Some Scattered Thoughts on Institutional Food

Long tables with chairs with orange seats arrayed in a cafeteria with a food service area with a stove and stacked bowls behind it. Rolling trays are on the left.

School lunch tray with snacks and chocolate milk and tray of vegetables

This is the first of two posts on institutional cooking.

People who cook for large groups do not get enough respect. In our deeply problematic classification of jobs in this country, cooking for large groups is considered “unskilled” labor – whereas somehow moving imaginary quantities of money is considered “skilled.” (Capitalism is really absurd at times.) Cooking may be a menial, manual labor, but it is a labor that requires deep skill – especially when you are turning out food to feed a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand. When you are cooking in a complex institutional setting, it becomes a skill of almost super-heroic proportions.

I and friends have learned this truth the hard way by wandering into occasional institutional-size cooking gigs ourselves. Back in my college days, I somehow ended up cooking lunch a few times for a small, lovely Lutheran church near my campus. Cooking lentil soup and pasta for ten people is a fairly straightforward matter. Cooking for a congregation of over one hundred is a much different undertaking, and after a few hours I found myself completely, utterly exhausted. The fatigue came not just from the physical labor, but from the mental labor of working with much larger quantities, having to adjust my normal cooking habits to the huge quantities I was making, and learning how to work with a soup pot large enough for a small person to fit inside. (I discourage cannibalism.) Other friends have come to dread “cooking duty” in the Israeli, South Korean, or Finnish Armies, which thrusts one into a context where one has to go from zero to feeding a hungry platoon on often substandard ingredients fairly quickly. It is an egalitarian approach to push everyone through the hard labor of large-scale cooking. In another context, I have watched friends spend hours as the institutional mashgiach (kosher supervisor) for college Shabbat dinners, supervising large quantities of food for halachic minutiae. Many of my friends and relatives lived (and some still do) on kibbutzim in Israel that had huge, communal dining halls of varying quality. And of course, there have been the other encounters: helping friends navigate hospital food systems, reading about the unionization of cafeteria workers, and the flurry of articles last year about kashrut in the American prison system.

Several giant metal pots stand over braziers, with a man in a chef's uniform stirring one. The pots are steaming. Photo is black and white.
Giant cooking pots at the King George Military Hospital in London, during World War I. (National Library of Medicine)

I have been thinking about institutional food for a while, and how it affects the way we approach and think about food. When I say institutional food, I am referring to food cooked as part of a wider institutional framework not primarily focused on food. These institutions include school and college cafeterias, nursing homes, armies, prisons, hospitals, and places of worship. Institutional cooking, in my mind, has two other defining characteristics. One is that such cuisine is generally made for large groups – institutions provide for the needs, food and otherwise, of hundreds or thousands of people on a regular basis. Those people have a variety of needs and preferences, allergies and aversions, practices and metabolisms, which compounds the challenges of cooking, already made difficult by the scale of the endeavor. The other defining aspect is that institutional cooking has a certain industrialization or standard process to it – necessary to even cook at that scale. Though we often think of processing and industrialization as a modern endeavor, the idea of producing rations in a standard way for many institutions dates back centuries, to madrassas in the Ottoman Empire, monasteries in Western Europe, and armies the world over.

I am only offering some thoughts here. I am a civil servant who does food history as a hobby, and there are many people who have built a career out of studying institutional cooking, not to mention the multitude of institutional cooks themselves. (“Nothing about us without us” should also apply to discussions of labor.) These thoughts are essentially evidenced ideas about how Jewish food and institutions intersect both at the individual level and at the systems level. At the end of this, I will cite some things that you should read, whose have informed my thoughts.

Men at a long table eating a communal meal
The dining hall at Kibbutz Ein Harod (Israeli Government Press Office)

And why does institutional food matter?  It is tempting in our craft-addled food culture to forget that institutional food is real food with real influence on the way people eat, what people think of as “good” or “bad” or “normal food, and how people approach the labor of food at all. Many assume that craft culture, with its (expensive, anachronistic, and white) renditions of (often normally inexpensive and created by people of color) “real food” influence people the most. Certainly, it is an influence. But unless you are incredibly rich or have an incredibly unusual upbringing, much of the food you will eat during your most formative life phases in North America, Europe, and Israel is institutional. Cafeteria food at schools, universities, and army mess halls, food at synagogues and churches, food from mass kitchens if you are hospitalized or imprisoned. Tastes are formed by the often-“disappointing” preparations of certain ingredients, and other dishes are looked forward to on a rotation. When many students graduate to cooking on their own, the reference points for a normal meal have been shaped not just by food at home or out, but by years and years of institutional food. Jewish communities, with their own schools, hospitals, yeshivot, synagogues, and institutions – and not to mention kashrut practices and traditional foods – are no exception. Even craft culture imitates the food of institutions and seeks to influence it.

With these ideas in mind, I will now go through a few small discussions of institutional food. Keep in mind that these are brief and extremely incomplete, each of these seven points could be the topic of a doctoral thesis on their own.

