Jewish food

The Influence of and Influences on Jewish Cuisine

By Ilan Preskovsky

What we eat and what we drink has been at the heart of Judaism for as long as it and we, the Jewish people, have existed. From the Torah detailing what Avraham gave his visitors to eat to the often intricate laws of Kashrut and the even more intricate rules of the sacrifices (almost all of which, after all, were comprised of foodstuff), our great tradition has placed a major emphasis on food and our relationship to it.

Even in terms of modern day Jewry, observance of Kashrut is – outside of keeping Shabbos, of course – arguably the single most important determining factor in applying the otherwise fairly nebulous label of “frum” to any particular Jew. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s sadly the case that many otherwise entirely unaffiliated Jews reduce their entire Jewish identity almost exclusively to the “Jewish foods” they eat.

And that, really, is the kicker. However central food is to both Jewish practice and Jewish thought, the idea of there being such a thing as food that is uniquely Jewish is (with one or two very notable exceptions) iffy at best. It’s certainly one of the least concrete aspects of Jewish culture to hang one’s entire identity upon.

Quite aside from the fact that Jews from different parts of the world have often radically different forms of Jewish cuisine, most so-called “Jewish food” is just the cuisine – or, at best, a derivative of the cuisine – of the larger gentile populations in which we found ourselves over thousands of years of exile. Even now, some seventy-two years since the establishment of the State of Israel, how much of Israel’s increasingly passionate “foodie” culture is based on cuisine that is uniquely and entirely of Israeli origin?

Further diluting the idea of purely “Jewish cuisine”, many archetypal Jewish foods have been adopted, to varying extents, by the non-Jewish world, while some foods of genuine Jewish origin aren’t thought of at all as archetypal “Jewish cuisine”.

For all of this, though, and however much various food-related halachot seem to be in the service of preventing assimilation, Jewish food – whether coming between quotation marks or not – is a massive cultural touchstone for Jews of all religious levels and is something of a bridge, oddly enough, between Jews and the wider gentile culture around us.

So, what is Jewish food, really?

Limiting Jewish food to that which is of a uniquely Jewish origin is, ultimately, an overly reductive take on a surprisingly complex matter. Worse, despite sounding like the most straightforward definition of what Jewish food is, it is less a hard and fast rule than one might think. For example, no one would argue that matzah isn’t a quintessentially Jewish food, as it is inexorably linked with our own tradition, no matter how many gentiles have – quite astonishingly – developed a taste for it in recent years. Similarly, it’s doubtful that charoset has much in the way of parallels in the non-Jewish world, no matter how delicious it may be.

What about fish and chips, though? This most quintessentially British dish (or newspaper wrapping, I guess) isn’t just one of the few British foods that overwhelmingly gets a thumbs up from the international community, but it was largely a creation of Jews. In particular, the way of frying fish that has become synonymous with fish and chips was developed by Portuguese-Spanish Jews who, during the years of oppression and poverty following the Spanish inquisition, determined that it was the best and easiest way to prepare fish (then far cheaper than meat) on Friday to be eaten cold for Shabbos lunch. As for the seemingly elementary idea of combining this “Jewish-style” fried fish with fried potato chips, that was the invention of an Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant named Joseph Malin, who opened the first ever fish and chip shop (or “chippy”, as it’s more charmingly called) in London in 1863.

Fish and chips may not be quite as “purely Jewish” as matzah, but its origins are every bit as Jewish as that most quintessential of Jewish foods: the bagel, which was indeed created by Polish Jews as far back as the 14th Century. And yet, while bagels are seen as one of the Jewish foods – even when piled high with ham and cheese – the humble combination of fried (usually kosher) fish and chips has kept its Jewish origins rather closer to the chest.

Quite why this is the case is something of a mystery, but is no doubt a reflection of the different sort of influence that Jews have had on British culture in comparison to the bagel’s adopted home, the United States of America. Regardless, even if this staple of British cuisine is a whole lot shyer about its yiddishe origins than the out-and-proud bagel (or, for that matter, the ever-popular chicken soup and kneidlach/matzah-ball combo), it is a shining example of Jewish culture quietly and without fuss making its mark on the wider world. That it was done in a country that was both once the bastion of Western values and also one with a shockingly anti-Semitic heritage is all the more extraordinary.

Now, sadly, because the Jewish origins of fish and chips is more of an answer to a trivia question than a widely known fact, it has been stuck playing second fiddle not only to the similarly (but even more inarguably) delicious bagel, but to some truly weird concoctions that Jews brought with them from “the old country” – many of which aren’t even Jewish inventions in the first place.

Kishka, kugel, p’tcha, what?

Okay, comical (yet entirely real) disgust at some of the more outré examples of Ashkenazi cuisine aside, the story of the food of the Jews of Eastern Europe is both complicated and quite intriguing on an anthropological level. Trying to sift between dishes that were eaten mostly by Jews and those that were also eaten by a majority of their neighbours is all but impossible at this point in time, but there are a couple of factors that most defined Ashkenazi food.

