Just like many nerdy New Yorkers, I spend a fair amount of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are so many beautiful things to see and histories to learn there. Anyway, since apparently I cannot stop thinking about Jewish food at any point, I decided to spot some Jewish ties with various objects throughout the museum on a recent visit. Many of the things we consider “high art” today once had functional purposes – especially the ceramic, metal, and glass ware we now peer at through glass protective cases. These functions were, of course, largely for the upper crust of society – and in this case I will be generally referring to wealthier Jews. It should be noted that we do find plenty of “ordinary people” pottery and cookware in archaeological sites – they just do not make the vaunted cases of the world’s great museums.
Let us go take a look.
Brass ewer for wine or sherbets, 13th-century Iran
The object: A brass ewer with detailed mural-like inlays of silver and other compounds. The complex design includes medallion vines with rabbit heads, zodiacs with the planets, and harpies and astrological imagery. All of these were considered highly auspicious in the context of 13th-century Iran, and may be considered akin to similar decorative work on Kiddush cups today. (Jews, too, are superstitious.)
The Jewishness: Ewers and jugs like this would have been used for ritual purposes in many wealthier homes – especially for Kiddush wine. In addition, silver and silverwork was commonly a Jewish industry in many cities.
Iznik plates, Ottoman Empire, 16th century
The objects: A circular stonepaste plate with a colorful pattern of flowers and birds. The plate was made in the late 16th century in Iznik, which was the center of the Ottoman pottery industry. Iznik ware was popular across the empire and abroad, and was influenced by prior Arab and Persian practices, as well as Chinese porcelain traded along the Silk Road.
The Jewishness: Iznik had a thriving Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire, many of whom would have traded these wares to other centers in Thessaloniki, Izmir, and abroad. Later, plates like this would become a “template” for early Zionists to use for serving “new Israeli cuisine.”
Porcelain teapots from China and Japan, and the German, English, French, and Dutch factories that imitated them, 18th century
The Jewishness: Tea is consumed traditionally in dozens of Jewish communities, and the consumption of tea greatly expanded in the 17th century among Russian and Sephardi Jews. Jewish communities in Uzbekistan and Georgia were involved in the Silk Road trade and many Jews in maritime and overland trade with Asia, including that of porcelain.
French porcelain partial tea service used in 18th-century America
The object: This is a beautifully decorated porcelain teapot, cup, and saucer, from an 18th-century French factory, with a gold-and-back floral theme sparsely laid on a white background. Such examples come from the aforementioned European porcelain industry, which moved from “Chinoiserie” Orientalist designs to more localized European examples through the 18th century. These pieces are examples of the latter. This particular group belonged to the Loyalist Verplanck family in New York in the late 18th century, who was given the full tea service by the British commander of forces in New York, Sir William Howe.
The Jewishness: As mentioned above, tea consumption spiked in the 17th century among Jewish communities. By the 18th century, a small minority of Jews was wealthy enough to drink tea like the Christian élites they partly assimilated into. This sort of tea service would easily have appeared at the table of the Nathans or other wealthy Jewish families in 18th-century New York.
Pennsylvania Redware, 18th century
The objects: German immigrants in 18th-century Pennsylvania began manufacturing practical ceramic wares from local red clay found throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, which soon gave rise to a local style now known as “Pennsylvania Redware.” These plates, bowls, and cups often utilized a technique known elsewhere as sgraffito, which involves scratching through one level of clay slip to reveal a lower level of slip. The ceramics were largely made for a local American market, which was readily receptive. Though these plates are from the 18th century, the industry’s golden age was in the early 19th century after American independence.
The Jewishness: The same wealthy families that might have owned the French tea service would have easily possessed some Pennsylvania Redware for everyday use – and middle-class families may have served their Shabbat and weekday meals on plates like these as well.
Spanish inlaid plates and bowls, 14th century
The objects: Inlaid plates and bowls with decorative patterns from Southern Spain in the 14th century, when the region was still under Almohad rule. The style of pottery is now known as Hispano-Moresque, and utilizes detailed patterning, tin glazes, and often a metallic after-glaze. In its era it was already a luxury good, and these wares influenced Italian styles that later became known as maiolica in the 16th century.