Women sharing a communal meal at a table
A meal at a kibbutz cafeteria in Israel in the 1950s (Wikimedia Commons)
  1. Jewish communities have a lengthy discussion on the kashrut of institutional food, but not the labor and logistics of it. Cooking is work, and I cannot labor that point enough. It intersects with disability, with race, what we eat and do not, and how we even conceive of food. It involves strenuous movements like chopping, lifting, and straining in areas of high temperature, often for hours on end. At an institutional level, this labor takes on special characteristics, such as large implements, huge quantities of ingredients, and vast industrial kitchens. It is dangerous labor, and it is hard work. This work is also often taken for granted – and as unpalatable as cafeteria food can be, there is a lot of labor behind it. Even beyond labor, the logistics of actually getting edible food in large quantities to huge, hungry groups of people are astounding. There are trucks that bring food in, pipes to carry waste water away, hiring systems for workers, quality checks, safety checks, and the very task of moving huge quantities of material. So little do we discuss this outside of nerdy food studies circles, or professional circles themselves. Why? The faces of the labor are probably one clue.
  2. Who, specifically, is doing the labor of institutional cooking? How does this affect our foodways? Food work in the developed world and developing world alike is often the work of marginalized people. In developing countries, this may be migrants or members of lower castes. In the developed world, this is often done by working-class immigrants, people of color, and/or women. Jewish communities are no exception, and the United States is no exception. Institutions that serve primarily white clientele often have a cooking staff made up of entirely Black and Latina women. Again, Jewish institutions are no exception. There are two major notes to take from this fact.One is the way this work is closely tied to the way labor, race, and gender intersect. Not only is institutional cooking manual and menial labor, but it is also associated with groups marginalized in Jewish and wider society: people of color and women. This tie means that ordinary people are far less likely to respect that work than say, that of the mashgiach (though more on that later). Because people of color and women are also more likely to face workplace abuse, bad working conditions are less likely to be noticed or addressed. Many institutions simply do not pay their food workers enough to live on. Jewish institutions are among them. What would changing that system mean for our food practices?The other matter is that the cuisine changes. I discussed in a post last year the way Black domestic workers influenced and shaped Jewish cooking in North America. Not only were African-American women bringing home challah and kugel, but White Jewish children were raised on foods more frequently associated with African-American and Caribbean cultures. (Yes, most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States are White.) Let us leave aside that much of “mainstream” North American food was created by enslaved Black people; Michael Twitty’s book can never be topped by a few pithy sentences. What I want to note here is that the people of color, often women, who work in institutional food settings affect the cuisine that is served in institutions themselves. How so? Well, they are doing the cooking! They make adjustments to food when situations arise based on what they know. Sometimes seasonings are changed – actually, frequently. Cooking times are adjusted. The time something is left on a burner is increased. Last-minute incidents of spills and freezer problems cause all sorts of new things. All these change the final product, especially in large quantities. Often, workers make the foods they know how to make in large quantities from their own communities; it is far easier to make the things one has seen prepared many times over, and food workers are no exception to that rule. (Hence the frequency of rice and beans as a base in some cafeterias, hearty stews in others, or fried okra and biscuits in Southern Jewish institutions.) As much as any home cooking or elite TV show, these contributions shape the very idea of what food “belongs” in institutions.

    I will share one favorite example. The Filipina and Palestinian Arab women and Mizrahi men who work in my grandmothers’ almost entirely Ashkenazi nursing home are responsible for feeding the residents. The great hits of Ashkenazi Israeli cooking are there: soups, salads, schnitzel. So too, are foods that seem to have started off as last-minute additions: certain rice dishes, stewed and stuffed vegetables, and okra in various forms. Those dishes are often the best-tasting, and beloved by many residents. Mind you, many of these happy consumers did not eat okra for the first eighty-five years of their lives with any regularity.

    Two Indigenous men in smocks stand by a shelf and stove with pots in a black-and-white photo
    Anishinaabe (First Nations) workers in a hospital kitchen in Thunder Bay, Ontario in 1917. (Photo Thunder Bay Museum)
  3. What does “Jewish” institutional food look like? What gets filtered through the process of industrialization and simplification? Is there an institutional kosher cuisine? I ask this for two reasons. One is that I often see the same things or combination of things being served at Jewish institutions, usually adaptations of Ashkenazi, Israeli, or Western European food. (I am distinctly aware that all of these terms are highly loaded.) In some ways, we can call this a “culinary” tradition of what ends up on school, hospital, army, and synagogue trays and plates. The other is that the combination of the minutiae of strict interpretations of kashrut and the challenge of cooking for large groups of people for a long time on a daily basis produces certain challenges. As a result, some foods become unfeasible because of the effort or cost involved – dairy if one practices chalav Yisrael, eggs if one is machmir (fastidious) about blood spots, certain green leafy vegetables if one follows certain rabbi’s guidelines on vegetable washing and preparation. Some foods are also much easier: breads, pastas, rice, cabbage, soups. Institutional kosher cuisine, to me, feels like an endless sea of soups.In tandem with this last point: if there is an institutional-kosher cuisine, why is so much of it meat-based? Given the expense of kosher meat, the commonality of vegetarianism in Jewish communities, and the number of additional rules involving meat, I am somewhat surprised at how many institutional kitchens are certified as “meat.” Part of me wonders if this is a cultural thing – meat is seen as “ideal” for a meal. Another part wonders if it has to do with the extended arguments about the kashrut rules on dairy and the general Haredi monopoly on kosher certification in North America, Europe, and Israel. And part of me wonders if it is simply … part of the culture at this point.
    A cook ladles brown onion soup into bowls, four of which are full and eight of which are empty. A large pot is to her side.
    A cook at Incirlik Air Force Base (US/Turkey) ladles onion soup into bowls. Minus context, this could be any kosher institutional kitchen. (Photo US Air Force)

     

  4. Even though I just critiqued this, what does institutional kashrut even look like? I know that I just excoriated Jewish communities for so heavily concentrating on kashrut a few paragraphs back – and indeed, I do maintain that the concentration on keeping kosher has masked the very real matter of who does the labor, how they are treated, and what that entails.I still find kashrut interesting for other reasons, though. Not for the matter of keeping institutional kitchens and food systems kosher, though that is fascinating too – much has been written about this by Roger Horowitz in Kosher USA, Sue Fishkoff in Kosher Nation, and by organizations providing kosher supervision themselves, such as Star-K and the Orthodox Union. Rather, I am interested in how people change – or do not change – their practice of kashrut in institutional environments. There are so many things to investigate, but these include:

    How do people become looser with kashrut at institutions? Some institutions may offer food adhering to one’s normal kashrut practices, but even that can be limiting. How does one choose food, if possible, that meets one’s standards internally? How does one decide when and where to loosen the standards? For example, I myself would normally be upset if tongs used to serve non-kosher meat landed in the broccoli without being washed. But at many institutional cafeterias, I have not cared. Other friends have found themselves making exceptions or even redefining what they generally think of as kosher, not just in a given and unusual situation. People like maintaining traditions, but they also want to eat enough. Do people ever become stricter? If so, why?

