For Each Protest, A Babka

This blog is deeply political. In a time when the American President is saying nakedly anti-Semitic things, and that children are being incarcerated, it would be deeply irresponsible not to be. Besides, like it or not, food is political! I encourage all readers to do what they can to fight for a better society. For some people, that might include protests.

Babkas on sale with a Hebrew sticker that says "Chocolate babka, 36 shekels"
(Photo Christine Garofalo/CC)

There are many articles that talk about how to go to protests. I want to add a bit of levity and sugar to this by suggesting you bring a babka to a protest. Yes, this article is ridiculous, but why not? Babkas are delicious, portable, and help you make new friends with whom you can fight – together. Different babkas are appropriate for different protests, so here is a guide for “which babka?”

  • If there are going to be many children at a protest, a chocolate babka is best. Children are often scared at their first protest: while it is fun, there are a lot of people, and a lot of noise! Chocolate is a nice treat that also helps children feel a little more comfortable with this new learning experience. Not to mention, the adults love chocolate babka too.
  • If the protest is mostly adults, a cinnamon babka also works. In adulthood, some begin to find a chocolate babka too cloying, and others – including myself – come to prefer cinnamon, which many children find a bit difficult. Chocolate also can trigger migraines in many adults, which is the last thing you want at a protest. Cinnamon is a good bet. (You can bring both.)
  • For protests about the environment, you may want to bring a vegan babka. Forget here that veganism is not necessarily better for the environment (and often is not). If someone is vegan, you respect their dietary restrictions, and many vegans show up at environmental protests. A vegan babka will probably need to be homemade. But it works, and often only one or two substitutions need to be made.
  • If the protest has many, many people, or will be outside for a long time, bring a babka from the store. It is fun to bake a babka, but in quantity, it is very hard to do. Home-baked babka also tends to be a tad more difficult to transport, unless you have the right equipment. No shame in popping to the store.
  • If the protest may have some right-wing counter-protesters, a plum babka, or any other kind of jam babka. If they try to shake your hand, their hands will be sticky! Pettiness is sometimes your friend. Also, Trump hates plums.
  • You can always bring multiple flavors! We are advocating for a world where all people have the freedom to live a fulfilling life, which ideally should include many babkas.

Remember to stay safe at protests! Follow these tips by Sam Killermann on your own safety, and don’t forget to have the contact information of a pro-bono lawyer, just in case. Your protest right is protected in the United States by the First Amendment. (In other countries, different local laws apply.) Don’t forget to hydrate. If you don’t feel safe going to a protest, or can’t make it, that’s okay! There are many other ways to contribute to a better society, and you should still have babka while doing it.

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Great Show: “Street Food”

Instead of preparing to move one day, I decided to start watching Netflix’s Street Food series. I am a big fan of street food generally – it is fun, showcases the creativity of evolving cuisines, feeds lots of different people, and is usually very tasty. (I have a special soft spot for roasted chestnuts or peanuts on the street.) The series looked beautiful too, with a focus on street food vendors and their food in ten different Asian countries. So, I turned on Netflix and began watching the first episode, about Jay Fai and her famous drunken noodles. I was hooked.

A plate of drunken noodles with seafood on a plate with an egg on the side
Drunken noodles in Thailand (screenshot from Street Food/Netflix)

The show is not just about the food, but about the extraordinary “ordinary” people who cook it. While much of the show focuses on the delicious food, most of the time is dedicated to the people who cook it – and particularly, one vendor in each episode. The chef narrates his or her story, his or her history, and his or her life. The show shines here: it makes the show about the food and its wider context. This focus is often lost elsewhere. When a food is divorced from its social or political context, it becomes easy to dismiss the concerns of the people who cook it as well. Street Food avoids this trap by plainly putting that context in your face. You cannot watch the show without noticing the influences from various places, or how people adapt to difficulties through food, or how history informs the very basis of the cuisine – and not some sort of “authentic essence.” In fact, Street Food is markedly critical of authenticity, and proudly displays new foods like Korean baffle (egg waffles) right alongside traditional fare like Filipino nilarang.

