As a resident of Washington Heights, I see plantains everywhere. The Dominican community that calls this neighborhood home – and, in fact, predominates in much of it – has ensured that the beloved and delicious starch of the Dominican Republic is available in any food store in the Heights. Cheaply, too. Like many Jews in the Heights (where we are another major constituency), I have also converted to having plantains as a regular part of my diet – be they boiled, steamed, fried, chopped up and put into soup, baked….
One dear reader, Mia Rachel Warshofsky, pointed out to me that fried plantains – the most traditional and delicious but by far the unhealthiest method of preparation – are traditional for Hanukkah in some Latin American Jewish communities. Given that I now live in another land of plantains, and, well, why not, I decided to make some for Hanukkah. Plantains are certainly less work than latkes – I was already frying them as an occasional treat – and also have a wonderful taste. I am very glad to have been informed of and introduced to this tradition. Thanks Mia!
And let’s not forget: plantains are a very important potential carbohydrate for another holiday as well. The Dominican-American Jewish blogger Aliza Hausman wrote this wonderful guide to plantains for Passover, which I strongly recommend reading, along with the rest of her blog.
How to Fry Your Hanukkah Plantains
…to chopped plantains…
…to frying plantains…
…to almost fried plantains…
…to fried plantains.
Make sure you have sweet plantains – yellow and/or black on the outside. Green plantains, though also delicious, require a bit more work. Maybe I will cook them some other time for you guys.
Peel the plantains and cut them into discs.
An optional step: some people claim that if you dip the pieces of plantain into salt water ever so briefly, they will be more tender. I don’t notice a difference, but will note it here.
Heat a pan and add a good layer of oil – I would say at least ½ a centimeter or ¼ of an inch deep.
Add the plantain discs, one disc side down, to the oil, and fry on each side until golden.
Remove from pan when both sides are golden or caramelized-brown. Serve with spices, sugar, or a combination thereof! (The ones in the picture have salt, cinnamon, sugar, and white pepper on them. They may or may not have been dinner.)
If you ask most American Jews about Hanukkah, they will immediately think of a few things: candles, winter, and latkes. The latter – delicious potato fritters – are so popular that many non-Jews start to harangue their Jewish friends in late November: “when are the latkes coming?” Indeed, I have been so harangued. There is something delightfully heimish (cozy and warm-feelings) about biting into the starchy goodness of a freshly fried latke; it is, perhaps, one of the best parts of Hanukkah.
As I wrote in my post about doughnuts, Hanukkah has the delightful tradition of foods fried in fantastic amounts of oil. This tradition sources from the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple, where – after prizing the Temple from Greek occupiers – the Maccabees only found one day’s worth of oil, which burned for eight days in the ritual menorah. From this incident comes the command to eat oily food – and why make a salad dressing when you can fry stuff? Already in the Middle Ages, fritters were a common Hanukkah food – the word latke, meaning patch, probably emerged then. When the potato reached Eastern Europe in the 18th century, they were simply integrated into the tradition. And boy, are we grateful.
People always ask me about “authentic” latkes, but I prefer to note how the latke undoes our notions of “authenticity.” Firstly, these are considered by some to be a quintessential and timeless Ashkenazi Jewish food, but they only reached their current form in the past two centuries, after the potato had become common across Eastern Europe. Secondly, potato pancakes are pretty common across Europe, be they Lithuanian blynai or Swiss rösti or Slovak haruľa. If anything, latkes are yet another reminder that Jewish food has never been isolated from its neighbors – nor is an “authentic” Jewish recipe Jewish alone. Finally, a concentration on authenticity just takes out all of the delicious ways latkes have evolved in diaspora, from the addition of grated parsnips in England to the Jewish-Japanese fusion latkes of 21st-century Brooklyn. If we spend too much time worrying about the authentic, we forget that food can have a delicious life of its own. Such is the case of the latke – though I admit, I am most fond of very ordinary, plain latkes.
Latkes come in different shapes and sizes within the Jewish world. Some think that latke tastes in prewar Europe followed the “gefilte fish line.” Just as in the case of ground fish balls, Lithuanian Jews preferred a savory latke, while the Polish preferred a sweeter latke. Toppings differ – though applesauce is considered “classic,” many prefer to augment our latkes with sour cream. Or – as I prefer – both. Some latkes are tiny and finger-sized, others make enormous latkes that are a meal alone. In America, latkes are made and served in huge quantities in both ordinary and sweet potato varieties. And of course, in Israel, latkes are almost invisible – it is the industrially-produced doughnut that is king of Hanukkah there, after the efforts of Israeli trade unions.
I personally find that the best way to make latkes is rather haphazard – as befitting such a simple food. I do not measure out my grated potatoes or oil, nor do I seek a specific weight. Rather, it is simply knowing by touch, feel, and sight when the latke batter is the right consistency, when it is crisp enough in the pan, when I need a thicker batter or to add another egg. Latkes can be surprisingly tricky: grated potatoes are a mischievous and quickly-shifting ingredient, and flipping requires a technical skill greater than that of ordinary fritters or pancakes. One can also make last-minute additions: some black pepper, a few potato skins for color, or – my favorite – a grated apple.