    In addition, why do Jewish communities seem to only discuss the holiness or cleverness of the work of the mashgiach (kosher supervisor), but never the labor or discomfort it can bring? Being a mashgiach can involve long periods of time in hot spaces, like any kitchen job, with an attention to detail that evades many. One must often explain arcane rules to people who not only do not understand the rules, but may not have a common language with you. It is a standing, moving labor. Pay varies widely among mashgichim, as do work conditions. Do we consider how well mashgichim are compensated, especially given that some certified-kosher food products can often be so expensive? How much money from institutional food practices actually goes to the mashgiach? (At this point, I have to acknowledge that kashrut is not separate from labor.) And if a business is paying for certification, or a rabbinical authority with questionable business ties, what pressures do mashgichim face to choose between their interpretation of halacha and their job security? How have kosher practices changed in response to the work conditions of mashgichim? How have mashgichim changed their practices in response to “popular” kosher assumptions or concerns?

    Long tables with chairs with orange seats arrayed in a cafeteria with a food service area with a stove and stacked bowls behind it. Rolling trays are on the left.
    A college cafeteria in Armenia. Many Jewish institutions, in my experience, have a similar approach to cafeteria design, though the orange seats would be blue. (Photo Safi-Iren via Wikimedia Commons)

     

  5. Let us zoom out to the urban level: how do Jewish communities build their own institutional food systems? Here, I am primarily thinking of certified-kosher food. The rules of strict kashrut are arcane and complicated, and many will only eat commercially prepared food that is under rabbinical supervision. For prisoners, members of the military, and people in hospitals far from Jewish populations, food must often be shipped long distances, and often in bulk. Take two to three meals a day and multiplying it by 30 days in a month, or 90 days in a quarter, and even food for two or three strict kosher-keepers becomes a hefty shipment. For the caterers and industrial providers that have arisen for this population, that is a steady stream of revenue – but also requires planning to make sure food is not left unsealed, shipped safely over long distances, and is still edible at journey’s end. In areas with bigger Jewish populations, hospitals and schools often have their own kosher kitchens or kosher catering, which draws from a network of trusted suppliers and certified sources. Those suppliers also provide to the other parts of the food chain – supermarkets, restaurants, and sometimes consumers. As a result, there is a whole Jewish food system parallel to the “mainstream” food system – just as there are other parallel systems.Much has been written by Roger Horowitz and Sue Fishkoff (linked below) about keeping these food systems kosher. I am more interested in the social dynamics of such a system and how it interacts with wider ideas of a Jewish community – and how such systems enable Jewish communities to form or dissolve. This, of course, is something I could spend a lifetime pondering.

    Disability rights protest in Ireland. Signs include "10 years waiting for equality ratify CRPD now" and "No limbs. No limits. Impossible. I'm possible."
    A disability rights protest in Ireland. Disability rights are human rights! (Photo Sinn Fein via Creative Commons)
  6. Experiences of disability and institutional cooking are closely tied.I would be remiss here not to link to my discussion on disability and cooking from February.

    People with disabilities often spend more time in institutions than abled people, and more time eating institutional food. Special schools for the Deaf and children with cognitive disabilities are often boarding schools; adults with cognitive disabilities often live in group homes or facilities. Many people with cognitive disabilities never learn how to cook. Those with chronic illnesses spend more time in hospitals, and college students with disabilities are often more reliant on cafeterias at their schools. Of course, elders in nursing homes are often wholly reliant on institutional food – especially if their disabilities prevent them from cooking, or living somewhere with access to kitchen facilities. As a result, institutional food often looms larger in a disabled person’s life.The tragic irony is that this food is often inaccessible. Food produced at an industrial scale is often difficult to tailor to severe allergies or specific dietary needs, or produced in ways that some people cannot consume. For example, I have volunteered at many soup kitchens that serve lots of hard, crunchy food. For a clientele that often lacks dental care, have untreated dental problems, or have swallowing problems, this sort of food is impossible to eat without pain or even danger. Never mind that many chronic illnesses are accompanied by a host of food intolerances.

    The food is also, as we all know, not usually very good, and not just in terms of taste. For many people, the depressing matter of relying on terrible and often inedible food day after day is a major trigger for mental illness. For Jews and many other groups, the food is also not the food of one’s community or the foods that one might prefer or even know. There are huge Jewish institutional food systems, but that does not mean all Jews who rely on institutional food have access to adequate, nutritious, and appropriate food. Even being vegetarian can cause problems in institutional settings. The lack of control over what one eats is yet another stab to dignity.

    What would accessible and good institutional food look like? I cannot provide the answer in a paragraph, but it ties to the systems I described above. To build a food system that is accessible at all, changes in the way we shop for, package, and talk about food are needed – and not to mention kitchen design and recipes themselves. On an institutional level, this may involve a larger workforce and much more separate “streams” for dietary needs – and less of an attachment to the craft-culture, slow-food mentality. It would also take into account different cultural approaches to food and expectations, and not impose the desires of dominant groups. I also believe that such a shift would need to start, first and foremost, with the input and ideas of the disabled people most affected by institutional food right now: elders, adults with cognitive disabilities, and those in medically-based assisted living facilities. “Nothing about us without us.”

    Trays of vegetables and fruit on a metal table

  7. The memory of institutional food is long-lasting. Originally, I was going to post some things and anecdotes told to me by people over social media, but so many people sent stories in that there will now be a subsequent post. Suffice to say that not only do memory and institutional food shape cuisines and how people cook, but also that this combination produces fascinating, funny, and often cringe-worthy stories. (The post will be a blast.)In any case, I have been wondering three things about memory and institutional food:a. How does institutional food create common communal memories of Jewish food? When I say this, I do not mean the abstract memory often cited by academics, but ideas and tropes that people have experienced themselves. Students who have eaten at Hillels and camps in the United States all seem to recall salty soups, Israelis all seem to remember meat loaves and oily, oily potatoes from Army service. The eggs at Jewish hospitals seem uniformly “bouncy.” Institutional food, clearly, creates the memories that turn into jokes, anecdotes, and common wisdom.