A stall with trays of food
Street food in Vietnam (screenshot from Street Food/Netflix)

Street Food is not just critical of authenticity, but also shows the dynamism of each country’s street cuisine. The vendors talk about inventing new methods and preparations – from Jay Fai’s Japanese-style crab omelet in Bangkok to Aisha Hashim’s modernization on the process of making putu piring, a rice and coconut cake, in Singapore. Scholars on the show talk about the influence of war, globalization, colonialism, or political trends on the cuisine. Western food writing and media often treats street food as something unchanging, and the show challenges that. Often, the newer foods are the most appealing – for example, the flour-based knife cut noodles (kalguksu) from Seoul.

A laughing Korean woman with a gray headband and a pink smock with pots in the background
Cho Yoon-sun, a kalguksu vendor in Seoul featured in Netflix’s Street Food, and her joyous laugh. (Screenshot from Street Food/Netflix)

Of course, the food is mouth-watering. My favorite episodes were the ones for India and South Korea. The former featured huge plates of delicious curries, stews, and fried goods, often cooked for hours at a time. The meaty Nihari stew is something I would love to try. The Korea episode was also wonderful for the food: Cho Yoon-sun’s kalguksu noodles look perfectly filling, with a luscious texture and delicious (albeit treyf) broth. The banchan featured in the Seoul episode – particularly the lotus root pickles – were so mouth-watering that I had to go get a snack immediately. And, of course, all the other episodes have delicious food too.

A bowl with a fish head by a bowl of stew with two dipping sauces. A hand holding tongs is withdrawing from the bowl.
Fish head stew in Chiayi, Taiwan (screenshot from Street Food/Netflix)

My one big critique is that the episodes are too short! At thirty minutes, one can sense that many of the stories and histories were cut short. I would love even an extra fifteen minutes to more deeply explore the making and history of some of the dishes. I would have also loved to see an episode featuring Cambodian or Central Asian street food (plov anyone?), but I also understand the difficulty of producing media in those countries.

I look forward to future installments of the series. We still do not know which countries will be featured, though I am hoping very fervently that Mexico’s incredible street food culture gets featured. Ditto for Turkey and Morocco. And, given the quality of this season, we can expect a real treat for the second installment too.

Accessibility notes: audio description is available, and all episodes are captioned in several languages.

A Reminder That Food is Political!

A deli window with a sign that says "we accept food stamps EBT" with Doritos and Lays bags behind it, and toothpaste below.
(Photo Clementine Gallot via Creative Commons, March 2009)

I often post explicitly political things on this blog and the associated Facebook page. I do this for two reasons. One is that this blog has never been, and will never be, politically neutral. It is irresponsible to talk about the food people eat without concern for how that might be affected by people’s lives, and all the things that affect their lives. The other is that, by and large, the readers of this blog like the political commentary – even if they do not always agree with it. Some are even drawn to it. That said, a few people have complained, either because I refuse to endorse their racism or their politics of cruelty, or because they believe food should be not political. “Food should unite,” one messenger told me. “It shouldn’t be subject to politics.”

Well, you will just have to deal with the political bent of this blog. Food is deeply political! In some ways, it is the basis of politics itself – what else spurred any form of governance other than the need to make sure people’s resources were managed, including food! (For good or for bad.) When we eat, we say all sorts of political things. What we eat is closely connected to our status, what sort of “traditions” we pass on to our kids, and who we see ourselves as. Even more so, what we do not eat does the same thing. Beyond that, what we are able or not able to put on the table spurs us to political action. The knowledge of how that ability might change informs how we act politically today. And the identities that we take into politics is shaped by food. Think about how much our own Jewish identity is shaped by food – and then think about how much Jewish identity gets shaped in politics. Think about how many racist things are said in the name of food being “too smelly” or “too gross.” Think about how someone’s life might be shaped by those remarks. And think about how often politicians use food as an excuse to gain power, to take away power, or give power.