Thus, for those of you who are not as familiar with the kitchen, latkes can be challenging. The temptation for a beginning cook to follow a recipe exactly will not produce the latkes of your dreams, and this deceptively simple treat gets better with a lot of trial and error. A lot. That said, fried potatoes are delicious in many forms, and you can totally eat “ugly” or disintegrated latkes out of a bowl with applesauce and sour cream…not that I have ever done that. Seriously, though, it’s worth the work and experimentation. In addition, the skills you gain making latkes apply to a lot of recipes, and a lot of Jewish recipes.
I have included here a recipe for homemade applesauce, should you decide to make it. I have not been able to find a good source for the Jewish history of applesauce, but dishes with cooked apple have a long and illustrious history across the Jewish world. It is likely that applesauce emerged alongside kompot,a traditional and delicious stew of fruit. The normal American apple-cinnamon pairing is delicious, but I find the color and flavor are enhanced with a hefty dose of turmeric, my very favorite spice.
These recipes are approximately written but very flexible. If you want to add or take away things, do so – and if they’re really good, let me know what you did. Enjoy! And, of course, Khag Urim Sameakh to you and yours!
Makes about 16 latkes (Measurements are extremely approximate)
4 large potatoes, peeled and grated (see step 1)
1/3-1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 medium apple, peeled and grated (see step 1)
½ cup flour
Oil for frying
Grate the potatoes and the apple separately. I am including this as a step since this takes time. I grate by hand because I find grating therapeutic, but feel free to use a food mill or a food processor. It does save a lot of energy and time. Keep the grated potatoes in a bowl of water to prevent discoloration, unless gray latkes are your thing.
When you’re done grating, drain the water from the potatoes, and squeeze them a little to get some extra water out.
Add the eggs, oil, salt, black pepper, and grated apple, and mix thoroughly until blended.
Add the flour and mix again until blended. You should have pieces of potato and apple coated in a thick batter. If your batter is too thin, add a few tablespoons of flour. If it is too thick, add another egg.
Let the batter sit covered for ten minutes, ideally in the refrigerator.
Heat your pan – ideally, a wide skillet. Then add a layer of oil – about ¼ of an inch. Also, make sure that your frying area is well ventilated.
Add heaping tablespoons of the potato mixture into the pan and fry until the bottom is brown. Flip, then continue frying until the other side is brown. Remove and place on a pan lined with something to absorb the oil, like paper towels.
Keep frying until you are finished with the mixture. Remember to replenish the pan with oil when it is low!
Serve the latkes with sour cream, or applesauce. If you choose to go the homemade route with the applesauce, my recipe is below.
Based on a recipe by Karen Waltuck
Makes four to six cups applesauce
5 apples, cored and chopped roughly
½ cup sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 ½ tsp dried rosemary (yes you’re reading this correctly)
1 tsp ground pepper
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp salt
Chopping and coring the apples make up much of the legwork of this recipe. Allot time for this.
Place the apples, sugar, and spices into a pasta or stock pot and mix thoroughly. Add water so that the apples are floating above or are underneath about ¾ of an inch of water. If they are floating, don’t worry.
Bring to a boil. Then simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 1½ hours, or until the apples are very soft and the water has cooked down about 1 inch.
Once the apples are soft, take the pot over another heat. Set up either a food mill or colander and spoon over a second pot, container, or bowl.
Ladle the mixture into the food mill or colander gradually and push through. With a food mill, you can just crank. With a colander, you just spin the spoon around and the apples and sauce go through mashed, leaving the peels behind. Do this for all the sauce; you should have peels in the work colander and sauce in the bowl at the end. Discard the peels.
Stir the sauce to evenly distribute the apple mash. Taste it and add a bit of lemon if you find it too sweet. If your sauce is a bit watery, don’t worry – pour off the most liquid bits and drink it! (It’s really good as an addition to soup stock as well.)
Blame my friend Maryam. A couple of weeks ago, she made us all – well, all of us who are friends with her on Facebook – very hungry. Very hungry indeed. Why? Well, she had made quince jam! Her preserves – called moraba-ye beh in Persian – were lusciously red, inviting the viewer to indulge in fruity, sticky bliss. On viewing the photo, I was immediately inspired to make my own – and, in addition, reminded of something else. I was reminded of how quinces kept on popping up throughout Jewish spaces I was in: in the quince paste at a Sephardi restaurant in Israel, mentioned in the Talmud, or how quince jam was the traditional gift for departing guests in Jewish Salonica (now Thessaloniki, in Greece.) Looking at Maryam’s creation, I was reminded that, in fact, quince jam is a very Jewish recipe.
