silent. We saw the public art scattered throughout Kerem ha-Teimanim that commemorates the Yemenite Jewish people of Tel Aviv and the balad – homeland – of Yemen. On this walk, we passed by a homespun sign for an eatery that sold traditional Yemenite Jewish foods. These include the breads lakhukh, jakhnun, and malawwakh, soups, and other savory goods. The eatery itself was closed for Pesach and Shabbat, but Tom – whose ancestry is Syrian and Sephardic – and I, the consummate Litvak, busied ourselves with discussing the foods on the menu. Our eyes then turned to the bottom of the sign, which read – and here is my annotated translation:
To take away:
Lakhukh – a spongey flatbread made from a yeasted, fermented batter. It is not unlike the injera consumed in Eritrea and Ethiopia, and has the same soft, bouncy texture. Across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen in Somalia, the same recipe is called canjeero. When my mother was a teenager in Israel in the 1970’s, this was one of her favorite foods, along with another Yemenite bread – the fried, oily malawwakh.
Skhug or sahawiq – a deliciously spicy hot sauce made from fresh red or green chilies, augmented with cilantro, garlic, and cumin. Sometimes tomatoes are added too. Skhug is delicious and is also pretty easily found in Israel.
Hilbeh – this is a spread or a dip made from the raw seeds of the fenugreek plant. Those of you familiar with South Asian, Turkish, or Ethiopian cooking are probably familiar with this pungent spice. The spread is made by grinding the seeds and adding water and spices, which creates a thick sauce. If you have access to fenugreek seeds, it is quite easy to make at home – here is a good recipe.
Here, Tom and I were a bit confused. What was “samneh?” Tom and I scratched our heads. Clearly, it was something that went on the lakhukh, but what was it? “I haven’t heard this word before,” Tom offered. Then, we heard a voice with behind us. “What are you wondering about?”
An older lady, conservatively dressed, stood behind us. We responded:
“Oh we were just wondering what samneh was.” She smiled.
“You know ghee? It’s like ghee, and it gives flavor.” And then she began to explain how she made it, by melting and straining the butter, and then adding fenugreek (hilbeh) for a smokier, tangier flavor. She was visibly happy as she explained it. “I eat it with the lakhukh and the hilbeh and the skhug, and I use it to cook sometimes too!” We thanked her for her explanation, and then she asked us a few questions before wishing us a shabbat shalom. Later, we figured out that she may well have been the Nekhama whose name is mentioned in the eatery’s name.
From later research, I learned that samneh is a clarified, fermented butter common across the Arab world – where it is also known as smen. The butter is sometimes salted after it is melted, boiled, and strained, and thyme is often added to provide a type of yeast. The result? A smoky, flavorful, fatty samneh. It seems that our passerby prepared a version that is particularly traditional to the Jews of Yemen (link in Hebrew). It sounds pretty good.
This type of encounter renews my interest in Jewish food cultures. It is all well and good to make the broad statements of who likes what, what “Yiddish” or “Sephardi” food mean, or that the younger generations “aren’t” eating your definition of traditional Jewish food. It is all well and good to buy expensive cookbooks and go to restaurants that make expensive reinventions of Jewish food. But the food ultimately comes from the people, and the way they engage with it and remember it. It is this – not any notion of authenticity or tradition – that makes Jewish food worth writing about, and I am grateful to this passerby that took the time to tell us about her samneh.
One thing I think we who are interested in Jewish food forget is that Jews themselves have heavily influenced “non-Jewish cuisines.” From cocido in Spain to the existence of dishes like kugelis in Lithuania, Jews have left their mark on so much of European and North African cuisine. In a day and age in which a certain sort of nationalist particularism determines culinary tradition – and that of Jews too – this sort of history is often forgotten. Many a “traditional” Jewish dish, I have noted here thus far, is not so Jewish – but many a “gentile” dish is! This delicacy – spinach with raisins, or spinaci con passerine – is one such dish. Though often considered an Italian specialty, this delightful vegetable medley has deep Jewish roots.
The recipe seems classically “Mediterranean,” but it is so precisely because of Jews. The fact that this dish is eaten in Italy, in Greece, and in Spain is traceable directly to the migration of Catalan Jews following the Inquisition in 1492 – and with the memories of Spain (often longed for alongside or more than the Holy Land) and the Ladino language, Sephardim brought culinary traditions with them to their new countries. Spinach with raisins was not the only dish that travelled: Mark Mazower notes that in the 20th century, Spanish Christian travelers in Greece were stunned to find Sephardim in Greece exchanging membrillo, quince paste, four hundred years after expulsion from Spain. Yet in the discussions of “Mediterranean” cooking, the role of diaspora – especially Jewish, but also Greek and Lebanese and Roma – seems to be forgotten.
