Our Food editor sets out to discover what effect two weeks of eating only haimishe shtetl food has on his body
I have always enjoyed Jewish food. There is something intensely comforting about a big, fatty salt-beef sandwich slathered with mustard, a bowl of golden chicken soup with lockshen and a kneidl or two, or a fat slice of challah with chopped liver and a pickled cucumber. Comfort food does not get more comforting than this.
However, for most of the UK’s Jewish population, this kind of heavy Ashkenazi cuisine is more the exception than the rule these days — perfect for occasional blow-outs on Shabbat, but not the type of food for everyday consumption.
But what would it be like to eat these foods all the time? And what would such a diet do to our bodies? My challenge was to follow the diet of an Ashkenazi Jew of 100 years ago. In my mind’s eye, I imagined I was someone like my paternal grandfather, Harry Roundstein. He was born in the early 1890s in the East End of London and ultimately owned his own jeweller’s shop. He would therefore have been able to afford a decent variety of foods, and his diet would have been not dissimilar to the one I was to embark upon.
So what would I be eating? The staples of the diet were what Eastern European Jews would have had in the shtetl, formed from a fairly small range of ingredients, which would be as available in Britain as in Poland or Russia. Vegetables were largely limited to cabbage, potatoes, beetroot and carrots. There would be a chicken for Friday-night dinner and meat for the Shabbat cholent.
Otherwise, there was a profusion of meat in the form of sausages and salamis, as well as pickled products such as salt beef. Pulses such as lentils and beans would have been important, and there were plenty of heavy breads, often made with rye flour. Fruit was available in season but often eaten stewed rather than fresh. Fat was highly prized by a population for whom calories were friends rather than enemies. The average adult had a far more active lifestyle than we do today, and needed a good dollop of shmaltz to keep going.
According to Jewish-food expert Claudia Roden, British Jewish of this era would have already incorporated many British staples into their diet. “They would be eating jams with their bread and possibly even marmalade. They would also have had dishes like fried fish and fried gefilte fish which were brought over by the earlier wave of Sephardi immigrants. Smoked salmon was also fast becoming an British-Jewish delicacy. Smokeries like Forman’s were established in the East End in this period, and while it would have been expensive, the cheaper offcuts may well been used in bagels.”
So plenty of dishes there I knew I would enjoy. But how would I cope with the lack of variety for two weeks, and how would my 21st-century kishkes cope with the Edwardian Ashkenazi diet?
On the menu: smoked-salmon-and-cream-cheese bagel, apple; lentil and vegetable soup with wursht pieces; toast and pickled herring
It is 8.30am and I’m at the Preventicum centre for preventive medicine in West London, where I will be subjected to tests before and after my two-week stint on the diet to establish how it affects my body. Garry Savin, the medical director of the clinic, is sceptical whether 14 days will be long enough to see meaningful results. However, I have 40 blood tests; my height, weight and body fat percentage are measured; and I undergo a liver ultrasound scan to assess the ability of this vital organ to cope with the large amount of shmaltz (fat) which is about to come its way.
Dr Savin is reasonably impressed with my physical condition. My weight and body-mass index are healthy, with my body fat at 20 per cent, which is reasonably low. While my cholesterol is a little high at 6.2 mmol (over six is considered a “raised” level), other measurements put me in the healthiest 16 per cent of men of my age (I am 44).
As I have been fasting for the blood tests, I have not been able to eat breakfast, so my first Ashkenazi meal is a smoked-salmon-and-cream-cheese bagel. It is a meal delicately balanced between the healthy (omega-3 fatty acids in the salmon) and unhealthy (saturated fat in the cream cheese). Delicious, though.
Dinner is a lentil and vegetable soup, taken from Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. I add a few diced pieces of wursht, as Roden suggests. It is unexpectedly tasty. I might enjoy this diet after all. Even though I am feeling pretty full, I have a little toast and pickled herring, on the basis that you cannot feel truly into this diet until you have eaten herring.
Rye bread and jam; salt-beef sandwich, pickled cucumber, apple; gefilte fish, pickled herring , rye bread, chreyn, beetroot, red cabbage
I am not usually a big breakfast-eater, but am attempting to have the requisite three meals a day. No cereal in those days, so bread and blackcurrant jam it is. Lunch is a huge salt-beef sandwich filled with pickled brisket quivering with fat. The accompanying pickled cucumber cuts through it all beautifully, but I can almost feel the cholesterol coating my arteries. Dinner is thrown together — bought gefilte fish and pickled herring, chreyn, beetroot and pickled red cabbage. The late JC columnist Chaim Bermant once said that he ate three types of herring three times a day, so I am trying hard to keep the oily-fish quotient high.
Egg and onion on rye bread, mushroom soup, apple; challah, chopped liver, chicken soup, roast chicken, roast potatoes, cherries
I cry off breakfast today and, as it is Friday and a big evening meal is coming, I limit my lunch to a little egg and onion, made with plenty of rendered chicken fat and a some mushroom soup (mushrooms were popular in Eastern Europe). Dinner is the Friday-night archetype — chopped liver, chicken soup and roast chicken. I feel so full I can hardly breathe. I manage a handful of cherries for dessert. I am limiting myself to fruits grown in northern Europe and oranges which, Claudia Roden says, were available in the East End.
