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

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

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

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

To take away:

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

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

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

Samneh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pesach of Colors: Matzah Kugel with Strawberries (Gold)

For this post, I have an easy recipe for a delicious dessert that will be “gold” in our Pesach of Colors series: matzah kugel with strawberries! This recipe is of my own invention, but matzah kugels originated in 19th-century Germany as a flavorful and easy dish to feed a family – in a festive or ordinary way – during Passover. These kugels also are reminiscent of the Sephardic mina, a matzah pie that is traditional in a meat form among the Jewish communities of the Balkans during Passover. Matzah kugels are popular here in the United States – and, it seems, especially on college campuses. I created my matzah kugel recipe with chocolate and hazelnuts, but this strawberry one – accented with cinnamon, which works! – is even better. There is a vague reminiscence of the very not-Passover-friendly bread pudding, but the crispness of the matzah gives the kugel an entirely different feeling.

This dish, for what it’s worth, also makes an incredible breakfast.

Matzah kugel with strawberries
Matzah kugel with strawberries, fresh from the oven. Photo mine, April 2016.

Matzah Kugel With Strawberries

Makes one kugel

6 pieces matzah

4 eggs

1 cup whole milk

2/3 cup white sugar

¼ tsp cinnamon

  • 1/2 cups chopped strawberries

Water

Butter

  1. Break the matzah into little pieces and soak for 20 minutes in water, or until the matzah is soft and has absorbed the water. Squeeze out a bit of the moisture.
  2. Preheat your oven to 200C/400F. Grease a deep baking pan, about 8 inches/20cm, with butter. The shape does not matter, but I prefer a round pan.
  3. Mix the soft matzah, strawberries, eggs, milk, sugar, and cinnamon in a bowl until thoroughly combined. The matzah pieces should break with your mixing implement. (Ah, soft matzah!)
  4. Pour the mixture into your greased pan, then bake it for 35-40 minutes, or until the kugel has set and is a golden brown on top. It’s good warm or cold, but I prefer the former.

A variation: swap the strawberries for ¾ cup chocolate chips and ½ cup ground hazelnuts. It tastes like Nutella!

A note: those who keep the Ashkenazi tradition of gebrokhts, or avoiding “broken” or soaked matzah – a minority tradition here – will not be able to eat this recipe over Passover. You should know that this recipe really works all year round.

I would like to thank my cousins Dana, Adrian, Lara, and Jonathan for being part of the User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Baked Apple Pudding – Trying Out a Recipe from 1874

Text: An Easy And Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Upon Strictly Orthodox Principles

So I have a thing for old cookbooks. Take me to a used bookshop and the first things I look for are old cookbooks. And maps, but that’s another story for another time. The biggest Jewish cultural event for me this fall was neither Matisyahu’s frumspringa nor Netanyahu’s Hitler gaffe, but rather the release of Eve Jochnowitz’s brilliant translation of a 1938 vegetarian, Yiddish cookbook by Fania Lewando. One of my most treasured family heirlooms is my maternal grandmother’s neatly-typed cookbook of her pantheon of recipes, and I’ve lovingly leafed through my other grandmother’s stack of aging, 1950’s “Jewish” cookbooks.

Apples and lemon peel in a pot
Stew the apples and lemon peel…OK! Photo mine, December 2015.

So, understandably, I was excited to find one day during my lunch break at work a fully digitized kosher cookbook from 1874! An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles, by Estrella Atrutel, is not only free for your perusal online, but also a stunning time capsule into what might have been laid on the table for a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family in Victorian England. It is not only filled with detailed recipes that would have required lengthy, mostly female, and probably employed labor to make, but also has lines such as “send to the table” and requirements for all manner of fancy cooking implements. (That said, so do today’s cookbooks. Who among ye has a strawberry huller?)

Browsing through the cookbook, one who is familiar with the mostly Ashkenazi, heavily kitschified notion of “Jewish food” would be surprised. One sees nary a recipe for lokshen kugel and the German kleis rather than kneidlach. P’tcha appears, but as an aspic, and carp meets its fate soused rather than as gefilte fish. Instead, one sees renditions of French and British cuisine, much like the rest of wealthy Europe at this time: you have “Butter Cressy Soup” and sole à la Normande and charlottes, and of course the more unusual Brains Omelets (exactly what it sounds like) and Mock Turtle Soup. While there are the “Jewish” things here and there –fried fish and my beloved quince jam, both brought to England by Sephardic immigrants, have cameo appearances – it seems to a casual reader that Anglo-Jewry was trying to cook in a most “European” fashion. Which was totally true.