    b. Institutional food “teaches” people the bounds of Jewish food. How does that carry over beyond institutions? It is well known that cafeteria food and school food is a place where people are “taught” what the food of a nation, group, or community are. Hence the recent emphasis on pork in French cafeteria food in response to growing diversity, or the focus on “national” foods in Scandinavia, Central Europe, and Japan. Jewish food is no different, and a simple scan of the menus from Jewish day schools and camps shows that food also has an educational element on kashrut, tradition, and conspicuous absences. There are Israeli salads, matzah ball soups, and stews, but certainly little fake treyf or, G-d forbid, real (Yael Raviv has discussed institutional cooking as a place of teaching extensively in her book Falafel Nation.) But after the Jew graduates from school, camp, yeshiva, and/or the Israeli Army, what effect does this education have? Do people subconsciously follow these lessons on what gets eaten and when, or are they intentionally subverted.

    c. How does institutional food “reshape” people’s habits and approaches to “normal” and “weird” food?
    In tandem with this, how do encounters with emotional food determine what people see as “normal” food? I am thinking here of a few things. One might include impressions of what other people expect. Another might include what gets determined as normal food at all. And another are the feelings when your own communities’ foods and memories are not included in the institutional framework – and the way that shapes your approach to the foods of your communities as well. Institutional food is deeply white in the United States.

    Families at tables in a sunlit hall eating food.
    The dining hall at Kibbutz Gonen in Israel. (Photo Israeli Government Press Office)

 


Tam ve-nishlam, here is the end of my scattered thoughts on institutional food. Two more notes:

First, look out for an upcoming post about readers’ memories, thoughts, and anecdotes on institutional cuisine. I have heard some wild stories, and personally seen a few myself. The tales range from gross and unappetizing to delicious and heartwarming. I have never been so excited to write a post.

Secondly, I am going to ask you, as the reader, to do a bit of thought. How have you interacted with institutional food – as an eater, as a worker, as an employer, or in other ways? What carries over into your home cooking, into restaurants, and into your food preferences? And how do you relate to the people who do the labor of institutional cooking and food supply – or not?


Some resources on institutional food:

Institutions:

The United Food and Commercial Workers’ International Union represents food workers across North America: http://www.ufcw.org/

A New Look at Institutional Food Service Management, by Mickey Warner – from 1992 but still very apt

Schools:

The School Food NYC site is fascinating as an example of how people interact with cafeterias: http://www.schoolfoodnyc.org/public1/default.aspx?logout=1 

RR Briefel has conducted research on how school food affects dietary habits at home

Kashrut:

Kosher USA by Roger Horowitz 

Kosher Nation by Sue Fishkoff

Food in hospitals:

The Centers for Disease Control has a well-written report on making hospital food healthier, although the document itself violates several national accessibility laws: https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/hospital-toolkit/pdf/creating-healthier-hospital-food-beverage-pa.pdf 

The Guardian did a great photo series on the good, bad, and gross of hospital food: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/gallery/2015/mar/04/your-pictures-of-hospital-food-good-bad-ugly

NPR did a piece called Around the World in 8 Hospital Meals: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/09/19/349524520/around-the-world-in-8-hospital-meals 

Food in the prison system:

The Atlantic did some incredible work covering food safety in the prison system here: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/12/prison-food-sickness-america/549179/

The New Republic makes some great points about the way kosher food acts as a point of rebellion in a horrific prison system: https://newrepublic.com/article/116295/prison-food-form-rebellion 

More than slightly related: you should listen to Episode 2 of the podcast Farm to Taber to learn about unpaid prison labor and all the problems that come with that on farms, for the human rights of prisoners, and how institutions interact with our food system. Dr. Sarah Taber is awesome, too.

Advertisements

How to Please a Vegan on Shavuot – Chocolate Cherry Cake

Round Bundt chocolate cherry cake on a glass tray

I am not a vegan. The reasons why are probably the topic of a future, more controversial post that would discuss a lot of environmental and agricultural science. That said, I have a number of vegan friends who I enjoy feeding, and am always happy to cook for them. So it was a welcome challenge when a friend requested a vegan, Shavuot-appropriate cake. Shavuot is a dairy-heavy holiday, and if you do not eat dairy, a lot of festive foods for an agrarian, sugary festival are barred to you. I also happened to be very stressed, and baking is a good way for me to relieve anxiety. (Your mileage may vary.) So I decided to put the request to work and make a cake using some flavors I enjoy in my cakes: the dark fruitiness of cherries and the happy luxury of chocolate. The cake is simple, and turned out well. My colleagues enjoyed the cake immensely, and gave good feedback to make it better. I put a ganache on this cake because chocolate rarely hurts. However, the cake is perfectly delicious without it.

Cherries have long appeared in Jewish pastry, as it happens – though Shavuot is generally just before fresh cherries come into season in the Northern Hemisphere. The fruit, which is native to Europe and the Middle East, has been popular among Jews for ancient times, especially as an accompaniment to meat. Fresh and dried cherries started appearing in preserves in the Sephardic world and in pastries in Eastern Europe once sugar became more common in the eighteenth century. Jewish immigrants, who owned many of the “ European” bakeries in the Northeast and Midwest, helped make cherries and cherry pastry popular in America from the 19th century on. (This is the same time as when coffee cake became popular.) Cherries are also particularly common in German Jewish cooking, and The German-Jewish Cookbook has several fantastic cherry-centric recipes.

 

Chocolate Cherry Cake (with ganache option)

Cake

¾ cup melted vegetable shortening or vegetable oil + more for greasing pan

1 ¼ cups granulated brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon salt

1 ¼ cup / 300 mL soy milk

1 cup dried cherries, soaked in water for 20 minutes and drained

1 cup miniature chocolate chips

2 heaping teaspoons baking powder

2 ½-3 cups all-purpose flour (depending on which shortening you use, you may need more flour)

Ganache (Optional)

⅔ cup chocolate chips

½ cup / 120 mL soy milk

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Grease a medium-size (9 inches or 25 centimeters square) rectangular/square pan, cake pan, or Bundt pan, depending on what shape you want the cake to be.
  2. In a large bowl, mix the shortening/oil, brown sugar, and vanilla together until the brown sugar is completely mixed into the oil. You can use a whisk or a large spoon.
  3. Add the salt, soy milk, cherries, chocolate chips, and baking powder. Mix until the mixture is thoroughly even in distribution of chocolate chips. (The cherries need the ballast of the flour to become even.)
  4. Mix in the flour, a half cup at a time, until you get a thick but still viscous batter. The cherries and chocolate chips should be evenly distributed.
  5. Pour into your prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick or chopstick comes out clean. Remove from heat, and let cool before adding ganache and/or serving.
  6. To prepare the optional ganache: put the chocolate chips in a bowl. Then, heat the soy milk to just below boiling temperature on the stove or in the microwave (no shame). Then, pour the soy milk over the chocolate chips and mix with a fork until well blended, about two minutes. Let cool until thicker. Once thicker and cooler, pour over the cake or use for other purposes.