By the way, for those of you that have not had them: quinces are a type of fruit related to apples and pears. These oddly-shaped orbs are in season in the autumn and early winter and are famous for their fragrance. Cooked, they taste like wild, gamey apples – but are in the United States more commonly seen in Latin American quince pastes and jellies. The fresh fruit is certainly not nearly as common as its cousin, the apple, in North America. And, like the apple that we eat at Rosh HaShanah, the quince is a very Jewish fruit.
Quinces have a Jewish history stretching back to the Bible. Some scholars believe that the “apple” mentioned in the Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim) was actually a quince, which was prized across the ancient Mediterranean for its fragrance. So celebrated, in fact, was the quince’s aroma that the Babylonian Talmud prescribed that a blessing be recited upon smelling the fruit (Berachot 43b). The fruit was prized by non-Jews across the Mediterranean and Persian worlds too: Greek and Roman writings both made mention of the fruit.
In the medieval era, quinces remained popular in the Middle East – where Syrian quinces were famed – and in Europe, where the fruit graced Charlemagne’s imperial estates. Jews, too, ate quince for both culinary and medicinal reasons. In the latter case, quince was used against coughs and stomachaches, and Maimonides mentioned that eating quince was a remedy for headaches. Yet it was for cuisine that the quince’s complex and fragrant flavor was most renowned: and quince was widely consumed. It was found in the bembriyo paste that Sephardim brought from Spain (where it is called membrillo) across the Mediterranean after the expulsion of 1492, the quince preserves North African and Italian Jews served at Rosh HaShanah, or in the jam eaten year-round. Though traditionally thought of as a “Sephardi” food, Ashkenazim in the southern parts of the Yiddish world – Hungary and Romania today – were often exposed to the fall fruit as well. By the turn of the twentieth century, quinces were being preserved and cooked across a wide swath of the Jewish world – from tarts in France to tagines in Morocco, from quince cheese in Hungary to the jam here in Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, and Iran. One old English Jewish cookbook I found from 1907 had several recipes for quince compotes and jams.
Today, quinces remain popular in some parts of the Jewish world. In Israel – where quinces have grown for thousands of years – preserves and sweets made from the fruit are widely eaten, though perhaps not every day. Quince trees are also found in cooler regions of Israel and Palestine; my mother, who lived for many years in Israel, remembers seeing quince trees at her friends’ houses. Quinces are also common in the Sephardi and Moroccan Jewish communities of France, another quince-loving country, where treats from the fruit are eaten at Rosh HaShanah and throughout the autumn. In Argentina, quinces have been used as a substitute for apples in traditional Ashkenazi pastries.
Yet in the United States this enigmatic fruit – once common in the Northeast – remains rare and rather unknown. Not to mention that quinces are pricy and hard to get – I made a detour on my commute home to Washington Heights for the sole purpose of buying quinces from Fairway Market on the Upper West Side. In order to save money, I only bought enough for one batch of jam – but that said, you do not need too many to make a large quantity of jam. In fact, if you choose to can the jam – which I am planning to do with a larger batch in the near future – a few quinces can provide you with fragrant flavors throughout the year. Think of it as a substitute for buying jams in the store! (The price differential is pretty close, depending on the jam you buy and the amount you eat. I am a total jam pig.) Besides, food preservation has a long and venerated Jewish history: preserved foods are “essential” to many Sephardi cuisines, while jam-making, pickling, and canning were both autumn customs among Jews in Eastern Europe to prepare for a long, harsh, produce-less winter. Why not, then, celebrate this history by joining in and canning this jam?
Even before canning, though, this jam requires a labor commitment. Firstly, quinces are finicky. They have an unusual skin and shape that make peeling difficult; unlike apples or pears, quinces are not recommended for raw consumption. But like apples and pears, quinces discolor quickly. Cooking, however, reveals the multilayered lace of flavor hidden within the pockets of the quince – and though I definitely don’t recommend doing this as a regular thing, quinces cooked for a long time are worth the wait. Of course, there is also all the usual faff of jam in this: the boiling, the sugar, the time, and for some of you, the canning. But guys, really, it’s worth it.
Quince jam has also provided a window for me to learn about other traditions involving jam as well. If you, like me, have made a lot of jam that you didn’t can, these traditions are really helpful. Maryam (who is not Jewish) likes to eat her moraba-ye beh with soft cheese and nuts on bread – similar to the warm bread the jam is served with in Iran. In Spain and much of Latin America, quince jam is often used with cheese in empanadas (which I didn’t make, link in Spanish), or in almond shortbreads (which I did). In many Mediterranean countries, quince jellies are served with ice cream – which I can testify also work with your typical supermarket vanilla ice cream! And perhaps my new favorite thing, in Azerbaijan it is traditional to stir jam into your tea or sip tea through jam, including quince jam. I went through a lot of jam this way – and truly, it was fantastic.