I have written out the recipe here with two options: pine nuts and sunflower seeds. I strongly suggest that you use the former; the latter is an option in the case of nut allergies. I have also adjusted the spicing a little – I find that the black pepper really brings out the sweetness of the raisins. Enjoy!
Spinaci con Passerine / Spinach With Raisins
2 tbsp raisins
1 small-to-medium onion, chopped
2 tbsp pine nuts or shelled sunflower seeds – roasted or unroasted
1 tsp ground salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp white wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar
1 pound fresh spinach, lightly chopped
2 tbsp water
2 tbsp olive oil for frying
- Soak the raisins in hot water for 15 minutes to plump them up and make them less dry. Drain and set aside.
- Heat a wide skillet, and add the oil. Then, add the onions and pine nuts/sunflower seeds and sauté until the onions are slightly soft. Use a sturdy spoon.
- Add the raisins and spices and mix in thoroughly. Add the vinegar and continue to sauté until the onions are very soft and just beginning to brown.
- Add the spinach a fistful at a time and mix thoroughly with the onions. Add the water once all spinach is added and mix in.
- Keep sautéing as you move the mixture around the pan quickly – the spinach cooks rapidly, so quick movement allows for even cooking.
- When the spinach is soft and has wilted, remove the skillet form the heat. Serve warm or at room temperature – though I should note that the former is far better.
I dream of okra. This pod-like vegetable – slippery at times, ethereally soft when cooked – is my favorite, and I cook it regularly. Very regularly. I make it with lentils, in curries, stewed, fried, and even as a spread. I am always on the lookout for okra recipes – especially Jewish ones. And in a country where Jewish food is often defined as “Ashkenazic carbohydrates,” a vegetable more commonly associated with African-American and Southern cuisines is assumed to be not Jewish. But okra is, in fact, very Jewish.
Okra only made it to Ashkenazi tables in the 20th century, yet it has a long tradition in the Jewish world. The vegetable, native to Ethiopia, was present in Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant by the 13th century, where it was well documented by travelers of the period. Okra was also found by this point in South Asia and West Africa; from the latter, the plant was brought to the Americas as part of the slave trade, where it later became a bedrock of African-American and Afro-Brazilian cuisines. In the medieval era, Iraqi and Egyptian Jews likely to have already been eating okra. Ethiopian Jews also frequently ate – and still eat – stewed okra. Then, in the 16th century, Sephardi arrivals fleeing Spain for the Ottoman Empire encountered okra upon their arrival in modern-day Turkey. Various dishes with okra, including the common bamia con domates and the bamia con limón described here, entered the Sephardi culinary tradition later on. Meanwhile, okra with tomatoes became a common mourning dish among Jews in Libya…while it was an everyday food among Iraqi Jews by the 19th century. These traditions were brought to new homelands as well: meat and okra became common among Baghdadi Jews in India, while migrants to Israel added okra to shakshouka. Okra dishes remain popular in many Jewish communities – and increasingly so among Ashkenazim, though it was only after Jewish population growth in the Southern United States and culinary encounters in 1950s Israel that okra became more common among many Ashkenazim.
As popular as it is, okra can be an acquired taste. It is often slithery and slimy when cooked – and though some love its viscous texture, others are rather perturbed by it. The vegetable is not always cooked to be this way – in fact, most often it is not – but some dishes and some cooks both produce “slimy” okra that can be off-putting. That said, it is not difficult to prepare okra that is palatable to a wide range of tastes. Many cooks recommend a short vinegar bath or “drying out” the okra; I prefer to soak the pods, caps off, in hot water for a few minutes. That said, not all dishes require this technique to avoid the “goo” – though the following recipe for bamia con limón does.
This recipe is a tangy, lighter variation of a more common dish – bamia con domates, okra in a tomato sauce. Lemony okra dishes are common across the Eastern Mediterranean, West Africa, and the Caribbean (link in French); this is a Jewish rendition from the Balkans. The original recipes called for onion with the okra, but I swapped it for the lighter, yet sharper scallion. As a result, the beguiling savory taste of the okra and acidity of the lemon come into sharper focus – sweetened, in fact, by the garlic. This dish makes an excellent side for a flaky fish, and goes very well with rice. If you can, use fresh okra for this recipe.
