Pickled to Perfection

Briny and Cured Treats From Around the Globe

By Leah Koenig

Published May 16, 2012, issue of May 25, 2012.
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The Jewish love for all things sour and pickled transcends cultural and denominational boundaries. As culinary historian Claudia Roden writes in “The Book of Jewish Food,” in the 19th century, pickled vegetables, and particularly preserved cucumbers, cabbages and beets, “were staples in the diet of Jews in Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine and Russia.” There, pickles were served with bread and often made up the center, and sometimes the entirety, of a meal — especially during the winter months, when fresh produce was scarce. Even in Sephardic cuisine, which tends to skew Mediterranean fare in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables, pickled produce plays a starring role. So while the phrase “two Jews, three opinions” may hold true in most cases, when it comes to adoration of pickles, we tend to agree.

  • Amba (Mango Pickle Relish)

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    Photo: Robyn Lee

    Amba (Mango Pickle Relish)
  • Cucumber Pickels

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    Photo: Brett Spangler

    Cucumber Pickels
  • Pickled Beets

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    Photo: Kari Sullivan

    Pickled Beets
  • Pickled Green Tomato

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    Photo: Christopher Paquette

    Pickled Green Tomato
  • Preserved Lemon

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    Photo: Flickr/basswulf

    Preserved Lemon
  • Olives

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    Photo: Flickr/nolifeik

    Olives
  • Salt Herring

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    Photo: Flickr/Kateryna Kondrashova

    Salt Herring
  • Sauerkraut

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    Photo: Flickr/I Believe I Can Fry

    Sauerkraut
  • Turshi Left (Pickled Turnip)

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    Photo: Flickr/George Wesley & Bonita Dannells

    Turshi Left (Pickled Turnip)


In America, pickles continue to be a defining part of Jewish culture. The German Jews who immigrated in the mid-19th century brought with them a home-pickling tradition, as Esther Levy’s 1871 “Jewish Cookery Book” attests. The book includes recipes for everything from mustard pickles to pickled walnuts and nasturtiums, which are edible flowers. But the notion of the “Jewish pickle” truly solidified in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who settled on New York City’s Lower East Side. According to Jane Ziegelman, historian and author of “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement,” the range of pickled foods sold out of Jewish-owned pushcarts was staggering. “You could find pickled apples and whole pickled cabbages, as well as sauerkraut, pickled watermelon, mushrooms, eggplant, string beans, tomatoes, beets and, of course, pickled cucumbers of all kinds,” she told the Forward. Jewish immigrants became linked — and not always favorably — with the pungent, vinegar-laced scent of this staple food. Meanwhile, the rise of the delicatessen, home to the classic kosher dill and a variety of other pickled foods, further solidified the pickle’s place in Jewish cuisine.

We Jews, of course, are hardly alone in our reverence for brine. And yet we have added tremendously to the world’s pickle repertoire. So in honor of summer, also known as prime pickling season, we offer a roundup of some of our favorite pickles and pickle derivatives, which collectively add zest and crunch to the Jewish plate.

Amba (Mango Pickle Relish) While generally less well known than tahini, no falafel or shawarma stand in Israel is complete without amba — a pungent relish made from pickled mangoes. The condiment hails from Iraq, where Jewish immigrants introduced it to Israel in the mid-20th century, and has culinary roots that stretch back to India. According to food historian Gil Marks’s “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” “mango slices are first cured in salt for several days, then seasoned with turmeric, chili powder, lemon salt, and spices.” The resulting sauce is tart and spicy — the perfect topping for a sabich, a fried eggplant sandwich.

Click here for the Amba recipe.

Cucumber Pickles In Jewish cuisine, cucumbers are to pickled vegetables as chicken is to soup — in other words, the classic. Cucumbers were once pickled in nearly every Eastern European Jewish home, traditionally with salt as the sole fermenting agent (vinegar-cured pickles came later) and with additions like chopped dill and garlic cloves providing zest and flavor. According to Ziegelman, in America at the turn of the 20th century, Lower East Siders could buy “two cucumber pickles for a penny.” And buy them they did — snacking on them out of hand, or slicing larger ones into pieces and placing them between bread to make pickle sandwiches. “Pickles played an important counterpart to the breads, noodles, potatoes and other starches that made up the bulk of the immigrant diet,” she said. The cucumber pickle’s status as an American Jewish food was solidified in the delicatessen, where “half sours” and “sours” (determined by the length of time they spend fermenting) were served as a counterpart to a greasy pastrami or corned beef sandwich.