Dough on a dough-board
“Roll it out on a paste board” – OK? Am I doing this right? Photo mine, December 2015.

Let us not forget that upper-crust Anglo-Jewry wanted to be, well, English upper-class. In a day and age where knowing what is “authentic” acts as a marker of upper-class status, and the performance of “true” ethnic identity is celebrated and guarded, it is difficult to recall that for much of Jewish history – and even, especially in the State of Israel – “authenticity” was definitely neither sought nor celebrated. Today, people send their children to prohibitively expensive day schools and serve “long lost” Jewish dishes at their Shabbat tables. But in the 1870’s, a well-off Jewish family sought instead to reflect the English upper-class culture they sought to enter: schooling in the Western tradition, dishes more or less close to haute cuisine française, and certainly not speaking such “dialects” as Ladino or Yiddish. Men wore top hats, women the fashion of the day. And, as I have amply noted, this extended to the dinner table: because part of being like the upper crust was eating like (and sometimes, just eating) the upper crust.

So dishes like a baked apple pudding meant more than simply something delicious: it was part and parcel of a nexus of class and ethnicity that was performed. Of course, baked apple dishes have a long tradition in Jewish cooking. Apple cake has been a traditional Rosh Hashanah dish for centuries, as have been baked apples in some communities. (Both became even more popular in the United States.) So an apple pudding was not “out of tradition.” But it also was part of cooking and eating as similarly to the then – and still – very anti-Semitic English upper class as possible. You could be rich and white and British, but kosher and Jewish and “traditional” all at the same time. Many tried this: not just in England, but in America, in South Africa, in France, and elsewhere. This sort of recipe is as reflective of Jewish history as are the “authentic” apple cakes and taiglach – which, as I continue to note on this blog, were also once considered to be newfangled and foreign.

Text: No. 278. - A Baked Apple Pudding. Peel 4 good sized apples, cut them up rather small, put them in a stewpan, with 1/4 lb of moist sugar, 1 oz. of dried currants, 1 oz. of raisins, 1 oz. of almonds chopped, 2 oz. of lemon and orange peel chopped, a little cinnamon, and a little ground cloves; let it stew till the apples are quite soft,
The recipe!
chop a 1/4 lb of suet* very fine, put it in a dish with 6 oz. of flour, a little salt, mix with a little cold water, make it into a paste, roll it out onto your paste-board 3 times, divide it into 4 pieces, grease a pudding basin well, and put in a little brown sugar with a little cinnamon; roll out one of the pieces of dough, put it at the bottom of the basin, then put in a layer of the stewed fruit, so on alternately, leaving the last layer of paste to form the top; bake it, and turn it out of the basin to send it to the table, it will look all glazed.
Recipe part 2! Estella Atrutel via Google Books

Two friends and I decided to try the recipe out ourselves one day. We converted the weight measurements to cups and teaspoons, acquired the ingredients, guessed the oven temperature, and set about our task. We did elect to swap out the suet – beef fat – for butter, especially since kosher suet is rather pricy. By and large, the recipe worked in terms of taste – we got an apple pudding that was certainly nice to eat. But the recipe was also…well, weird. We realized we had too much apple filling for not enough dough – we got one and two-thirds layers of dough, rather than the promised four. Not to mention that the apple filling, though good, was…lemony. Very, very lemony. Very, very, very lemony. Some of it, perhaps, may have been taste. Yet I think there was another fact at work.

Text: An Easy And Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Upon Strictly Orthodox Principles
The Book! From Estella Atrutel via Google Books.

This is the hazard of converting the cryptic and sometimes jarring guesswork of the past. What counts as a “good size” apple in 1874 is different from one today, and the instruments of cooking change. What, for example, is a “pudding basin?” But more importantly, it also demonstrates how cooking by “eye” can be so temporally and geographically inflected. I pride myself on cooking by “eye” and “knowing” when things are done. So did Estella Atrutel – all of her recipes assume a basic knowledge of cooking and food. Yet it is when we communicate these ideas to others that something can get lost across time, across space, across assumptions. I mean, the English upper-class might have actively prized rather than enjoyed lemony, lemony, lemony apples. On the other hand, I wonder if Mrs. Atrutel could cook a shakshouka or  Jerusalem kugel from my directions.

IMG_6083
Eating the apple pudding – notice the caramel glaze! Photo mine, December 2015.

