Let's Eat

The simchah food you need to be serving

Forget sushi and shwarma — chakalaka, ceviche and late night bites are the new must-have menu items


Photo: EJacobs Photography

Having recently celebrated my daughter’s bat mitzvah — with my son’s bat mitzvah just over two years ago — I’m in the middle of my second simcha-filled year. I picked Middle Eastern menus, while the last few parties I’ve attended as a guest paired sushi with shawarma. Safe options, for sure, but with a world of exciting and colourful cuisines out there, perhaps it’s time to wow your guests with new menus.

Here are ten ideas for the big flavours/service styles that will certainly get your guests talking:

1 South African spice
Jamie Toffel — executive chef at London’s Sorting Office and N20 — has created a South African menu after requests from clients. Dishes are packed with spicy flavours and include chakalaka and pap. “The pap is like a polenta that we serve on the side with the chakalaka, which is almost a stir fry of peppers and tomatoes in a spicy sauce, We’ve been serving that with spicy rice and boerewors (spicy sausages)”. Guests have been wowed by his savoury doughnuts, which he mixes with shredded slow cooked beef and then coats with a salty, sweet, spicy rub. These are served with salads, spicy rice and potato wedges or chips and slaws.

2 Food theatre
North London caterer Israel Isaacs, of BBQ by Isaacs, adds an element of entertainment. “People love seeing the chefs at work, whether it’s a barbecue or watching a chef carving and serving steaks in front of them or even tossing pancakes. Growing up, I remember being enthralled by a lady who was catering at our synagogue, making Chinese food in a wok — throwing it up in the air — it really stuck in my mind.” The SKA-supervised caterer brings barbecues to his events and has even managed to recreate the theatre where there is not outside space by incorporating indoor grills.

3 Fakeaway

If your family has a favourite food or restaurant, you could recreate that at your party. Caterer Adam Nathan did this recently for a bat mitzvah girl who had a passion for an Asian-inspired restaurant chain. “We were asked to mirror their menu, as their daughter loved this restaurant so much.

“We did a fun party earlier this year where we served bowls of chicken katsu, beef brisket ramen and salmon poke on a grab and go station. Instead of bowl food circulating they were laid out in a heavily stylised stand so you could grab them in between queuing for food stations.”
Also on the menu at the themed party were bao buns, bang bang cauliflower, amai sauce. 

4 Late-night salt beef or falafel
Back in the day, you’d end your evening with a savoury snack – now this is making a comeback. At the Sorting Office and Twenty at N20, they lay out a salt beef bar at the end of the evening for guests to take a sandwich or filled roll home with them. Sam Kingsley, of Kingsley Events, says they bring out the latkes and salt beef, served in full deli-style with pickles and horseradish, at around 10.30pm for an event finishing at 11.15pm. “Sometimes we serve it with bagels — it’s good for soaking up all the alcohol.”

Adam Nathan does a similar set-up but with freshly cooked falafel, salads in pita bread and chips to feed guests at the end of his wedding parties. “We bring out the stodge at about 11pm. It’s food that will fill them up but with some freshness that’s not all bread for guests who have often eaten their main meal pretty early and are ready for something by then.” For a wedding that’s coming up with a Mexican theme he’ll be taking round mini tacos and churros at the end of the evening.

5 India light
Toffel recommends Indian flavours. “There are such nice Indian dishes out there. Rather than going for heavy curries we’ve been doing more of the street food. Things like chaat masala – light, vibrant salads with chickpeas, pomegranate and other fresh ingredients. A combination of foods from Central India, Goa and Sri Lanka — we use a lot of coconut and fresh fruits and chilli. It’s not just about the curries, it’s about the Tandoori spices and the salads. These work well for food stations and for bowl foods.”

6 Sharing desserts
“We still find sharing desserts are the most popular thing — even if we’re doing a seated meal,” says Nathan. “They’re just a bit more creative and allow us to give more variety as opposed to the one dessert that everyone has to have. It also allows the host and caterer to accommodate several of the increasingly common dietary requirements.

“We did an event on Friday and there were three desserts — a lemon curd pavlova; plum and almond tart and chocolate ganache with honeycomb. One of them was vegan, two were gluten-free and two were dairy-free, so were able to hit all the allergy groups we needed to which is important, but still be creative.”

7 South American vibes
Increasingly, caterers are looking to South America, with Mexico and Peru providing a rich source of culinary inspiration. “We’ve been doing ceviche (cured fish) in tiger milk, which is a marinade of chilli, garlic and lime juice — which we serve from a bar,” says Toffel. “We do a big bowls of pickled salads and a roasted corn salad, which is the charred corn with fresh herbs like mint, coriander and flat leaf parsley so it looks really vibrant. There are also tacos, nachos and tortillas with various tartares. We also do a lovely butternut squash salsa.” He explains that the dishes are a mixture of South American specials: “Ceviche is primarily Peruvian, whereas we mix in anything from across Central and South America with the salsas and salads.”

8 Euro-vision
There’s more to European food than the Mediterranean flavours we’re used to. Toffell has been revisiting dishes that have not been so constant on simcha menus. His menu includes osso bucco (braised stew of shin of beef) which he serves with gnocchi and a sunflower seed pesto that replaces the traditional cheese-based version. He also serves tomato-based pasta dishes like pomodoro orecchiete — a shell-shaped pasta with tomato sauce. “I’m trying to bring back those flavours. We make our own flatbreads and char them on the griddle before topping them with fresh garlic, lemon and thyme.

9 Container schlepping

Think inside the box. Children and adults alike enjoy the fun of eating their Chinese banquet from the cardboard takeaway cartons you see on US sitcoms and dramas and picking a burger or chicken wings and fries from mini diner-style baskets. They’re practical to hand out, and a talking point. Twenty Events also serves ice cream sundaes from glass jars — a fun idea that’s not going out of fashion.

10 Cocktails continued
The selection on the bar could expand beyond mojitos and lychee martinis. Nothing wrong with the sweet staples, but you can add in some more bitter notes. The popularity of a range of Italian spirits has been accelerated by the rise of sunset-coloured Aperol spritz. “We’re seeing more negronis and Campari-based cocktails than we used to” says Toffell who adds that the trend for gin and tonics has turned into full-on gin bars, with a range of gins and mixers plus fresh aromatics like herbs, spices and fruits to set them off.
Nathan is seeing more bitter flavours in grapefruit-based Palomas and the South American trend reflected in the addition of spicy Margaritas, “fresh, vibrant and zingy.”

Twenty Events

Adam Nathan

BBQ by Isaacs

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