Snapshots of Jewish Cuisine in the Indian Ocean

I originally wanted to write a comprehensive post about the history of Jewish cuisine in the Indian Ocean. I realized that would need to be the length of a book. So I tried to do a shorter version. I ran into a similar problem. Instead, I have decided to do something a tad simpler. Rather than go into a drone, I will look at a few foods or things that show the influence of Indian Ocean trade routes on Jewish cooking. Though we do not think about the Indian Ocean much in Jewish history or Western history, it is important that we do so.

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

As many scholars have pointed out before, the Indian Ocean was the center of world trade for a thousand years, and much of that had to do with food. The flow of spices from Indonesia to India to Arabia and Africa to Europe – and within and between those places – set the stage for much of early global trade. Cloves and pepper were already traded across vast distances in Biblical times – and sugar would follow by the Roman period. After Islam came about and spread with seafarers, the region gained a common language – Arabic – and an even bigger network of traders, based in what is now Oman and Yemen. Meanwhile, Tamil emperors ruled for lengthy periods over South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. Later, the region would be a patchwork of kingdoms and empires which built their own powers on trade and maritime prowess. From there, spices, minerals, and people moved from Ethiopia to India to Malaysia to Arabia to Iran to China. Europe dealt with this world through intermediaries – and it was Portuguese and Spanish ambitions to enter this trade that influenced Columbus’ voyage to the Americas and the start of European imperialism. Nowhere was this more apparent than food. Spices were an attainable goal, and often these were spices native to faraway lands along the ocean’s shores. Cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, and cloves were items that tinged local cuisines across the basin and beyond. Dishes from traders were common from Zanzibar to Timor. Merchants from Portugal to Japan craved the same tinge of pepper.

Jewish cuisine the world over was influenced by this trade. In some cases, Jews were living on the trade routes themselves: in Egypt, Ethiopia, Yemen, India, Iran, Iraq, and Burma. In other cases, as was true of Ottoman, Venetian, and Ukrainian Jews, trade with other communities connected them to the ocean. For all these communities, the spices and foods, recipes and ideas, methods and knowledge that travelled on the seas transformed their kitchens. For examples, I will look at a snack, a spice, and a method.

Samosas 

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

A few years ago, I wrote about sambusak, a savory, filled Iraqi pastry, and its ties to triangular pastries elsewhere. The snack started its journey as a triangular pastry in Central Asia, and first became popular in the Persian-speaking world. From there, it travelled with soldiers, merchants, and migrants to India, the Middle East, and North Africa, where it sometimes went by different names. Eventually, it reached Greece and the Balkans as the boreka – named after a different Turkish pastry, the börek, which is made with boiled dough. It also reached Spain, and later the Americas, as the empanada. Jewish communities not only partook in sambusak and empanadas, but adapted them to Jewish holidays. In many communities, pastries like these are common on Shavuot.

The samosa was a seafarer, too, and became popular in the Indian Ocean region. From India, the recipe travelled eastwards to Southeast Asia, where it is still extremely popular in Indonesia. In Burma, too, it became popular – and the Baghdadi Jewish community would often serve their recipe on Shabbat. That version mixed flavors of three samosas: the local Burmese one, a Bengali one, and the sambusak recipe from Iraq. (If anyone has the recipe, please let me know!) Westward, the samosa made its way across the sea to Yemen, which already had a different version that probably came from the Gulf. There, Jewish writings mention triangle pastries as a delicacy enjoyed in urban areas like Sana’a. From Yemen, or via what is now Somalia, it hopped over to today’s Ethiopia and Eritrea, where Jewish communities also adapted the dish to local ingredients. Today’s Ethiopian Jews have brought their version of the recipe – filled with delicious lentils – to Israel and Chicago. It is also a plot device in a wonderful film about a Jewish boy named Solomon in the Ethiopian highlands, called Lamb. Later Jewish communities would also bring their own triangle pastries to the Indian Ocean shores. Portuguese Jews in Cochin mixed local samosas with empanadas, and Jews from Rhodes made borekas in the colonial cities on the African coast they went to in the early 20th century.

Why was the samosa popular? After all, cooking oil was expensive until the modern era, and samosas are often fried. (Though some are baked, steamed, or cooked in a Dutch oven-type way.) They are also surprisingly annoying to make, with thin dough and a habit of breaking at the worst possible moments. On the other hand, they are delicious. The carb-forward softness of the dough – substantial and yielding – gives way to a filling that can be spiced to almost any specification. They are most easily made in bulk, which makes them ideal for celebrations or anything in which people may be social. The effort required – even with our modern pre-made wrappers and equipment – makes the pastries special for occasions, and easily incorporated into the many Jewish traditions of elaborate foods for Sabbaths and holidays. More broadly, they are also the perfect street food.

Given that they are best made in bulk, and that frying was quite dangerous in homes until recently, samosas were, like other fried foods, a thing eaten outside the house in urban areas. Sellers, enterprising vendors, or housewives needing another line of income set up samosa stands in markets as early as the 12th and 13th centuries in Persia, and later elsewhere. The samosa joined a long line of other fried foods – doughnuts, fritters, dumplings, and so on – that extended back to the early days of Islam. Though many Jewish communities eschewed eating outside the community – and though many other communities had similar rules – Jews were likely in the markets, eating samosas, and picking up those ideas. Perhaps, they were selling them too – and giving other communities a taste for new things that Jews brought with them, from wherever they came. Like cinnamon.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon
Photo CC/Public domain

Cinnamon is the unlikely star of Ashkenazi holiday food. It is strange, when you think about it, that the bark of a tree native to Sri Lanka and Indonesia would be so frequent in the festive cooking of an Eastern European minority thousands of miles away. And yet – Tzimmes mit Flanken is not quite the same for some without the cinnamon to accompany the carrots; Mandelbroyt gain a zing with it; red cabbage with apples is spruced up with a touch of cinnamon; some enterprising cooks even add them to their matzoh balls. In Lithuania, a tradition arose of stuffing matzoh balls and Kreplach with onions fried with … cinnamon. How did this community, so far from where cinnamon is grown, come to add it to their food?