I made the recipe again, with a few adjustments. In order to counteract the overwhelming flavor of lemon, I reduced the lemon peel to a fraction of the original recipe. Meanwhile, I expanded the dough to reflect the fact that our apples today are far larger than those in Atrutel’s, and to have the same alternation that she did. I also added a touch of salt to the dough – it adds a tang that pairs nicely with the sweet, lemony apples. Finally, this recipe is dairy, whereas Atrutel’s original was made with suet and was thus “meat.” Bake and enjoy!

 

Baked Apple Pudding

Based on a recipe by Estella Atrutel printed in 1874 in An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles

Adjusted to an American kitchen in the 2010s.

Dough (“Paste”)

2 cups white, sifted flour

8 oz (one stick) butter, softened

1 ½ tsp salt

1 ½ tsp granulated sugar

Water

Filling

3 medium-sized Granny Smith apples, cored and diced (you can also peel them)

¼ cup raisins

Zest of one lemon

1 cup brown sugar

1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon

4 cloves

Water

 

Butter, to grease the pan

Brown sugar and ground cinnamon, for the bottom of the pan

 

Optional: ¼ cup slivered almonds

 

  1. Put the apples, raisins, spices, and lemon zest in a pan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook until the apples are soft and the water has significantly reduced, stirring occasionally.
  2. While the apples cook, make the dough. Chop the butter into small pieces. Then, in a large bowl, combine the butter, flour, salt, and sugar with a pastry blender or fingertips until you have clumps of dough. Add about ¼-½ cup of water to the dough, and mix to form a clump of smooth, slightly sticky dough. Roll out the dough on a cutting board until about ½ an inch thick. Cut in half.
  3. Preheat your oven to 400 F. Grease a small baking pan – 8×8 works fine. Cover the bottom with a light coat of brown sugar and cinnamon.
  4. Let the apple mixture cool a bit after cooking. Meanwhile, take half the dough and cover the bottom of the pan with it.
  5. Now, spoon the apple mixture – draining out remaining water – over the dough. Cover the apple mixture with the other half of the dough.
  6. Bake for twenty minutes, or until the dough has browned nicely. Serve with ice cream or custard. The bottom should be caramelized!
Brown sugar and cinnamon in a buttered pan.
Brown sugar and cinnamon at the bottom of the pan – yes, you should use a pile of sugar. Photo mine, December 2015.

Corn Kugel or Pashtidat Tiras? Or, Jewish Cuisine Meets The 1950s

A slice of corn kugel-pashtida on a white plate
It’s not the prettiest, but it is delicious! Photo mine, December 2015.

Since starting this blog, I’ve been asked at least ten times when I will be making kugel. (The answer has always been “soon.”) Kugel, for those who are uninitiated, is a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish carbohydrate casserole made of potatoes, noodles, or root vegetables. Recipes for kugel date back to the Middle Ages, and are incredibly varied. Traditionally cooked in a spherical bowl within the Saturday cholent, it is now more frequently baked. The dense pudding is a fixture of American Ashkenazi cuisine – and a delicious one at that. We argue over our recipes, over our preferences, over the fat we use in the kugel. Even Martha Stewart, the goyish-est goy that ever goyed, has a kugel recipe. Kugels matter.

There is also a dish related to kugel: the pashtida. Imagine a quiche, but perhaps a bit eggier and a lot less cheesy. (Still just as wobbly.) Then, take away the crust – and you basically have a pashtida. In Israel and some parts of the Diaspora, the pashtida is an extremely common dish: be it out of zucchini, eggplant, or cauliflower. Many, in fact, consider the pashtida the hallmark of so-called “Israeli” cuisine – there is even a book you can buy in Israel simply called “Pashtidot.” But is it really Israeli?

Pashtida is a dish that actually has a surprisingly long history – almost as long as that of the kugel. Rashi, the great medieval French rabbi-cum-blacksmith-cum-scholar, mentions a dish called “pashtida” in his legal commentaries (link in French), and food historians think that pashtida likely derives from the Italian pasticcio (link in Hebrew). Various forms of casseroles and “pies” were consumed by Jews in France, Italy, and Germany – and throughout the Old World – from the medieval era, and such a dish was likely popular for special occasions and Shabbat meals alike. Since for a very long time kugels were far more common in Northern and Eastern Europe, the dishes only interacted in certain areas – and even then, a kugel was more often than not cooked within the Saturday cholent.