Peel and core your quinces. I do this with a knife since quinces can have a rather complicated and tough skin. Chop the quince flesh up into small pieces and place into a bowl. While you are chopping, cover the already-chopped pieces of quince flesh with juice from one of the small lemons or half a large lemon. (You will need the other lemon or lemon half later on.) This will prevent discoloration and allow the fabulous tones of the quince flavor to come out more in the jam.
In a separate bowl blend the sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. Set aside.
Place the quince pieces, covered in lemon juice, at the bottom of a big pot. Add water to cover to 4/5 of an inch (about 2cm). Place on the flame and bring to a boil covered.
Once the quinces are boiling, reduce to a simmer and let simmer for 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, or when the quinces are just beginning to soften, add the sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla extract. Stir in thoroughly and bring to a boil uncovered.
Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to low and let simmer for 1 1/2-2 1/2 hours. Leave the mixture uncovered since you need a lot of the water to cook off. Stir regularly so that the sugar blends in and that the jam does not burn.
When the syrup is thick and the quinces and syrup have turned a ruby red color, you are close to the end. How do you know that it is thick enough? My friend’s trick to test if the syrup is ready is to dip a cold metal spoon into the mixture, then hold it on its side. If, instead of drops, a “sheet” comes off the spoon, the jam is at your desired thickness. I recommend this method. If the jam is still too liquid, keep on simmering. If the jam is thick enough, turn up the heat, and add the juice from the second lemon or large lemon half, and mix in. Cook for another 3-5 minutes.
At this point your jam is done. Remove from the heat and ideally from your pot as quickly as possible. If you can, follow your favorite safe canning method. The jam should keep in the refrigerator for a few weeks. Serve on bread with butter or a soft cheese, bake into cookies, cook with meat, serve with ice cream, or – my new favorite – stir into a cup of hot tea.
*You can also use cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans, but I’m too lazy to fish them out of bubbling jam.
We have our first reader contribution! JD Hammond, a friend and urban planner extraordinaire, had some questions about shakshouka, a North African dish imported to Israel by Tunisian Jews in the 1950s. It comprises a vegetable ragout in which eggs are poached. Specifically, JD wants to know (paraphrased):
How do we make it? He has made it before, but wants to know another recipe.
How do we make it so pretty – specifically, regarding the eggs?
How did this dish with this “remarkable intensity” of flavors evolve?
Shakshouka, celebrated in Israel as a “breakfast of champions,” has its origins in North Africa. The word comes from a Tamazight word for “vegetable sauce,” and eggs were added later by the Arab populations of North Africa. The dish later spread across the Arab world – from Iraq to Morocco – and became popular among the Jews of the region as well. In fact, shakshouka is still considered quintessential home cooking in Tunisia today. As this article states (in French), “try to tell a Tunisian at your risk and peril that shakshouka is an Israeli or American dish!” Yet it has come in many minds to be associated with Israel.
In the 1950s, Tunisian Jews brought the dish to the Israel which they immigrated to – and were, by and large, unwelcome in. (As it happens, a variant of the dish is also popular among Palestinians.) Shakshouka spread from the peripheral towns into Israeli cities, where – like other Arab Jewish and Arab dishes – it was appropriated and adopted into an Israeli national icon. Rather than admit the origins of the dish, a new etymology for the dish’s name, as originating from the Hebrew leshaqsheq (to shake), emerged. North Africans – Jews and Muslims alike – continue to make this dish in their own way, separate from the Israeli adaptation. Meanwhile, as more Israelis moved abroad in the 1980s, the dish became popular in the United States and Canada, and became the hipster breakfast du jour in recent years.
Of course, the way the dish has become popular is less than appealing – Ashkenazi Israelis “borrowing” the dishes of North African Jews and Palestinians whose cultures they sought to erase, then calling it their own. In addition, many argue that those such as myself who are post-Zionist should eschew the “Israeli” for the “diasporan.” Yet shakshouka is also a very clear example of how diaspora works, and how diaspora affects what we eat. Firstly, I would like to note that this dish was consumed in the Jewish diaspora for centuries before the state of Israel was even imagined – how is shakshouka not a food of “diaspora”? Secondly, I do not think that we can run away from Israel or misdeeds there if we are to explore Jewish food and its history – given that Israel, like it or not, looms large over Jewish life around the world. Finally, I think we can still enjoy the remarkable mix of flavors shakshouka provides while acknowledging its North African origins.
Indeed, shakshouka is versatile, intense, and remarkable. The vegetables’ softness and peppers’ spice meld against the egg yolk and firm whites to create an experience that seems simple but is so very complex: no two bites are the same. It is also versatile: the variations are legion, from the simple varieties encouraged on Tunisian expatriate forums to the complex, cheese-laden ones that have become popular on certain upscale food blogs. My friend David, who was familiar with the latter, found the recipe I used “lazy” – but in a good way, in that it is simple. Indeed, shakshouka can be and often is simple. That is key to its beauty – and it is what drew JD into wanting to make it.
