My friend Darryl introduced me to Jewish food. We met at the Culinary Academy in San Francisco in the 90s. He swept me off my feet with his Namastes and infectious smile.
Darryl’s kitchen was large and airy. He had many gadgets. My favorite was his ice cream machine. As we made crazy ice cream combinations, we talked about our lives and families.
We blended cayenne and nigella seeds, or ginger into a black pepper and vanilla ice cream that became a big hit. I vividly remember one foggy afternoon when Darryl made me his grandfather’s special knaidlach (matzo ball) soup. We talked about his Jewish heritage and how his grandfather raised him. I’ve been fascinated by Jewish culture and cuisine right from those days.
The Jewish diaspora is spread all over the globe from Cleveland to Cochin and this has helped create a rich and diverse cuisine among its people. The thread of exile and massacre connected this community throughout history, and as their people fled from country to country they took with them their culture and cuisine and enhanced it with the cuisines of the adopted countries. The two large subcultures of Judaism are the Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. The Sephardic Jews are from Spain, North Africa and Middle East, while the Ashkenazic Jews are from France, Germany and Eastern Europe.
Jewish culture has strict rituals and dietary laws when it comes to food. Observant Jews follow the laws of Kashrut. The Kashrut is a detailed and elaborate set of dietary laws, which dictate everything from the meat, poultry, bird, fish that can be eaten, (no pork), how they should be slaughtered and how they can be cooked. Foods that conform to these dietary standards are called kosher foods. According to Kashrut meat and dairy cannot be cooked together. Certain foods like cheese and gelatin are not considered kosher as they contain animal rennet and animal by-products respectively. Foods like vegetables, grains, nuts, fruits are called “pareve” as they are neither dairy nor meat and so on.
No Jewish meal is complete without its grains, beans, legumes and lentils. Couscous is the staple for North African Jews, while kasha (buckwheat) is the favorite for Russian and Polish Jews. Mamaliga (cornmeal/polenta) is widely eaten by the Romanian Jews.
Breads, noodles, pasta and dumplings are the pride of Jewish kitchens.Knaidlach comes from the German word knodel (dumplings) made with matzo meal and eggs. The Sephardic Jews made dumplings known as kibbeh (North African) or kobeba (Middle Eastern) made with bulgur wheat or rice. A meal is not complete without bread. Ashkenazic breads are rye, challah, pumpernickel, bagels, while Sepharadic breads are flat, like pita and lahoh breads. Matzo bread is the unleavened bread used during Passover. Dairy and eggs have great meaning in Jewish life. Israel is called the land of milk and honey and eggs represent the mysteries of life and death.
Vegetables have a significant place in Jewish religious festivals. The golden pumpkin signifies prosperity at Rosh Hashanah. The harshness of slavery is represented by the bitter herb Maror at Passover. Unprocessed fruits and vegetables are considered kosher.
The methods of cooking depend greatly on locale. Due to their years of taxation, slavery and poverty, the Ashkenazics pickled most of the vegetables. Whereas the Sephardics were exposed to many fresh vegetables and fruits, and they embraced it as a big part of their meals. Flavorings are robust and piquant in Ashkenazic meals. Sephardic Jews included rich aromatic spice mixes in their cuisine like harissa, berbere and chermoula. The Shehecheyanuis a prayer of thanks recited at every religious ritual and festival before the meals are served.
Both Indian and Jewish cultures are quite similar with their rituals, and the importance they place on foods during festivals and events. The next time you come across a Jewish deli in Chicago, or in San Francisco, remember that it is a small landmark of a community that has triumphed over some very dark periods in history. Here are two simple yet delicious recipes.
Praba Iyer teaches custom cooking classes around the SF Bay Area. She also blogs about cooking at rocketbites.com.
Tomato Soup with Israeli Couscous
1 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves of garlic chopped fine
1 medium red onion chopped fine
2 carrots, peeled and cubed
1½ cups crushed/pureed tomatoes
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 cup Israeli couscous
5 cups vegetable stock or water
1 tbsp of fresh mint
¼ cup of fresh cilantro chopped salt, cayenne and black pepper to taste
1 lime (optional)
Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a sauce pan and add the onions, half the garlic and sautee. Once the onions are slightly soft add the carrots and mix until the carrots are soft (about 5 minutes). Add the cumin, coriander, cayenne and black pepper. Now add the pureed tomatoes, vegetable stock and Israeli couscous. Stir occasionally and bring the soup to a boil. Add the rest of the garlic and reduce the heat and cook until the couscous is tender ( about 8—10 minutes). Keep stirring. Add salt, check seasonings and garnish with mint and cilantro and serve with a squeeze of lime.
Sweet Potato Latkes
Latkes are my sons’ favorite snack. This year I decided to make sweet potato latkes instead of the traditional potato latkes for Thanksgiving/Hanukkah celebrations. You can make batches of latkes and keep it in a warmer or a warm oven and serve it later.
1 lb sweet potatoes peeled and grated
1 small red onion peeled and grated
1 egg beaten
4 tbsps all purpose flour Salt and pepper to taste
3 chive stems chopped
Oil for shallow frying
Place the grated sweet potatoes and onions in a bowl and mix. Add the beaten egg, seasonings, all purpose flour, chives and mix.
Heat a skillet with a little oil and scoop out small mounds of the grated mixture. Using the back of a spoon flatten the mounds to small discs. Now fry over medium heat for 2 -3 minutes and carefully flip to the other side and fry. Add oil if necessary. Once they are golden and crisp remove and drain on paper towels. Serve hot with a dollop of sour cream and chive dip.
Sour Cream Chive Dip
1 cup sour cream
5 chive stems chopped
cayenne and salt to taste
Mix the sour cream, chives, cayenne and salt to taste and keep it refrigerated for an hour before serving as a dip for latkes.