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What Is ‘Jewish Food’?

Matthew Goodman, the Forward’s longtime Food Maven, this month released his first book: ‘Jewish Food: The World at Table’ (HarperCollins). The following is an excerpt from its introduction.

There’s an old joke that’s told about a Martian who accidentally crashes his spaceship on the streets of New York. In search of a new set of tires for his craft, he happens to pass a bagel shop; noticing the bins of bagels in the window, the Martian goes in and inquires about purchasing some of those tires for his spaceship. “Those aren’t tires, those are bagels,” the owner says. “Here, try one.”

The Martian takes a bite. “Man,” he says, smacking his lips, “these would go great with cream cheese and lox!”

That time-tested combination might have been immediately obvious on Mars, perhaps (it’s pleasant to think so), but it surely wouldn’t have been in Casablanca, or Aleppo or Calcutta, or in any of the other Jewish communities around the world, where bagels were about as common as Martians. We might, for that matter, imagine an equally perplexed expression on the face of a Jew from Vilna who is offered a plate of sizzling-hot carciofi alla giudia — for while this was a defining dish for Roman Jews, to a resident of the Pale the idea of “artichokes in the Jewish style” might well have seemed a contradiction in terms.

In Tunisia, Jewish cooks have made couscous; in India, curry; in Yemen, flatbread; in New York, cheesecake. So what, then, might legitimately be considered “Jewish food”? How would we even go about defining such a thing? If we were, for example, to restrict ourselves to foods made by all the world’s Jewish communities — the ones that our Roman and Vilner would both recognize as Jewish — the menu would be a very short one, indeed, scarcely sufficient for a single meal. It would include those foods created to address religious needs common to Jews everywhere, among them the overnight Sabbath stew, prepared before Friday sundown to be eaten warm Saturday, when work is prohibited (though the names for the stew, and the ingredients used in it, vary from place to place); charoset, the sweet paste that on Passover symbolizes the mortar used by Israelite slaves under Egyptian bondage (though the charoset of one country may well bear scant resemblance to that of its neighbor), and finally matzo, the bread of affliction (though not the many dishes made from the matzo).

Even here, in what we might call the foundational dishes of Jewish cookery, all but one are shared only in a broad sense, not in the specific details; surely a definition is too restrictive when it limits a cuisine to sheets of matzo. But neither should we head in the opposite direction, and declare Jewish food simply to be “food made by Jews.” Though this would seem logical enough, and at one time might have made some sense, it is no longer applicable in a world in which regional distinctions have blurred (so that in any metropolitan area, one can choose from a multitude of ethnic cuisines, and the trendiest restaurants often feature the “fusion” of two or more), and at a time when many Jews, even those who consider themselves observant, no longer keep kosher. Today, a list of foods made by Jews would include everything from cheeseburgers to jambalaya. And, in that regard, the fact of a food being kosher is insufficient in itself. After all, a tossed green salad is not a Jewish food merely because its components happen to conform to the dietary laws, and though it might have become a favorite buffet item at upscale Orthodox weddings, we would be hard pressed to define sushi as Jewish.

Like all traditional foods, Jewish food is a product of history and geography; it is an expression of the area in which it has been made. In this case, the area happens to span not merely a particular country (as, for instance, with Italian or French food, which contains significant regional variations), or even much of a continent (as with Chinese food), but instead much of the world. To help in discussing such a broad geographical area, Jewish food is usually separated into two major categories: Ashkenazic and Sephardic.

It was in the unforgiving climate of Russia and Eastern Europe that the preponderance of Ashkenazic cuisine was wrought. The vegetables of the diet were those that could grow well in cold weather and poor soil — cabbages, potatoes, turnips and the like — and could be stored to survive the long northern winter. With few available fresh herbs, the cooking leaned heavily on garlic for additional flavoring, with sugar, honey and cinnamon for sweet dishes. As much of the region is land locked, the fish were primarily freshwater species such as carp and pike. Beef was a luxury item; chicken was far more plentiful, and not a bit of it was wasted, from the feet — used for thickening soup, to the fat that was, along with butter (for dairy meals), the chief frying agent. Of course, there were important differences within Ashkenazic cooking — the foods of Poland, for instance, tended to be sweeter, those of Lithuania more peppery — but overall the foods were similar, as is to be expected from a relatively limited geographical area, and from a terrain of such reluctant disposition.