A note for our readers: bamia is the Arabic-derived term for okra in Ladino, the language of Mediterranean Sephardim that emerged from medieval Spanish after 1492. In standard Spanish, okra is most commonly referred to as quingombó, gombo, and molondrón. Domates is the Ladino word for tomato, which in Spanish is tomate.
Bamia con Limón / Okra with Lemon
Based on the recipe of Gil Marks, published in Olive Trees and Honey.
1 pound fresh okra
4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 cup chopped scallions (about four or five scallions)
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/3 cup lemon juice (about two medium-sized lemons)
1½ cups water
Olive oil, for frying
- Remove the caps from the okra, and if you desire, cut the rest of the okra into small pieces. If you want less gooey okra, you can soak the pieces of okra for a few minutes in hot water.
- Heat a pan and add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the scallions and the garlic and sauté until soft. While sautéing, add the salt and pepper.
- Add the okra, lemon juice, and water, and mix thoroughly. Let simmer for about 15-20 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced and the okra is soft.
- Remove from the heat and serve.
- The author would like to thank Amram Altzman and James Weisbach for eating – with gusto! – one of the test runs of this recipe.
- You should all check out – now in the links section – a new blog written by your humble author’s lovely friend Harry Gao. Immortal Dumplings. The blog covers Chinese and Chinese-American home cooking from a narrative perspective, and is delightfully witty. Check it out!
Blame my friend Maryam. A couple of weeks ago, she made us all – well, all of us who are friends with her on Facebook – very hungry. Very hungry indeed. Why? Well, she had made quince jam! Her preserves – called moraba-ye beh in Persian – were lusciously red, inviting the viewer to indulge in fruity, sticky bliss. On viewing the photo, I was immediately inspired to make my own – and, in addition, reminded of something else. I was reminded of how quinces kept on popping up throughout Jewish spaces I was in: in the quince paste at a Sephardi restaurant in Israel, mentioned in the Talmud, or how quince jam was the traditional gift for departing guests in Jewish Salonica (now Thessaloniki, in Greece.) Looking at Maryam’s creation, I was reminded that, in fact, quince jam is a very Jewish recipe.
By the way, for those of you that have not had them: quinces are a type of fruit related to apples and pears. These oddly-shaped orbs are in season in the autumn and early winter and are famous for their fragrance. Cooked, they taste like wild, gamey apples – but are in the United States more commonly seen in Latin American quince pastes and jellies. The fresh fruit is certainly not nearly as common as its cousin, the apple, in North America. And, like the apple that we eat at Rosh HaShanah, the quince is a very Jewish fruit.
Quinces have a Jewish history stretching back to the Bible. Some scholars believe that the “apple” mentioned in the Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim) was actually a quince, which was prized across the ancient Mediterranean for its fragrance. So celebrated, in fact, was the quince’s aroma that the Babylonian Talmud prescribed that a blessing be recited upon smelling the fruit (Berachot 43b). The fruit was prized by non-Jews across the Mediterranean and Persian worlds too: Greek and Roman writings both made mention of the fruit.
In the medieval era, quinces remained popular in the Middle East – where Syrian quinces were famed – and in Europe, where the fruit graced Charlemagne’s imperial estates. Jews, too, ate quince for both culinary and medicinal reasons. In the latter case, quince was used against coughs and stomachaches, and Maimonides mentioned that eating quince was a remedy for headaches. Yet it was for cuisine that the quince’s complex and fragrant flavor was most renowned: and quince was widely consumed. It was found in the bembriyo paste that Sephardim brought from Spain (where it is called membrillo) across the Mediterranean after the expulsion of 1492, the quince preserves North African and Italian Jews served at Rosh HaShanah, or in the jam eaten year-round. Though traditionally thought of as a “Sephardi” food, Ashkenazim in the southern parts of the Yiddish world – Hungary and Romania today – were often exposed to the fall fruit as well. By the turn of the twentieth century, quinces were being preserved and cooked across a wide swath of the Jewish world – from tarts in France to tagines in Morocco, from quince cheese in Hungary to the jam here in Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, and Iran. One old English Jewish cookbook I found from 1907 had several recipes for quince compotes and jams.
Today, quinces remain popular in some parts of the Jewish world. In Israel – where quinces have grown for thousands of years – preserves and sweets made from the fruit are widely eaten, though perhaps not every day. Quince trees are also found in cooler regions of Israel and Palestine; my mother, who lived for many years in Israel, remembers seeing quince trees at her friends’ houses. Quinces are also common in the Sephardi and Moroccan Jewish communities of France, another quince-loving country, where treats from the fruit are eaten at Rosh HaShanah and throughout the autumn. In Argentina, quinces have been used as a substitute for apples in traditional Ashkenazi pastries.