The object: This is an incredible illuminated Haggadah from 15th-century Italy. The order of the Passover (Pesakh) Seder ritual is not only written, but accompanied by gilded and painted images from the story of the Exodus and of the Passover ritual foods. The margins also contain micrographic illustrations.
The Jewishness is obvious.
Images all mine, July 2017, unless otherwise noted.
I get very lazy during the summer. Some of it is the heat, some of it is my rare-but-real Summer Seasonal Depression, and some of it is that things during the summer always feel a bit more hectic. So, as much as I love cooking, I do not necessarily have the energy for a long and involved preparation process. Hence, salads become central in my meals. Not a few leaves with a sad dressing, but weighty and substantial salads that are, in fact, very Jewish.
In the past seventy years or so, Jewish communities have been having a bit of a…salad frenzy. Some of this has to do with the central place salad takes in Zionist cooking, as a way of “becoming of the land.” Salad is also part of Jewish assimilation into surrounding countries. And though some Jewish communities have had “salads” for centuries, salad is far more popular and central now. The ingredients have, of course, changed with the times. The three salads here use three ingredient combinations popular in Israel and the United States at different points since World War II.
1950s: Potato Salad with Yogurt
In the 1950s, Israeli cuisine was in a strange moment. In a completely Eurocentric state, certain Middle Eastern and North African foods were still considered unhealthy or unsanitary, and new immigrants were encouraged to “switch” to European, Ashkenazi food. Yet at the same time, that food was being amended with ingredients and recipes taken from local Palestinian cuisine. Hence you ended up with beet salads with cilantro, hummus with European bread, and recipes in which original ingredients were swapped with Middle Eastern ones. This potato salad with yogurt and za’atar would not be out of place in this environment.
In a pot, boil the potatoes in the water until soft to the fork, but not mushy. Drain the potatoes, then let cool.
In a cup, mix together the lemon juice, yogurt, salt, za’atar, and pepper until thoroughly combined.
Put the potatoes in a large bowl, and pour the dressing over the potatoes. Mix to coat. Serve cold or at room temperature. The salad keeps for 4-5 days refrigerated.
1970s: Corn and Chickpea Salad with Carrots and Garlic
The midcentury was the time of canned corn – especially in the 1950s and 1970s. In the United States, it ended up in strange combinations; in Israel, it was campfire food (and my mother’s one true teenage love); in the Soviet Union there was an entire, extremely bizarre campaign featuring talking cans of corn. And so corn often found its way into salads, including a corn-chickpea salad one man at synagogue told me about. Without the recipe, I updated it with carrots and garlic for more contemporary tastes – and it is definitely delicious.
Corn and Chickpea Salad with Carrots and Garlic
2 cups cooked corn kernels (you can use canned)
2 cups cooked chickpeas (you can use canned)
1 cup chopped carrots
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or white vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon molasses or honey
½ cup water+1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Mix together the corn and chickpeas in a large bowl. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, place the carrots, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, oil, vinegar, molasses, and ½ cup water. Bring to a boil, then let simmer on low heat for 5 minutes, or until the carrots are soft and the “sauce” has reduced.
Mix the remaining water and cornstarch, and add to the carrots and mix in. You should notice the sauce thickening.
Remove the carrot mixture from the heat, and pour over the corn and chickpeas. Mix thoroughly, and then let the dish cool to room temperature before serving. This salad keeps for up to a week in the refrigerator.
1990s: Cucumber Avocado Strawberry Salad
Avocados were not just hip now, but in the 1990s too. At that time, avocados were first beginning to make themselves common in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods of the United States and Canada – and they were already common in the Southwest, Israel, Australia, and South Africa. And just like the avocado toast craze today, in the 1990s, avocado seemed to pop up everywhere – and especially in salads. Avocados, of course, were largely seasonal then due to pre-NAFTA import restrictions, and limited to the summer – just like strawberries. When NAFTA allowed for avocados to be imported year-round from Mexico, consumption exploded. Israel, meanwhile, had been growing avocados since 1924. This salad combines avocado with another 1990s trend – fruit in salad.
Cucumber Avocado Strawberry Salad
Serves 4-8 as a side dish or 1-2 as a main dish
1 large cucumber, diced
1 large avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced
2/3 cup chopped fresh strawberries
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Mix together the cucumber, avocado, and strawberries.
Mix the lemon juice, olive oil, and soy sauce separately.