JD’s biggest question was “how can you poach the eggs and keep them intact, without babysitting them?” I have bad news: you do really need to “babysit them.” Eggs are fragile and finicky creatures, and if you are attached to having a delightfully runny yolk and/or an aesthetic shakshouka, you will need to keep an eye on them. I advise that you make a well in the sauce, crack the egg in, and then carefully fold the whites into the sauce. You need to watch to make sure the eggs don’t overcook, and that they get in in the first place. Practice makes perfect! See the recipe for more information.
Spicing and vegetable chopping are also frequent questions with shakshouka. Different regions have different textures for chopping vegetables and length of time the ragout is cooked, which affects the “softness” of the sauce. Some add peppers, some do not. Some use very piquant and hot spices, whereas others prefer a milder dish. In Tunisian recipes, the ragout tends to rely on more roughly chopped fresh vegetables and sinus-destroying spice, whereas Israeli and Palestinian adaptations tend to be finer. I stick with a fiery, rough shakshouka, but JD himself has globalized the recipe with a variant involving Sriracha chili sauce and cayenne pepper.
The shakshouka here is closer to the variant common in Tunisia than that common in Israel. One common ingredient in an Israeli shakshouka is tomato paste (the canned stuff), an ingredient I abhor in most circumstances, which often tends to become quite globby in the frying process. Tunisian shakshouka relies largely on fresh tomatoes (or canned, but not paste), and often uses a wonderfully larger amount of cilantro – my favorite spice. My recipe is based on two Tunisian recipes and one by Einat Admony, the Israeli genius-chef behind Balaboosta, one of New York’s most fantastic restaurants.
Serves 2-6, depending on your hunger level and stomach size
1 large onion, diced
3 bell peppers, seeded and chopped into one-two inch rectangles or squares
1-3 small hot chili peppers, seeded and finely chopped – the amount you use depends on the spice level of the pepper and your own tolerance; I tend to stick with three smaller habaneros
4 plum tomatoes, diced or chopped
1-2 tbsp olive or vegetable oil (olive is better)
1 tbsp vinegar (many vinegars work)
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp dried cilantro
1.5 tsp ground cumin
1.5 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground oregano
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tbsp garlic powder or 1 clove crushed fresh garlic
2/3 cup water
6 large eggs
Bread for serving (optional)
Chop up your vegetables. I am including this as a separate step for this recipe because this is very important factor to budget into your time.
Heat a large frying pan, shallow wide saucepan, or similar pan, and add the oil. Then, add the onions and sauté until soft.
Add the peppers (bell and chili) and continue sautéing. If you are using fresh garlic, add it here.
When the peppers begin to soften, add the salt, cilantro, cumin, turmeric, oregano, thyme, and rosemary and mix in thoroughly. Keep sautéing.
After a minute or so, add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute.
Add the tomatoes and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for a few minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to soften. Add the water and simmer until the tomatoes are soft, and the skin has separated from the tomatoes’ fleshy part. The water should have mostly cooked down by this point.
When the tomatoes and peppers are cooked until soft, it is time to add the eggs. Make six wells in the tomato-pepper mixture and crack an egg into each one. Then carefully tuck the whites of the eggs into the surrounding tomato-pepper mixture, being careful to leave the yolk alone. If you want your eggs to be super pretty, I would suggest cracking them first into a cup or several cups individually, then putting them in the shakshouka. You will need to “babysit” your eggs – the whites can be finicky. If you want your yolks solid, crack the yolk *after* folding in the whites. If your wells are deep enough, folding should be fairly simple – just push the tomato-pepper mix over the whites!
You should still have a little white visible on top, because…
When the whites are cooked through and solid, your shakshouka is ready. Remove from the heat and serve as soon as possible. Serving in the pan and having folks dig in and help themselves is the easiest, but a wide spoon does the trick and keeps the eggs intact. I prefer to serve shakshouka with warm bread.
Author’s note: if you have leftover chili peppers, I heartily recommend trying the A Fiery Law cocktail, a brilliant creation by my friend, the “Kiddush Club President” of Tippling Through The Torah.
My grandparents used to take over our house every year. And when I say take over, I mean they would occupy our house for up to six weeks – filling our ears with the Afrikaans from their mouths, our brains with the stories of the pre-war South Africa of their childhoods, and our kitchen with what they liked to eat. My grandfather, a creature of culinary habit, would fill the pantry with the various European pickles and South African staples he subsisted on – delicious herring and onions for the former, various forms of dried cracker and jam for the latter. On the other hand, my grandmother – knitter, soup maestro, and shade-thrower extraordinaire –filled our stomachs and freezer with an arsenal of soups. Many of my childhood memories either involve eating her soup, or the effort to find adequate containers to store the amount she had made.
