I’ve always had mixed feelings about the food my tribe eats. As a child, I watched my Italian friends dine on deep dishes of all the things I deemed essential to a well-lived life: pasta, cheese, cured meats and drool-inducing combinations of all three. Meanwhile, I suffered through Jewish holiday meals filled with a mix of foods that could be best described as “interesting.” How did my ancestors get it so wrong?
Yet perhaps my tastes have changed. Sitting around the Rosh Hashanah dinner table this year, I realized I needed to do a reassessment of sorts. As it turns out, I underestimated our contribution to the epicurean world.
Taste is always subjective; your own experience and palate may be completely different from mine. I’m sure your bubbe made a fantastic version of this or that dish and I completely respect your opinion. That said, here’s my personal ranking of Jewish foods, from worst to first:
40. Pickled Herring In Sour Cream
It sounds awful and looks even worse (with the added bonus of a fishy aftertaste that won’t leave your mouth for a week). I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would eat this. It should be served only as a punishment.
What Jews apparently invented when they couldn’t figure out how to make an Italian sausage.
38. Whitefish/Whitefish Salad
Tried it recently by accident, thinking it was a simple tuna fish. Big mistake.
37. Kasha Varnishkes
Needs lots of onions and fat to make it taste like, well, anything but buckwheat. If this is the Jewish bolognese, we messed up.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with mandelbread, but I have two main issues: 1) I know it’s baked in a loaf, but it’s not bread. It’s a cookie. Stop confusing people. 2) It can be bone dry, like the biscotti you find in the back of the cupboard that’s been left unsealed for a few dozen years. It’s supposed to be softer, but I’ve broken teeth on these things. Your dentist loves them.
35. Day Old Hamantashen
What happened to these Purim cookies? They should be delicious, but instead, most are served dry enough to leave you gasping for water. Fresh ones can be dynamite, but more often than not, they’re like chewing sand with a fruit chaser. There’s room for improvement here.
Confession: I actually kind of love this tahini candy that you find at the counter of any decent Jewish deli. But everyone else I know truly hates it. It also continues the tradition of dry, chalky Jewish desserts. Speaking of …
33. Passover Cakes
I know, the restrictions are tough to work with. But the flourless chocolate cake and the lemony pie thing almost always disappoint, as they’re a tease to the original (which you can’t have). Maybe all the other dry desserts are really meant to prepare us for these eight days.
31. Chocolate Coins
A highly tradable asset come Hanukkah (I ran a virtual black market for them in my family). They weren’t usually the best chocolate and almost always ended up melting in my pocket by the third night. Still, chocolate is chocolate.
30. My Mother’s Roast Chicken
Sometimes, the truth hurts. My mother (bless her memory) was a terrible, terrible cook. Her roast chicken (when it wasn’t served to us virtually raw) was as rubbery as an elementary school eraser. I ranked this higher on my list only because she was my mom and she deserves better (but, between us, it’s a miracle I survived childhood with a functioning digestive system).
Not really a food, per se. You don’t want to look while your mother is cooking, but this stuff makes everything taste better. Try to get over the thought of what it is and just eat it. Your taste buds thank you. Your arteries will not.
28. Manischewitz Wine
I love watching a non-Jew drink this for the first time. They think they’re getting a slightly sweet dessert wine and instead get a swig of alcoholic grape Fanta without the bubbles. But it’s our wine and we love it for what it is.
Clearly created by the vision of an emboldened eight-year-old: “You know what would make my vegetables taste better? Piles of sugar!”
26. Chopped Liver
I brought a sample to my office once, where a co-worker declared it “a pile of moist sh-t in a bowl.” And for most of my years, that’s what I thought of it. But something must happen to Jewish taste buds as they mature. I like this stuff now. It’s almost like a Hebrew foie gras.
25. Gefilte Fish
Oh man, did I hate this growing up: a wet fishy hockey puck that sometimes came with a glob of clear jelly that I was convinced was my grandmother’s mucous. And while I typically don’t ask for my fish ground and boiled on a Saturday night, I’ll cop to enjoying this much more as an adult. Without the gross jelly, please, and adding red horseradish is a must (more on that later). I have no idea why we add that little carrot slice to the dish. Didn’t we cover that with the tzimmes?
Kind of the exact middle ground of Jewish food. Nothing to get too excited about, and nothing offensive. Your stomach may disagree near the end of Passover, however.
A forgotten urban staple, essentially mashed potatoes wrapped in dough. The ones with meat and onions rock.
22. Matzah Brei
A kid’s saviour for the bagel-and-cereal-free days of Passover. Douse it in maple syrup for sure. Solid, but there’s a reason we don’t eat this after Passover: bread is better.
Most kids test their mettle by trying to bite the raw version of maror and instantly regret it. I especially dig the beet red version of horseradish, which I douse on any Passover food I can’t stand … and permanently stain whatever shirt I’m wearing.