Your food cannot be isolated from political discussion. It is a hard truth, and many people wish to hide behind the privilege of not needing to think about this. If you are a migrant child in a cage with irregular food access, an elderly person unable to access food because of an inaccessible environment, or a poor person unable to buy certain foods because of limits on what you can use food stamps for, you do not have the luxury to assume that food is not political. The same rules apply for an observant Jew in a country that has banned shechita, the Jewish child teased for matzah at school, or the Jewish prisoner forced to eat treyf because of the abysmal nature of prison food systems. Even when you can sit at a dinner table normally again, that knowledge never goes away.

So I ask you, if you are uncomfortable, to sit with that discomfort at your next meal. Think about the workers that grew the crops in your food, and why your food cost as much or as little as it did, and why you are eating that specific thing. Were you ever teased for eating it, if you brought it to school as a child? Did anyone call the cops while you made it? Have you always been able to afford it – and what enabled that? That will help you understand how food is, in fact, deeply political.

A Method to Check Rice for Passover, with Jay Stanton

This post was developed in collaboration with Jay Stanton. Thank you Jay!

Happy Passover! Some of you may choose to eat rice for Passover – and if you, like me, are Ashkenazi, it may be your very first time. One requirement for many people on Passover is that all kitniyot – roughly, wheat-like foods must be checked to ensure that they don’t contain chametz – one of the forbidden grains. Rice, with its small grains, is particularly hard to check.

My friend Jay Stanton was kind enough to teach me an efficient and fun way to check rice for chametz. Sharing is caring, so I will show you here. Many, many thanks to Jay Stanton for his assistance.

What you will need: a baking tray, parchment paper, an unopened package of rice, a place to store checked rice.

First, make sure that your space is well lit, and that you have a flat surface, and a comfortable place to sit. Your rice should be unopened for kashrut reasons. Make sure your hands are dry.

Choose a baking tray that has a lip. This will be helpful for making sure you do not lose rice.

Lay a layer of parchment paper over the baking tray.

Now, pour a handful of rice onto the parchment paper. Shake the tray so that the rice is in a layer that is one grain thick.

Scan the rice pile and start picking out anything that does not look like a grain of rice. In the United States, you are unlikely to find chametz, but you will find other things. For example, we found: some rice husks, some rice grains that had been damaged and discolored, and some tiny stones. If it does not look like rice, take it out and discard it. (Or feed it to a bird.) You

You may need to shake the tray a few times to spot everything.

Once you have taken everything you can see, use your finger to scan the edges to find any other impurities.

Once you are done with that, use the parchment paper and pour your rice into a sealable container or bag. Congrats! That is your first Passover rice.

Repeat the process until all rice is checked. This process also works for other small kitniyot.

A few notes:

  • Some people have the custom of checking a batch three separate times. You can decide whether or not to do this yourself.
  • If you keep a strictly kosher or kosher for Passover kitchen, you need to do this process before Passover.
  • Be mindful that where you live and the type of rice you buy will affect what ends up in your rice.

Simple Chickpeas for Purim

Purim is soon upon us; in true Leibowitzian fashion, Purim is quite possibly my least favorite holiday in the Jewish calendar. The noise! The gaudiness! The drunken shenanigans! I am perhaps too serious to truly appreciate Purim as anything other than a day for calmly reading the story of Esther and eating some delicious traditional foods. The famous food here in the United States is hamantaschen, for which I gave a recipe last year – delicious cookies that really should be consumed whenever it is not Passover or a fast day. (Including Hanukkah.)

A chickpea field in Israel with a hill in the background
A chickpea field in Israel – notice the luscious green of the leaves! (Photo Eitan F via Wikimedia commons)

But other food traditions exist too – among them, eating beans. It is said in Talmud and Midrash that Esther ate legumes whilst in the palace of King Ahasuerus so as not to ingest food that was not kosher. Hence many Jewish communities choose to eat beans and nuts on Purim in commemoration of the Purim heroine. Among those beans are chickpeas – a legume that has been part of the Jewish diet for thousands of years – as I wrote five months ago for another recipe. From the agriculture of the Second Temple Period to medieval Spain, from 19th-century Eastern Europe to today’s stylish Jewish restaurants in Buenos Aires, chickpeas have a long and storied history on the Jewish table. In the context of Purim, chickpeas have long been specifically associated with Esther herself as the food that she ate while in the palace – and have thus been considered traditional to Purim in Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities for centuries.

