That cream cheese bagel you rave about? Jewish. And the bag of pretzels you choose to nosh on during road trips, also a Jewish specialty. Sweet blintzes? Also Jewish. Jewish food has always been hanging around in the periphery of our conscience through pop culture in the form of the delis and pastrami sandwiches that all our favourite on-screen characters from American television plump for (yes, Katz’s Delicatessen from When Harry met Sally).
But there’s more than bagels and Reuben sandwiches to Jewish cuisine. It’s a complex and layered culinary culture shaped and moulded by history and isn't contained to just Israeli cuisine.
“Jewish cuisine tends to take on the character and nature of its environment, so Polish Jewish food looks like Polish food and Russian Jewish food looks like Russian food. Middle Eastern Jewish food looks like Arabic food,” says Elli Kriel, founder of Elli’s Kosher Kitchen, the UAE’s first kosher food delivery service.
“Jews migrated around the world at the end of the 1800s and throughout the 20th century, especially after World War II, so you’ll notice that a lot of the customs around food adapted to the environment as people tried to assimilate or hold on to their culture and also to make a living and survive based on what they had and knew.”
Elli walks us through the 5 main defining features of Jewish cuisine:
1. Three’s a cuisine
“Jewish cuisine is an overarching term rather than a specific category of food,” says Elli Kriel. “So, there is no one kind of Jewish food. It’s the same as Arabic food – it covers a region and within that region we have various cultures and the foods are presented in different ways although there might be commonalities in some of them,” Kriel adds.
Ashkenazi cuisine: It’s primarily Eastern Europe food and has ended up moving to the West – to the UK Australia, South Africa and most importantly the US. “All of the foods you’ve seen on American TV is and associate with being Jewish are typically Ashkenazi,” says Kriel. Foods that make this cut are all the items we think of as quintessentially Jewish – challah bread, bagels, briskets, gefilte fish and deli foods such as pastrami on rye sandwiches.
Sephardi cuisine: This is a mix of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and North African. “Much of it also moved to the West and some to France. A lot of Moroccan Jews and Tunisian Jews ended up moving to France and Switzerland. So you have a lot of Sephardi Jewish cuisine in Europe now too,” explains Kriel. Various kinds of bourekas – stuffed savoury pies made of pastry with different fillings inside are a specialty of the Sephardic cuisine, as are Fazuelos and chraime (spicy Moroccan fish in tomato sauce).
Mizrahi cuisine: This cuisine comes from the Levant area and many of those foods today can be found in New York and the US and UK depending on where people migrated to. Examples of Mizrahi cuisine are Lahoh, a spongy flatbread made by Yemeni Jews, a chicken and rice dish called tebit from Iraqi Jews.
2. Keeping up with kosher
The kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) are intricate and technical dietary laws prescribed by the Torah, Kriel explains. “It tells you what you can and cannot eat, and how you need to prepare that food.”
Here are five basic and well-known principles of kosher laws.
1. Never mix meat and dairy products together. Which is why Jewish recipes use fish gelatine.
2. Pork is forbidden in Judaism.
3. Shellfish are forbidden as well. Any fish with fins and scales are permitted to be eaten, any mammals that chew the cud and have cloven hooves can also be eaten.
4. There are prescriptions around how the food is cooked, how the ingredients are checked, but also if it’s a manufactured item then what are the ingredients and what is the status of the factory.
5. Another tenet is that a Jew has to be involved in the cooking process. So you might have a kosher kitchen but if there’s no Jew in there to switch on the stoves and initiate the cooking, then the food is not kosher.
3. Festival foods
Despite the regional and national dissimilarities, what ties together the Jewish communities’ food habits together are the common thread of festivals. And the foods associated with them.
“For Hannukah (the Jewish festival of lights), it is a custom to eat foods deep-fried in oil, and so [Jewish people] across the board consume fried sweets and fried savoury foods. But depending on your cultural background and heritage the form, shape and taste the fried food takes varies."
A case in point are the Cochini jews of Kerala, India who have assimilated the local potato fritter called bonda into Hanukkah celebrations instead of the traditional potato latkes. Here is a recipe to try
Potato latkes make the cut for the popular fried savoury foods eaten during Hannukah and they’re from the Ashkenazi group, says Kriel.
Another Hannukah special is doughnuts because they’re fried in oil. Called sufganiyot, they’re round with a jam filling inside and are very popular in Israel.
Buñuelos (or Bimuelos) with honey are a kind of doughnut that Sephardic Jews eat.
During Passover (a week-long Jewish holiday that celebrates the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt), the consumption of matzah, an unleavened bread, unifies Jewish people across borders.