Precisely the opposite is true of Sephardic food, which has essentially come to include all non-Ashkenazic cuisines, including those of the Mediterranean, the Balkans, North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and India. There aren’t many points of commonality to be found in the cooking of such disparate geographic areas; still, we can make some generalizations about Sephardic food, and particularly by contrasting it to the Ashkenazic. Thanks to more agreeable climates, Sephardic foods feature a far broader range of vegetables (eggplant, tomatoes, okra, artichokes, fennel, and countless more); rather than potatoes, the staple starch may be rice or couscous, augmented by legumes such as lentils or chickpeas; the frying agent is not chicken fat but oil (typically olive oil); often as not chicken is the luxury meat, with lamb or beef more common, and the essential flavorings include not just garlic, but a vast array of herbs and spices, including everything from cilantro and curry leaves to cumin, coriander, and cardamom.

From Moroccan mellah to Polish ghetto, Greek seaside to Hungarian countryside, Jewish cooks have worked with a remarkable diversity of ingredients and cooking styles. Wherever Jews have wandered, they have modified their cooking to accommodate the new ingredients, flavors, and even the traditional dishes of the adopted land. Oftentimes, of course, they had to adapt these dishes to conform to the Jewish dietary laws, by exchanging permitted cuts of meat or species of fish for forbidden ones, or by eliminating combinations of meat and dairy. This happened everywhere, but it was most common among the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, where pork is a staple ingredient, lard is used for frying, and meat is often combined with dairy products. In Alsace, for instance, Jews replaced the slab bacon typically found in the local choucroute garnie with corned beef or with pickled tongue, while in Russia, borscht was made, in its meat varieties, with beef instead of pork, and was not garnished with sour cream. (That was saved, instead, for the dairy versions of the soup.)

Certain adaptations had to be made, as well, by the Jews living among Hindus in India — such as cooking meat dishes with oil instead of with clarified butter — but in general these adaptations were less common there than in Christian Europe. They were even less so among the Jewish communities of North Africa and the Middle East, where the local Muslim population likewise eschews the consumption of pork, typically uses oil for frying, and rarely mixes meat and dairy in its cookery. Among these Sephardic Jews, it is by no means uncommon to find foods made in precisely the same manner as they are in the wider society — as with, say, hummus, which has long been popular in the Middle East, in Jewish and Arab communities alike. Hummus is thus simultaneously a Jewish and an Arab food, and in this it is but one of many. (A cartoon in The New Yorker from some years back shows a religious Jew sitting next to an Arab in Jerusalem, saying, “Why is it we never focus on the things that unite us, like falafel?”) So Jewish food cannot be reduced to a set of dietary laws, a particular cooking style or combination of favored ingredients. It cannot be defined by its internal similarities — for it varies too widely from place to place — nor by its differences from the non-Jewish food around it. It is at once something grander and, of necessity, less specific. Jewish food is that which has sustained the Jewish people for countless generations, wherever they happened to be. It is the loaves baked in community ovens, the stews kept warm overnight in the dying embers of the Sabbath fire. It is a honey-sweetened roast to greet the New Year, a lemony soup to break the fast after the Day of Atonement. It is a roast chicken on Friday night. It is the cookies and confections kept on hand to welcome friends who might drop in on an afternoon. It is all the dishes crafted to fashion — however briefly or incompletely — luxury from poverty; all the dishes whose names evoke memories of parents and grandparents, and dreams of those of whom one has heard only stories. It is the food that is still made in immigrant communities, held on to — like old photographs, letters, a tattered prayer book, the key to an ancestral home — to preserve a sense of connection to a place forever lost.


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