Thank you to all of my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing and Operational Readiness Testing on this recipe, and giving feedback for adjustments.

The Southeast Asian Origins of Jewish Cooking

I first ask my readers to forgive the click-bait title. This post is a look at the various ingredients in Jewish cuisines that were first domesticated in Southeast Asia. It is not a crackpot attempt to attribute Jews to an origin in that region. It should be noted that this attempt probably exists somewhere.

Many foods that we think of as “classically” or “immemorially” Jewish are assumed to have originated at some point in Europe or the Middle East. Indeed, a few things do originate in these areas; rosemary, wheat, chestnuts, rye, and onions are among them. Yet others come from further afield. For example, apricots are from China, apples from Kazakhstan, buckwheat from Siberia or Korea, and potatoes, tomatoes, and corn all come from the New World. And a whole host of foods come from Southeast Asia. Yes, you read correctly, Southeast Asia. Though long assumed in the popular imagination to have been relatively isolated before about 2000 years ago, Southeast Asia is actually the origin of many of our most cherished ingredients. I define Southeast Asia with the common academic definition: Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, and East Timor. These countries share a common history of Indianization (except Vietnam) and colonialism, were often parts of the same pre-modern trade networks based on the use of the Malay and Sanskrit languages, and share similar families of climates and crops. It is from this region that much of modern food began.

Map of southeast asia, with the eleven countries and their capitals
Map of Southeast Asia (Cacahuate via Wikimedia/CC)

The trade and exchange of foodstuffs – and their spread – has occurred for several millennia. Initially, it started quite simply: one would give the other, say, a tasty nut in exchange for a bolt of cloth. By the time of the Romans, trade networks were bringing spices all the way across Eurasia and sending back bolts of cloth. Among the spices and cloth and other goods were also various crops and animals that would be quickly adopted – for their taste, their ease, or their popularity. Some of these came from Southeast Asia and traveled a long, intermediary-filled journey to Europe and North Africa.

The role of Southeast Asia in much of world history – and especially that in food and material culture – has been obscured for several reasons. One is that a lot of the physical evidence is inaccessible: documents and structures decay due to moisture and termites in the tropics, which is a challenge for anyone studying the medieval or ancient eras in tropical environments. (Even if we have copious evidence of advanced civilizations.) Secondly, of course, is racism and colonialism: other than Thailand, the region’s eleven countries were all colonized by European powers for significant amounts of time. Our Eurocentric food history has left little room for the true and magnificent tales of the peoples who Europe colonized – and brutally so. Finally, there is simply not yet enough work done on how the trade networks that spanned from the Moluccas to Portugal operated before the modern era. We have an idea, but because of the decay and Eurocentric history, our picture of food trade and agricultural ideas in Southeast Asia and anywhere that is not Europe or Northern Asia is sadly deeply incomplete – even as we know from archaeology and anecdotes that this was deeply important.

But that is enough blathering from me. You, I am sure, want to know the foods I am discussing! What was traded and spread from their original homes in Southeast Asia?

Chicken

Confused chicken looking quizzically at camera
This rooster cannot believe his 23andMe report! (Matt Davis via Flickr/CC, March 2012)

Chicken is often seen as an ancient food in the Middle East and Europe – after all, the Egyptians consumed it – but it originates somewhere in Southeast Asia. There is a bit of a debate as to whether it was first domesticated in what is now Thailand, what is now southwestern China, or what is now Sumatra in Indonesia. Like many crops such as corn and wheat, it is likely that there were several moments of domestication. Maritime peoples spread the useful bird wherever they went: speakers of Austronesian languages took chickens from Southeast Asia to East Africa and Madagascar at one extreme, and through the South Pacific to Ecuador on the other. Indian traders brought the bird through India to the Middle East, from which it was brought to Europe. Chickens were likely somewhat known to Jews in the First Temple period and were certainly present by the Roman era, and have remained popular in the Mediterranean ever since. (Geese were more common in Eastern Europe, where chickens were a somewhat rare luxury.)

Citrus

Etrog on a branch
Etrog (Daniel Ventura via Wikimedia CC)

The lemon and orange are quintessentially Mediterranean. They are also Burmese. Well, not quite – but the likely origin of all citrus fruits is somewhere in what is Burma today. Back then, it was just the citron. From Southeast Asia, traders brought it to the Middle East by ancient times, where citrons – called Etrog in Hebrew – became indispensable for the rituals of the holiday Sukkot. Greeks and Romans then grew citrons in their areas, but only Jews continued to grow citrus fruits in Europe through much of the Middle Ages. Arab rules reintroduced citrus fruits to Spain during the Moorish period in Spain, by which time talented farmers had developed lemons and oranges in India and on the Arabian Peninsula. Other lovely citrus fruits, like the lime and kumquat, were bred elsewhere. Jewish communities across the world not only used citrus fruit for rituals, but inserted citrus at various levels in everyday cuisine. Marmalade was initially introduced by Portuguese Jews to the rest of Europe, where it became very popular among Jews and non-Jews alike.

Coconut

Green coconuts with the tops peeled off
These coconuts are not quite ready to be turned into Passover macaroons! (Photo MaxPixel/CC)

Coconuts likely originated in the region of Sumatra or Peninsular Malaysia. They were spread initially by the sea – coconuts can float in the sea and stay fertile despite being salty for 120 days. The coconut was a pretty popular foodstuff wherever it was adopted, and from India and Indonesia it spread throughout the Indian Ocean basin and the tropical Pacific. Spanish and Portuguese traders later brought it to the Americas. In Jewish cuisine, until the late 19th century, it was mostly only present in communities where coconuts were common, in India and coastal Yemen. Coconuts were found in curries, chutneys, and stews. However, dried coconut spread in the 19th century around the world, and began to be commonly incorporated in Jewish baked goods. Machines to more efficiently process coconut were invented by American Jews in the late 19th century, which led to the popularization of coconut in cold climates. Coconut milk also emerged as a popular pareve substitute for milk.

