The elegant hors d’ouevres served in the Mezzanine Hall at Beth Tzedec Congregation recently kicked off Heymish & Hip: Eating Jewish in Toronto, an evening dedicated to the celebration of Jewish cuisine. A lively panel discussion on Jewish food with some of the community’s best-known food mavens followed the cocktail-style reception.
Some 280 people in attendance noshed on smoked salmon, mini-blintzes, shot glasses of chicken soup with a tiny matzah ball on a toothpick spear, and skewers of baked salami paired with a honey mustard dipping sauce.
It was Jewish fare made from the traditional Ashkenazi recipes grandmothers and great-grandmothers brought with them from eastern Europe. But the food was presented in a new and modern way, thus reflecting the Heymish & Hip: Eating Jewish theme.
The evening was a companion event to From Latkes to Laffas: Jewish Toronto’s Favourite Eateries, 1900-2017, the ongoing exhibition held by the Reuben and Helene Dennis Museum at the Beth Tzedec.
“Jewish food traditions often reflect the cuisine of the host country”
And this focus on kosher-style food explains the participation of three restaurateurs on the panel discussion on the “hipness” of Jewish food, which was moderated by David Sax, author of Save the Deli, The Tastemakers, and Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.
The panel included Bonnie Stern, food columnist and author of 12 best-selling cookbooks, and humorist, Michael Wex, author of Born to Kvetch and Rhapsody in Schmaltz. Restaurateurs were Ruth Ladovsky, co-owner of United Bakers Dairy Restaurant; Anthony Rose co-owner of Fat Pasha, Rose & Sons, Bar Begonia and Schmaltz; and Judy Perly, owner of the Free Times Cafe and purveyor of “Bella! Did Ya Eat?” Sunday Jewish brunch buffet with live klezmer and Jewish music.
Wex said Jewish food traditions often reflect the cuisine of the host country where a particular Jewish community was established. For instance, the Jewish version of kishka was derived from Polish kishkeh, a dish of stuffed pork entrails.
Stern said Jews have always adapted to the land where they were living, which explains the heavy Middle Eastern influence on Israeli cuisine.
She recalled her first Shabbat meal in Israel. “I was expecting to eat chicken soup with matzah balls and the apple cake my mother made. Instead I had carrots with cumin, chicken that was fruity, and baklava. I was so excited.”
While Middle Eastern food is now very popular in North America, she noted that Israeli restaurants are beginning to put Ashkenazi dishes like corned beef and gefilte fish on their menus.
Sax spoke to regional differences in Ashkenazi style food, noting that Montreal delis are known for specialties like smoked meat (brisket) and karnatzel (the Jewish equivalent of a pepperoni stick), items not served at traditional Toronto delis.
And while many kosher-style restaurants have disappeared, Sax said Rose was bringing traditional Jewish food back to the old Jewish downtown neighbourhoods.
Indeed at Fat Pasha you can find chopped liver, while Schmaltz Appetizing offers bagels and a variety of smoked fish at the Dupont Avenue store and the very hip Ossington Avenue location.
Perly is another restaurateur who has brought Jewish food back to the hip College Street strip. In 1995, she said she began to feel guilty about not serving Jewish food at the Free Times Cafe. “I thought ‘how am I going to please Jewish customers who want their food on the table before they get there?’…A buffet was the answer.”
She said all the latkas, gefilte fish, salmon patties and other buffet foods are prepared from recipes handed down to her by her mother and her grandmother. “I feel a deep sense of spirituality in creating this food.”
A restaurant that is neither hip nor trendy, but has never gone out of style since its opening in 1912 is United Bakers Dairy Restaurant or UB, as it often called. Ladovsky is the third generation of the original founding family that started the business.
While UB moved from Spadina Avenue to the Lawrence Plaza in the mid ’80s, multiple generations of the Jewish community continue to enjoy such popular dishes as blintzes, kreplach, latkas and home-made soups like cabbage borscht and pea soup.
“When my grandparents opened the restaurant 105 years ago, they were replicating the taste of middle Poland. The restaurant was a place where there was a sense of community… New immigrants could taste the food from back home.”