Each Jewish cuisine dish has its own story. Here is a small selection of those behind ours.
Often referred to as Jewish Penicillin because of its perceived medicinal qualities, in many Ashkenazi households no Friday night meal can begin without a bowl of golden chicken soup.
Beetroot soup (boreke borsht) first appeared in Jewish sources, borscht or borsht in Yiddish, toward the end of the sixteenth century. Ukraine was the centre of Jewish borscht culture and over the centuries, as Jews have migrated to different counties, both meat and vegetarian versions have been prepared.
Sabich was brought to Israel by Iraqi Jews in the 1940s and 1950s. On the Sabbath, when no cooking is allowed, Iraqi Jews ate a cold meal of precooked fried eggplant, cooked potatoes and hard-boiled eggs. One theory is that the name Sabich comes from the Arabic word sabah, which means “morning”.
Closely related to Saksuka, a favourite stew of the Ottoman Empire using vegetables and meat. North African Jews made a vegetarian version with tomatoes and eggs, using a cooking method dating back to before the Spanish Inquisition. A very popular dish in Israel today, where there is even a restaurant called Dr Shakshuka.
Bagel & Lox
A staple of American Jewish cuisine, bagels were brought to the United States by Polish Jews and then combined with cream cheese (known as a schmear) and cured salmon (lox). Today’s smoked salmon bagel is probably the most widely known item of Jewish culinary fare.
Sussman Volk is generally credited with producing the first pastrami sandwich in 1887 in New York. Volk, a kosher butcher, claimed he got the recipe from a Romanian friend in exchange for storing the friend’s luggage while the friend returned to Romania. The sandwich was so popular that Volk converted the butcher’s shop into a restaurant to sell pastrami sandwiches.
A favourite Ashkenazi starter, Gehakte Leber or chopped liver has featured prominently in the jokes of Jewish comics. The dish dates back to the medieval Alsatian communities where, of course, foie gras also originated.
Gefilte fish originated in Germany, probably in the fourteenth century and involved carefully removing the flesh from the fish, chopping, seasoning and stuffing (gefüllt in German) it into the skin; with the fish then sewn up and baked. Eventually, the process was simplified by eliminating the stuffing step!
Of the many ways that the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula found to prepare fish, their favourite and most celebrated is pescado frito. The Sephardi method of frying fish was brought to England by the Jews from Holland who were re-admitted by Cromwell, introducing the concept of frying in oil, rather than the lard that the British were accustomed to. It’s the precursor to today’s fish and chips!
Friday Night Dinner
In Jewish homes all over the world, Shabbat – the Jewish day of rest – is observed from sunset on a Friday evening until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. Traditionally three festive meals are eaten over the next 25 hours, with the first, Friday night dinner, consisting of roast chicken and vegetables as its centrepiece.
Couscous aux sept légumes
For Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), which falls on the first day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, Moroccan Jews traditionally serve couscous with a stew containing seven symbolic vegetables: carrots, onions, turnips, celery, pumpkin, cabbage and chickpeas. A special prayer would be recited before eating each vegetable.
After arriving in the Ottoman Empire and discovering filo, Sephardi Jews sometimes substituted it for the pastry in their pies. Moroccan pastilla is the filo pie traditionally made with pigeon filling and served on special occasions.
Jews entered the chocolate business in the seventeenth century, at the same time as the Church condemned it as ‘the beverage of Satan’and it was used as an ingredient in Jewish cuisine before most others. There are several examples of chocolate desserts but perhaps the most famous has to be the cake created in Vienna in 1832, by a Jewish baker called Franz Sacher.
In sharp contrast to the rest of the Jewish calendar, Shavuot is the festival rich in milk and fish dishes. Persian Jews offer a rice pudding – shir means milk, berenj means rice – typically flavoured with rose water and saffron syrup.