In Palestine and Israel, the dishes intermingled further. The Hebrew Academy, on its hell-bent mission to eliminate Yiddish from the mouths of Hebrew speakers, suggested that pashtida become the replacement for kugel as early as 1912. Pashtida became, for the largely Ashkenazi Zionists, the “replacement kugel,” especially after the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. Yet both kugels and pashtidot are popular in the State of Israel today – and are largely treated as separate dishes. Kugel, meanwhile, became a mainstay of American Jewish cuisine, far more frequently baked in large quantities than cooked within a Saturday lunchtime cholent. In South Africa, the kugel was so popular that it soon became a slang term for a materialistic Jewish woman.

Both dishes changed significantly in the 1950s, in Israel and America. In the latter country, Ashkenazi Jews had not only become more affluent and prosperous, but also desired more to be integrated into mainstream white suburban culture. Dishes like kugel now needed to meet both “American” tastes and reflect a certain sort of middle-class propriety. Meanwhile, in Israel, food rationing followed by a growth in industrial foodstuffs, combined with a homogenization of cuisine, meant that pashtidot became more common and began to include new ingredients. In both Israel and the United States, dishes with canned corn became quite popular – including corn kugel and pashtidat tiras (corn pashtida). In the 1950s, a time obsessed with convenience and industrial foods, a can of corn was quite a “natural” ingredient to include. Canned corn had become popular a few decades earlier, but a more Americanized (in the US) or Westernized (in Israel) population embraced the food to include in “traditional” dishes. In any case, canned corn is a rather delicious addition to Jewish cuisine.

Potato kugel in a cast-iron skillet
A more traditional potato kugel, made by Amy Ross. (See the bottom of the post for a link attribution.) Photo Amy Ross, distributed under Creative Commons.

We often ignore the 1950s in our relentless pursuit of “authenticity,” without remembering that it was those who grew up with the “authentic” that created the food of the 1950s. Things like pashtida and canned corn were seen not as “invasions” of “real Jewish cuisine,” but rather as “progress” and…something delicious, something easy to make, something to feed a family. I mean, Jewish cuisine has always evolved over the ages – there was a time when p’tcha was newfangled, a time when kneidlach were newfangled, a time when rugelach were newfangled. The 1950s with its corn kugels and Osem soup powders were simply another part of the evolution of Jewish cuisine. And a corn casserole is not the worst fate for a cuisine.

The difference between a pashtida and a kugel is hard to suss out sometimes, and with corn this problem is certainly apparent. Is the casserole too eggy to be a kugel? Is it too solid to be a pashtida? Is it a pashtida and a kugel? If anything, it is reflective of the changing language – and changing nature – of Jewish food. One person’s “authentic” kugel is another’s “modern” pashtida is another’s “kugel when meat and pashtida when dairy.” To a certain extent, I am tempted to say here: “f**k nuance, and pass the casserole.”

Though I myself would probably say a pashtida before a kugel for the following recipe – I think of kugels as more solid. I promise an “unequivocally kugel” recipe in the near future.

A baked corn pashtida, very puffy
The finished pashtida, fresh out of the oven. Notice the puffiness! Photo mine, December 2015.

I created the following recipe myself – I found the pashtida recipes to be too cheesy or complex for a dish meant to be a simple weeknight dinner; the kugels, on the other hand, did not offer the unapologetically eggy texture of a good pashtida. If you want a richer product, add some more sour cream or, if you’re feeling a bit more classy, ricotta. For a thicker kugel, add more flour. I do wonder: would this dish work with an addition of chili peppers? If you try it out, let me know!

This dish is delightfully simple to make and is particularly good for those of you out there who are beginner cooks, or just becoming accustomed to the life of the kitchen.

Corn Kugel/Pashtida

6 eggs, beaten

1 cup sour cream

3 cups cooked corn kernels, canned, fresh, or frozen (two cans)

1 tbsp salt

1.5 tsp black pepper

1 tsp dried rosemary

2/3 cup flour

Butter, to grease the pan

  1. Grease a 9-inch pie pan with butter. Preheat the oven to 400 F/200 C.
  2. Mix the eggs and sour cream together until well combined.
  3. Add the corn kernels and mix again until the kernels are evenly distributed throughout the mixture.
  4. Add the flour, salt, black pepper, and rosemary. Mix again so that you have a thick batter.
  5. Pour the batter into the pan and spread out so that the distribution is even.
  6. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the pashtida/kugel is puffed up and set, and the top is a crisp golden brown.

Many thanks to Aaron Rubin and Matthew Gurevitch, who conducted the “user acceptance testing” for this recipe.

See Amy Ross’ Flickr for more yummy food, like the potato kugel referenced above.