Yet in the United States this enigmatic fruit – once common in the Northeast – remains rare and rather unknown. Not to mention that quinces are pricy and hard to get – I made a detour on my commute home to Washington Heights for the sole purpose of buying quinces from Fairway Market on the Upper West Side. In order to save money, I only bought enough for one batch of jam – but that said, you do not need too many to make a large quantity of jam. In fact, if you choose to can the jam – which I am planning to do with a larger batch in the near future – a few quinces can provide you with fragrant flavors throughout the year. Think of it as a substitute for buying jams in the store! (The price differential is pretty close, depending on the jam you buy and the amount you eat. I am a total jam pig.) Besides, food preservation has a long and venerated Jewish history: preserved foods are “essential” to many Sephardi cuisines, while jam-making, pickling, and canning were both autumn customs among Jews in Eastern Europe to prepare for a long, harsh, produce-less winter. Why not, then, celebrate this history by joining in and canning this jam?
Even before canning, though, this jam requires a labor commitment. Firstly, quinces are finicky. They have an unusual skin and shape that make peeling difficult; unlike apples or pears, quinces are not recommended for raw consumption. But like apples and pears, quinces discolor quickly. Cooking, however, reveals the multilayered lace of flavor hidden within the pockets of the quince – and though I definitely don’t recommend doing this as a regular thing, quinces cooked for a long time are worth the wait. Of course, there is also all the usual faff of jam in this: the boiling, the sugar, the time, and for some of you, the canning. But guys, really, it’s worth it.
Quince jam has also provided a window for me to learn about other traditions involving jam as well. If you, like me, have made a lot of jam that you didn’t can, these traditions are really helpful. Maryam (who is not Jewish) likes to eat her moraba-ye beh with soft cheese and nuts on bread – similar to the warm bread the jam is served with in Iran. In Spain and much of Latin America, quince jam is often used with cheese in empanadas (which I didn’t make, link in Spanish), or in almond shortbreads (which I did). In many Mediterranean countries, quince jellies are served with ice cream – which I can testify also work with your typical supermarket vanilla ice cream! And perhaps my new favorite thing, in Azerbaijan it is traditional to stir jam into your tea or sip tea through jam, including quince jam. I went through a lot of jam this way – and truly, it was fantastic.
Quince Jam (Moraba-ye Beh / Ma’ajun Sfarjel)
Makes 4-6 cups quince jam
2 pounds quinces
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 tbsp ground cinnamon*
1 tbsp vanilla extract*
Juice of two small lemons or one large one
- Peel and core your quinces. I do this with a knife since quinces can have a rather complicated and tough skin. Chop the quince flesh up into small pieces and place into a bowl. While you are chopping, cover the already-chopped pieces of quince flesh with juice from one of the small lemons or half a large lemon. (You will need the other lemon or lemon half later on.) This will prevent discoloration and allow the fabulous tones of the quince flavor to come out more in the jam.
- In a separate bowl blend the sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. Set aside.
- Place the quince pieces, covered in lemon juice, at the bottom of a big pot. Add water to cover to 4/5 of an inch (about 2cm). Place on the flame and bring to a boil covered.
- Once the quinces are boiling, reduce to a simmer and let simmer for 15 minutes.
- After 15 minutes, or when the quinces are just beginning to soften, add the sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla extract. Stir in thoroughly and bring to a boil uncovered.
- Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to low and let simmer for 1 1/2-2 1/2 hours. Leave the mixture uncovered since you need a lot of the water to cook off. Stir regularly so that the sugar blends in and that the jam does not burn.
- When the syrup is thick and the quinces and syrup have turned a ruby red color, you are close to the end. How do you know that it is thick enough? My friend’s trick to test if the syrup is ready is to 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. I recommend this method. If the jam is still too liquid, keep on simmering. If the jam is thick enough, turn up the heat, and add the juice from the second lemon or large lemon half, and mix in. Cook for another 3-5 minutes.
- At this point your jam is done. Remove from the heat and ideally from your pot as quickly as possible. If you can, follow your favorite safe canning method. The jam should keep in the refrigerator for a few weeks. Serve on bread with butter or a soft cheese, bake into cookies, cook with meat, serve with ice cream, or – my new favorite – stir into a cup of hot tea.
*You can also use cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans, but I’m too lazy to fish them out of bubbling jam.