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Jewish cuisine is a collection of the different cooking traditions of the Jewish people worldwide. It is a diverse cuisine that has evolved over many centuries, shaped by Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and Jewish Festival and Shabbat (Sabbath) traditions. Jewish Cuisine is influenced by the economics, agriculture, and culinary traditions of the many countries where Jewish communities have existed and varies widely throughout the world.
Broadly speaking, the distinctive styles or cuisines in their own right that may be discerned in Jewish cuisine are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Arab, Persian, Yemenite, Indian, and Latin-American. There are also distinctive dishes from Jewish communities ranging from Ethiopia to Central Asia.
Furthermore, since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and particularly since the late 1970s, a nascent Israeli "fusion cuisine" has developed, adopting and adapting elements of all the aforementioned Jewish styles, new dishes based on agricultural products introduced and grown since 1948, and incorporating other Middle Eastern fare and international cuisines.
Influences on Jewish cuisine
Kashrut—Jewish dietary laws
The laws of keeping kosher (kashrut) have influenced Jewish cooking by prescribing what foods are permitted and how food must be prepared. The word kosher is usually translated as "proper."
Observant Jews will eat only meat or poultry that is certified kosher. The meat must have been slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in accordance with Jewish law and is entirely drained of blood. Before it is cooked, it is soaked in water for half an hour, then placed on a perforated board, sprinkled with coarse salt (which draws out the blood), and left to sit for one hour. At the end of this time, the salt is washed off and the meat is ready for cooking. Today, kosher meats purchased from a butcher or supermarket are usually already kashered as described above, and no additional soaking or salting is required.
According to kashrut, meat and poultry may not be combined with dairy products, nor may they touch plates or utensils that have been touched by dairy products. Therefore, Jews who observe kashrut divide their kitchens into different sections for meat and for dairy, with separate refrigerators, ovens, plates, and utensils (or as much as is reasonable, given financial and space constraints; there are procedures to kasher utensils that have touched dairy to allow their use for meat).
As a result, butter, milk and cream are not used in preparing dishes made with meat or intended to be served together with meat. Oil, pareve margarine, rendered chicken fat, or non-dairy cream substitutes are used instead.
The hearty cuisine of Ashkenazi Jews was based on centuries of living in the cold climate of Central and Eastern Europe, whereas the lighter, "sunnier" cuisine of Sephardic Jews was affected by life in the Mediterranean region.
Each Jewish community has its traditional dishes, often revolving around specialties from their home country. In Spain and Portugal, olives are a common ingredient, and many foods are fried in oil. The idea of frying fish in the stereotypically British fish and chips, for example, was introduced to Britain by Sephardic Jewish immigrants. In Germany, stews were popular. The Jews of Netherlands specialized in pickles, herring, butter cakes and bolas (jamrolls). In Poland, Jews made various kinds of stuffed and stewed fish along with kneidl (matzo ball) soup or lokshen (noodles). In North Africa, Jews eat couscous and tagine.
Thus, a traditional Shabbat meal for Ashkenazi Jews might include roast beef, pot roast, or chicken, carrots tzimmes, and potatoes. A traditional Shabbat meal for Sephardi Jews would focus more on salads, stuffed vine leaves, couscous and other Middle Eastern specialties.
History of Jewish cuisine
The daily diet of the ordinary ancient Israelite was mainly one of bread, cooked grains, and legumes. Bread was eaten with every meal. Vegetables played a smaller, but significant role in the diet. The Israelites drank goat and sheep’s milk when it was available in the spring and summer, and ate butter and cheese. Figs and grapes were the fruits most commonly eaten, while dates, pomegranates, and other fruits and nuts were eaten more occasionally. Wine was the most popular beverage and sometimes other fermented beverages were produced. Olives were used primarily for their oil. Meat, usually goat and mutton, was eaten rarely and reserved for special occasions, such as celebrations, festival meals, or sacrificial feasts. Game, birds, eggs and fish were also eaten, depending on availability.
Most food was eaten fresh and in season and the diet was essentially vegetarian. Fruits and vegetables had to be eaten as they ripened and before they spoiled. People had to contend with periodic episodes of hunger and famine. Producing enough food required hard and well-timed labor and the climatic conditions resulted in unpredictable harvests and the need to store as much food as possible. Thus, grapes were made into raisins and wine, olives were made into oil, figs, beans and lentils were dried, and grains were stored for use throughout the year.
The cuisine maintained many consistent traits based on the main products available from the early Israelite period until the Roman period, even though new foods became available during this extended time. For example, rice was introduced during the Persian era. During the Hellenistic period, as trade with the Nabateans increased, more spices became available, at least for those who could afford them, and more Mediterranean fish were imported into the cities. During the Roman period, sugar cane was introduced.