Lithuania, Poland, and the Ukraine were tied through long spurs to the Indian Ocean trade networks thousands of miles away. The trade routes shifted over time, but in the 17th century, they looked something like this: Spices from Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent were bought and sold in Cochin and other ports in Kerala, from where they were shipped to what is now Oman, Iraq, and Yemen. From there, they went over land, river, and sea to Istanbul and other Ottoman centers in Anatolia and the Balkans. From there, another round of buying and selling would happen, and traders – often Jewish – would bring the spices from there, by land or sea, to what is now the Ukraine. Then, well-worn paths would carry the spices to the centers of Poland and Lithuania. Many of the communities on these paths were Jewish, and were already trading other things as well – etrogim for Sukkot, books and halachic literature, cloth, and goods. Spices were always a mainstay. Ideas spread too – not just recipes, which flowed back and forth, but also religious ones. The heresy of the false Messiah Shabtai Zvi spread from the Ottoman Empire elsewhere on these very circuits. Contrary to the Ashkenormative and, honestly, rather twee history spun of homely Ashkenazi communities hewing to some sort of tradition that they themselves would have found laughable. Our ancestors were aware of an extraordinary world – even if they were usually too poor to access its fruits. They took what they could, and made it their own. Cinnamon was one of them.

It started, like black pepper and ginger, as a luxury good in the Middle Ages. But increased trade – especially after the Dutch and Portuguese used colonization, genocide, and slavery to monopolize the market – made the spices cheaper in Europe. Now, the trade networks flowed from Amsterdam and Lisbon through Germany to Eastern Europe, and in much greater supply. By the 16th century, Martin Luther mixed his anti-Semitism with complaints about peasants becoming addled and lascivious on black pepper. Thus cinnamon went from a luxury good for a few Jews to a luxury good for many Jews. Soon, it began popping up in many goods. Later, when sugar became more common after the introduction of the sugar beet in Eastern Europe, cinnamon became a mainstay of Ashkenazi sweet foods, and substantial foods that were sweet but often served as a meal or holiday dish, like noodle kugel. The availability of cinnamon for a comparatively cheap price from the 19th century on also made cinnamon far more common in day-to-day cooking, just like other former luxuries like sugar, meat, and white bread. Even today, much of the cinnamon we consume comes from Indian Ocean countries like Sri Lanka. One reason cinnamon became cheaper, in fact, was the reduced shipping cost of spices to Europe after the opening of the Suez Canal.

Of course, cinnamon is frequent in the Jewish cuisines of the Indian Ocean itself. The spice makes frequent appearances in Indian Jewish curries and soups, and it is sometimes included in Ethiopian spice mixtures. It is also used with some frequency by Jewish communities in Iran, especially with fruit-heavy dishes.

Stuffed Chickens

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

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

This recipe started in Iraq. Medieval Arabic cookbooks from Baghdad record poultry stuffed with bread or rice as a festival dish, or a frequent dish on the tables of nobility and the wealthy. (Among other delicacies that, sadly, did not stay popular.) Jews probably picked up this dish there, and adapted it for cooking on the Sabbath and the restriction rabbinic Jews follow on not mixing dairy and poultry. (Most Islamic schools of thought allow that combination.) The dish stayed a local delicacy for a few centuries.

Then, starting as early as the 17th century, but especially in the 18th and 19th century, Iraqi Jews migrated in large numbers to India, Burma, and Malaya – which were then under British rule. The cuisine came with them, and as these communities became established as traders, merchants, and doctors, so too the cuisines began to change. The stuffed chicken gained new versions as spices were changed, fillings were changed, or even the method was changed. (Instead of roasting, say, baking in a covered pot.) As a result, many varied versions of the recipe now exist that we have a record of.

As Jews migrated in the past across the Indian Ocean basin, other recipes probably went through similar shifts. We are lucky to have a sense of it with stuffed chicken – and the copious writing of Baghdadi Jews across the region to tell us about it. Here, we can see an example of how a recipe might have travelled. Now, too, though those Jewish communities are mostly elsewhere, other recipes travel among those countries’ majorities too. Whereas in the 19th century, it was a stuffed chicken, now, it is noodle dishes with vegetables – brought from Southeast Asia through South Asia to become popular in the Middle East. Perhaps the noodles could be a chicken filling?

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

For samosas: on Netflix, there is a cute Indian series called Itihaas ki Thali se, with short animated films on the history of various South Asian delicacies. It is in Hindi with English subtitles. There is a really fun samosa episode, that makes for a perfect break between episodes on a Netflix binge, before you realize that you should make some food – or get some prepared food.

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

For stuffed chickens, Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food has a recipe. I have not had the time or energy to try it yet – to say the least, it is not a recipe one simply walks into the kitchen to make. So, here, I leave you to the trusted care of Queen Claudia, who I trust with all my heart to guide you like the captain of a ship on calm waters.

