Ashkenazi food and Sephardic food – location, location, location

It’s a lazy Sunday morning.  Read the paper. Worked on updating my Miami Beach Art Deco tour – I’m now a part-time tour guide, showing the ins and outs of our city’s history, architectural gems, and more to visitors. Now it’s time to add to the blog. I’ve been trying to honor the Sabbath by adding Jewish food every Friday … and this past Friday got away from me.  So here goes …

You could say that the Jewish world generally is made of two major cultural groups. The Ashkenzim centered in Eastern Europe is one. The majority of American Jews have Ashkenazi roots. Sephardim (in my limited definition, not everyone agrees) are descended from those Jews who were exiled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century and afterward. Most Sephardic Jews settled at that time in North Africa, the Netherlands, and the Eastern Mediterranean basin (the old Ottoman Empire). And … Jews have long lived in many other areas around the world. Their distinct histories and traditions reflect their homelands translated into the needs of Jewish life.

And now to the foods characteristic of the two main groups. Let’s start with Ashkenazi food and continue with Sephardic next week. Ashkenazi food is characterized as the food of cold climates. It is generally less spicy, as historically fewer spices were available in these areas.

In the 13th century, Jews started moving eastward from German lands to Poland and Russia. They brought with them German traditional cooking traditions. This is when Askenazi food is thought to have emerged. In the16th and 17th centuries this movement increased after Jews were invited to settle by the King of Poland.

Onions, schmaltz (rendered chicken or goose fat), and garlic are what I call the troika of Ashkenazi cooking. Onions were usually sautéed in the schmaltz for meat meals, especially in the winter and spring. Garlic was used in modest amounts except for Friday night, when its properties are said to improve sexual potency.… Other spices and herbs used included paprika, from very hot to sweet, for seasoning for meats and vegetables; and parsley, dill, and bay leaves. Cinnamon was used for desserts. Other flavors favored were sweet and sour dishes such as cabbage cooked with apple and strong flavors such as horseradish, sour pickles, and sauerkraut.

Meat and fish were eaten primarily on Shabbat. Main dishes include roasted chicken; pot roasted or braised beef or veal; and pickled and boiled meats. Freshwater fish from local lakes and rivers included carp, pike, perch, trout, and herring. They were fried or smoked, cured, or salted. Other common dishes were fish with raisin sauce, gefilte fish with chrain (horseradish with beet juice) [see 26 July post].


What about carp, one of the fishes used for gefilte fish, a symbol of the Sabbath? It’s thought that Jewish traders on the Silk Route were responsible for bringing fish from China to Central and Eastern Europe in the 17th century. Carp traveled easily in tanks.

Why herring? It was the cheapest fish, came pre-salted in barrels from Norway, Holland, England, and Scotland. Herring all ways – pickled, soused, baked, fried, and on Friday, herring with sour cream – were all commonly enjoyed.

One variety of herring 

Dairy meals included sour cream, farmer’s cheese, and cream cheese served with noodles, kreplach (Jewish wontons), dumplings, and blintzes (Jewish cheese-filled crepes). My mom made delicious blintzes when we were kids.


Vegetables in the Ashkenazi larder were limited because of the climate. Root vegetables (carrots, beets, potato, and turnips) were frequently eaten. Seasonal choices included cabbage, celery, beets, cauliflower, beans, peas, cucumbers, and mushrooms (a delicacy of the Northern European woods).  Cabbage was stuffed with rice. Beets became borsht, beet soup often prepared with chunks of beef. Vegetables were often pickled, a way to preserve foods and added to the bland bread and potato diet. Pickling also maintained their strong flavors and sharpness. Memories of pickles include the bowl of dills with pickle green tomatoes on Miami Beach deli tables. Every fall, Mom got the best small cucumbers and green tomatoes for her special pickles. They were great.

You knew you were Jewish when you thought pasta was stuff used exclusively for Kugel and kasha with bowties 

Grains such as barley, buckwheat or kasha, and rye figured large in the diet of the Ashkenazim. This led to heavy, dark breads. Soups were thickened with oats and barley. Bagels and bialys are also associated with the great outpost of Ashkenazi Jews, New York’s Lower East Side. The round, tough roll perhaps topped with poppy or sesame seeds – the bagel (German for bracelet or ring) – probably has South German origin. It and seeded rye bread were among the everyday bread associated with the Jews of Eastern Europe.

You knew you were Jewish when  you buy 3 shopping bags worth of hot bagels on every trip to NYC and ship them home via FedEx.  Don’t laugh, this was my family!

Symbols are associated with a number of round foods in Jewish tradition. They represent the annual life cycle, with no beginning and no end. Bagels were traditionally served at circumcisions and funerals with hard-boiled eggs as a protection against the evil eye, demons, and other evil spirits. Another round food associated with a new born son was the chickpea (arbis), eaten at the circumcision (bris) and on the first Friday after the birth of a son.

And now for some more jokes:

Q: Why do seagulls fly over the sea? A: If they flew over the bay, they’d be “bagels”

Q: How do you prevent your bagels being stolen? A: Put lox on them.

Next week, hopefully on Friday, Sephardi food traditions. Have a creative August!

One comment

  1. So interesting! Pamela

    Pamela Website: Etsy: The Palma Store 786-897-8856



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