Here we get into the indisputably solid foods. This is probably the best of the dry desserts. I need chocolate in mine, but whatever floats your boat – these are hard to beat when done right.
19. Jelly Doughnuts
Hanukkah at its finest. These probably should rank higher, but were slightly penalized for their ubiquity. In other news, I can no longer button my pants.
Must be served in a giant log, which provides hours of amusement watching people trying to cut thin slices and failing. I seem to recall my frustrated grandfather finally picking the whole thing up and gnawing at it like he was eating corn on the cob.
17. Hebrew National Hot Dog
A mini hot dog wrapped in pastry is the absolute highlight of every bar mitzvah in history. And in a bun, it’s got to be Hebrew National, because they just taste better. Add some sauerkraut (mustard is encouraged, but not required) and we’re in business.
Yes, Jews have their own ravioli! How are these not served at every meal? I’m mad at my family. I’ve been cheated.
It’s only bread, but when challah is fresh, it’s really, really good. It always implied a good time, too (possibly because wine is likely to be involved). But here’s my beef: does it really need the raisins? Can’t good, eggy bread just be left alone?
I don’t understand why we don’t eat this outside of Passover. Apples, walnuts, cinnamon, red wine – I’d be game for a culture that defines these as main food groups. Apparently Ben & Jerry’s sells a Haroset ice cream in Israel. Get that over here immediately, please.
No idea how brisket manages to taste better on the second or third day after it’s been cooked. That doesn’t seem sanitary, but I don’t care.
12. Corned Beef
Before this causes a riot, just let me finish. I absolutely love corned beef. It’s a safe cold cut bet and tastes just as good hot. But when hitting on all cylinders, corned beef loses out to …
I’m drooling as I type this. A hot, smoked, properly spiced piece of pastrami sliced thin is about the apex of meat culture for me. Jewish deli just doesn’t get any better. Side note: I once ate at Carnegie Deli with my wife’s family, where my brother-in-law ordered bologna on white bread with mayonnaise. The waiter almost punched him in the face.
10. Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda
And while you’re at the deli, the sandwich doesn’t work without this soda, served in the can but poured over ice into a tall, oddly brown-coloured glass. Some people swear by the Cel-Ray flavour, but those people are idiots.
One of the great scams of Jewish cuisine is to pass off desserts as side dishes. I prefer my blintzes stuffed with blueberry compote and some cheese, but you could jam almost anything into these things and I’d eat them.
8. Noodle Kugel
Any other tribe would serve this after dinner, but we want our sweet tooth satisfied now and forever. This is one of those dishes that provokes scepticism in the uninformed, but always surprises when tasted. Sweet pasta? I’m in.
But when it comes to real dessert, nothing in the Jewish canon beats a good babka. Twisted with chocolate and cinnamon, it’s a little bready, but so, so good. Why over-complicate things? Bonus points for its supporting role in Seinfeld. That babka should have won an Emmy.
Too simple for such a high ranking? Wrong. A good pickle just feels Jewish. And since Jews love to argue, pickles provide the perfect debate: sour, half-sour or new?
5. Chinese Food On Christmas
This tradition has as much cultural significance as synagogue on the High Holidays. This is always one of the best meals of the year, and all your Jewish friends will be at Szechuan Empire at the exact same time. Might as well hold a Hadassah meeting while you’re there.
4. Apples And Honey
I guess I’m rewarding simplicity near the top of this list. But again, why complicate things? These should be eaten any time a Jew is feeling down for an instant uplift. The only concern is with rampant double-dipping, ensuring that your nephew’s runny nose will ultimately find its way into your
3. Latkes/Potato Pancakes
Now things are getting serious. You can make a strong argument for any of the items in the Top 3 and I’d say that a latke done perfectly should belong at No. 1. You literally cannot make too many of these in a Jewish household – they will always be eaten, and sooner than you think. The only thing keeping them from the top spot is the potential for under or over cooking, which makes them a bit pedestrian (but still great).
2. Matzah Ball Soup
Magic in a bowl. Matzah ball soup has been incorporated into the menus of nearly every diner in North America, but the homemade versions continue to deliver the goods. Rich, salty chicken soup covering soft and fluffy balls of matzah meal and who knows what else (seriously, I’ve never made them and I prefer the mystery). Few people know this, but the Torah actually requires all Jews to ask for seconds.
1. Bagel With Lox And Cream Cheese
I tried not to list this as No. 1, I really did. It seems too obvious, too widespread, too commercialized and industrialized. But sometimes you just have to nod your head and recognize the excellence that is right in front of you. This is the ultimate contribution of the Jewish people to the epicurean world. Truth be told, it’s not even that close. It’s the only thing I can think about on Yom Kippur (and every Sunday morning). All hail the king.