The last time I spoke to Joan Nathan, back in 2014, she was deeply involved in research for King Solomon’s Table: a culinary exploration of Jewish cooking from around the world, her 11th book, published earlier this month.
Nathan is the Grande Dame of US Jewish cooking but could be your favourite auntie — the one who cooks the best. In common with our high lady of Jewish food, Claudia Roden, her writing is more food anthropology than simple recipes; telling stories of the recipe writers and of each dish’s evolution. Her mission is to preserve ancestors’ recipes by telling their stories while sharing their recipes.
This book is a collection of more than 170 dishes gathered worldwide — from Yemen to Hungary and from India to El Salvador. They include traditional festival dishes (hamantaschen and six types of charoset); Ashkenazi classics, like gefilte fish and mandelbrot, and Sephardi staples which include Libyan Saefra — aka King Solomon’s cake — and herbed labneh. Her research — over six years — brought her to the UK.
“I spoke to so many interesting people here in London,” she says. “I had two meals with Yotam Ottolenghi. He is really interesting and honest in what he does. I ate at his NOPI restaurant where he and Sami Tamimi [co-founder of the Ottolenghi chain of restaurants] came to taste and share at my table. He then invited me to dinner at his home with his partner and baby son. He cooked me the orecchiette with rosemary oil, chickpeas and broccolini in my book.”
A measure of the respect 74-year old Nathan commands in the world of Jewish food is how effortlessly she scored a seat at the table of a chef most of us would do anything to eat with.
Nowhere was too far for recipe research. “I went to El Salvador to find a recipe for schokoladenwurst (chocolate sausage) a really good, no-cook chocolate dessert. I had remembered making it in Israel where we called it knackknick, but it was made with cookies and chocolate powder. It was a recipe originally from Europe but went to Brazil with Ashkenazi Jews and from there made it to El Salvador.”
She writes that the recipe (salami di cioccaolato in Italy) was probably invented before or during the First World War, when processed cocoa and chocolate were available and people wanted to conserve gas by not cooking.
Jewish geography played its part in enabling her to find so many varied recipes. “My kids knew a journalist in El Salvador — Rebecca Lehrer — and it was her grandma’s recipe.”
In London, former JC editor Geffrey Paul and wife Rachel served Nathan a “delicious herring salad with apples”. She also sought out Iraqi families for their staples.
“I’d been told that some of the best Iraqi cooks were in London, and I was introduced to Eileen Dangoor Khalastchy who made me several dishes, including T’beet (Baghdadi spiced chicken stuffed with rice, meat and spices and then cooked in more rice overnight) which is served for Shabbat lunch; and her delicious macaroons.”
The macaroon — a Passover staple for many of us — originated in what is now southern Iraq and included rose water with almonds, sugar and egg whites. Other flavours were picked up as it travelled across continents. Nathan’s version is made with walnuts and almonds with a thumbprint of raspberry jam.
Dangoor Khalastchy (in her 80s) had plenty of tales for Nathan: “She told the most amazing stories of her childhood in Baghdad. I got so many wonderful stories from people talking to me as they cooked and my editor gave me leeway to write them all. You want people to keep reading the stories — they’re as important to me as the recipes. The best part of it is that all over the world Jews may be making different dishes but telling the same stories on the same night — like on Seder night.”
She felt some of the recipes she uncovered found her. “It was beshet. I found a blueberry bun in Toronto called shtritzlach. I thought ‘wow where is this from’? When I was testing it back home in Washington DC, Sarah Weiner, a young friend of my daughter who came from Illinois, came in and said her Grandma made something similar.”
It turned out the buns had originated in Poland. The Toronto buns (an iconic Jewish favourite) were introduced by immigrant bakery owner, Annie Kaplansky, who had brought the recipe from Rakow, her home town in south-west Poland. Weiner’s grandmother, Helen Starkman Fischer, had grown up in a tiny Polish town a 30-minute drive from Rakow. Both would have eaten the buns as a breakfast food on Shabbat and had they not taken the recipe with them, it may well have been lost as so many Jewish inhabitants of those towns died in the camps.
Despite travelling so many miles, Nathan is not yet ready to hand in her passport. “Maybe I’ll find some more really good recipes. I’m always looking.