Advertisements

Gingerbread Cake

Black and white of sliced gingerbread cake covered in powdered sugar

One of the things I do not get about Christmas, or Christian winter in general, is why gingerbread is not a year-round food. It is so very delicious. The depths of the molasses cheer me. The perk of the spices gladdens me. The scent sends me into a madeleine-like reverie. In cake or in cookie form, gingerbread is wonderful. Why should we limit it to one time a year, particularly for a holiday filled with rather irksome things? Even then, I do enjoy the sheer breadth of gingerbread products in winter. As I told one friend, gingerbread is one thing I wish we just had more of in Jewish tradition. “Picture it: American Jews, 5779. Gingerbread for Sukkot, gingerbread for Purim, gingerbread for Shavuot, ginger matzoh for Passover,” I said. I think my friend thinks I have a proverbial “spider on my ceiling” now.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that gingerbread cakes have been eaten for many holidays by Jews for a thousand years. Not to mention non-Jews, too. Spiced cakes have been eaten in Europe since at least the Classical period in Greece, and became newly popular alongside other heavily spiced foods in the 12th century. Ginger itself was traded from Asia since Roman times. Some historians claim that Crusaders brought back the treat from the Middle East, but it seems more likely that Armenian monks brought the recipe to monasteries earlier in the medieval era. (Attributing everything to the Crusaders obscures how much contact there was, and how extensive contact was, between Western Europe and the Islamic World before that.) Gingerbread became a traditional gift between lovers, and popular at taverns and at fairs and festivals. Indeed, Shakespeare alludes to it in a play. Gingerbread was also medicine: many monks and nuns baked it as a tonic for indigestion. We may scoff now, but it was probably safer than many contemporary “medicines.” And, medicinal or not, gingerbread has remained popular for longer than all but a few foods.

A medieval oven with two wooden sticks going into holes in a brick edifice, with a fire within
A medieval oven that old gingerbreads may have been baked in. (Photo Richard Croft via CC)

Among Ashkenazi Jews, ginger-based pastries and gingerbread have traditionally been popular for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, as well as for celebrations and life cycle events. Another common Ashkenazi dish, lekach or honey cake, shares an ancestor with today’s gingerbread. In fact, they were probably the same until a few hundred years ago. Jewish gingerbread and lekach derive from an Italian Jewish cake called panforte, a heavily spiced gingerbread that was introduced by Italian Jewish traders to Jews in France and Germany by the 11th century. These cakes were sold by Jews in what is now Southern Germany to a wide audience – and were widely consumed – by the start of the 13th century. However, Jews were then banned from the guilds that made gingerbread. As a result, Jewish gingerbread and honey cakes were largely only for internal consumption. These cakes were given to young boys on their first day of school, and served at weddings and circumcisions. Later agricultural advancements, such as the mass conversion from barley and rye to wheat in Europe, introduction of alkaline leavening, and the spread of sugar, changed these cakes. They became lighter, sweeter, and bigger. Ginger-based and honey-based cakes also largely separated around this time.

I find gingerbread interesting because it is a “throwback” to medieval styles of eating. Heavily spiced, darkly spiced cakes were a fixture of European elite and festive cuisine in the Middle Ages. Spices were said to carry holy odors and symbolized riches, good grace, and good living. Those who could afford it imported huge quantities of spices, and Jews were no exception. However, when imperialism made spices cheap enough for many peasants – such that Martin Luther blamed commoners’ degeneracy on pepper – the elite switched, to a much blander and less spiced diet. Gingerbread, along with mulled wine and a few bizarre Dutch cheeses, stuck it out. I am so ever grateful.

This gingerbread recipe is vegan. I made it for my colleagues, a few of whom are vegans, so I swapped out the egg and butter for applesauce and oil-based substitutes. The result is a very moist, spicy cake. You can serve it warm or at room temperature, and if you want, with a nice cream-cheese frosting or vanilla ice cream. Best of all, it is pareve, so if you keep kosher, it can end a solid meat meal. Enjoy!



Gingerbread Cake with Raisins

Serves 12-16

⅔ cup raisins

1 cup cold water

1 teaspoon rum extract

½ cup granulated white sugar

½ cup melted butter substitute or canola oil (I use Earth Balance)

1 cup applesauce

½ teaspoon baking powder

1 cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon table salt

⅔ cup hot water

Oil, to grease pan

Powdered sugar, for garnish

  1. Soak the raisins in a bowl with the cold water and rum extract for 20 minutes, or until they are puffy. Drain the raisins and set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease a 9 inch/23-25cm round cake pan, or a 9inch/23-25cm square cake pan.
  3. In a big bowl, mix together the white sugar, oil or butter substitute, apple sauce, and baking powder until thoroughly combined. Then, fold in the molasses slowly, until thoroughly combined. It will turn a gothic dark color, and the batter will be thicker.
  4. Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Sifting will ensure an even distribution throughout the mixture. If you do not know how to sift, here is a useful video. I use a wire sieve.
  5. Fold the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until thoroughly combined. You will have a thick batter.
  6. Fold in the raisins into the batter, then the hot water. Mix until the distribution is thorough. The batter will be thick, but not as thick.
  7. Pour into the prepared pan and place into the center of the oven. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  8. Remove from the oven. Allow to cool in the pan before removing the cake. Garnish with powdered sugar and serve.

Thank you to my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.

 

10 Reasons Why I Can’t Be Negative About Modernist Jewish Cooking

So my piece on Modernist Jewish Cooking got a lot of responses. And a lot of readers. It is now the second-most popular piece on the site, after my bread pudding recipe. You, the readers, seem to like it when I talk about industrial food. Good news – I have more to say!