My favorite soup as a child was her kapushta – a cabbage soup imported from her parents’ homeland of Lithuania. Tart, beguilingly sweet, and traversing the boundary between “light” and “dense,” kapushta – or, more commonly, “cabbage borscht,” is a world on a plate. It is also a deeply vernacular food. Russian and Ukrainian peasants were making cabbage soup in the 11th century; by the 18th century, the soup was consumed from Vienna, to Perm, to Helsinki, to Bucharest. Around that time, tomatoes and potatoes arrived in Eastern Europe from the Americas Even today, in Eastern Europe, one can find soup on the menu of many a “home-style cooking” establishment. Or, as the Russians say, “cabbage soup and kasha – this is our food!” The name kapushta – common in Poland, and in Slovakia as kapustnica, simply means “cabbage.” “Cabbage borsht” – or borsht mit kroyt – seems to be a bit more common as a name than kapushta. I asked many of my friends who had this soup as children, and more of them called it “borscht” or something along those lines – and even more just “cabbage soup.” I wonder, after some research, if kapushta is a regionalism based on the Lithuanian kopūstienė or kopūstų sriuba.
The Jewish versions are generally kosher renditions of their neighbors. This fact stands to reason, since Jews were not exactly wealthy at this time either, cabbage was cheap and plentiful, and folks have copied each other’s cooking since the dawn of humankind. So here, we Ashkenazim swapped the lard for other fats, and skipped the sausage-smetana combinations as garnish. Sometimes, however, there are more specific additions: kneidlach (matzoh balls) or farfel (an egg pasta). The preparation can also be a hint as to the region of origin: apples added a tartness often associated with Lithuanian Jews and their taste for the sour, whereas some sugar could indicate a recipe from Galitzia (Southern Poland and Western Ukraine, known as “Galicia” during the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and the sweet tooth of the Jews there. It is the former that my very Litvak grandmother cooks: she even slices the apple thinly to make crisp the tartness of the soup.
Then there are the traditions surrounding cabbage soup in various parts of Ashkenazi Jewry. Some serve the sweet-tangy soup on Hanukkah because of its “warmth” and to commemorate the sweetness of victory. German Jews, however, eat it on Hoshanah Rabah, as part of a pun: the German and Western Yiddish Kohl mit Wasser (cabbage with water) sounds like the Hebrew qol mevaser (voice proclaiming) – and thus celebrates the proclamation of G-d’s divine mercy. Many more groups associate the soup with the solemnity and celebration of the Friday night Shabbat (or Shabbos, for many Ashkenazim) dinner. Indeed, in our family, that was kapushta’s frequent stage.
My grandmother recently resent me her recipe – one that I had received and mislaid many times. This message triggered a renewed flurry of kapushta-making, one that has given my kitchen and my mother’s kitchen a cabbage smell. It is not everyone’s favorite odor, but it is the smell of my childhood – and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
This kapushta is slightly adjusted from my grandmother’s recipe: I like to find chunks of sweet apple in the tangy soup, so I dice the apple rather than slice it thinly. Furthermore, I use water rather than stock or bouillon for the soup itself: I find that a flavored liquid can drown the flavors too much, whereas water allows the apple, vinegar, cabbage, and tomatoes to do their magical work.
Cabbage Soup With Apple (Kapushta)
Based on the recipe of Esther Back
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large head green cabbage, washed and chopped into thin slices
16 oz. canned tomatoes in water*
1 large or 2 medium apple(s), cored and diced – use Granny Smith or Jonagold for a more tart flavor, Honeycrisp for a sweet-tart balance, or Jonathan for a sweeter addition
3 tbsp apple cider vinegar
3 tbsp white sugar
2 tbsp salt (and more to taste at serving)
2 tbsp dried dill
1 tbsp ground black pepper (and more to taste at serving)
2 tsp ground paprika (optional)
1 tsp dried thyme
Water (amount varies)
Small egg noodles or farfel (optional)
Matzoh balls, prepared according to your favorite recipe (optional)
In a large soup pot, sauté the onions in the oil until translucent but not brown.
Add the chopped cabbage and garlic and mix thoroughly with the onions.
Cover the whole mixture in water up to two or three inches above where the cabbage reached in the pot. If you needed to take your pot off the stove to do this, place it back on the flame and add the tomatoes, and mix in thoroughly.
Add the apple, vinegar, sugar, salt, black pepper, paprika, and thyme once the water is boiling.
Boil for a few minutes, then reduce to a simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half, by which time the cabbage should be very soft and translucent.
If you are serving noodles or farfel with the soup, cook the noodles or farfel according to package directions. For noodles, cut off a minute or so from the cooking time – they will cook in the soup. For homemade farfel, you can cook them directly in the soup.
When the soup is ready, you can serve it as is, add noodles or farfel, matzoh balls, and/or another starch – my grandmother likes a baked potato in hers. I like to add a dollop of sour cream to mine. It freezes well.
