Maybe you asked about specific American Jewish food. It’s actually an agglomeration of foods which have been adopted, adapted, and combined from what is still being brought by Jewish immigrants to the Americas.
Let’s now briefly delve into diversity in Ashkenazi and Sephardi food and also some underpinnings of kasrut or kosher, the laws out of which Jewish food traditions grew.
These Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds cross many borders and contain numerous cultural differences. In the past two weeks I wrote about some general distinctions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi food. Even these groups have regional food differences, many of which followed them to the United States. In fact, when descendants of Jews meet, they frequently address how Litvaks and Galizianers are different, not to mention the Yekkes (German Jews). Frequently at the gatherings of Sephardim, the Greeks, Egyptians, Moroccans, and others, during my youth in Columbus, Ohio members of each group sat separately. The following are some difference found in the communities.
Litvaks or Lithuanian Jews preferred very little sugar in food. Instead, they enjoyed sour foods such as sorrel soup with lemon and sour cream and meat cooked with prunes. Food tastes were similar in the Ukraine, including Galicia and the Galizianers, and Russia. Grains, especially buckwheat were used. Dairy took the form of curd cheese and sour cream eaten with blini and knishes, pirogi and baranki (sour-cream dough cakes with poppy seed). Knishes and pirogi were filled with potato, meat, and other fillings and served at celebrations including circumcisions and bar mitzvahs.
Polish Jewish cuisine included assorted sweet and sour dishes. Dishes associated with them were stuffed cabbage rolls filled with beef and rice and potato pancakes which could have originated in the Polish Jewish community.
Jews in Hungary were known to cook with wine, onion and garlic. They also used peppers in many forms including paprika stew and chicken paprikash. Because Romania was close to the Ottoman Empire, grilled meats, roasted peppers, eggplant, dishes and stuffed vegetables were enjoyed. They also used yogurt and garlic in their cooking. A noted food of the Romanian Jews was mamaliga or cornmeal polenta and brinsa cheese.
The popular song Romania, Romania talks about these and other Romanian specialties:
What your heart desires you can get;
A mamalige, a pastrami, a karnatzl,
And a glass of wine, aha … !
Oh, my, help, I’m going crazy! …
… I care only for brinze and mamalige
I dance and jump up to the ceiling
When I eat a patlazhele. …
The Sephardic world is no less diverse. The use of aromatic herbs in the Sephardic kitchen varied from community to community. In Morocco, mint was favored and in Lebanon dill was used.
The Jews of Italy cooked with a wide repertoire of vegetables. They used pumpkin as a filling for raviolis and tortellini. They also created Carciofi alla Guidia (Jewish-style artichokes), double-fried, crisp and uniquely delicious, now found at Rome’s finer restaurants. Suppli, a deep-fried rice ball filled with stringy cheese and tomato sauce, is another Jewish Roman classic. It’s thought that Jews introduced others in the Mediterranean to leeks. In Sephardic communities in the Eastern Mediterranean, leek patties are a dish served seasonally. The Romanians added meat to the batter to be fried. In Rhodes, potato was added.
It seems no matter where they lived, Jews have enjoyed munching on seeds, especially sun flower and pumpkin. Ashkenazim call them keien spi (check and spit). Judeo-Spanish speakers call them passa tiempo (pass the time).
One constant that unifies so-called Jewish food is the requirements of kashrut (kosher) translated to the locally available ingredients. The word kosher is usually translated as “proper” or “appropriate.” According to Sokolov, kashrut and cookery are both a system of determining what is fit to eat and the rules outlined in the Torah. These laws encourage obedience, self-discipline, and imbue the follower with sanctity. Their sources are as follows:
Genesis – bans (on consuming flesh from a living animal)
Deuteronomy – commands
Leviticus – enumerates the forbidden
The Mishnah – addressed the condition of the animal and if it’s unclean because of some imperfection
These laws have been much interpreted as follows. Note: I use the Yiddish words as they are commonly understood among American Jews:
Flayshik or Meat – animals with split hooves which chew their cud (that means herbivores that eat grass and leaves), no hind quarters were allowed unless sciatic nerve or veins were removed.
Poultry is kosher and so are some named game birds.
Fish – must have scales and fins
Milchik or Dairy – products (cheese, yogurt, etc.) cannot be made with rennet, an animal product, nor with animal gelatin
Pareve or Neutral – fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, cereal/grains, products produced without meat or milk can be eaten with milk or dairy dishes
Trayf or terefah (Hebrew) – non kosher/unclean/forbidden
In addition, no milk and meat products can be eaten together. This concept of separating was established in Europe during middle Ages.
This week’s joke:
Sadie was taking her seven
year old daughter Sarah and her friend Rifka to Hebrew classes one Sunday
morning and was embarrassed to hear this conversation between them.
Sarah said to Rifka, “Our family is kosher”
Rifka asked, “What’s kosher?”
Sarah replied, “That’s when you can’t have cheese with your ham sandwich!!”
More diversity and creativity in cooking will be introduced as the food traditions of the Jewish holidays are explored.