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables: a life saver for some. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

Recently, I have heard a lot of “scare language” around processed food. Some of this was in response to my piece – people were irritated or confused that “homemade” and “industrial” might, yes, be on the same plane for some people. (Chances are that your homemade food is partly industrial.) Others were friends who were shocked at some sort of thing or other, and labeled it as “processed food” – assuming I also saw that phrase as negative. Yet as I have pointed out, most food is processed at some point before getting to the consumer. And even if we say we do not like processed food now, it is so present and everywhere that it has shaped our taste buds. This process is almost inescapable. Even “organic,” “natural” cooks hearken back to industrial food now. Processed food, like taxes and death, is inevitable in the modern world. And marking some food as scary Processed Food, and other equally unnatural foods as Good and Proper does nothing more than hide a lot of facts. Besides, processed food is far more accessible for poor people, for people with disabilities, and for most everyone.

Perhaps we should advocate for industrial food that is made by properly paid and treated workers, that is high-quality, and that is something we all have a share in.

Peanut butter cup oreo packs on a shelf
I’d rather this than a sappy story. (Photo Mike Mozart/Flickr CC)

Also, this sort of organic-romance thing becomes a performance so sappy that I suddenly find myself urgently craving an Oreo. Oreos are not even my preferred industrial cookie.  Just admit you kind of like the Manishevitz box mix, as some of us can infer in your performance of disdain.

In short, you love processed food, even if you say you do not. Guess what? So do I. Since I have no shame about this, I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite industrial food products. We can get a bit of history, a bit about me, and a bit about how I use them. They are not all Jewish, but they are all Jewish. I would love to hear what your favorite ones are too.

bowl of noodles with sunny side up egg
This stock photo describes my favorite thing. (Photo by Buenosia Carol on Pexels.com)
  1. Noodles and pasta – I eat probably too much pasta, but I do not particularly mind: noodles and I get along well. I eat a noodle product more than once a week at minimum, except during Passover. This fact of my existence is in no part due to the industrialization of noodle production and the popularity of dried noodles. Before World War II, when noodle production was far less industrialized than today, many families in Italy could only afford pasta on special occasions. Ditto for noodles in many other countries, like Japan. Industrialization made noodles cheaper and more affordable for everyone. And box pasta is still pretty damn good.
  2. Canned beans – “Beans, beans, lots of beans, lots of beans” is not just an early 2000’s meme, but also an accurate description of most people’s diets in many times in many places, Jews included. Beans are efficient little vehicles of protein and nutrients and tastiness. They are also, in raw form, a lot of work. So canned beans are a huge improvement: no soaking or precooking, just beans that are ready to go into your meal. They are also often very high-quality. I find myself cooking with canned beans at least once or twice a week, and I am still surprised at precisely how versatile they are. Almost any bean recipe not made with lentils on this blog was made with canned beans, and the lentil recipes are doable with canned lentils as well.
  3. Stock cubes and soup powder – I told you once how to make your own stock, but the truth is that I rarely do. I mostly use bouillon cubes and soup powder, because – let me be frank here – I do not have the time or energy to do homemade stock every time. Most people do not. And hence industrial bouillon was one of the first modern food products to emerge, in the 19th century, and has remained popular ever since. It varies incredibly from country to country – as some scholars have pointed out, you can learn a lot from going to the Knorr’s selection in a local market. It also adds a very reasonable amount of salt to whatever you are cooking. In Israel and a few other places, soup powder is now a seasoning, which I find somewhat salty for my taste, but I do not judge. For me, soup powder lets me add a bit more weight to stews and sauces, when I can add stock simply by making it from the kettle. Also, the stock cubes smell really, really good.

    Five brown bouillon cubes in open wrappers.
    Bouillon cubes – just as Jewish as homemade stock. (Photo Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
  4. Crushed tomatoes – My mother’s repertoire of recipes is very heavy on the use of canned tomatoes, which is fitting, given that my mother is an Italophile who grew up in South Africa and Israel. (All three countries’ populations use canned tomatoes extensively.) Like most people, I cook a lot of what my parents taught me growing up, and so I find myself adding crushed tomatoes quite a bit. They are very handy for many Jewish dishes – shakshouka and tamatiebredie among them – but also for the lazy, haphazard stews which, with rice, make up most of my meals. On a broader level, the popularity of tomatoes in cuisines outside the Americas is partly based on the fact that tomatoes are so easily canned. Otherwise, tomatoes were, until recently, highly seasonal plants that were considered suspicious by many.
  5. Canned corn – Picture this: it’s a blackout sometime in the early 2000s. A frizzy-haired Jewish woman and her tween son are grinning as they spoon corn from a can into their mouths. That was dinner. In any case, I live now with fewer summer blackouts, but still the same number of corn kernels coming from the can. Canned corn is really delicious. And, if you are not eating corn from the cob in season, it’s usually not that distinguishable from the fresh counterpart. (Even when fresh is available, I sometimes suggest canned, especially because a lot of fresh corn is not actually very good.) Fun fact: I once made a dish, and said person mentioned that he was pleased I had obviously used fresh corn. Indeed, the corn was fresh from a can that morning. On a more practical note, canned corn is a very good substitute when fresh corn is not practical, and actually keeps many of the nutrients for longer than refrigerated corn. It is also incredibly versatile – you can make so many things, including a lovely pashtida I made for the early days of this blog.