Sugarcane

Sugar cane crop with mountain in background at Cairns, QLD.
Sugarcane in Queensland, Australia (Photo Gregory Heath/CSIRO)

Sugar has a long and checkered history that all begins with the independent domestication of sugar cane at several locations across what is now Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The use of sugar and sugarcane spread from there to India by ancient times, and with Arab traders during the Umayyad Caliphate across the Middle East and North Africa to Spain. From there, colonizing European powers took sugarcane to the New World – which also accelerated the institutionalization of the slave trade. (Sidney Mintz’ Sweetness and Power is an informative history here.) Growing and refining sugar was backbreaking, dangerous labor that Europeans were only too happy to slough off to enslaved people. Jews in Suriname were among these slaveholders. By this time, Jews had already developed a taste for sugar in Spain during the Moorish period – and after the expulsion, they took sweets made from sugar and the use of sugar as a spice everywhere they went. Sugar in Eastern Europe, meanwhile, was sourced until recently from beets.

Bananas

Purple bananas and banana leaves on a table.
Not your Curious George banana – these are purple bananas and leaves for sale at a market in Thailand. (Photo Takeaway via Wikimedia/CC)

This is a bit of a controversial inclusion: bananas were domesticated in what is now New Guinea, which is usually not considered Southeast Asia. (Definitions vary.) Evidence of domestication of bananas and sugar cane comes from the Kuk Swamp in the highland regions of Papua New Guinea from several thousand years ago, and it is likely that domestication occurred independently at several places through the island. Contrary to popular assumptions about “uncontacted peoples,” New Guinean people traded with peoples to the east and west, and bananas reached Indonesia and the Philippines no later than four thousand years ago. By the medieval era, banana leaves were in frequent use as plates, food wrappers, and materials across the Indian Ocean basin – and bananas were a popular staple food as well. Jewish communities in India and the Arab world did eat some bananas, but bananas really “took off” with their introduction to the Americas in the 16th century, and their incorporation into local diets across the Americas. Immigrant Jews adopted bananas quickly upon arrival into the United States and Argentina, and the banana found itself both as a beloved snack and incorporated in baked goods.

Taro

Taro plants with big leaves
Taro leaves – yes, they are that big. (Photo Pixabay 2016)

Another controversial inclusion for a different reason: many people do not realize that yes, Jewish communities cook with taro! Taro was initially domesticated at least three times, in Northeast India, New Guinea, and in what is now Malaysia or Indonesia. The starchy roots are stunningly portable; hence, it spread quickly across tropical and semi-tropical regions, and was established from Polynesia all the way to Ancient Egypt and Cyprus. The Romans ate it much as Italians eat potatoes today. Taro’s use in Europe mostly declined after the fall of the Roman Empire, although it remained common in Portugal. Today, most North Americans associate taro with Chinese cooking. Egyptian, Indian, and Syrian Jews have all historically used taro in hearty stews.

Cloves and Nutmeg

Medieval illumination of noblemen in traditional tunics and boots around tables eating meats and breads under trees and drinking. Dogs are drinking at a creek in the foreground. The trees are tall and in full foliage, the image has red and blue illuminated borders.
Noblemen eating a sumptuous picnic that may have included some cloves and nutmeg because they could. Note: this was not normal. (Image from Le Livre de chasse de Gaston Phébus, 15th century.)

Cloves and nutmeg are both native to Indonesia – cloves to Ternate and Tidore, and nutmeg to the Banda Islands. I talked about the history of the spice trade around these in a post on medieval cuisine last year. Both have been part of Sephardic and Mizrahi cuisines for centuries, and became incorporated into some Ashkenazi dishes after the 18th century. Dutch Jews and Arab Jews use cloves especially in savory dishes. The love of cloves, in fact, also goes back as far as Biblical times – evidence of cloves from the period has been found in the Holy Land. For thousands of years,

Indonesia was the only source for both spices, and an entire trade network built up between the Molucca Islands and Europe and North Africa, trading the spices. The Dutch used brute violence and genocide to establish a monopoly during the 17th century, which also encouraged other European powers to transplant nutmeg and cloves elsewhere.

Black Pepper

Illuminated section of manuscript of Latin calligraphy, laid on a cerulean blue tile. Top section is drawings of unicorns on a blue background. Bottom section is serpents wrapped around frond-like trees on red ground.
To be fair, a snake around the tree is easier than some pepper grinders. This is what medieval Europeans thought getting pepper entailed: snakes around trees and unicorns! (Photo from 12th-century “Marvels of the East”)

Black pepper is native to South India and Sumatra, where locals figured out that the dried berries of the pepper plant add a wonderful spark to food. By the high ages of New Kingdom Egypt (mid-2nd millennium BCE), a thriving trade in pepper stretched across the Middle East. Greeks, Romans, and Medieval Europeans all loved pepper – and used it heavily in foods. Jews, too: it was the traditional prized flavoring of German and Lithuanian Jewry. In fact, it was pepper that spurred Europe’s first colonial ventures, in part – the Portuguese went on their sailing adventures, as did the Spaniards, partly in pursuit of pepper. Today, black pepper is used across Jewish cuisine – but especially in Ashkenazi cooking, in which it is the main source of piquancy. And though most Europeans moved away from heavily spiced food in the 18th century, many Jewish communities continue to use black pepper in quantities now unknown in Europe, but still common in India. In Southeast Asia, the chili pepper – native to Mexico – has taken predominance.


