Cooked to death - but yummy

By Simon Round, June 12, 2008

New British Kitchen
UKTV Food, Thursday, June 5

In New British Kitchen, John Torode, of Masterchef fame, and Glaswegian presenter Hardeep Singh Kohli investigated Britain’s ethnic food. This week’s episode was on the subject of Jewish cuisine .

While it was fantastic that the wider community got an insight into how we lead our lives, programmes about Jewish food are always faintly embarrassing.

The Japanese have intricate dishes with sublime ingredients (a sushi chef has to train for five years before he can cut raw fish professionally), and the Italians have a hundred different regional cuisines featuring the exuberant colours and flavours of the Mediterranean.

And then there is Ashkenazi cuisine,  which involves putting ingredients in a huge pot and cooking them for seven hours until you can stand a spoon up in it.

In his introduction, Torode made no particularly extravagant claims for the cuisine, describing it as “wholesome” and “comforting”, which is just about as good as it gets.

Anyway, with the obligatory klezmer music blaring in the background, Hardeep set off to Golders Green to find out about Jewish food.

Food writer Denise Phillips guided him around a kosher deli which, unlike its Italian equivalent, was packed with tubs of food which looked like they had been cooked for a very long time. True, there were some modern innovations. Hardeep, who is not quite as funny as he thinks he is, found something familiar. “Here’s a particularly Jewish dish called… chicken curry.”

However, the dish Hardeep was invited to prepare at Dizengoff’s restaurant did look fantastic — chicken stuffed with spiced pistachio rice.

Later, at a party in Hardeep’s honour,  Dizengoff’s owner, Ami Shirkin, cooked aubergine fritters and fish balls. Again,  it looked amazing; but Shirkin is not from these shores — in fact, he claimed to like nothing about British cooking. He also said that if Jews did not have rice or tomatoes, they would not be able to eat. Maybe this is true where he comes from, but we have been getting on without either ingredient for several hundred years now.

Of course, there is one shining example of a food which has made it into the mainstream — the bagel. And here we certainly have something to teach the wider world, because the rubbish which passes for bagels in supermarkets bears no relation to the crispy yet paradoxically chewy rolls which we saw coming out of this North London oven. If only I could have reached into the TV...

At the business end of the programme, Torode and Hardeep were shown how to make two classic Jewish dishes by the JC’s own cookery writers, Jewish Princesses Georgie Tarn and Tracey Fine. They cooked chicken soup and cholent — both of which involve putting a lot of meat and vegetables into a pot and cooking them for a long time. True, there was a little finesse in the making of the kneidlach, but this was hearty one-pot cooking of the type which requires a sturdy pot and an equally hardy digestive system.

Indeed, Tarn claimed that cholent was the opposite of an aphrodisiac. All one was fit for after a large bowl of it was a long shluff, she said, adding mischievously: “I give it to my husband every week.”

The cooking may have lacked something in sophistication, but Tarn and Fine were charming ambassadors for our food and both Hardeep and Torode were bowled over by the results, particularly by the “golden egg” (unlaid eggs in boiling fowl which are tossed into the pot) which Torode described as “amazing”.

Hardeep was equally extravagant in his praise of the cholent, probably because it is very much like a curry which has had all the spices removed.

At the end of the programme, Torode and Hardeep trailed the following week’s journey into Japanese cuisine including a lesson in how to boil an octopus.

Hmm, maybe the cholent wasn’t so bad after all.

Last updated: 12:40pm, June 17 2008