Reader Contributions – My Hanukkah Presents!

And now, a few mini-posts based on reader contributions! Happy Hanukkah! Though your author does not follow the prevailing American custom of giving gifts on Hanukkah, he does appreciate them.

Next month, we’ll have a guest recipe from Dalya and Adele, friends of the blog in Oxford, for her grandmother’s traditional German-Jewish Potato Salad. As quotidian as it sounds, the salad is absolutely phenomenal: the balance of flavors between sour and earthy, hearty and delicate, and sweet and salty is phenomenal. Like their Gentile neighbors, Jews in Germany took quite a shine to the potato – Kartoffel – in the eighteenth century.

Peeled potatoes
Peeled potatoes about to meet their fate as latkes. Photo mine, November 2015.

The salad merits a full-length post, but to quell your hunger in the meantime, I found through the Jewish food internet the incredible work of Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and her daughter Sonya Gropman, whose website German Jewish Cuisine is an incredible treasure trove of German Jewish culinary history and Weltanschauung – worldview. Their German Jewish Cookbook is coming out next year and I absolutely cannot wait to buy it. Check the website out here: https://germanjewishcuisine.com/.


A reader from Pittsburgh, Steffi, sent me a fascinating paper about tea and Mormon feminism that she completed in her master’s studies at Chatham University’s Food Studies program. This paper made me realize that many of you have been doing incredible work at school or in your jobs writing about food, thinking about food, and doing the work of studying food. So, if you want some eyes on something you are justly proud of, feel free to send them my way!


The cover of The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore, by Professor Avshalom Mizrahi.
The cover of The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore, by Professor Avshalom Mizrahi (Photo mine, December 2016, book is from 2002)

Our reader – and my dear friend – Hadassah in the United Kingdom has requested more Yemenite Jewish recipes. Though I have written about Yemenite Jewish foodways in the past – first on samneh and then on hilbeh – I have not made many Yemenite recipes for the blog. Nor do I have much experience with Yemenite Jewish cooking – as rich and multifaceted as it is. In honor of Hanukkah, I turned to the one book I do have on the subject – the Hebrew-language “The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore” (Ha-Mitbakh ha-Teimani: Khawaij, Ahavah veFolklor) by Avshalom Mizrahi. The book itself is a fascinating interspersion of discussions of Yemenite Jewish food practice and recipes themselves. In the book I found, for Shavuot and Hanukkah, the appealing zalabye, a sort of Yemenite sfenj:

Zalabye – Fritters – “The Yemenite Sufganiyot”

Originally printed in “The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love and Folklore” by Avshalom Mizrahi, translated from the Hebrew by me

Makes ten zalabye

½ kilo/1 lb flour

20 grams yeast

2 cups water

Salt

Mix all of the ingredients together: flour, yeast, salt and water until the rough parts in the dough are gone. Heat oil well in a deep frying pan. Roll out the dough into big balls and add into the hot oil. Fry on both sides until brown. The zalabye will not be uniform in shape.

Serve and eat hot. Those with a sweet tooth can add or dip the fritters in sugar or honey.

These fresh, hot fritters are a treat to eat on winter mornings and on the holiday of the giving of the Torah – Shavu’ot.

And, as a bonus, later in the book Professor Mizrahi discusses zalabye again: (also my translation)

Zalabye – Fritters for Hanukkah and Shavuot

The fritters zalabye, though eaten throughout the year (mainly in the time of winter), were one of two components of Jewish festivals. Yemenite Jews treated themselves to eat these “sufganiyot”[-like fritters] on Hanukkah and to be eaten especially for the morning meal on the holiday of the gift of the Torah, Shavuot.

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“The Sweat Smells”: Hilbeh and the Politics of Smelly Food

“Doesn’t fenugreek make your sweat smell?” This was the question I received from an incredulous friend as I ate my lunch one workday in Lower Manhattan: this time, a sandwich in which I had included hilbeh, the Yemenite fenugreek paste. Indeed, many ask if the pungent spice will cause their sweat to be “nasty” or if the smell might be repulsive to potential partners. Others, perhaps, see a good sign in a partner that smells like fenugreek. I’ll leave the merits of a fenugreek- or not-fenugreek-scented paramour aside to come back to the fact that everyone agrees – and biology confirms – that fenugreek is a food that “smells,” and the hilbeh I am about to introduce has a whole aspect to it beyond its garlicky, pungent taste and delightfully gelatinous texture.

