Josh Glancy

Our heimishe fare is shamed by the cool New York food scene

Ashkenazi food needn’t be the bland poor relation of Sephardi vibrancy. Instead of the pallid stodge we are used to, the same foods and dishes in America are vibrant and exciting


PYN6FX New York, USA - May 29, 2018: People walking on East Houston Street past Katz's Deli in New York, iconic kosher-style delicatessen that has been open

September 17, 2021 15:12

Growing up in north London, my best friend from childhood was of Iraqi origin. We’d banter at times, as boys do. I’d mock his Sephardic predilection for ululating and putting protective covers over his sofas. He’d express faux distress at my Ashkenazi paleness and starchy English traditions. But nowhere was this ancestral gulf more apparent than on the subject of food.

While I adored the steaming piles of rice, cooked pumpkin, spicy chicken and lamb to be found at his home, he found the concept of eating gefilte fish or chopped herring profoundly disturbing.

And, in fairness, he often had a point. Sephardic food, whether the Baghdadi dishes I described, or Tunisian shakshuka, Lebanese hummus, Egyptian falafel: all shared a delicious exoticism that made the idea of eating sloppy grey unidentifiable poisson frankly quite embarrassing.

That Sephardic gastro-preeminence continues to this day. Many of London’s best restaurants — Palomar, Honey and Co, Barbary, Coal Office, Ottolenghi and, most recently, Oren, a delicious new Dalston offering — are all heavily influenced by Israeli cooking, which is itself a mezze of different Middle Eastern influences.

But where are the Ashkenazi equivalents? Bloom’s is long closed. Reubens is well past its sell by date. Monty’s Deli, an attempt to bring proper salt beef back to the East End, has now also closed its Hoxton flagship. I’m told Larry’s in Peckham is having a crack but have yet to make the shlep down there. Sorry if I’m missing something, but the fact that I — as greedy a consumer of tribal food as you’re likely to meet — can’t think of any other significant offerings tells its own story.

In 2018, this newspaper compiled a list of the top 10 Israeli restaurants in London, which had won the capital’s “hearts - and appetites”. Imagine doing that for Ashkenazi joints. Not a chance.

Is our heimishe food just stodgy, unimaginative and best left to bubbe’s shabbat table? It’s tempting to say yes. I’m partial to a gefilte fish, particularly over the High Holydays, but I’m humble enough to admit it’s an extremely difficult sell to anyone who doesn’t have poached carp and chrain bred into their ancestral DNA.

Still, having spent the last few years living in America, I’ve realised the Ashkenazim can do so much more with their food, if we’re willing to be proud, innovative and ambitious with our heritage.

In New York, heimishe food is venerated. Bagel and lox is an art form. Not the gelatinous smoked salmon we overpay for at Golders Green delis, but delicate thin slices of nova, fresh and fragrant. The kind of food people travel to eat, sold at Upper West Side meccas such as Zabar’s and Barney Greengrass, the kind of places that are so famous they sell t-shirts and coffee mugs. Babka and rugelach are revered, their recipes fine-tuned at bakeries such as Breads and Michaeli’s. Black and white cookies, whitefish salad, potato knish, bialys, brisket; these are iconic foodstuffs. They’re cool.

The endless daily queue for brunch at Russ and Daughters, the western wall of New York Jewish food, is evidence enough. Even Katz’s, the old-fashioned salt beef bar made famous in When Harry Met Sally, is a famous hub for pastrami on rye with all the trimmings. Locals and tourists gather there: this food is not just for Jews.

When living in New York, I suddenly felt energised by the cuisine that had previously been a source of mild embarrassment, something to do at home but not beyond. I’d always associated Ashkenazi excellence with the chess board or the philosophical riddle, not the kitchen.

In part, this transatlantic distinction tells a story of how differently the Jewish communities operate in our two countries. In America, New York in particular, they are proud, unabashed and central operators in a culture they helped form. In Britain we are quieter and more peripheral. In America there is a bigger clientele, more money and bolder displays of heritage.

Nonetheless, we can do so much better. The ingredients are already there of course. Nigella Lawson has done recipes for lokshen pudding and kuchen. Claudia Roden has had a crack at cholent and potato kugel. But it’s hardly what either of them are famous for.

I’d like to see some of Britain’s — and Anglo-Jewry’s — gastronomic fervour focused in the direction of heimishe food. Spicy short rib cholents, sweet potato kugels, red snapper gefilte fish, pan fried chicken liver on brioche. Imagine a new Bloom’s, featuring your grandma’s food reinvented in ways you hadn’t even imagined. It’s time to rethink our culinary heritage. If we will it, then it is no dream.

September 17, 2021 15:12

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