Why Breakfast Is Most Jewish Meal of the Day

From Bagel and Lox to Yemenite French Toast

Leah Koenig

By Leah Koenig

Published October 23, 2013, issue of October 25, 2013.
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Here’s the formula for a perfect Sunday morning: Take a bagel — preferably seeded — slice it in half, slather it with cream cheese and drape it with paper-thin slices of briny lox, red onion and tomato. Add coffee and The New York Times, and breakfast is complete. While bagels and lox deserve their title as the perfect Jewish morning combo, they tell only a fraction of the story.

As a category, the Jewish breakfast canon tends to get overlooked. My theory as to why this happens is because society’s awareness of Jewish cuisine skews heavily toward the festive foods eaten at the Sabbath dinner and on the High Holy Days. Unlike breakfast, these meals carry ritual and symbolic significance, and they represent the primary times we gather together with family to “eat Jewish.” It makes sense, then, that dishes like chicken soup, hamantaschen and potato latkes, which make regular forays into the spotlight, would be the ones to stick in our memory. Meanwhile, aside from Yom Kippur’s post-fast breakfast-for-dinner spread, virtually no Jewish holidays focus on the morning.

While Jewish breakfast foods are categorically underappreciated, a global look at what Jews eat at the beginning of the day — both during the week and on the Sabbath — actually reveals some of the cuisine’s most interesting and eclectic culinary traditions.

Since I was young, I have always liked breakfast more than other meals. I much prefer to linger at breakfast with a steaming mug of coffee than order another glass of wine after dinner. In the hopes of spreading the gospel of breakfast, here is a global look at some of Jewish cuisine’s best early morning fare. While not comprehensive, it provides ample reasons to roll out of bed, put the kettle on to boil and pull up a chair at the breakfast table.

Yemenite French Toast

Yemenite Jewish breakfast means one thing: bread. As a community with few resources, cooks had to find creative ways to turn the same humble ingredients into different recipes. Two of their primary morning dishes, jachnun and malawach, are made from a flaky, puff pastrylike dough called ajin. Jachnun is traditionally rolled into tight cylinders, baked overnight in a very low oven (today some people use a slow cooker) and served warm for Sabbath breakfast. Malawach, meanwhile, is fried in a skillet, like flat, savory French toast, and topped with fresh tomato sauce and the hot chili paste s’chug. A third Yemenite breakfast bread, kubaneh, is made from a yeasted dough that gets steamed in a covered pot overnight at very low temperatures until it puffs and grows tender and dense. It was traditionally served on Sabbath morning with hardboiled eggs and butter.

My husband’s friend Gilad, whose family is Yemenite, served me my first taste of jachnun several years ago. As delicious as it was, I remember finding it strange and gratuitous to indulge in oily dough before 9 a.m. Then I remembered doughnuts and croissants, and I stopped judging.

Dessert for Breakfast

Americans may be addicted to sugary cereals and calorie-laden muffins, but Jews of all backgrounds have the real breakfast sweet tooth. Ashkenazi Jews identify rich confections like streusel-topped coffeecake and sweet cream cheese Danish pastries as acceptable morning food. Slices of leftover babka — the buttery chocolate- or cinnamon-swirled loaves loved by Eastern European Jews — are toasted for breakfast or nibbled on before synagogue. In his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, author Gil Marks rightly call babka, “a sort of intense cinnamon bread.” Sephardic Jews, meanwhile, eat sweet rice pudding flavored with citrus zest and cinnamon in the morning. It may sound unusual, but it is not so different from oatmeal topped with maple syrup.

Iraq’s Breakfast Sandwich

flickr/ eatingeast

Before the Egg McMuffin, there was sabich. Marks writes that the dish’s name is likely derived from the Arabic word for “morning,” sabah. On Saturday morning, Iraqi Jews eat a sandwich made of fried eggplant, hardboiled eggs, chopped vegetable salad, tahini and a pickled mango condiment called amba. The mixture is wrapped in a flatbread called laffa, or pita. In Israel, which has a significant Iraqi Jewish population, sabich has become a popular street food, eaten throughout the day.


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