*Eve Jochnowitz discusses Lithuanian Jewish canning and food preservation in her translation of Fania Lewando’s (hy”d) 1938 cookbook, The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (which you should get). Jews in Europe canned extensively in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Lewando included many recipes for home canning in the book. As Jochnowitz noted, many of those preserving methods would not be considered safe today.
Additional note: In regards to the name, I would like to thank Susan Rosenberg, Yael Wiesenfeld, Josh Schwartz, Sara Liss, Maurice Farber, Donna Druchunas, Tova Reiter, Ilana Newman, JS Biderman, Laynie Soloman, Amanda Jermyn, Shana Carp, Ziva Freiman, and others for their contributions to the discussion about names.
I’m normally not that into Hanukkah. The holiday itself I do not dislike – the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple was pretty awesome, and the general sense of cheer that takes over Jewish communities is welcome as people forget the solemn promise to “be nice” that they made on Yom Kippur. It’s just that compared to the glory of Shavuot with revelation and Ruth and cheesecake, the majesty of the Passover Seder, and the wackiness of having a Tree New Year on Tu BiShvat, Hanukkah is…just not that exciting. I don’t begrudge fellow Jewish-Americans for having made the holiday so materialistic and kitsch-ified to compete with Christmas – honestly, in a Christian country, what else would you expect? If it gets folks into Judaism or to learn about their or others’ Jewish heritage, that makes me pretty happy. Besides, I have neither the energy nor desire to harangue people about “messing up” a holiday that I simply just…am not that into.
There is one thing, however, that I do love about Hanukkah: the fried food, in constant supply. In order to commemorate that a day’s oil lasted eight at the Temple, it is considered traditional in most Jewish communities to eat food cooked in oil. One nearly universal thing about human communities, Jewish cultures included, is that if you tell people to cook food in oil, fried things will result. So Hanukkah is the Jewish fry-fest. You might be familiar with latkes, the Ashkenazi Jewish potato pancakes that populate both Hanukkah tables and Jewish plates throughout the winter. But there are also torzelli¸the fried curly endives that Italian Jews eat, and the Colombian Jewish tradition of fried plantain discs (patacones). As a complete glutton for fried food – my favorite treat in a mostly healthy diet – I enjoy them all…but not as much as one category of food.
Chief among the fried food for me is the doughnut, a treat with a long Jewish history. Fried dough was already common in Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the Middle East in the 13th century, when it was mentioned by the Abbasid scholar (and medieval cookbook writer) Muhammad bin al-Hassan al-Baghdadi in a form similar to today’s Turkish lokma. Ashkenazi Jews make pontshkes, impossibly fluffy jelly doughnuts, borrowed from a Polish dessert already popular in medieval times. Moroccan and Tunisian Jews consumed local savory and sweet doughnuts alongside their Muslim neighbors, and many a Dutch Jew has delighted in the puffy oliebol. In Israel, the Ashkenazi pontshke tradition meshed with North African Jewish traditions to produce the sufganiyah– an even fluffier, sweeter jelly doughnut that is the scourge of Israeli dentists and delight of their patients. These are all absolutely, artery-clogging-ly delicious.
Besides the eating, what I like most about the Jewish doughnut is … how it is so very Jewish and un-Jewish. All of these “authentic” Jewish doughnut recipes reflect the myriad cultural influences, the worlds, and the places Jews have and continue to interact with in their cultures. There is the fact that these are all borrowed from, shared with, adjusted after contact with, and in imitation of our non-Jewish neighbors. Our ancestors were not concerned with being “pure” in their Jewish conduct, but rather celebrating the holidays with what they saw and knew throughout their lives. However, in our diasporic mindset, there is something so Jewish about that act: re-owning, retaking, and reworking the traditions of “exile” to make the diaspora “home.”
Of course this reworking is delicious. Let us take one of my favorite doughnuts as an example – the sfenj,an airy Moroccan doughnut traditionally eaten in the morning, often dipped in honey or sugar. (They are also known in some areas as ftayer.) Moroccan Jews traditionally enjoy a sweet version of these ring-shaped treats on Hanukkah, and some a bit more frequently than that. I was introduced to them first at a Jewish event long ago, and the unapologetic assault of carbohydrate and sugar and oil the sfenj provided had me hooked. I told myself, Hanukkah after Hanukkah, that I needed to recreate that taste. Later, when I visited Morocco myself, and learned more about the history of Moroccan Jewry, I would end up sampling and eating many, many more sfenj. They were all delicious.
I tried to make sfenj once, but got my beignet recipe instead. What happened was that I had invited two friends over, we got distracted, and when it was time to make the batter I realized that I did not have enough flour. Oops. We had a batter instead, but not the dough to shape into the traditional ring shape. The batter was fried anyway – I spooned it in, and out came fluffy, puffy balls that were sweet and chewy. In a few fits of experimentation – and one incident of “boiling Nutella” – I finally managed to get the recipe to the point that I could repeatedly recreate these fried treats. I am not sure if I should call them “doughnuts,” given that they are made with a batter. But they are not made with chouxpastry, so are they “beignets”? The names “beignet” and “doughnut” have both stuck – though I lean slightly towards the former.