Add the dressing to the cucumber mixture. Serve cold or at room temperature. This keeps refrigerated for a few days but is best served within 24 hours of preparation.
A bonus salad: last year, I published a recipe for a Chickpea Arugula Salad with the Jewish Daily Forward. It is very 2010s. Take a look!
Thank you to Dov Fields and Dana Kline for participating in User Acceptance Testing.
My grandmother is of the soup-and-stew school of cooking. Even today at 90, when she lives in a retirement home in Israel, she still helps herself to a generous portion of soup in the cafeteria at each meal. Back when she and my grandfather used to come to our house in New York for months at a time, the kitchen would be filled with South African and Ashkenazi Jewish soups and stews – lentil soup, cabbage soup, and fish curry among them. This food was hearty – and tasty. One that I perhaps remember best, however, was not the soup, but the sweet and meaty taste of the South African tamatiebredie – a throwback to my grandmother’s childhood in the Cape, and very delicious.
Tamatiebredie is the history of Cape Town in a bowl. The recipe itself is a classic stew that could come from any of the city’s cultural influences. The meat comes from both the pastoral traditions of San and Xhosa peoples that originally inhabited the Cape and the Eastern Cape, but also the European livestock then imported to South Africa. The sweet flavor with the meat comes from Indonesia, from where the Dutch imported thousands of enslaved people to the Cape in the 18th century. The tomatoes, star of the show, came from the New World via Spain to the Dutch, who then brought it both to South Africa and to Indonesia, partly with the assistance of Jewish traders. Cinnamon and cloves recall Cape Town’s original purpose: to stock Dutch trading ships going to Indonesia for its spices (and, unfortunately, to perpetuate genocide and take away people to be enslaved in South Africa). Like the Afrikaans language, this is not a pure product of Europe, but rather a mix of Europe, Asia, and Africa brought together by colonialism, yet perhaps beautiful in subverting all its norms.
Tamatiebredie and other dishes – such as kerrievis – are primarily associated with the Cape Coloured community, an ethnic group descended from Africans, Asians, and Europeans that form the majority of Afrikaans speakers. Many, often called “Cape Malays,” trace most of their descent to enslaved Indonesians brought to South Africa in the 18th century, and form the better part of Cape Town’s community of 400,000 Muslims. Though now claimed by many white Afrikaners as “their own,” this dish – like the Afrikaans language – really began in this community.
It is often said that Ashkenazi Jews in South Africa “kept” a certain “authentic” Eastern European cuisine alive in South Africa. But beyond that, many Jews adopted local dishes into their repertoire, often with an idea that these were donated by Afrikaners. Indeed, a few – such as rusks, melktert, a custard tart, or the doughnut skuinkoek – did come from Afrikaners. But many more, such as mielie pap, samp and beans, fish curries, and tamatiebredie, were often given or taken from Cape Coloured and Black domestic workers and laborers Jews encountered in South Africa – not just those who could afford domestic labor, but also those who encountered these groups as customers in small shops and in their daily lives. (It should be noted here that Ashkenazi Jews have been considered “white” in South Africa since the 1880s.) My own great-grandmother, for example, served dozens of Black and Cape Coloured laborers every day from her small food shop in the 1930s. This history has largely been forgotten – and conveniently so, since it also avoids the thorny topic of Jews having domestic workers or white privilege in South Africa. But the influence is still there – and is now, perhaps, more celebrated. Even in the 1960s, South African Jewish cookbooks cited tamatiebredie and kerrievis as classic “Malay” dishes.
(Photos mine, June 2017)
My tamatiebredie is a tad sweeter and a tad more piquant than my grandmother’s sultry version. I not only add more sugar, but I also add more pepper and paprika – the latter of which is a perhaps unorthodox addition. You can vary the spice content as you wish – I prefer the sweetness of the tomatoes to come out – and serve it with any carbohydrate. Rice is traditional and probably the best, but when I last made tamatiebredie I served it with mieliepap– the polenta-like corn gruel that is a staple in Southern Africa. A heretical combination by a heretical cook, but delicious.