    A baked corn pashtida, very puffy
    Corn pashtida, made from canned corn. Photo mine, December 2015
  6. Jam – Ah, yes, jam. I have given several recipes on the blog, and discussed how jam became popular in the 19th century when sugar became cheaper. It is also now well-known that jam played a major role in improving calorie intake in some places in Europe in the 19th Jam was one of the first things to really be industrialized. And as much as it can be too sweet and sticky … mass-produced jam can also be delicious. Why else would I slather it on toast every morning? Jam also is a nice filling for hamantashen, and there is at least one jam that goes well with most every Jewish bread.
  7. Mass-market pickled herring I have written about my love for herring and its history in Jewish kitchens before, but I can never stop talking about it. And for every fancy herring at Russ and Daughters, there are at least thirty or forty much cheaper herrings from the big companies that jar massive quantities of the stuff. They are part of a long Jewish tradition of processing herring on an industrial scale.
  8. Canned fish – While we are at it, can we discuss the miracle of the cheap and versatile protein that is canned tuna? Or the salty goodness of canned mackerel? When I was a child, my late father and I would eat mackerel on toast together; now, I bring back the 1950s with tuna croquettes. Jewish cooks leaned in heavily into the canned fish train in the mid-20th century, and I do not blame them. When it is good, it is really good.

    Cans of pilchards, sardines, tuna, and salmon
    Yes. (Photo September 2005/Wikimedia Commons)
  9. Mass-market lemonade – I do not even have a romantic reason for adding this one; I just like lemonade. But lemon-based drinks have been popular for centuries across the Jewish world, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Jewish communities have all sorts of lemony sweet drinks on Shabbat tables around the world. The drinks vary from place to place (I am a huge fan of French lemonades) – but the lemon does not. As it happens, this is a very modern phenomenon: industrialization made sweet drinks and juices no longer a luxury, but something affordable for many people. The idea of a sweet, lemony drink in a bottle in the middle of winter appeared to our great-grandparents as a luxury from afar. Thinking about that makes me feel quite elegant as I guzzle lemonade down.
  10. Ugiot mizrahiot This one is a bit eccentric. The Iraqi cookie kaak – a round hard thing covered in sesame seeds – became popular in Israel as ugiot mizrahiot. Once the afterthought of bakers, this treat is now made en masse and packed in plastic by Israel’s biggest food companies. Sure, the kaak might be better fresh from the baker, but my Israeli relatives have developed a very, very strong affinity for these. So did my late father, who could eat an entire bag in one sitting. I am not ashamed to say that I have recreated the feat.

Thank you for reading! As a final bonus, here is one more fan of industrial food: my sister’s cat Mochi, whose diet largely consists of her preferred chicken kibble. (She is also an enthusiastic fan of canned black olives.) Mochi has been staying with me for a few months, and has graciously heard many ideas for the blog as I voiced them out. Thank you, Mochi.

Mochi the cat on a bed with an air conditioner behind.
Mochi

For an excellent critique of food snobbery in the form of a novel, I urge you to read Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody. It was originally published in French as Une Gourmandise. I have read it in both languages and thoroughly enjoyed it both times. Industrial food plays a major role in the book, but as is said in the old country, “no spoilers.”

Another blog that I just found is In Defense of Processed Food, by Dr. Robert Shewfelt. It is a welcome antidote to the mythical excesses of the food movement. I intend on reading regularly, and will buy his book soon.

Jewish Parallels, Mexican Food

Happy Secular New Year! May 2018 bring you many blessings.

Tacos with salsa onions vegetables and cilantro
Of course I had tacos. And many things besides.

I recently returned from a week-long trip to Mexico City and its surrounding areas, which was lovely in all regards. One particularly attractive aspect for me was the delicious food in Mexico – from the antojitos like tacos and huaraches, to the staples like atole, to the incredible variety of chilies, vegetables, and fish there. It is a food nerd’s dream. And there are a lot of Jewish parallels, a few of which I will point out here.

I am going to skip over the beautiful and complex Mexican Jewish food tradition, which blends old Ashkenazi and Sephardi flavors with common Mexican ingredients. Rachel Laudan and Joan Nathan have already written excellent articles on Mexican Jewish food, and the Ashkenazi-Mexican blog Challapeño is a real pleasure to read. In addition, one of the most famous interpreters of Mexican food in the United States, Pati Jinich, is a Mexican Jew herself – and has written extensively on Mexican Jewish cuisine. There are many delicious things in Mexican Jewish cooking, including gefilte fish veracruzana, where the fish is poached in a spicy tomato sauce, and guacamole topped with boiled eggs and gribenes!

Beyond this cuisine, however, one can see links between “traditional Mexican” and “traditional Jewish foods.” Modern food really began in Mexico, where the first cuisine blending Old World ingredients like dairy and wheat combined with New World ingredients like corn and tomatoes. Several of the world’s most consumed foods – corn, pumpkins, zucchini, peanuts, chili peppers, guavas, tomatoes, black beans, vanilla, and chocolate among them – were introduced from what is now Mexico to the Old World after contact in the early 16th century. Some of these, like corn, arose in Mesoamerica, while others – like the tomato and the peanut – reached the form closest to the most common ones today in Mesoamerica. As a result, there are many culinary parallels between the Mexico from where these plants originated, and the Jewish cuisines of the Old World that took a shine to them. Beyond that, many of the foods introduced from Europe by the Spaniards were those that the Jews took with them on their exile after 1492.

Enough blathering. Let’s go eat!

Atole and tamal - black and white

In the cup, you see atole, a traditional corn-based porridge or drink. It is made from corn hominy flour (masa), which is ground from kernels that have been nixtamalized. While nixtamalization did not cross over to Europe, corn did, and corn-based gruels became common in many Jewish communities. In Romania and Georgia, mamaliga and gomi are common parts of meals.

