Remember when there were all those videos going around of people sampling a certain type of ethnic food for the first time?
When the “Jewish Food Taste Test” came out from Buzzfeed, I was wary… and it was worse than I feared.
First of all: this is not “Jewish” food. This is Eastern European/Ashkenazi/American Jewish food. At least half of the Jews in the world today live in Israel, and you won’t find a single one of these items on a restaurant menu here.
Second of all: this isn’t even the GOOD Eastern European/Ashkenazi/American Jewish food. Where is the brisket?! The corned beef?! The apple strudel?! The cheesecake? The bagels, for Heaven’s sake?
Manischewitz?! For real?! Come out here to the Gush Etzion Winery and I’ll show you some real kosher wine. And what is that thing claiming to be a matzah ball?! I have never in my life seen one that big. And that’s setting aside the issue of whether it should be dense and chewy as in this video, or light and fluffy–a subject of bitter debate within the Ashkenazi Jewish world. (I am, and will forever remain, on Team Fluffy.)
The point is, there is a widespread (and super annoying) perception that Ashkenazi American Jews are the only kind of Jews that exist.
This point was driven further home for me in that review I got for By Light of Hidden Candles recently that I told you about. I’ll reiterate for our readers: the reviewer was shocked and dismayed that a character used the phrase inshallah. “To my dismay I found out that Daniella Levy is a rabbi’s wife, and more than anyone she should understand the non Jewish background of ‘inshallah’.” So for the record: inshallah means “God willing” in Arabic. It was (and is) used by Arabic-speaking Jews just like it’s used by Arabic-speaking Muslims. Apparently it had never occurred to this reader that Jews living in Arab lands might speak… you know… Arabic.
It is with all that in mind that I thank God for Claudia Roden and her Book of Jewish Food.
My mother-in-law introduced me to this book years ago. She gave me her copy and highly recommended it, but in the age of Google, it is very rare for me to crack open a cookbook in search of a recipe; so it languished for several years, untouched, on our bookshelf.
I don’t quite remember what inspired me to start reading it. I might have been searching for a recipe I’d been lusting after: the incomparable sour kubbeh soup I’d tasted at two weddings, for which Google seemed to yield no results. Sadly, the book didn’t provide a recipe for that particular soup either, but it did devote a whole inset section to kubbeh (semolina and beef dumplings; the Middle Eastern/North African answer to kreplach and wontons).
As I flipped through the book, I discovered that it isn’t so much a cookbook as a comprehensive anthropological/historical exploration of the entire Jewish diaspora through a culinary lens. Sure, there are recipes for gefilte fish, lokshen kugel and schmaltz, but there are also recipes for things like brinjal kasaundi, a spiced eggplant pickle from one of the Jewish communities in India; arroz kon leche, Sephardic rice pudding; hamam mahshy di lahm, Egyptian stuffed pigeon; plof, Bukharan rice with chicken and carrots; ftut, Yemeni wedding soup; etc., etc., etc. But more than recipes, there are fascinating descriptions of the communities in each of these places–every place there has ever been a significant Jewish community.
So I started reading it at the beginning, and read it cover to cover. I don’t remember ever reading another cookbook in such a manner.
Ms. Roden paints a vivid, colorful, and, of course, flavorful picture of each of these communities. I was especially fascinated to learn about the Jewish communities that have since gone all but extinct, in places like India, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. But there was a section I, of course, found particularly useful: the history of the Spanish Jews. I had known that cuisine took an important role in the history of the Inquisition–that Jews were burned at the stake for making Jewish dishes, the most famous of which was adafina, the Sabbath stew. Ms. Roden described how the dish was made, and how certain recipes among conversos developed from their Jewish background–ham, for example, being cooked the way they used to cook lamb.
When I started writing By Light of Hidden Candles, I also found myself delving into the Sephardic recipes in the book. I developed a particular interest in quinces; I had never tasted them before, but I’d seen them appear briefly on supermarket shelves in time for Rosh Hashana, and I was curious about them. My experiments resulted in this little scene from the first chapter of By Light of Hidden Candles:
I shook my head, sighing, and popped the fruit into my mouth. “Hmm,” I said, savoring its flavor. It was somewhere between an apple and a pear, with the texture of a potato. “What are these things?”
“Quinces. Los membrillos. You’ve never had bimbriyo?”
“I don’t think I understood half the words in that sentence you said just now.”
Grandma shot me a look of incredulous exasperation. “What does your mother do in her kitchen?”
In that spirit, here is a sample recipe from the book: the recipe Grandma Alma is making in that scene.
(excerpted from The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York by Claudia Roden)
Quince paste is one of the most characteristic features of Judeo-Spanish gastronomy.
4 1/2 lbs (2 kg) quinces
Juice of 1/2 lemon
5 cups (1 kg) sugar
More sugar to roll the pieces of paste in
Wash the quinces and rub off the down that usually covers them. Peel and quarter but do not core them. Put them in a heavy pan and cover with water. Add the lemon juice and cook for 2 hours. Then drain, keeping the precious liquid.
Remove the cores, seeds, and skins (they will already have given off their jelly-making pectin) and mash or process the fruit to a puree. Boil down the liquid to about 3/4 cup (175 ml). Add the sugar and the puree, and cook, stirring often, with a wooden spoon, over very low heat, being careful not to let it burn, until it thickens and begins to splutter. Then stir constantly until it turns into a rich garnet-red paste that comes away from the sides of the pan.
Let it cool a little before pouring into a wide shallow pan or tray lined with plastic wrap or wax paper, spreading it out to a thickness of about 3/4 inch (1 1/2 cm).
Leave for a day or so to dry out in a warm, airy place, before turning out and cutting up the firmed paste with a sharp knife into 3/4-inch (1 1/2-cm) squares or lozenges. Roll the pieces in granulated sugar and pack them in a tin or other airtight container.
We need more books like this one–books that showcase the incredible diversity within the Jewish people, and proclaim to the world, once and for all, that gefilte fish is not the be-all-end-all of Jewish gastronomy.