Based on recipes by Esther Katz, Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker, and Barbara Joubert
2.5 lbs/1 kg lamb stew meat, chopped into pieces
2 large onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons table salt
2 teaspoons ground pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground paprika
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground pepper
2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
2 cans canned whole tomatoes, chopped + any juice (separate the tomatoes and the juice)
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons table sugar
1lb/500g small potatoes, chopped
Heat a deep pot over high heat, and add oil. Then, add the lamb. Brown the meat until just brown, about 2 minutes. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Add a bit more oil, then add the onions. Sauté until just soft, about 2 minutes.
Add the garlic and spices. Sauté for another minute, or until the garlic begins to soften and release its smell.
Add the tomatoes but not the juice. Mix well, and then sauté for 4-5 minutes or until the fresh tomatoes start to soften.
Add the lamb back in and mix thoroughly. Sauté for another two minutes.
Add the tomato juice, chicken stock, and sugar and mix well. The meat-tomato mixture should be just covered now by the “broth.” Bring to a boil.
Once the mixture is boiling, lower the heat and simmer the stew, covered, for one hour, stirring occasionally. The meat should soften and the tomatoes will “melt” a little.
After the hour, add the potatoes and mix in well. Simmer for another 40 minutes uncovered, or until the sauce is reduced and thick and the potatoes are soft. The bredie is now ready, serve hot over rice, or if you’re a heretic like me, mieliepap.
Thank you to Ziva Freiman and Lexi Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing.
Your author has been on holiday for two weeks in South Africa visiting his relatives and taking a break from all the stress and tsurisof New York. While here, I’ve also been brushing up on my much-forgotten Afrikaans, and delighting in all the delicious food of the Afrikaans-speaking cultures: the peppery and sumptuous Cape Malay cuisine, the hearty Afrikaner cuisine, and the many delicious things Cape Town has to offer. Anyway, while brushing through Afrikaans cookbooks I’ve also spotted a few parallels with Jewish foods that I’ve felt compelled to share.
“Welna se saadbeskuit” – Sonskynkafee, Mariëtte Crafford
“Coffee in our world is not “coffee” unless there is a biscuit that goes with”
The recipe: a more refined take on the traditional South African rusk, with lots of seeds. South African rusks (“beskuit” in Afrikaans) are somewhat plainer, although still absolutely delicious. Crafford’s version contains sesame, rapeseed, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, and linseed alongside coconut and bran – and the final version is probably quite nutty, though still sweet.
The Jewishness: I’ve often opined that the rusk/“beskuit” is different from the Ashkenazi “Mandelbrot” – the former is chunky and rich and very rustic, the latter is refined and nutty and terribly elegant. But this recipe reminds us: authenticity is bullshit. This is an Afrikaans rusk with many elegant seeds, this is a delightfully chunky Mandelbrot with buttermilk. Buttermilk! Our ancestors in Eastern Europe would have certainly approved – especially of the poppy seeds.
“Tamatiebredie” – Kook saam Kaaps, Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker
“If you are not satisfied, you will not be very happy either.”
The recipe: a Cape Malay classic, the tamatiebredie, a luscious meat stew cooked in a surprisingly sweet tomato sauce. Sometimes it is cooked with beef, but more often – and here too – it is cooked with mutton The dish is a blend of the flavors brought by Malay slaves taken to South Africa during Dutch colonial rule, Dutch cooking methods, African meat, tomatoes from the New World, and a stewing method common to many cultures. (This admixture – contrary to apartheid and white nationalist lore – is also what produced the Afrikaans language, with its melodic rhythms and endless diminutives.) The recipe here is deceptively simple and utterly delicious.
The Jewishness: similar sweet meat dishes with a tomato sauce are common across Europe and North Africa – it is a formula for many recipes that Jewish traders brought with them from their own participation in early transatlantic trade. Sometimes it is cooked with okra, sometimes it is cooked with beans, and sometimes other ingredients are added. Of course, it is also sometimes very simply stewed meat with tomatoes – like the tabikha of Algerian Jews. This recipe may have been introduced to Dutch Jews, and then the Dutch, from the Ottomans or the Venetians – where Jews first encountered the tomato in the 16th century. Nowadays, tamatiebredie itself has been adopted by many South African Jews: I remember eating my grandmother’s slightly piquant take on it as a child.
“Eierbootjies” – Uitgerys, by Mareli Visser
“I like a runny egg, because egg yolk is, for me, the tastiest sauce in the world.”