Chickpeas in a tomato sauce in a Pyrex bowl
The chickpeas – completed. I prefer to chop the onions very roughly; you can dice them if you would like. (Photo mine, March 2017)

Anyway, here is a simple and delicious recipes for chickpeas that you can make for Purim – or whenever. The hearty beans are paired with a piquant tomato sauce not unlike that served with chickpeas or other beans in parts of Turkey. It is very easy to make and is a good weekday dish that will also keep well for leftovers for lunches. On the other hand, it is also a very good and reliable dish for a dinner party that can please folks with many habits of diet – it is vegan and gluten-free. Even Esther, I hope, would approve in all her glory!

Spicy Garlicky Chickpeas

1 medium onion, roughly chopped

8 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon table salt

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more, to taste – I like a bit more)

1 teaspoon white wine or apple cider vinegar

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup water

6 cups cooked chickpeas (1 pound dried*)

Olive oil

  1. Heat a saucepan and add the olive oil. Then, add the onion and garlic and sauté for two minutes, or until the onion begins to wilt.
  2. Add the salt and red pepper flakes and stir in thoroughly. Sauté for another 30 seconds, then add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute, or until the onions are softer.
  3. Add the tomato paste and mix in thoroughly, then add the cup of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
  4. Remove from the heat and add the chickpeas. I recommend that the chickpeas be hot when you add them. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. When hot, the chickpeas go well with rice or noodles; when at room temperature they are particularly good with a dense bread.

*If you are using dried beans, soak the chickpeas overnight or for eight hours in water with 2 inches/5 centimeters to cover. Then, drain the beans and boil in four quarts/four liters of salted water for one hour or until soft.

Sambusak

Sambusak on a colored plate
Sambusak on a colored plate
Sambusak, about to be consumed. They are little pockets of yummy! Photo mine, March 2016.

Firstly, apologies to the regular readers of this blog for the recent “Ashkenormative” trend in our coverage. Between reader requests and the recent holiday of Purim, I got taken over by the (admittedly delicious) tradition of my Lithuanian ancestors. I promised some Sephardi and Mizrahi friends that I would not stick to Ashkenazi food alone when I began this blog, and now I need to live up to that.

In all my discussions of Ashkenazi food, I have been very keen to point out that the Jewish food traditions of Eastern Europe did not evolve in a vacuum or narrative of purity, but rather took and borrowed from and contributed to the cuisine of their neighbors. These same ideas and trends apply equally to the various Sephardic, Middle Eastern, and North African Jewish food – as I have also noted before. Many foods come from the neighbors of Jewish communities in the Mediterranean basin – and from the peoples that they traded with.

The sambusak is one such example. Also eaten by non-Jews in the Middle East, these tiny pastries – neither unlike nor unrelated to the Spanish and Latin American empanada (link in Spanish) – originated in medieval times in Central Asia with the sanbosag. Trade across the Indian Ocean, Arabian Peninsula, and Mediterranean spread these pastries across the Islamic world – the famous South Asian samosa arrived in what is now India in the 13th century, and empanadas were made in Spain shortly thereafter. By the early modern period, pockets of filled dough were eaten regularly from Lisbon to Samarqand, Dar Es Salaam to Vilnius – where Karaite Jews of Tatar descent introduced kibinai.