I’ve been making these beignets since that Hanukkah miracle – though I do intend to tackle sfenj one day. In fact, I taught a few friends how to make these beignet-doughnuts themselves, brought them to parties and potlucks, and may even bring them to work at some point. Of course, this Hanukkah, I intend to make them again as well.
This recipe is quite flexible – I’ve made chocolate, vanilla ginger, and cinnamon versions of the beignets so far. They store well for a day or two in a sealed bag. Be sure to fry safely in a very well-ventilated place. I prefer to fry in a deep pan, a wok, or a large saucepan – I don’t have a deep-fryer, and you need to be able to quickly turn or flip the beignets.
Hanukkah Beignets/Batter Doughnuts
3-3.5 cups (400-450g) white or whole wheat flour
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
1 packet yeast (or 1 tbsp fresh yeast)
~1.5 cups (~350ml) water (approximate measure)
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp honey or agave nectar (you can also make this up with about 2 tbsp extra sugar)
Canola, corn, rapeseed, sunflower, safflower, or vegetable oil
Mix the flour, sugar, and yeast together until thoroughly combined.
Add the water, vanilla extract, optional ingredients, and honey/agave nectar, and mix together until you have a thick, sticky batter. You might need to add more flour to achieve this.
Cover, leaving some cracks for ventilation, and let “rise” for at least an hour.
Heat oil in a deep pan or wok. (See frying tips at bottom of post.)
Carefully spoon heaping tablespoons of batter into the pan of oil. You will need to scrape the batter off one spoon with the back of another spoon. I recommend not having more than five or six beignets in the pan at one time.
Let cook until brown on one side, then flip (using a slotted spoon) and let cook until brown on the other side. The beignets should puff up.
When golden brown on both sides, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a plate to cool.
Repeat steps 5-7 until you have fried up all the batter. Depending on the size of your beignets this can make anything from 16 to 36 beignets, I usually get about 20-25 off this recipe.
When they have cooled down a bit, you can season them with powdered sugar. For the “normal” ones I occasionally like to dip them in Nutella, cinnamon sugar, or sugar mixed with dried chili pepper flakes.
Jewish food is inseparable from experience: beyond questions of what is “authentic” or “best,” Jewish food as an idea and as a concrete object relies on the memories, preferences, and cravings of Jews themselves. That idea is one thing academically – but it’s another thing when we actually live it by cooking and eating food through that lens of experience. That’s what I – and admittedly, many others – want to do. Hence this blog.
Flavors of Diaspora is my own attempt to explore the food experience of the Jewish diaspora through cooking recipes not passed down through tomes of “authentic Jewish cooking” and haute cuisine, but rather the experiences and words of friends, family, and the Jews all around us. The Jewish diaspora, in its scatterings, has always had flavors and taste somewhere close to the heart of the meaning of “Jewish,” and this little website is a homage to that.
(This section can also be found on the “About” tab)
This blog was born out of two desires. Firstly, I wanted to cook – well, I always want to cook. Specifically, I wanted to make recipes handed down not through cookbooks or media, but rather from friends and family through experience and memory. Jewish food is more than simply a set of cuisines: it is also an everyday practice of living in diaspora, of being Jewish, and of social interaction. Food is a way we tie memory to place, identities to ideas, and all of those to ourselves. Secondly, I wanted to explore Jewish food history in a hands-on way, but not constrained by the tawdry, cliché, and frankly snobbish idea of “authenticity.” I find, too often, that “engaged” Jews are so concerned with being “authentic” or re-enacting some or other historical fantasy of Judaism that they ignore the beautiful Jewishness under their very noses. (I, too, can fall into this trap.) I would rather cook Jewish food as remembered or lived and worry about the dressing of it later.
If you’re still interested, you should feel free to send me recipes or other food-related memories or experiences you want me to make, write about, or discuss! Here is the link to the Google form. If I write about it, you’ll be contacted before and during writing, and you’ll be credited after publishing.
A bit about me. My name is Jonathan Katz. By day I’m a civil servant in New York City. By night, I’m a nerd for all things diaspora and mildly obsessed with food – be it what I just ate, what I am eating, what I will eat soon, or “noms” in the abstract. I’ve written about diaspora, Judaism, food, migration, and other stuff for The Jewish Daily Forward, New Voices Magazine, Roads and Kingdoms, Africa Is A Country, The Jewish News, Quarterly of East Asian Studies, Border Criminologies, Makom, and The Chicago Maroon.
In addition: this blog has nothing to do with my day job – it does not represent my employer’s views or activities or habits or anything. I write this as a completely separate thing, and nothing in this blog represents my employer in any which way. (I need to say that.)
The header image, of poppy seeds – a seasoning frequently found in Ashkenazi Jewish cooking – comes from “Odedr,” via Wikipedia. The image is in the public domain.