The recipe: a lovely, puffy bread filled with cheese with a cracked egg on top, based on “several versions found on the internet.” The name is literally “little egg boats.” It’s hardly a traditional South African recipe, but uses the bread and eggs in such a familiar way. Like other places, South Africa too has had quite an “internationalization” of food in recent years. This recipe is presented as somewhat Italian – what with the mozzarella cheese and everything.
The Jewishness: this is basically a khachapuri – a delightful Georgian Jewish cheese boat often served with a fried egg on top. Differently, the cheese used is a slightly saltier and lighter sulgumi. But essentially, the recipe is the same. And wherever it is from, this is a delicious concept.
Bonus: another recipe in this book, for the South African doughnut skuinskoek, is essentially a classic recipe for the Yiddish pontshikwith the delightful additions of anise and butter. I am absolutely making these for Hanukkah this year!
There are some Ashkenazi Jewish dishes that I can easily explain to people who are not familiar with that style of cooking. Kneidlach are a classic case of “carbs in soup,” latkes are giant hash browns, and even p’tchais a sort of 1950s aspic, but far older. (And generally tastier.) Cabbage soups make sense in many cultures, as do soft and sweet breads like challah. But then there are the ones that find confusion among Americans – the pickled herring and poppy seed filling, for example. But none have caused quite as many perplexed looks as kasha varnishkes – roasted buckwheat groats with noodles.
“What is buckwheat?” “Is that a health nut thing?” “You eat grains with noodles?”
…after roasting (photos mine, May 2017)
Kasha varnishkes is a delicious dish – nutty and savory, with hints of carbohydrate sweetness and a touch of tannin from the buckwheat. Though it has dropped off the mainstream radar in recent years, other than a reference in Seinfeld, it is still a treasured treat for many Jews. The dish itself has a fascinating history. Kasha, or buckwheat, has been present in Jewish cooking since the 12th century, when Mongol and Tatar invaders introduced buckwheat to Eastern Europe from Siberia and China. The plant – grain-like, but botanically not a grass like wheat – was well-adapted to the climate of northeastern Europe, and quickly became a mainstay of the local diet. The groats were usually roasted for better flavor, easier digestion, and longer storage time – roasted groats can keep for months in cool and dry spaces. Kasha varnishkes initially began as vareniki, or pierogi, stuffed with buckwheat. However, the dish soon became buckwheat with onions and strips of pasta, which skipped the laborious process of stuffing the dumplings. In the United States, the recipe then became popular with bowtie pasta, made initially in imitation of the Italian farfalle. Today, kasha varnishkes is almost always made with this pasta.
Cooking the roasted buckwheat groats!
Mushrooms, onions, and garlic – Ashkenazi goodness.
Mushrooms, onions, and garlic – cooked. (Photos mine, May 2017)
In this preparation, I made the kasha varnishkes with mushrooms. Kasha with mushrooms is another Jewish recipe with a long history – it was a particular favorite in pre-war Lithuania. Today one does not encounter kasha varnishkes with mushrooms too often in Jewish spaces, but the meatiness of the mushrooms complements the buckwheat quite well. Alone this dish is a delicious meal – especially with an egg – but it also makes a wonderful side dish.
Kasha Varnishkes with Mushrooms
2 cups buckwheat groats
1 lb bowtie pasta
1 lb white mushrooms, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil, schmaltz, or butter
If your buckwheat groats are not roasted, roast the buckwheat groats first. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C, and lay out the groats flat on a cookie sheet or a big pan. Roast the groats for 15 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Remove from the oven.
Cook the bowtie pasta according to package instructions – generally speaking, about nine minutes in briskly boiling salted water. Set aside.
In the meantime, heat a pan. Add oil, and then the onions and garlic. Sauté for a minute or until the onions begin to soften.
Add the mushrooms, vinegar, salt, and pepper to the onion-garlic mixture. Sauté for another five to ten minutes, stirring regularly, or until the mushrooms have softened. When the mushrooms are soft and the onions very soft, remove from the heat.
In the meantime, bring four cups of water to a boil. When the water is boiling, add the buckwheat groats. Simmer, stirring regularly, for ten minutes, or until the buckwheat has absorbed all the water and is soft to the tooth.*
Mix the components together: pasta, buckwheat, and the mushroom mixture. They should be evenly distributed. I mix the pasta and mushrooms first, then the buckwheat. Serve hot or warm.