“To commemorate Jews being saved during Passover you are not supposed to eat any leavened items – so no breads, no cakes, no macrons, no cookies, no pasta, nothing with yeast, baking powder or baking soda is to be made for 7 days,” Ellie Kriel explains.
Furthermore, you’re also not allowed to own any leavened products and you have to get rid of everything from your kitchen that could have risen – as it symbolises your ego, she adds.
“All the leavened products you clean out from your kitchen and kosher it and then you bring in non-leavened items. And matzah is one of them.”
Sheets of matzah, Kriel describes, are crushed to make very fine breadcrumbs known as matzah meal, which are then used to cook. Matzah meal is used to make schnitzels for, or as stuffing but typically they’re known to make dumplings with for Passover.
“For many families, Passover is unimaginable without matzah ball soup. It’s like Christmas without Santa Claus. Matzah meal is something so uniquely Jewish.”
Here is a recipe to making matzah ball soup
4. Shabbat and slow-cooked foods
On Saturdays, practising Jews observe Shabbat – a day of rest and worship as part of which, they refrain from cooking.
“You’re not allowed to engage in any work activities and there are 36 categories of work in the Torah (Jewish holy book). And those 36 categories also extend to cooking too,” Elli Kriel clarifies.
And cooking here is a term that embraces more than switching on a stove or using fire and electricity. It also includes what you’re allowed to do in the kitchen – so there are restrictions surrounding whether you can grate, chop and cut.
And Shabbat, Elli points out, begins from sunset on Friday evening to sunset on Saturday evening, which meant preparing hot food was a tricky affair.
The ingenious solution to this particular conundrum was developing recipes that could be slow-cooked. The slow-cooking method allows Jewish people to work around Shabbat restrictions and still consume hot food.
Classic Jewish stews such as cholent were born as a result of this and to this day, slow-cooked foods continue to be an important part of Jewish culture.
“Because of Shabbat, regardless of what cultural group you belong to in the Jewish community, you will have a slow-cooked meal: Moroccan Jews call it dafina, the Ashkenazi Jews call it cholent, the Sephardic Jews call it hamim/chamim,” explains Kriel.
“There are various recipes, but many European cultures use goose, some use tender stringy meat called brisket, some people use chicken and some people put whole eggs into their dish.”
The basic principles remains the same: you take a slow-cooker, load it with vegetables, barley, meat, broad beans, chickpeas lots of oil and spices and you leave it on to slow-cook until you need it.
The end result is a caramelised stew of well-done vegetables and meat blanketed in a thick sauce. A delicious meal that’s become ingrained to the Shabbat experience.
All the ingredients are tossed into a slow cooker on Friday evening before sunset. Once the lid’s closed the pot is left untouched and unstirred as both those actions count as cooking. “The lid can only come off when it’s ready to eat. Then you can lift the cooker off the heat, put it on the table, and serve out the food but you can’t put it back in,” Kriel specifies.
5. Bread and beyond
Bread is an integral element of Jewish food habits and cuisine. “Shabbat and bread is a custom that goes back thousands of years; it’s a deep-seated tradition,” outlines Kriel. And the practice of eating bread during Shabbat extends beyond the realm of convenience, since bread is a readymade item and can be eaten without cooking.
Bread is put on the table because it has a symbolic significance. Bread signifies the manna (daily portion of bread) that dropped from heaven as sustenance for Jews during their flight from Egypt.
Kriel further elaborates: “Bread is a staple. Often people live off bread, it’s one of the important foods. In the Jewish faith, a meal by definition is only a meal if it includes bread. You could have a beautiful lavish table full of dishes but it’s only a complete meal if there’s bread; bread completes it.”
Here’s a quick checklist on the 5 quintessential Jewish breads and what they’re made of.
Bagels – is generally eaten with cream cheese, lox and with cucumbers, capers and is synonymous with New York City thanks to its sizeable Polish-Jewish population.
Pretzels – this bread twisted into a knot hails from Germany’s Jewish population. These can be eaten as snacks and come in hard and soft variants as well as in different flavours – salted pretzels, cheese pretzels, chocolate-covered pretzels, etc. are a few. Sometimes, they’re sprinkled with nuts and seeds or glazed with sugar and spices such as cinnamon.
Babka – this is an Ashkenazi braided chocolate bread that’s almost a cake. It is a teatime snack and originated from the Eastern European countries of Poland and Ukraine. Try the recipe here.
Challah – this sweet, braided bread is typically eaten as a meal for Shabbat. The word Challah is Hebrew for ‘loaf of bread’.
Rugelach – now a raging hit in Israel, this crescent-shaped pastry is chocolate-filled dough rolled like mini croissants. It traces its origins back to the Polish Jews.
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