Jews have long been known as the people of the Book, but perhaps we should be called the people of the dish.
The new book, The 100 Most Jewish Foods: a Highly Debatable List, highlights the intrinsic relationship between food and Jewish culture and traditions.
Our food consciousness dates back generations and is probably rooted in the observance of the laws of kashrut. Yet these days, Jewish foods may be the only link some people have to their heritage.
The 100 Most Jewish Foods shows the connection between Jewish people and their traditional foods, along with some 20th-century additions that have originated in North America.
More than 70 writers, including celebrity chefs like Molly Yeh and Gil Hovav, have contributed to the book. It’s edited by Alana Newhouse, the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.
The book encompasses a variety of Jewish culinary traditions and includes 60 recipes.
In the introduction, Newhouse writes that the foods in the book are not necessarily the tastiest or the most enduring; “What’s here instead are the foods that contain the deepest Jewish significance.”
Many of these foods “have been inspired by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and contingencies of the Jewish experience,” writes Newhouse.
She says that dishes like babka and chicken soup are familiar, but probably few people have tasted jellied calves’ feet or unhatched chicken eggs, delicacies that were consumed by earlier generations of Ashkenazic Jews.
Some of the various food entries introduce the reader to Sephardic dishes, while others offer a new or humorous take on familiar foods.
For instance, the entry about malida, a dish made of flattened rice flakes and coconut that is eaten by the Bene Israel Jews of India, is followed by a humorous piece on margarine (they’re in alphabetical order).
New York Times feature writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes that margarine “does what it needs to do, which is restore dignity to both the kosher-keeping and the lactose intolerant among us.”
Wayne Hoffman, the executive editor of Tablet, writes about the used tea bag, which was a familiar sign of Jewish frugality in the past. His piece on kichel is also very funny. He describes kichel, a twisted dry cookie commonly served at the kiddish, as a “cross between a bow tie and a fossil … widely ignored by even the hungriest of cookie-loving children.”
He suggests that the same batch of these uneaten cookies may have been served week after week. “Kichel are dry and brittle, filled with air; how would anyone know if it was stale?” he asks.
Yiddish humorist Michael Wex is among several Canadian contributors to the book. Wex, the author of Born to Kvetch and Rhapsody in Schmaltz, says that tzimmes is theoretically a side dish that can be made from any vegetable, but carrots are the most common. “The carrot tzimmes is to tzimmes what the gin martini is to martinis – the standard to which all others must aspire,” he writes.
Other Canadian contributors include Gail Simmons, host of Iron Chef Canada, and David Sax, author of Save the Deli: In Search of the Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen.
For Simmons, the sour pickle is the ultimate Jewish food. “There’s no other flavour as satisfying or that defines my family and Jewish heritage as perfectly as a pickle,” she writes.
Sax writes that, “A deli exists to serve delicatessen, the cured meats of the American Ashkenazi immigrant experience.… What we are really talking about here is the battle between corn beef and pastrami, the competing poles of deli’s fleishig soul.”
The 100 Most Jewish Foods is a delightful offering of culinary history and musings, generously peppered with humour and wit.
It’s not meant to be read from cover to cover in a single sitting. The book should be shared with friends and family and perhaps over a meal of brisket or flanken, with a side of kugel and a generous helping of tzimmes.
ο 30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
ο 1 medium onion, diced
ο 5 ml (1 tsp) kosher salt, plus more to taste
ο 1 bay leaf
ο 2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced lengthwise
ο 1 large carrot, cut into 3-mm-thick coins
ο 30-45 ml (2-3 tbsp) water
ο 2 medium beets, peeled, quartered and sliced 3-mm thick
ο 2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
ο 1.25 l (5 cups) vegetable broth
ο 1/4 head cabbage, chopped into 1-cm pieces
ο 5 ml (1 tsp) apple cider vinegar, plus more to taste
ο sour cream, for serving
ο dill sprigs, for garnish
Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and stir to coat with the oil. Add the bay leaf, cover the saucepan and cook until the onion is translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic, stir to combine, cover and cook until softened, about 2 minutes.
Add the carrot and a pinch of salt and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrot starts to soften, about 7 to 9 minutes. Do not let the vegetables brown. Add 15 ml (1 tbsp) of water if the pan gets too dry. Add the beets, 2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) salt, 30 ml (2 tbsp) water and the pepper to the saucepan and stir to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beets start to soften, 10 to 15 minutes.
Add the broth, increase the heat to high and bring the broth to a boil. Add the cabbage, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover the pan with the lid ajar and simmer until the cabbage has softened completely, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Add the vinegar. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding salt, pepper, and/or more vinegar if needed.
Ladle the hot soup into bowls, top with a spoonful of sour cream and garnish with a sprig of fresh dill.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.