If you want to read more about the history of cooking, Southeast Asia, and trade of foodstuffs in the ancient and medieval Old World, I highly recommend the following resources:

A Soup for Weekends

Soup with squash, beans, and noodles garnished with sour cream in a bowl

So when I was in Mexico a few months ago, I had one of the best soups of my life at a restaurant in Tula de Allende that served comida casera – roughly speaking, “home-style cooking” – but entirely vegetarian. I asked the proprietor, Cristina, for the recipe, which she roughly described in the telegraphic style of home cooks everywhere. A bit of this, a bit of that, and a good dose of black beans. Unfortunately, I left the scrap of paper with my notes on the bus back to Mexico City. However, with some experimentation over the winter, I was able to roughly recreate the soup with ingredients readily available in the United States.

The soup is chock-full of ingredients beloved by Jewish communities: beans, garlic, tomatoes, squash, and peppers among them. Though some would tell you that this is a “weeknight” dish, I would consider this soup better for languorous weekend cooking, when you have the time to spare a while to cook a big hearty soup. Eat leftovers during the week, when the myth of so-called “easy” home cooking is most apparent.

Sopa de Frijoles y Calabaza con Fideos

Serves 6-12

1 large onion, diced

7 cloves white garlic, minced

2 dried ancho chilies, broken apart into small pieces (keep the seeds if you want it spicy)

1 tablespoon table salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon white or apple cider vinegar

1 15-oz can crushed tomatoes

1 large kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped into chunks

1 8oz/225g can corn kernels, drained (or 1 cup cooked corn)

2 15-oz/425g cans black beans, drained (or 4 cups soaked black beans)

2 sprigs dried epazote (optional)

8 cups water or stock + more as needed + more for noodles

1 package thin noodles (any shape you wish)

3 fistfuls fresh spinach, chopped

 

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

 

Sour cream, chili sauce, and cilantro for garnish

  1. Heat a soup pot or Dutch oven over a high flame. Add oil.
  2. Add the onions, garlic, and chili and saute for 2-3 minutes, or until the onions begin to soften.
  3. Add the salt, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, and nutmeg. Saute for another minute, or until the onions are translucent. Then, add the vinegar and saute for one more minute.
  4. Add the crushed tomatoes and mix well. Saute for another minute, or until the juices are bubbling.
  5. Add the squash, corn, and black beans,  then add water and/or stock. If the water and stock do not cover, add a bit more. Bring to a boil. Add epazote if using.
  6. Simmer for 45 minutes covered, or until the squash is completely cooked.
  7. While the soup is simmering, prepare the noodles in a separate pot according to package directions.
  8. Once the squash is cooked, add the spinach and stir in such that it is cooked. Remove from heat. You can add the noodles if you want, although I prefer to store the noodles separately.
  9. Serve the soup with a helping of noodles and sour cream, chili sauce, and/or cilantro as a garnish. The soup keeps well for at least a week.

Es improbable que ella lea esto, pero mil gracias a Cristina en Tula de Allende por su receta excelente, y me disculpo si haya olvido algunos aspectos importantes.

On Food Security and Jewish Customs

Many of those around me have noticed that I have a hard time throwing food away. It takes something being rotten or most definitively off for me to throw it out; even then, I feel a little twinge of guilt. This guilt is not from sermons about food waste – I am well-read enough to know that waste has actually gone down significantly with modern agriculture, and I am also generally able to plan shopping and food storage to minimize any unneeded waste. Rather, it is because I carry quite a bit of baggage and secondary trauma about the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother was a survivor of Bergen-Belsen who starved in the camps, and whose food practices were forever shaped by those years of deprivation. As a result, my mother and I have a lot of thoughts about the potential of food – and throwing away any of it sends shivers down our spines. It is also why we stockpile food – a subconscious “just in case.”

These sorts of historical and transmitted traumas have influenced Jewish foodways for a long time. How many cooks view food is directly related to their own experience of lack, or for those like me who have been more fortunate, lack experienced by our relatives. Sometimes this happens in terms of food storage: how much do we keep? How little do we throw out? Sometimes this happens when we cook: how many portions do we cook? And sometimes it happens to our guests – not letting them “go hungry,” getting them to eat something. Subconsciously, it is a response to trauma experienced or inherited. And around that trauma, a culture of relentless squirrelling away, huge outlays of food, and stuffing guests’ faces has been built.

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

Even now, many Jews do not have enough to eat. A night volunteering at a kosher soup kitchen or food pantry in New York or Chicago is evidence enough. (I highly recommend Masbia, which is the nexus of a huge community.) If anecdote is not enough, allow the statistics to speak: 10% of American Jews struggle with food security. A higher proportion of Jews in Israel and some other countries do. These struggles do not just end when people have enough to eat: food insecurities, as we see from history, inform how people will eat in the future.

And the proof of this is in the way we relate to food today in the Jewish community. One reason we seek to have groaning Shabbat tables is because we remember the times in which our ancestors simply could not have that. One reason there are so many cultural strictures against wasting food is because we are only seventy years out from a huge starvation event – the Holocaust. (Genocide was accompanied by hunger and forced starvation.) Many of the popular foods among American Ashkenazi Jews today – challah, babka, cold cuts, and more – were prized by immigrants in the early 20th century precisely because of their rarity at home.

This history is why I also have little patience for the nostalgic, sentimental narrative around Ashkenazi cooking as a product of “poverty.” For most Ashkenazi Jews, challah was an occasional treat, as were things like brisket, p’tcha, or pretty much anything with meat. Ditto for other Jewish communities and meat. The daily fare of poverty was a lot plainer and probably not something those in developed countries in our era would willingly eat. When we say bread “came from the earth” in the blessing hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz, we are partly commemorating the fact that wheat was once threshed on floors. This idea is explicitly stated in ancient and medieval commentaries such as Bereshit Rabbah. Bread had impurities that were dirt or stones. Bugs were commonplace in food before the modern era. Starvation was only unknown to the wealthiest in the community – most people experienced some hunger at least once in their lifetime. A lack of food security, not just persecution, drove millions of Ashkenazim to emigrate from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. The cuisine that became everyday was the cuisine of festivals, because that was the cuisine that meant plenty to our ancestors. And the fact that we eat so much – and so often, and that we store so much? That is the actual aftereffect of generations of poverty, or the memory of grandmothers in concentration camps, or remembrance of famines past.

For more on the history of hunger in the Jewish world, I highly recommend Hasia Diner’s Hungering for America and John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied.