Hilbeh on a spoon
Homemade hilbeh. (Photo mine, August 2016)

Before I continue, I should mention that hilbeh is one of the more fascinating dishes in the Jewish culinary canon. It is a jelly made from the ground and soaked seeds of the fenugreek plant, which has been cultivated in the Middle East since at least six thousand years ago. Fenugreek is mentioned as a typical food of the Galilee during the Second Temple period in Josephus and as common in the Mishnah, in which the plant is called tiltan. In Yemen, fenugreek, which is called hilbeh in the local variety of Arabic, became a basic part of everyday food: the dip hilbeh was and is eaten daily, and by some Yemenite Jews, at festivals as well. Even today, hilbeh is considered the mark of Yemeni identity among Jews and non-Jews alike. In the world of Jewish cooking, though, fenugreek is not a Yemenite spice alone. Fenugreek is common as a seasoning in North African, Iranian, and Turkish Jewish cooking, and also makes an appearance in the Jewish cuisines of South India. On Rosh HaShanah, many Sephardi Jews eat fenugreek as a matter of ritual – for one of the words for fenugreek in Hebrew and Aramaic, rubya, resembles the word that means “to increase in merit.”

Brown fenugreek seeds in a container
Fenugreek seeds before soaking – notice their rusty color! (Photo mine, August 2016)

It is a biological fact that fenugreek alters the smell of one’s sweat. Raw fenugreek contains sotolone – a chemical that causes your sweat to smell, faintly, of maple syrup once you consume it. Factories that process fenugreek can also emit this smell – as most famously discovered here in New York in 2009. (This smell is also why fenugreek shows up in imitation maple syrup.) The plant itself also has a particularly pungent odor. So, though delicious, fenugreek also carries the risk of changing one’s “body odor” – and many think for the worse.

Fenugreek is hardly alone in the realm of “smelly Jewish food” – every community has its foods, from odorous herrings and pickles in the Yiddish realm to the peppery sauces of Bukharan cuisine – that is, to say, more scented than Wonder Bread. (Your author politely points out, though, that the digestive aftereffects of Wonder Bread can be very malodorous indeed.) Yet fenugreek has also been one spice that is noted as pungent, in Israel and elsewhere in the Jewish community. Of course part of this is simply because fenugreek is pungent. But the lasting power is inseparable from the fact that fenugreek is strongly associated with the Yemenite community – whose food, like other non-Ashkenazi foods, was considered smelly and unsanitary for a long time, particularly in Israel. Thus I shall delve into a bit of history:

In 1950s Israel, the odors and scents of non-European cooking were heavily policed and societally scrutinized – even as those of Ashkenazi cooking were often given a “pass.” One could begin with the “reeducation” that governmental and quasi-governmental organizations like WIZO sponsored and sought to spread in the communities of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants to the new Jewish state – which largely meant pushing immigrants towards a Central or Eastern European norm of cooking. The State also subsidized European foodstuffs  – like European bread – but not, for example, the Middle Eastern pita. Meanwhile, commentary on the “unsanitary” and “unhealthful” nature of non-European cuisine was common in the media, in education, in state policy, and from more established Ashkenazi residents of the state. This, of course, all happened in a context where state policy simultaneously selectively appropriated and reworked Arab Palestinian cuisine to create a separate “natural Israeli” culinary norm.” In all of this, scent was a major factor in the day-to-day policing of food. Arab Jewish food was “smelly,” “odorous,” “caused a stink.” The smells were associated with uncleanliness, a “lack of civilization,” and ultimately – race. Fenugreek was simply one part of this history: another Middle Eastern food whose smell was not suited for the “modern” Israeli table. Even as other Arab and Middle Eastern foods became popular among all groups in Israel later on, the idea of “smelliness” or “uncleanliness” remained strong – particularly for Yemenite and Ethiopian Jewish food. A similar tendency exists in the United States, where an effective class ceiling exists for many so-called “ethnic cuisines” – fine for cheap eats, but not for an expensive dinner. Smell is a key part of that trend.