*Some people claim that coating the groats in beaten egg helps them not to stick together. I counter that if your buckwheat is too sticky, you have added too much water. Besides, fluffing with a fork is a very easy way to fix this problem.
Thank you to Ziva Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
BONUS: For another great variation on kasha varnishkes, check out The Gefilte Manifesto‘s version with crisp Brussels sprouts!
Recently, I have found myself craving eggplant all the time – and I have perhaps become addicted to the tannic and earthy taste of a vegetable that is actually a giant berry. And so, given my passions and my interests, I have also been researching the Jewish history of this most extraordinary plant. Today, the eggplant is so associated with Israel that it is difficult to believe that eggplants were not, in fact, present during the First and Second Temple period. Rather, the plant is from India – and the word “aubergine” in English and French comes via Arabic and Persian from the Sanskrit vatiga-gamah, which might be related to the word for flatulence. I cannot speak to that effect, but I can say that eggplants reached the Jewish Mediterranean in about the 7th century CE.
Eggplants have long been a beloved mainstay of Sephardic cooking – and show up in all sorts of pastries, stews, and salads. Folk songs wage a fight between the eggplant and tomato (another newcomer), which were long considered the two favorite vegetables of the Sephardi community. In Morocco, Jews and non-Jews make a pungent and delicious salad called za’aloukwith eggplant, as well as a lovely eggplant jam. Moroccan Jews even candy eggplant! Ashkenazi Jews historically only ate eggplant in Hungary and Romania, but developed an attachment to the plant there as well. Eggplants were one of the first foods adopted by settlers in Israel and Palestine in the early 20th century, and today eggplant might as well be a food group in Israel.
This salad is a riff on a recipe more typical in Israel today – one often called a “Moroccan” eggplant salad, though it is somewhat different from typical salades cuites. As in North Africa and Turkey, “salad” in Hebrew, or salat, can also refer to small plates of vegetable dishes served at the beginning or as part of a meal. Even in English, the term salatim is now frequently used among Hebrew-speaking Jews. The eggplant used in Israel is smaller and fried more deeply in oil, whereas I have used the larger Mediterranean eggplant. I also have added more garlic, because garlic is delicious. In any case, this eggplant salad – though given that it is cooked I hesitate to say “salad” – is easy, delicious, and goes well with many other dishes.
Your humble author has been on a bit of a “spice binge” over the past month – in that he has been steadily gobbling up books about the history of spice and sugar cultivation. And so much of this literature is on the medieval spice trade – one that spawned colonialism, far-flung trade, and globalization as we know it. Medieval Europeans, Arabs, North Africans, and Middle Easterners loved their spices, and couldn’t get enough of valuable aromatics traded through complex networks from halfway across the world. And from the spices, I have been learning about the deeply different – and yet eerily familiar – cuisine of Europe in the High Middle Ages.
Many traditional Jewish dishes are holdovers from medieval recipes. Ashkenazi recipes such as kugel and forshmak grew out of late medieval German-Jewish cooking, and many Sephardi recipes grew from the pre-expulsion late medieval food of Spain. (Spanish travelers were shocked to find Sephardim eating quince jam in the 19th century, just like Spaniards in the motherland.) Some Iranian Jewish recipes date back over a millennium. When I have told friends, in conversation, about the age of many Jewish dishes, they seem surprised. “Wasn’t medieval food…bad?” Well, not always.
We believe a lot of myths about medieval European and Arab cooking. Some of these myths have a kernel of truth to them – and, of course, the food consumed in 1200 was very different to that consumed today. We know this from manuscripts, archaeology, and surrounding history. But many of these myths are the exact opposite of what actually happened – both in Jewish food and more generally in the food of the old world. Many Jewish recipes offer counterpoints to these myths, and serve as an example of what happened to food more generally in European and Middle Eastern history. So, here I will briefly discuss the five myths I’ve heard most frequently – with the Jewish foods and books that offer lessons in the other direction.
Medieval Europeans did not eat things from outside their area – and hence their food was bland. Food trade is as old as civilization itself: imported spices were found in archaeological digs at Sumer. Medieval people were no different – and there was plenty of movement of people and goods in medieval times that also brought different foods and different methods of preparing food throughout medieval realms. Exotic spices and foods were much-prized, and many crops were introduced by new rulers, such as citrus in Spain by Arab rulers. This did not make a bland cuisine – and besides, people in all civilizations had been seasoning their food with local goods for millennia.
