So does ‘Jewish’ cuisine really exist?

By Denise Phillips, July 25, 2008
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Is ours simply a "fusion" cuisine? We examine whether religious laws and symbolism have united an eclectic culture


Food has always been important to the Jewish people - yet there is no real, clear definition of "Jewish food". It varies enormously from country to country and within communities, and is a function of kashrut, the Shabbat laws, holiday rituals and the local food and cooking customs of the many lands in which Jews have lived. It could be said that Jewish cookery is the world's first example of fusion cuisine.

So is there an identifiably Jewish cuisine? Perhaps not, but there are certainly identifiable Jewish dishes. For example, on Shabbat, because we cannot cook, or light a fire, Jews developed the talent of using one pot to stew the best ingredients the household can buy, cooked on a very low light before sundown and eaten for lunch on Shabbat. Dishes such as cholent, hameen and adafina have become classic recipes, which do not exist in other cultures. In Russia it is served with kasha, buckwheat toasted with onions and mushrooms; in what was Czechoslovakia, it is served with kugel; and the Poles tend to make it with potato dumplings. The Sephardi communities call their version d'fina, which means buried, referring to the cooking pot that was buried in the fireplace ashes and the eggs buried in the stew.

And everywhere in the Jewish world there is challah on Shabbat, and dairy foods on Shavuot. Challah is always parev, and the two loaves used on a Friday night signify the double portion of manna that was provided for the Israelites in the desert following the Exodus from Egypt.

However, there are as many differences in Jewish cuisine as there are similarities. Jews have travelled to nearly every corner of the globe and this diaspora has helped to create the diversity that exists within both our single religion and its cuisine.

Ashkenazi Jews originate from Northern and Eastern Europe, so their cuisine is heavily influenced by the cold climate and local ingredients. The dishes are adapted from local dishes. Where the Poles used pork sausages, the Jews made beef ones. Vegetables were pickled in salt, fermented rather than spiced. Good examples include pickled brisket, red cabbage, cucumbers and beetroot. Freshwater fish like carp and herring were smoked and salted. Sugar, honey, raisins, and lemon juice were commonly used to preserve food. Sweet and sour recipes were popular. Potatoes in the form of kugels, latkes and dumplings helped these poor communities to make a little go a long way.

By contrast, Sephardi cuisine developed in hot climates. It is a blend of Jewish heritage and dietary laws combined with a distinct influence from the Iberian and Arabic culture and tradition. It is a cuisine that is fragrant with spices of cinnamon, turmeric, cumin and herbs like coriander, dill and mint. Onions, potatoes and chicken fat are virtually unknown, but olive oil is a staple.

When it comes to Passover, Sephardi Jews have the custom of eating rice, legumes, corn and beans - all foods that are forbidden for Ashkenazi Jews.

If anything serves to unite Jewish cuisine, it is symbolism. No other faith can beat the Jewish tradition for symbolic food offerings.

Take Passover. Matzah, the unleavened bread, is symbolic of the time when the Jews left slavery in Egypt in such haste that they did not have time to let their bread rise, and its use spans the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds. The Seder plate is replete with symbolic foods from charoset to boiled eggs in salt water.

On Succot, from Minsk to Morocco, we eat in a Succah and our recipes include fruits and vegetables often stuffed, symbolising a bountiful harvest.

The vast array of recipes that we now enjoy are the result of vacuuming up the flavours, ingredients and recipes from the countries that our ancestors have travelled through or lived in and then have adapted them in order to adhere to the laws of kosher.

Just as the Jewish people are a melange of nationalities and backgrounds, so our food has a complicated DNA.

New Flavours of the Jewish Table, by Denise Phillips, is published by Ebury at £12


Try this: Red-Pepper Potato Tortilla


Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 6 people

INGREDIENTS

450g/ 1 pound baby new potatoes - peeled and thinly sliced
1 Spanish onion - peeled
1 red pepper - cored and roughly chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 eggs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Garnish: Sprigs of flat leaf parsley

METHOD

Slice the onion into rings.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a 20cm/ 8 inch heavy based frying pan.

Add the sliced potatoes and the onions and cook over a low heat for about 20 minutes until the potatoes are just tender.

Remove from the heat.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs together. Season well.

Add the chopped red pepper, cooked potatoes and onions.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in the frying pan. Pour in the potato mixture. Cook gently for 5-8 minutes until the mixture is almost set.

Place a large plate upside over the pan, invert the tortilla on to the plate and then slide it back into the pan.

Cook for a final 2-3 minutes until the underside is golden brown.

Slide out of the pan on to a chopping board and cut into wedges.

Serve warm, garnished with sprigs of parsley.

    Last updated: 3:54pm, March 2 2009