Click here for the cucumber pickles recipe.

Pickled Beets The preparations for Jewish-style pickled beets range drastically. On one end there’s russel, whole beets that sit for several months packed in crocks until they ferment into a briny delicacy. On the other end you have a simplified recipe for pickled beets, and in “Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited,” food maven Arthur Schwartz fondly recalls his mother making it: “She opened a can of sliced beets, blended vinegar and sugar with some of the canning juices, added rings of sliced sweet onions, and refrigerated the mixture.” Less complicated to make, perhaps, but no less delicious.

Click here for the pickled beets recipe.

Pickled Green Tomato While a pickled green tomato hardly evokes the same emotional response as a pickled cucumber, Schwartz writes that they are a welcome addition to any “sours” plate. They are made in generally the same fashion as their cucumber cousins, with the tomato’s natural acidity lending an extra tangy punch to the final pickle.

Click here for the pickled green tomato recipe.

Preserved Lemons Cookbook author Joan Nathan is something of a devotee of the preserved lemon. In her book “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France” she calls them “an indispensable item in my pantry cupboard.” And for good reason. Made from a mixture, comprising whole split lemons, lemon juice and salt, that is allowed to sit for several weeks, they soften into a tart pickled condiment that is the secret ingredient to many stews, tagines and other meat and vegetable dishes. Native to North African cuisine, preserved lemons found their way onto the Jewish tables of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and, more recently, Israel and France.

Click here for the preserved lemons recipe.

Olives While olives often share space with pickles and other “sours” on a Sabbath table, they do not necessarily occupy the same place in our minds. And yet before they can be eaten, these biblical fruits get cured in salt, brine or lye until soft and tangy, making them bona fide members of the pickle family. Pre-cured and marinated olives are widely available in markets, but people living in the Mediterranean or California — or who are otherwise able to get their hands on some fresh drupes — have the fortunate opportunity to pickle their olives at home.

Click here for instructions on curing your own olives.

Salt Herring Brined and cured meat and fish can be found all over Ashkenazi cuisine, but salt herring, which preserves the pint-sized fish in layers of salt, most closely resembles a traditional pickle. After all, as Ziegelman told me, “cured meat was never sold from pushcarts on the Lower East Side, but fish was.” Salt herring was a staple of the Eastern European Jewish diet — often bathed in water to remove some of the briny flavor, then further pickled with vinegar and onions, or chopped into forshmak, Yiddish for “fore-taste” — a Ukrainian Sabbath dish that combines chopped salt herring with onions, apple and hard-boiled eggs into a tasty spread for brown bread.

Click here for the Forshmak recipe.

Sauerkraut Sauerkraut may make a delicious topping for hotdogs, but there’s much more to pickled shredded cabbage than that. According to “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” each autumn, “Ashkenazic households throughout Eastern Europe set aside at least two large wooden barrels… one for small cucumbers and one for cabbages,” which were fermented with coarse salt. The resulting zoyere kroyt, Yiddish for sour cabbage, became an important source of vitamins and flavor during the winter. Depending on where they lived, Jews ate sauerkraut plain with black bread, layered in strudel, cooked with onions or served alongside cured meats.

Click here for the sauerkraut recipe.

Turshi Left (Pickled turnip) In the Middle East, turshi can refer to any type of vinegar-and salt-pickled vegetable (torsh means “sour” in Farsi). But more often than not, the pickles are made from turnips — “the most popular pickle among families from Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon,” according to Roden. Turnips themselves are a bit bland to look at, and this is likely the reason that most recipes for turshi left include several strips of beet, which impart a gorgeous pink hue to the briny pickle.

Click here for the turshi left recipe.

Leah Koenig writes a monthly column for the Forward on food and culinary trends. Contact her at ingredients@forward.com

For a Q&A with British chef and pickling expert Jason Freedman, visit The Jew and the Carrot


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