Challah and cream cheese; cholent with sauerkraut and a pickle, piece of cake; smoked-salmon bagel, apple, plum
I start off the day with challah and a nice shmear of cream cheese, which sets me up nicely for my Shabbat cholent. It has been bubbling away for some time now. I eat it with a little sauerkraut. Cabbage was very important to our ancestors and if they could not eat it fresh, they would ferment it. It is a bit smelly, but goes nicely with the cholent which sits in my belly for what seems like a decade. I force down a little cake for afternoon tea. I could happily not eat supper, but manage a late-night smoked-salmon bagel — and wish I hadn’t.
Toast and chopped liver; bagel with chopped herring, apple; gefilte fish, fish balls, pickled herring, sauerkraut, beetroot, coleslaw, rye bread
Breakfast is toast with leftover chopped liver. I consider a little sauerkraut on the side but decide this is too radical for a Sunday morning. Given the amount of cabbage-based items in this diet, I am pleasantly surprised there has been no noticeable increase in flatulence levels so far. I stuff some chopped herring in a bagel for lunch. It is soggy and disappointing. Dinner is fried fishballs, a uniquely British-Jewish dish — no one else fries their gefilte fish, according to Roden. There is also pickled herring, some of the sauerkraut I did not have for breakfast, beetroot, coleslaw and rye bread. For the first time I crave a curry — a really spicy one. Ashkenazi Jews of this period would have fainted at the sight of a chilli. Next time, I’m doing the Thai diet.
Lockshen soup, cheesecake; fried fish, coleslaw beetroot; apple, peach
There is nothing like a nice big bowl of lockshen soup on the hottest day of the year. According to The Book of Jewish Food, Jews were less worried about the flavour of food than by the fact that it was served hot. It is — so am I. Later, I have a nice piece of cheesecake in honour of Shavuot and dinner is that other British-Jewish dish, fried haddock in egg and matzah-meal. I remember my grandma serving this cold with coleslaw and potato salad. I do not have any potatoes so I have beetroot instead. Fruit for afters. Can’t manage anything else.
Toast and jam; shmaltz herring and a bagel; chicken soup, kneidlach, egg and onion, latke, red cabbage; cherries, strawberries
I force down a little toast for breakfast. Just to vary things a little I have shmaltz herring with my bagel. I love shmaltz but I am worried about the amount of fat and salt I am consuming. Dinner is a strange mix. I make chicken soup with kneidlach to a classical Evelyn Rose recipe and have latkes, with egg and onion and red cabbage — cheap staples which the poorest Jews would have been able to afford. If there was a stodge-ometer, I’d be off the scale.
Smoked-salmon sandwich, apple, orange; wursht and viennas and eggs; red cabbage beetroot, sauerkraut
Jewish food looks so boring. It is beginning to taste really boring too. My bottle of chilli sauce sits tantalisingly in the cupboard, but I resist. Dinner tonight is the Jewish answer to bacon and eggs — another Anglo-Jewish favourite. I have not had wursht and eggs since I was a child, and it is delicious. Only problem is that there is no record of Jews of this era having access to ketchup. I am sure I can feel my arteries hardening gently.
Salt-beef sandwich, pickled cucumber; apple, orange; chicken schnitzel, cabbage with caraway seed, mashed potatoes
Quite an indulgent day. Salt-beef sandwich for lunch and chicken schnitzel for dinner. I add some caraway seeds to my cabbage because, as spices go in savoury foods, this is as good as it gets. I resolve never to eat a cabbage product again after the diet finishes.
Porridge, prunes; bagel, with pickled herring and cream cheese, cured salmon; plum, peach; stuffed cabbage (with beef), rice
I remember my grandfather having porridge for breakfast — another food which was adopted by British Jews soon after coming to this country. I have never been a fan, but oats are good for cholesterol levels and I fear for mine right now. Dinner is, you guessed it, cabbage — this time stuffed with minced beef, in a Jewish rather than Chinese sweet-and-sour sauce in a dish known as holishkes. If you want comfort food, this is very soothing. It is also boring. I almost fall asleep eating it.
More stuffed cabbage and rice; fried fish balls; lamb stew with rice; apple strudel
There are some holishkes left over, so I grit my teeth and finish them off. Dinner is slightly more interesting. An hors d’oeuvre of fried gefilte fish with chreyn — one of the few haimishe foods I have yet to tire of — followed by a dense , fatty lamb stew. Lamb was incorporated into the British-Jewish in the early years of the 20th century, probably because it was a good source of saturated fat. Just what I need. Strudel for afters. I am beginning to see the point of elasticated waistbands.
Scrambled eggs, rye bread; salt-beef sandwich, sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers, two viennas; apple, cherries
The day is saved by a large salt-beef sandwich, although I am beginning to tire even of this. I eat a couple of viennas because they are looking forlorn in the fridge. It will be a long time before I have any more.
Bagel with herring; borscht, sour cream, rye bread; gefilte fish; apple, orange
At last something with some colour. I love borscht, and in honour of it being summer, I have it cold with soured cream to supply that life-enhancing saturated fat. Why is rye bread so chewy? My jaws are beginning to ache.
Rye bread with cream cheese; smoked-salmon bagel, pickled cucumber; vegetable and lentil soup, rye bread, worsht, sauerkraut and a pickled cucumber; two or three large vodkas (it is my birthday)
Last day. I tuck in with gusto to the vegetable and lentil soup. I think it was my favourite thing on the whole diet. I also have bread and a range of pickled things. I am beginning to feel pickled myself. I wonder how my body has coped. I do not feel that great — throughout the two weeks I have felt increasingly lethargic and heavy. I find myself saying “oy” a lot.