"Atzel Nekhama" - in comfort - and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv.
“Atzel Nekhama” – in comfort – and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv. Hilbeh is listed as an item available. Photo mine, April 2016.

Smell is ultimately biological. But whose smell matters and whose foods’ smell matters is, like sweetness, inextricable from the racialized social and cultural context that embeds the people with whom a food is associated. Thus the odor of fenugreek, delicious as it is, is more weighted and in some ways more maligned than what many consider the equally malicious odors of brie cheese, fish and chips, mayonnaise, hamburgers, or something with the French mushroom paste duxelles. (Or, as one reader pointed out, herring in the Jewish context – may Hashem bless the non-Ashkenazim whose nasal functions have been temporarily destroyed by our pickled fish.) The fact that fenugreek is consumed by groups not at the top of the sociocultural hierarchy in Israel or the United States, and the fact that the consumption of such spices is highly ethnicized and racialized as “other,” means that the scent associated with fenugreek and its consumption thus becomes a marker of “otherness” and marginalization. And in comparison to the smelly foods of the less-maligned, there is also an element of class: after all, blue cheese is favorably racialized and made elite in a way fenugreek is not. Or, as Pierre Bourdieu might say, fenugreek is not part of an élite habitus. So, the next time you eat and smell fenugreek – or if you do so for the first time, think about how its smell is also a sign of power – or lack thereof.

And enjoy it – for fenugreek is delicious!


Here is a recipe for hilbeh, based on those of an amalgam of Hebrew-language recipes from Yemenite Jews.

Hilbeh (Fenugreek Paste)

Based on the recipes of Hadassa Mishmor, Rahamim Keta, and “Savta Berakha” (links all Hebrew-language)

2 tablespoons fenugreek seeds

2 cups hot water

1 large clove garlic

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp white vinegar

1 red chili pepper, chopped, or 1 tsp strong chili powder

½ tsp coriander seeds

  1. Soak the fenugreek seeds in hot water, in a covered dish, for up to 24 hours. I sometimes stick the seeds into the fridge. The water will cool but needs to start off hot to bring out the fenugreek’s gelatinous quality.
  2. Drain the seeds and place into a food processor with the remaining ingredients. Blend until you have a frothy, unified mixture. If you’re using a mortar and pestle, grind the fenugreek and garlic first together, then add in the other ingredients. (In terms of time, I recommend the food processor.)
  3. Decant into a container and allow to sit for twenty minutes before serving, on bread. You can eat the hilbeh with samneh and/or z’houg. Hilbeh keeps, refrigerated, for about a week. I find that hilbeh is the perfect accompaniment to a fried egg.

Thank you to Tzeyeen Liew, Amram Altzman, Sumaya Bouadi, Mikaela Brown, Aaron David Lerner, and Yün-ke Chin-Stern for help with a few bits of this piece.

“It Gives Flavor, It’s Good!” – Samneh, Diaspora, and the Memory of Yemeni Tel Aviv  

"Atzel Nekhama" - in comfort - and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv.
“Etzel Nekhama” – “At Nekhama’s” – and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv. Photo mine, April 2016.

It’s my last evening in Israel, and my friend Tom and I are walking through the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Kerem ha-Teimanim, the Yemenite Quarter. The district was founded in 1906 by Yemenite immigrants to the Holy Land, who chose to settle in an area near Jaffa. Founded before the “original” start of the (European, Ashkenazi) city of Tel Aviv in 1906, Kerem ha-Teimanim was the center for a growing Yemenite immigrant community in the Holy Land. The Yemenite Jews who came were and still are excluded from the state-sponsored history of Zionism and Israel: they spoke Arabic, brought traditions from Yemen rather than Europe, and integrated and cooperated with Jaffa’s Palestinian population. The migration was not under the auspices of European organization, but rather as residents of the Ottoman Empire’s farthest-flung province moving to the major centers of Jaffa and Jerusalem. This, if it was Zionism, was a very different kind of Zionism. Later, Kerem ha-Teimanim was the poorer dumping ground for some of the thousands of Yemenite Jews who arrived in Israel after 1948. Even today, the neighborhood has a strong Yemenite population; streets and public art commemorate both the area’s Yemenites and the communities of the homeland, like Aden, Sana’a, and Ta’izz. However, gentrification – and the occupation of the neighborhood by Ashkenazim with money – is changing the character of Kerem ha-Teimanim. It is still, however, a center of Yemenite-Jewish culture in a Tel Aviv known for erasing all that is not secular and Ashkenazi.