These Eastern European countries have long been far more impoverished than their Western counterparts and the majority of the Jews of, say, Poland or Lithuania lived particularly far down the socio-economic ladder. If dishes like gefilte fish, kishka, and the frankly horrifying mix of calves’ feet jelly and hard-boiled egg known as p’tcha seem like the leftovers of far more palatable foods then, well, that’s actually precisely what they are. Like bagels, which started life as a notorious peasant’s food in the shtetls of Poland, much of the more notorious examples of Ashkenazi cuisine were born out of necessity: paupers’ food for financially destitute people.

Poverty, however, was not the only thing that separated Ashkenazi food from that of some of their countrymen. The limitations of Kashrut actually spurred Ashkenazi Jews to be inventive with both the food they ate and how said food were prepared – impacting both Jewish and non-Jewish cuisine until today. In much the same way that Sephardi Jews created fried fish as a response to the halachic demands of Shabbos observance and the laws of kashrut (which demanded that they substitute oil for the sort of animal fats that non-Jews used to fry their food in back then), Ashkenazi adherence to halacha didn’t just create the greatest staple of Shabbos lunches, but an entirely new way of cooking.

The dish in question is – as I’m sure you were able to work out – cholent. Theoretically not at all different from a good, old fashioned stew and just as financially versatile, cholent stood out by being cooked very, very slowly for up to twenty-four hours. The result wasn’t just a unique (albeit sometimes acquired) taste, but the perfect solution to wanting to have a hot meal for Shabbos lunch without breaking any of the many laws pertaining to cooking on Shabbos.

The invention of cholent ultimately led to something even greater: the slow-cooker. These seemingly simple devices have become a hallmark of any observant Jewish home, but are also used widely by non-Jews who prepare that day’s dinner in it before even setting off for work. This well-loved lifesaver for working mothers and Shabbos lunches everywhere was created by engineer Irving Nachumsohn, a New-Jersey-born son of Jewish immigrants who, after being inspired by stories of his grandmother slowly cooking Shabbos meals in the oven at very low heat for hours on end, decided to create a device that would do that more efficiently. Patented in 1940, hitting markets in the early 1950s and exploding in popularity in the 1970s, the slow cooker has been a constant presence in many a kitchen for decades.

Sephardi/Mizrachi cuisine and the modern State of Israel

Because of the overwhelmingly Ashkenazi nature of South Africa (and, for that matter, much of the current Jewish diaspora) the cuisine of both Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews is rather less familiar to us than its Ashkenazi counterpart. Most of us, presumably, are very familiar with kneidlach, chopped herring, gefilte fish, even kishka, but sabich, haminados, or tagine? I’d wager not. And if we have heard of these things, it’s almost definitely only after having visited some of the more exotic-seeming restaurants in Israel – or, of course, if you’re Sephardi yourself.

What’s interesting, though, is that the more popular and well-known dishes eaten by Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews in past centuries have become the foods most commonly thought of as Israeli. Falafel, schwarma, pita, hummus, tehina, matbucha, skhug, laffa, and bourekas – this may sound like the menu of an Israeli-themed restaurant, but all of these dishes come from outside of Israel and almost all were and are eaten by Jews and non-Jews alike.

This is ironic for two reasons. First, the idea of their being a single kind of Israeli cuisine is laughable, as anyone who has actually been to the country should be able to attest. “Fusion” is the name of the game as Israeli cuisine is really a mix of the food-traditions that come from all the parts of the world that Jews have found themselves in over the past 2000 years, along with all sorts of modern favourites from places as diverse as Greece, China, and the United States. The cuisine of pre-1948 Israeli Jews and those in surrounding countries was very much a part of that fusion – but far more than traditional Ashkenazi food, they were, in fact, usually fusions themselves.

Which brings us to the even greater irony of Sephardi and Mizrachi cuisine being so strongly associated with a single country: it is incredibly well-travelled. The Sephardim, especially, were dispersed as far apart as South America and Western Europe after the cataclysmic events of the Spanish inquisition and their food culture represents that. Sure, traditional Sephardi cuisine may have been influenced by the socio-economic factors and halachic requirements that defined most Ashkenazi cuisine, but it has been just as influenced by the fact that any given dish could as likely have been influenced by Brazilian culture as it could Spanish, Greek, or Egyptian. Or, for that matter, Mizrachi.

Our Food, Our Story

There is, obviously, so much more to say on the subject of Jewish cuisine. But then, of course there is. The story of Jewish food is, when you get down to it, the story of the Jewish people – not only in the sense of it reflecting our historical travels across the globe, culminating, as we know, in the establishment of a truly cosmopolitan Jewish State, but in the way that our cuisine would often subtly interact with the wider culture of the countries in which we found and find ourselves. Could there be a more perfect metaphor for a people, culture, and religion that are, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, “at once particular and universal”?

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