Sherry Potatoes, Two Ways, for Passover

Sherry potatoes with a generous heap of parsley
So buttery that you can see a smudge of butter on the left! (Photo mine, March 2018)

I got not one, but two requests for sherry potatoes – one from a close friend, and the other from Sarah Teske, a fantastic librarian in Minneapolis, MN. Despite having lived in the Midwest, I somehow had never had sherry potatoes, and Sarah’s description of this recipe as having “a warm depth of buttery, slightly-sweet, caramelized goodness” most certainly intrigued me. And it is, like the best of buttery dishes, Passover-friendly. I am providing two recipes here: first, the recipe I made – I like my potatoes with skin on in all circumstances (even fries), and then Sarah’s recipe. For my version, I added some peri-peri spice mix that I brought back from visiting relatives in South Africa last year, but you can use any peppery-sweet curry spice mix instead. Sarah’s version calls for Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, which is delicious, but contains cornstarch, which some people do not eat on Passover. Both recipes are good.

My recipe:

Sherry Potatoes with Peri-Peri

Based on the recipe by Sarah Teske

2 lbs/1 kg small red gold potatoes, sliced into thin slices (with peel on)

1 heaping teaspoon peri-peri spice mix (or curry spice mix)

Table salt, as needed

Ground black pepper, as needed

4oz/125g butter, melted (one stick)

½ cup/120 mL dry sherry

Fresh parsley, for garnish

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F/190C.
  2. In a medium-size (or any appropriately size baking dish), layer the potatoes. After each layer of potatoes, sprinkle some salt and pepper on top.
  3. Once all the potatoes are in, sprinkle the peri-peri on top of the potatoes.
  4. Mix the melted butter and sherry together, then pour over the potatoes. Make sure that the potatoes are well-coated.
  5. Bake for 40 to 60 minutes, basting occasionally if you wish. (I like my potatoes with a bit of crisp on top. Garnish with parsley; serve hot.

Sarah’s recipe:

Sarah Teske’s Sherry Potatoes (in her own words)

Ingredients:

2 lb. very small red potatoes (about 20), scrubbed, peeled*and cut in half (YES, peeling is necessary for her recipe… please try not to add any/much of your skin or blood to the potatoes while doing so. Remember, SAFETY FIRST.)

3 Tbs. olive oil

3 Tbs. or half a bottle or whatever you have left of a good, dry (not too expensive) sherry

A few shakes of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt (to taste).

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put potatoes baking pan that is big enough with a lip/side so the liquid stays in the pan. Mix the dressing of all the other stuff. Coat potatoes evenly. Put in oven and bake. Check on the potatoes and baste as you feel necessary (about every five to ten minutes depending on how anxious you are about the guests you are hosting). If timed correctly, they are done usually about 20 minutes after all the other food is. Basically, cook them anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour and an half depending on how many times you opened the oven to baste. Serve.   Eat with your family at every Jewish holy day/holiday meal.  Serves two.

 

Potato Frittata for Passover

Potato frittata with cilantro and chilies in a cast-iron pan with a missing section cut out
Potato frittata with cilantro and chilies – the missing bit was eaten by yours truly. (Photo mine, March 2018)

And now for the second in our series of potato dishes for Passover – a dish most people associate with Spain, the potato omelet. In Spain, this dish is made with chunks of potato and known as a tortilla española. It is a common favorite at tapas bars around the world. However, a similar dish exists across Italian, North African, and Middle Eastern Jewish communities. It is called frittata de patate by Italian Jews, kuku sib zamini by Persian Jews. It is also named makroud fil-batates in North African Arabic or a variety of things in Ladino.

A slice of frittata on a blue plate
Enjoying a slice of frittata. (Photo mine, March 2018)

Some may ask if this dish originated in Spain. I would say no – the expulsion of the Jews in Spain happened before the introduction of the potato to Europe. Recipes for large omelets served like cakes,  however, were spread widely in the Mediterranean by travelers, traders, and soldiers during the Umayyad caliphate. In addition, the use of eggs to “wrap up” vegetables was found in Italy since at least the time of the Romans, when eggs tended to be used by the wealthy. So when the potato came along, it was incorporated into omelets just like eggplants, spinach, and onions.

One of the great things about many of the Jewish versions of the frittata is that it is made with mashed potato instead of potato chunks, which does wondrous things for the texture. Instead of admittedly delicious chunks of potato, you get a creamy, almost mousse-like texture. I based my recipe off of Claudia Roden’s, but with a few adjustments. I swapped the parsley with cilantro, and added a touch of another New World introduction – chili peppers – to give it a bit of a spicy kick. This dish makes for a great sharing food, or as breakfast for Pesach and the whole year. However, I skipped the onions in the North African version and made a riff off of the deceptively simple Italian version. I have been eating it for breakfast, piece by piece. Enjoy!

Potato Frittata for Passover

Based on several recipes by Claudia Roden

2lbs/1kg potatoes, peeled

5 cloves white garlic, minced

2 fresh hot chili peppers, finely diced

4 tablespoons olive oil or sunflower seed oil

1 fistful fresh cilantro, chopped

8 eggs, beaten

Salt and black pepper to taste (I used about 2 teaspoons of salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper)

  1. Boil the potatoes in water until soft. Then, drain the potatoes and rinse them under cold water to cool them. Mash the potatoes and set aside to cool further.
  2. In the meantime, heat a deep non-stick or cast-iron skillet and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Then, add the garlic and chili and sauté for 1-2 minutes, or until the garlic is browned. Pour out the oil, garlic, and chili, and mix them into the mashed potatoes.
  3. Mix the cilantro, eggs, salt, and pepper into the mashed potatoes until you get a thick batter.
  4. Heat the skillet again, and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Then, pour the egg-potato mixture into the skillet. Cook for 15-20 minutes on a medium-to-high flame, or until the omelet is set and browned on the bottom. If you want it brown on top, you can bake the frittata afterwards for a few minutes. Alternatively, you can bake the frittata in the skillet or a pan for 35-45 minutes in an oven preheated to 425F/220C.
  5. Remove from heat. Serve the frittata in slices, hot, warm, or cold.