Jewish food — bland, stodgy, comforting and ultimately a little boring? Not if you are Tunisian.
North African Jews have a cuisine every bit as traditional and defined as that of the Eastern European shtetl, but that is about all it has in common. It is defined by its fragrant spices, heat from the fiery harissa paste, herbs, vegetables and meats.
Few dishes are more deeply rooted in the traditions of Jewish cuisine than stew. From the frozen wastes of Russia to the deserts of the Middle East, cooks have for centuries perfected the art of slow cooking, using a variety of vegetables, spices and meat.
To find the origins of the hearty kosher stew it is probably necessary to go back to the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, when a plate of stewed lentils changed the course of Jewish history.
As the story goes, Jacob offered him a bowl full in exchange for his birthright, making it one of the most expensive meals in history.
The red/golden pumpkin is a glorious sight and now farmer’s market stalls are laden with these wonderful squashes. Of course they are not mentioned in the Bible because they arrived as galleon treasures from the New World, originally transported by Spanish conquistadors but distributed by Jewish merchants in exchange for silks and spices from the Orient.
It is all too easy for both parents and children to get into a routine of having the same packed lunch day in and day out. Nutritional content becomes limited and the children are not encouraged to experiment with new flavours, textures and experiences. The fussy eater is not exposed to new foods or new ingredients, as might be the case with a cooked school lunch, and may end up following the eating habits of their parents, who may only buy specific brands and eat a narrow range of foods.
It’s a fascinating fact that in the Middle Ages, the humble etrog became part of a peace treaty. After fighting and losing yet another war, the Republic of Pisa was banned from trading in etrogim in 1329 by the Guelph League of Tuscany, headed by Florence. Etrogim or citrons had always been valuable, in fact, the Spanier merchants, from Frankfurt, became famous for trading in them. And this is strange when one considers the etrog’s sourness and thick skin, in comparison with other citrus fruits. They also need more water than other fruit trees, so their value lies purely in prayer.
Cooking and good food are central to Jewish life. Our calendar is studded with a glorious variety of festivals and holidays. Some of them are serious occasions; others are more fun. But they all have one thing in common — a celebratory shared meal with a signature dish chosen for its religious connections. And behind each one is a Jewish mother, a matriarch capable of creating classic, delicious meals at a moment’s notice on a regular, almost daily basis.
The song of Songs says “comfort me with apples”, and surely has resonance for all of us. There is nothing like walking through an orchard when ripe fruit hangs heavy off the tree. The thing to do is to cook some of the apples straight away, simply stewing them, maybe with fresh blackberries. Or choose the largest, fattest Bramleys and hollow out their cores, cutting their skins and stuffing them with mixed spice, dried fruit and marmalade. Then bake them in a little water until the tops are golden and the centres puffy and fragrant — that is certainly comforting.
Can you imagine a seven-year-old asking you to buy beetroot or red cabbage? Or a 12-year-old offering you a soothing cup of fresh ginger tea while he makes dinner?
When you think of children’s cookbooks the images that come to mind are of cakes studded with Smarties or chocolate Rice Krispies. The writers seem to think children can only be enticed into the kitchen with a promise of sugar-laden treats.