Jewish food: P’tcha. This calf’s foot aspic is famous for turning heads and stomachs, but many Ashkenazi Jews – including myself – find it quite delicious. In my experience, it is often trotted out by nationalists as an example of “declining” Jewish culture – because people “do not eat it anymore” – and by others as an example of “weird” or “lost” Jewish food. In the 18th and 19th century, p’tcha was a delicacy that was saved for special occasions, for it took a long time to make. Now, it’s still common enough in Haredi communities and making a hipster comeback. This dish, however, is not really Jewish in origin – but Tatar. Turkic tribes, ancestors of today’s Tatars, introduced soups made of cow or sheep feet to Eastern Europe in the 13th century during Mongol rule. Hence the name p’tcha – and the similar Serbian pihtije – comes from the Turkic word for “leg” (paça in Modern Turkish). And while Sephardim eat calf’s foot soup hot, Ashkenazim and other Eastern European peoples developed an aspic out of it. Heads up: p’tcha is an upcoming blog recipe.
Book recommendation: A Taste for Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice,by Michael Krondl. This book is a wonderful biography of the spice trade in Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam, and how each of these cities was really made important initially by their trade in spices. He also takes copious notes in Venice of the city’s medieval cooking – and how much of Italian food today is from the late 19th century. He also does excellent due diligence in noting the Indonesian influences on Dutch culture that go back centuries.
Medieval people used spices to hide the taste of meat or fish that had gone off. This myth is based on the assumption that because medieval people did not have refrigeration, they were constantly dealing with food that was rotten, so pickling and spicing developed to hide the rotten taste. In fact, the opposite is true in some part: pickling and spicing preserved foods that were liable to go off quickly. Many spices were used with salt to preserve meat, and many foods were pickled and thus able to “keep” for longer. Such is the origins of today’s salted meats, sausages, herrings, lox, and other goodies. In any case, those who could afford spices generally could afford the freshest meat. Here, too, spices came to play other roles: they were seen as correcting “harmful” qualities of a fresh food, thus bringing their “humors” into balance. Spices were as essential to the medieval Galenic medical system as they were to cuisine – and humors were discussed as nutrients are today. Those most likely to deal with rotting food – the poor and peasants – generally did not have spices either.
Medieval peasants and medieval kings ate mostly the same food. I’ve heard this myth peddled by a few starry-eyed leftists who believe that everything “pre-capitalist” was good. (This is also a terrible reading of Marx.) But in medieval times, the starkest inequality was in food. Nobility, the wealthy, and those of other privileged classes generally enjoyed a much higher standard of nutrition – and a much more varied and secure diet – than their less fortunate counterparts. For the majority, poor and peasants, food was much more monotonous, much less secure, and of lower quality across the board. Even if famine was rare, diseases related to malnutrition such as pellagra were not. In fact, the lot of the rural poor would not significantly improve in many parts of Europe and the Middle East until the twentieth century – and despite problems, food is far more equally distributed now than in the Middle Ages. In the cultural realm, divisions of food by class were cemented by ideologies that someone naturally “born” into a station should not eat food of other stations. According to this narrative, nobility would be sick if they ate gruel, and a peasant would be sick if they ate white bread. Inequality in food was not only a fact of life, it was taken as the order of the world.
Jewish food: Rye and wheat bread. Bread was the truly the medieval staff of life – and bread and gruels often accounted for 80-90% of a peasant’s calorie intake. Across much of Central and Eastern Europe, the “base grain” for such bread was rye. Though we often think of dark rye breads as a somewhat upscale “ethnic” food, rye was often specifically not a luxurious or even slightly special food for most medieval Europeans. Rather, it was a base grain for an often impure bread filled with other additives – seeds, nuts, and so on – that wrecked digestive systems. Poorer folks often relied on grain that had gone off, leading to ergot poisoning. The wealthy, however, tended to eat higher-quality bread – rye breads, mixed breads, and above all white breads – for whiter flour was far more expensive. The breads tended also to have fewer additions, and were generally better proportioned with the rest of the diet. No wonder then that in the 19th century, when mass-produced white bread first became available to the working class, it was incredibly popular – it was far less dangerous and seen as healthier.