The tamale, which is also made from corn flour, was delicious too.

Huarache

This is a huarache – an oblong disk of masa filled with beans, cooked, and then topped akin to tacos or other antojitos. This example here is topped with nopal (cactus), mushrooms, and cheese. Similar topped breads or doughs exist in many Old World Jewish cuisines, such as lahmajun in the Mediterranean or lobiani in Georgia. All are portable and easily consumed with one’s hands – though I, being a klutz, do use a fork and knife with huaraches. Spanish speakers may note that this is also the word for “sandal” – and indeed, huaraches are called that for their sandal-like shape. The word  itself for  sandal derives from the Purépecha language, native to the Mexican state of Michoácan. I spoke with the cook while he prepared the huarache at a small neighborhood eatery, and he told me that huaraches initially started out as a variant on the extremely delicious tlacoyo prepared by a street vendor in Mexico City, but flatter and crispier than its bulky father. (I also ate delicious tlacoyos.) Surprised by his assertion, I did some research when I got home … to find that he was right! (The link is in Spanish.) Food, as we must remember, is ever-changing.

IMG_2196

Here is some fish for sale at the Mercado del San Juan, which is one of the most famous – if by no means the biggest – food markets in Mexico City. Many tourists come for the “exotic” foods like grasshoppers, but what captivated me more were the workaday fishmongers selling sea and freshwater fish to locals. Particularly beloved here are guachinango (red snapper), corvina (croaker), and lenguado (flounder). In Mexico, local Jews do what Jews have done everywhere, and adopted the kosher local fish as their own. Hence the aforementioned gefilte fish veracruzana, and countless fish dishes besides. The way the fishmongers described the fish reminded me of fishmongers in my father’s hometown of Cape Town: brutally honest, but still trying to get you to buy the fish. I am wondering if a guachinango-tamatiebredie might be in order.

Near the fish, I found some squash, or pumpkin (calabaza) for sale. I talked in a recent post about the long Jewish history of and love for pumpkin and squash in all forms, and Mexico is the country where it all started! The native region of the squash is Mesoamerica, and the variety of squash here is nearly unparalleled. As in Jewish communities, squash products find themselves in all parts of the meal in Mexican cuisine, from toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas), to squash flowers (flor de Calabaza) on tacos and quesadillas, to squash-based sweets.

Cactus with fruit!

This beauty is a nopal, or the Opuntia cactus, whose delicious paddles and sweet fruit are a common food in Mexico. The fruit, called prickly pear in English, is also common across the Mexican Southwest. However, many Jews associate prickly pears with Israel – after all, the “sabra” is seen as the essence of the Israeli himself: prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside. Yet all Opuntia are native to the Americas, including those grown commercially in Israel today. Prickly pear was introduced to the Mediterranean by the Spanish in the 16th century, and once there, this cactus quickly established roots in what was an ideal climate. Like many fruits, it was considered “green gold” by Spanish crews – likely to be valuable, and taken back with other plants to Europe and the Old World. Besides, other desert plants’ fruit had been common since time immemorial. Now, five hundred years later, Opuntia is so established in the Middle East and North Africa that it is considered by some a pest. Today, Tunisian and Moroccan Jews make jams from the pears, and Sicilians even make a liqueur! And the fruit itself is enjoyed by Jews in Israel, the United States, and of course Mexico.

This gorgeous nopal is in Tula de Allende, 70km north of Mexico City, which was the site of the capital of the Toltec people in the early post-Classic period (roughly 900-1100 CE). It is well worth a visit.

Quince ice cream

Ice cream is popular in Mexico as anywhere else – and perhaps even more so. I’m flabbergasted at the number of neverías and heladerías I saw, both in Mexico City and in the provincial town of Tula de Allende. This ice cream, however, is special – it’s made with dulce de membrillo, or candied quince paste! This recipe came straight from Spain, where it probably developed during Moorish rule. It is popular in sweets in Mexico – but also among Sephardic Jews, who serve pastries and cookies with bembriyo. Candied quince is also a traditional Rosh HaShanah and Tu Bishvat food among Tunisian and Iranian Jews, and quince jams and candies remain popular in Israel today. Quince jam was one of the first recipes I made for the blog, and is incredibly delicious.

Concha roll

These little rolls are called conchas, and are a roll topped with a biscuit-like dough. These are vegetarian, though fellow kosher-keepers beware: ask, because sometimes they are made with lard. Beyond that, however, they are oddly similar to the classic bulke challah role of Ashkenazi cooking: sweet, small, and delicious!

Mezcal and oranges with tajin

This is not so much a culinary influence as a fun little parallel. I went to a mezcalería to try some delicious mezcal. When my drink arrived, it came with some orange slices. I asked the bartender why the oranges had come, and he responded that it is somewhat improper, he was taught, to have alcohol without a bit of food. As it happens, I was sort of taught the same growing up in an Ashkenazi Jewish household, and the same tradition exists with serving zakuski with vodka among Russian Jews. From Die Alter-Heim to Mexico, some traditions persist!

Many thanks – mil gracias – to all those who gave great food advice for Mexico City: Dexter O’Connell, Rachel Laudan, Connie Prater, Atenea Rosado, Mordecai Martin, Tamara Velasquez, Nahime Aguirre, Hunter Owens, Hunter Kennedy, and Yael Wiesenfeld.