But back to the walk Tom and I were taking. We had walked from Tom’s home in the north of Tel Aviv all the way down to Kerem ha-Teimanim. It was a quiet Shabbat afternoon, and the neighborhood was mostly silent. We saw the public art scattered throughout Kerem ha-Teimanim that commemorates the Yemenite Jewish people of Tel Aviv and the balad – homeland – of Yemen. On this walk, we passed by a homespun sign for an eatery that sold traditional Yemenite Jewish foods. These include the breads lakhukh, jakhnun, and malawwakh, soups, and other savory goods. The eatery itself was closed for Pesach and Shabbat, but Tom – whose ancestry is Syrian and Sephardic – and I, the consummate Litvak, busied ourselves with discussing the foods on the menu. Our eyes then turned to the bottom of the sign, which read – and here is my annotated translation:

To take away:

Lakhukh – a spongey flatbread made from a yeasted, fermented batter. It is not unlike the injera consumed in Eritrea and Ethiopia, and has the same soft, bouncy texture. Across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen in Somalia, the same recipe is called canjeero. When my mother was a teenager in Israel in the 1970’s, this was one of her favorite foods, along with another Yemenite bread – the fried, oily malawwakh.

Skhug or sahawiq – a deliciously spicy hot sauce made from fresh red or green chilies, augmented with cilantro, garlic, and cumin. Sometimes tomatoes are added too. Skhug is delicious and is also pretty easily found in Israel.

Hilbeh – this is a spread or a dip made from the raw seeds of the fenugreek plant. Those of you familiar with South Asian, Turkish, or Ethiopian cooking are probably familiar with this pungent spice. The spread is made by grinding the seeds and adding water and spices, which creates a thick sauce. If you have access to fenugreek seeds, it is quite easy to make at home – here is a good recipe.

Samneh

Here, Tom and I were a bit confused. What was “samneh?” Tom and I scratched our heads. Clearly, it was something that went on the lakhukh, but what was it? “I haven’t heard this word before,” Tom offered. Then, we heard a voice with behind us. “What are you wondering about?”

An older lady, conservatively dressed, stood behind us. We responded:

“Oh we were just wondering what samneh was.” She smiled.

“You know ghee? It’s like ghee, and it gives flavor.” And then she began to explain how she made it, by melting and straining the butter, and then adding fenugreek (hilbeh) for a smokier, tangier flavor. She was visibly happy as she explained it. “I eat it with the lakhukh and the hilbeh and the skhug, and I use it to cook sometimes too!” We thanked her for her explanation, and then she asked us a few questions before wishing us a shabbat shalom. Later, we figured out that she may well have been the Nekhama whose name is mentioned in the eatery’s name.

From later research, I learned that samneh is a clarified, fermented butter common across the Arab world – where it is also known as smen. The butter is sometimes salted after it is melted, boiled, and strained, and thyme is often added to provide a type of yeast. The result? A smoky, flavorful, fatty samneh. It seems that our passerby prepared a version that is particularly traditional to the Jews of Yemen (link in Hebrew). It sounds pretty good.

This type of encounter renews my interest in Jewish food cultures. It is all well and good to make the broad statements of who likes what, what “Yiddish” or “Sephardi” food mean, or that the younger generations “aren’t” eating your definition of traditional Jewish food. It is all well and good to buy expensive cookbooks and go to restaurants that make expensive reinventions of Jewish food. But the food ultimately comes from the people, and the way they engage with it and remember it. It is this – not any notion of authenticity or tradition – that makes Jewish food worth writing about, and I am grateful to this passerby that took the time to tell us about her samneh.