Book recommendation: Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire is magnificent, and very informative to this particular discussion. Laudan is very firm about the fact that food for the hoi polloi until very recently, by and large, was monotonous and not always secure, whilst the food of nobility, kings, and the wealthy was far better.
There were no noodles in Italy or the Mediterranean before Marco Polo brought them in the late 13th century. One of the most commonly attributed traits to Marco Polo is “the man who gave Italians pasta” – but by this time, Italians had been eating pasta for centuries. Noodles spread from China through the Silk Road to Persia during the fifth century, and are first mentioned outside China by the Jerusalem Talmud as itriyot, and later in the Babylonian Talmud as rihata – both words of Persian origin. Pastas such as rishta, lissan, and couscous were common in the medieval Arab world, from which they were introduced to Sicily, Spain, and Southern Italy by the tenth century. Pastas became popular in Sicilian and Sephardic Jewish cooking. Meanwhile, lokshen – the Ashkenazi noodle – reached Eastern Europe both from Central Asia and Provence via Germany by the fourteenth century. The Yiddish lokshen derives from the Persian word lakhsha, or “to slide.” In any case, by the time Marco Polo came back from China in the 1290s, Jews and non-Jews alike in Italy were chowing down on all sorts of pastas and noodles – though the explorer may have introduced new varieties of noodle to Venice, from which recipes spread throughout Europe. Arab Jews continued to eat their own ever-evolving noodles.
Jewish food: Jerusalem Kugel – a noodle kugel made with a tantalizing caramel with a heavy dose of ground black pepper. Though the recipe only dates to the early 19th century, Jerusalem kugel has a most medieval spice combination of black pepper and sugar – one that would not have been out of place for the many sweet-spicy pasta recipes of Medieval Italy. In some ways, the Chasidic families who invented it travelled back in time. I recommend this recipe by Giora Shimoni.
Book recommendation: Oddly enough, Claudia Roden’s A Book of Jewish Foodhas many recipes for noodles that are somewhat similar to the noodle dishes consumed by Arab Jews in the medieval world.
What constitutes national culinary traditions now is directly descended from what people ate in these places in the Middle Ages. One of the more outrageous claims of nationalism and the cult-like worship of “authenticity” is an idea that the “national” culinary traditions of today have a history that stretches back to the medieval. This is quite far from the truth. The ingredients, prevailing norms, and social context of food in the Middle Ages, across the Christian and Islamic worlds in which Jews lived, were very different from today. The boundaries of dishes and foods were different. Communities were identified differently. And how people related to the food on their plate was very different. National culinary traditions – including the “French” and “Italian” traditions we often think of as seminal and timeless – were largely invented in the 19th century, products of increased wealth, nationalism, and romantic and ahistorical ideas of country life. Widespread education spread these dishes, because they were “taught.” And though many of the recipes themselves reach back to the medieval era, it is likely that a Venetian or Parisian from the 15th century dropped into Venice or Paris today would not only not recognize the “national cuisine” of her home city, but would find that their tastes hewed much closer to North African or Turkish food today.
Jewish food: Spinach with raisins and pine nuts. This was a recipe that was indeed eaten in the Middle Ages, and all these ingredients were popular at the time as well. The preparation itself came with Jews from Catalonia to Italy through trade. However, the sweet-savory combination in Italy later lost favor, and the dish became a largely Jewish recipe that only gained widespread popularity after World War II. Italian cuisine, meanwhile, moved from a sweet-sour complex to an herbal one, and began to limit sweet foods to dessert in imitation of the French from the 18th century. So now, this spinach dish, Jewish in origin, is “Jewish” once again – though it was very popular in Northern Italy during the late Middle Ages.
Book recommendation: Sidney Mintz’s classic Sweetness and Poweris important for two reasons: one, it clearly outlines how sugar played an integral part in colonialism and the slave trade; two, it shows how the European diet was fundamentally altered by a regular sugar supply for the poor and the introduction of tea and coffee, both of which often “needed” sugar. The entry of sugar, just like changing performances of class and adjustments in the commonality of spices, radically rejigged European cuisine, and as a result what was common in 1700 was very different from what was common in 1800. Jam, for one.