Kasha Varnishkes with Mushrooms

Kasha varnishkes in a metal bowl
Kasha varnishkes. (Photo mine, May 2017)

There are some Ashkenazi Jewish dishes that I can easily explain to people who are not familiar with that style of cooking. Kneidlach are a classic case of “carbs in soup,” latkes are giant hash browns, and even p’tcha is a sort of 1950s aspic, but far older. (And generally tastier.) Cabbage soups make sense in many cultures, as do soft and sweet breads like challah. But then there are the ones that find confusion among Americans – the pickled herring and poppy seed filling, for example.  But none have caused quite as many perplexed looks as kasha varnishkes – roasted buckwheat groats with noodles.

“What is buckwheat?” “Is that a health nut thing?” “You eat grains with noodles?”

Kasha varnishkes is a delicious dish – nutty and savory, with hints of carbohydrate sweetness and a touch of tannin from the buckwheat. Though it has dropped off the mainstream radar in recent years, other than a reference in Seinfeld, it is still a treasured treat for many Jews. The dish itself has a fascinating history. Kasha, or buckwheat, has been present in Jewish cooking since the 12th century, when Mongol and Tatar invaders introduced buckwheat to Eastern Europe from Siberia and China. The plant – grain-like, but botanically not a grass like wheat – was well-adapted to the climate of northeastern Europe, and quickly became a mainstay of the local diet. The groats were usually roasted for better flavor, easier digestion, and longer storage time – roasted groats can keep for months in cool and dry spaces. Kasha varnishkes initially began as vareniki, or pierogi, stuffed with buckwheat. However, the dish soon became buckwheat with onions and strips of pasta, which skipped the laborious process of stuffing the dumplings. In the United States, the recipe then became popular with bowtie pasta, made initially in imitation of the Italian farfalle. Today, kasha varnishkes is almost always made with this pasta.

In this preparation, I made the kasha varnishkes with mushrooms. Kasha with mushrooms is another Jewish recipe with a long history – it was a particular favorite in pre-war Lithuania. Today one does not encounter kasha varnishkes with mushrooms too often in Jewish spaces, but the meatiness of the mushrooms complements the buckwheat quite well. Alone this dish is a delicious meal – especially with an egg – but it also makes a wonderful side dish.

Kasha Varnishkes with Mushrooms

2 cups buckwheat groats

1 lb bowtie pasta

1 lb white mushrooms, chopped

1 medium onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon white vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Water

Vegetable oil, schmaltz, or butter

  1. If your buckwheat groats are not roasted, roast the buckwheat groats first. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C, and lay out the groats flat on a cookie sheet or a big pan. Roast the groats for 15 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Remove from the oven.
  2. Cook the bowtie pasta according to package instructions – generally speaking, about nine minutes in briskly boiling salted water. Set aside.
  3. In the meantime, heat a pan. Add oil, and then the onions and garlic. Sauté for a minute or until the onions begin to soften.
  4. Add the mushrooms, vinegar, salt, and pepper to the onion-garlic mixture. Sauté for another five to ten minutes, stirring regularly, or until the mushrooms have softened. When the mushrooms are soft and the onions very soft, remove from the heat.
  5. In the meantime, bring four cups of water to a boil. When the water is boiling, add the buckwheat groats. Simmer, stirring regularly, for ten minutes, or until the buckwheat has absorbed all the water and is soft to the tooth.*
  6. Mix the components together: pasta, buckwheat, and the mushroom mixture. They should be evenly distributed. I mix the pasta and mushrooms first, then the buckwheat. Serve hot or warm.

*Some people claim that coating the groats in beaten egg helps them not to stick together. I counter that if your buckwheat is too sticky, you have added too much water. Besides, fluffing with a fork is a very easy way to fix this problem.

Thank you to Ziva Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

BONUS: For another great variation on kasha varnishkes, check out The Gefilte Manifesto‘s version with crisp Brussels sprouts!

Great Books: Out of the East

We have a common image of Western European food as bland and boring. Not spiced or subtly spiced in the hopes of bringing out a “natural” flavor or one that does not cause “excitement,” Western food is seen as nearly flavorless except in the hands of the most seasoned cooks. Many abhor it, while white nationalists and racists claim it as a heritage rather than the supposedly malodorous cuisine of “Other” groups. Even in the Jewish realm, traditional Ashkenazi food is narrated as “bland” (a patent myth). And in all this, the food of the medieval ancestors – idealized by the right, misunderstood by the left – is assumed to be much the same, save for the potato and corn from the Americas. Bland, and certainly not spicy.

Manuscript illustration of Richard II dining with his dukes in a lavishly decorated dining room.
Richard II dining – and drinking – with his dukes in the Chronique d’Angleterre (Bruges, late 15th century). The boat probably contains salt. (British Library, public domain)

But what if I was to tell you that…this was not the case? That the high cuisine of Medieval Europe more closely resembled the fragrances of Middle Eastern and Indian traditions today? That ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper permeated the tables of the wealthy? That the idealized bland cuisine of Europe would have been looked down upon by the who’s who of Medieval Europe?

For that is indeed the case.

Paul Freedman’s Out of the East: Spices in the Medieval Imagination is a revelation. The book is a holistic examination of the way that Medieval Europe was shaped and changed by the spice trade, which through circuitous means brought pepper, nutmeg, cloves, galangal and other spices from India, Indonesia, and West Africa to the (generally wealthier) tables of Europe. In Europe, a cuisine emerged of deeply spiced dishes – often referring similar ones in Muslim countries – that would resemble more closely the Indian or North African cuisine of today than any Western European forebears (save, perhaps, that of Spain). Spices touched on morality – for Protestant thinkers protested the “moral decay” spices induced – and on status – for one could show wealth with many judiciously used spices. And so too were the sweet and spicy aromas and tastes of seasonings associated with the divine – it was said that the corpses of saints smelled of cloves, as did the Garden of Eden. Indeed spices ruled the imagination – as they did politics.

Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter - men and women dressed in gold eating confections and drinking, with a bearded servant and a young boy in a scarf attending
Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter (England, 14th century). Many of the confections being consumed were probably heavily spiced in real life. (British Library, public domain)

Traced too are the culinary roots of modern political systems. Globalization in many ways is rooted in the spice trade that stretched to what was then the far corners of the earth, bringing cloves from Eastern Indonesia all the way to Portugal. Colonialism – and the European encounter with the New World – took off on a search for spices, and it was control over the spice trade that brought the Dutch to begin four centuries of varied power in Indonesia, culminating in colonial rule. Capitalism, in many ways, also began with the trade in spices. Though the book is about flavors of then, Freedman deftly hints at the continued consequences of the medieval hunt for certain tastes today.

Over the course of the book’s ten chapters, Freedman makes short shrift of many common myths about food and globalization. Many have always sought food from afar and to escape what Rachel Laudan poetically termed “the tyranny of the local.” To claim that today’s so-called “authentic” European cuisine has a form untouched by trade is to trade in mythmaking. Spices are proof that Europe’s food has referred to others and depended on others since ancient times, as Freedman clearly shows. In addition, European food has not always been “bland” or dependent on herbs for flavor. Once upon a time, the high cuisine of France and England was also spicy and pungent and peppery – and bland was certainly not a flavor pursued before the abnegations of the Protestant Reformation. And then there is this matter of medieval European cuisine: it was not always the same, and it was never solely rooted in Europe. What we consider modern French or European cuisine only arose in the seventeenth century, and the knights and dames of the High Middle Ages would probably feel more at home with Moroccan or Palestinian food than what white nationalists or anti-globalists seem to call their heritage today.

Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica, with ink illustrations of the flowers
Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides De Materia Medica. Cumin and dill seeds were popular spices in many medieval communities. (British Museum, public domain)

In a time when white supremacists seek an idealized and fake medieval “authenticity” to justify their disgusting aims, Out of the East is a reminder of a cosmopolitan medieval world. Not to say that racism didn’t exist – it certainly did, as did strange myths about the people of the lands from which spices came. Rather, it was that the knights and nobles of Europe in the Middle Ages looked far afield for inspiration, for thought, and to furnish their tables. It was not home cooking that was seen as worthy of celebration, but rather one that spoke of networks reaching across the Earth. Meanwhile, those of lower rank in the medieval hierarchy sought to imitate the elite with similar spicing – such that pepper, a plant grown in India, became common. Muslim Arabs may have been a theological opponent, but in every way the culture was dependent on them – much as we in the United States eat indigenous foods like corn and rely on immigrant labor today. Some things never change, and some things always go against nationalist histories.

Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Rylands Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain.  The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb's blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. (
Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Ryland Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain. The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb’s blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. Medieval Sephardic cuisine was, like its Spanish and Arab neighbors, highly spiced. (University of Manchester, public domain via Arizona Jewish Post).

What implications does this history have for discussing Jewish cuisine? Firstly, we may need to reconsider what medieval Ashkenazim considered “typical” of high Jewish cuisine. This step goes beyond remembering that potatoes only arrived in Eastern Europe in the late 18th century – rather, it indicates that what “good eating” looked like, even for the poor, was vastly different from today. The black pepper of Lithuanian Jewish cooking and the tang of many Hungarian dishes is a remnant of what once may have been a highly festive cuisine – and, if Gil Marks’ z”l research is any indication, certainly was. Secondly, we also can better understand now as well the ways in which Sephardic cuisine differs from that of Spain – in that many of the spices were kept in exile even as Spain moved on to different flavorings in the modern era. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a reminder that Jewish cuisine went under exactly the same influences as other cuisines – and is as much a product of trade and interchange as it is of preserved tradition.

Out of the East: Spices in the Medieval Imagination, by Paul Freedman. Yale, 2008

A shout-out of thanks to Estara Arrant, Hadas Binyamini, Avital Morris, and Douglas Graebner, without whose wisdom I would never have learned to navigate reams of images of medieval manuscripts.

The Cosmopolitan Herring (The Barrel Always Smells of Herring II)

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?

Georg Flegel - Stilleben mit Hering und Bartmannskrug, 1600
Georg Flegel – Stilleben mit Hering und Bartmannskrug, 1600. Flegel spent part of his life in the major herring trade town of Utrecht, in the Netherlands.

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.

Soused herring in the Netherlands.
Soused herring in the Netherlands. (Photo Takeaway via Wikimedia/CC)

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.

An Icelandic postage stamp with herring.
An Icelandic postage stamp with herring. Iceland’s independence was partly funded by herring. (Photo via Wikipedia)

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.

Siglufjörður harbor
The herring town of Siglufjörður in northern Iceland, which boomed in the early 20th century as a result of the herring trade. (Photo Hansueli Krapf via Wikimedia/CC)

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.

herring refrigerator at a Polish supermarket
The herring refrigerator at a Polish supermarket in Brooklyn – with many herrings identical to the “Jewish” ones of an Ashkenazi synagogue kiddush. (Photo mine, January 2016.)

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 on potato pancakes
Herring on potato pancakes in Vilnius. (Photo mine, March 2015)

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.