Sambusak with poppy seeds
Sambusak are sometimes covered in poppy seeds, too! Photo Chris Dorward via Flickr/CC

The Iraqi sambusak is just part of this tradition. Though the pastries are made year-round, their frequent triangular shape means that they, like hamantaschen in Ashkenazi communities, are traditional for Purim – when they are reminiscent of the villain Haman’s three-cornered hat. Iraqi Jews in Israel have also made the food common across the country’s Jewish population as a snack food alongside the larger, phyllo-laden boureka; Palestinian communities, meanwhile, have their own delicious, smaller version of the sambusak.

Sambusak come in many varieties. In Israel and Palestine, cheese-filled sambusak are common – especially because they are so common among non-Jewish Palestinians. Meat sambusak are traditional among many Iraqi and Syrian Jews for Shabbat, and I feel that spinach-filled sambusak have also become common. But the most common filling today among Iraqi Jews in Israel – or at least based on the number of posts on the Hebrew food internet – is a chickpea-based filling not unlike the hummus common across the region. In fact, the name for this kind of sambusak is sambusak hummus – and it is this kind for which I provide a recipe.

Sambusak Hummus (Sambusak with Chickpeas)

Based on recipes by Pascal Perez-Rubin (in Hebrew) and Liz Steinberg

Makes 30-40 Sambusak

Dough

5 ½ cups flour

1 cup water

2/3 cup vegetable oil (I use sunflower seed oil)

1 packet dry instant yeast

1 tbsp salt

2 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried basil

½ tsp ground black pepper

Chickpea Filling

1¼ cups cooked chickpeas, drained

Six large cloves fresh garlic, chopped

One dried red chili pepper, chopped

2 tsp salt

1 tsp turmeric

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried thyme

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp ground cumin

2 tbsp sunflower seed oil

  1. Mix the dry ingredients for the dough together until well combined.
  2. Cut the oil and water into the dry ingredients until you have a thick, solid, and blended dough that does not stick to your fingers. You can use a fork or a pastry blender to cut the wet ingredients into the dry. If your dough is very dry, add a touch of water, if it is wet, add a touch of flour.
  3. Cover the dough and let sit at room temperature for one hour, or overnight in the fridge. Note: it is easier to work with if it is cold.
  4. In the meantime, begin making the filling. In a small saucepan, sauté the garlic and pepper in the oil until soft. Then, add the spices and mix in thoroughly. Let cool.
  5. Blend the cooked chickpeas and garlic-oil mixture in a food processor. (Or with a mortar and pestle if you’re old-fashioned, I guess – note that food processors are beloved in the Jewish world.) When you have a thick, orange-brown mixture, set aside.
  6. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C.
  7. It is now time to make the sambusak. Look at the pictures for directions.
    1. Roll out your dough to about ¼ in/7mm thickness (you may need to do this in several batches).
    2. Cut the dough into circles of about 3in/7.5cm diameter, and push down on the circle to squish it a little.
    3. Add about a half-teaspoon of filling into the middle part of the upper half of the circle.
    4. Fold the lower half of the circle over the filling so that the edges of the lower half and upper half meet.
    5. Use a fork or your fingers to push the edges into each other to seal the pouch. I recommend using a fork since it creates a pretty pattern.
  8. Place the finished sambusak on a greased or non-stick cookie sheet or pan. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the pastries are golden brown.

Author’s note: if you are making the sambusak with another filling, the filling directions still apply.

Special thanks to Joel Hart, Ilana Newman, and Abdossalam Madkhali for linguistic assistance.

Bamia con Limón / Okra With Lemon

Bamia con limon on the stove (B+W)
Fresh okra
Fresh okra pods. Photo mine, January 2016.

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.

Pieces of okra in bowl
Prepping okra – the chopped pieces are piling up in the bowl, where they will be briefly soaked in hot water. Photo mine, January 2016.

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.

Bamia con limon on the stove (B+W)
Bamia con limon, in progress. Photo mine, January 2016.

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 limon in a bowl
A serving of bamia con limon, with an extra helping of garlic for me! Photo mine, January 2016.

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Remove from the heat and serve.

 

Two notes:

  1. The author would like to thank Amram Altzman and James Weisbach for eating – with gusto! – one of the test runs of this recipe.
  2. 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!