The symbolic food of the ancient Israelites continued to be important among Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora. Bread, wine, and olive oil were seen as direct links to the three main crops of ancient Israel – wheat, grapes, and olives. In the Bible, this trio is described as representing the divine response to human needs (Hosea 2:23-24) and, particularly, the need for the seasonal rains vital for the successful cultivation of these three crops. (Deuteronomy 11:13-14). The significance of wine, bread and oil is indicated by their incorporation into Jewish religious ritual, with the blessings over wine and bread for Shabbat and holiday meals, and at religious ceremonies such as weddings, and the lighting of Shabbat and festival lights with olive oil.
Bread was a staple food, and as in the Bible, the meal is designated by the simple term "to eat bread," so the rabbinical law ordains that the blessing pronounced upon bread covers everything else except wine and dessert. Bread was made not only from wheat, but also from rice, millet, and lentils. Many kinds of fruit were eaten. There was a custom to eat apples during Shavuot, while specific fruit and herbs were eaten on Rosh Hashana as a good omen. Children received nuts and roasted ears of grain especially on the evening of Passover. Olives were so common that they were used as a measure (zayit).
Meat was eaten only on special occasions, on Shabbat and at feasts. The pious kept fine cattle for Shabbat (Beẓah 16a); but various other kinds of dishes, relishes, and spices were also on the table. Deer, also, furnished meat, as did pheasant, chickens, and pigeons. Fish was eaten on Friday evening in honor of Shabbat. Pickled fish was an important article of commerce, being called "garum" among the Jews, as among the Greeks and Romans. Pliny says expressly of a "garum castimoniale" (i.e., kosher garum) that it was prepared according to Jewish law. A specific type of locusts were eaten. Eggs were so commonly eaten that the quantity of an egg was used as a measure.
Structure of meal
The first dish was a pickled starter to stimulate the appetite, followed by the main meal, which ended with a dessert, called in Greek θάργημα. Afiḳomen is used in the same sense. Tidbits (parperet) were eaten before and after the meal (Ber. vi. 6). Wine was flavored with myrrh or with honey and pepper, the mixture being called conditum. There was vinegar wine, wine from Amanus, and Cilicia, red wine from Saron, Ethiopian wine, and black wine. Certain wines were considered good for the stomach, others not. There was beer from Egypt called zythos (Pes. iii. 1), and beer made from a thorn Spina regia. Emphasis was placed on drinking with the meal as "eating without drinking means suicide".
The Jews were so widely scattered in the Middle Ages that it is difficult to give a connected account of their mode of living as regards food. In Arabic countries the author of the Halakhot Gedolot knew some dishes that appear to have been specific Jewish foods, e.g., "paspag", which was, perhaps, biscuit; according to the Siddur Amram, the well-known "ḥaroset" is made in those countries from a mixture of herbs, flour, and honey (Arabic,"ḥalikah"). Maimonides, in his "Sefer Refu'ot", mentions dishes that are good for health. He recommends bread baked from wheat that is not too new, nor too old, nor too fine, further, the meat of the kid, sheep, and chicken, and the yolks of eggs. Goats' and cows' milk is good, nor are cheese and butter harmful. Honey is good for old people; fish with solid white flesh meat is wholesome; so also are wine and dried fruits. Fresh fruits, however, are unwholesome; and he does not recommend garlic or onions.
There is detailed information about Italian Jewish cookery in the book Massechet Purim. It discusses pies, chestnuts, turtledoves, pancakes, small tarts, gingerbread, ragouts, venison, roast goose, chicken, stuffed pigeons, ducks, pheasants, partridges, quails, macaroons, and salad. These were considered luxuries. The oppressed medieval Jews enjoyed large meals only on Shabbat, festivals, circumcisions, and weddings. For example, the Jews of Rhodes, according to a letter of Ovadiah Bartinura, 1488, lived on herbs and vegetables only, never tasting meat or wine. In Egypt, however, meat, fish, and cheese were obtainable, in Gaza, grapes, fruit, and wine. Cold dishes are still relished in the East. Generally, only one dish was eaten, with fresh bread daily.
Some Jewish dishes frequently mentioned in Yiddish literature from the twelfth century onward are brätzel, lokshen, pasteten, fladen, beleg. Barscht or borshtsh soup is a Ukrainian beet soup, best known are the berkes or barches eaten on Shabbat, and shalet, which Heine commemorates, and which the Spanish Jews called ani. Shabbat pudding, kigl or kugel in Yiddish, is also well known.
Most of the dishes cooked by Jewish people of Eastern Europe origin are akin to those of the nations among whom they dwelled, and in much of Europe (including most of the English-speaking world) is the dominant style associated with "Jewish cooking"; substitutions were made to accommodate the dietary laws. Hence, dishes which Gentiles make with pork are made with veal or chicken; chicken fat (or, more modernly, hydrogenated vegetable oil such as Crisco) is used in place of lard. Thus the kasha and blintzes of the Russian Jews, the mamaliga of the Romanians, the paprika of the Hungarians, are dishes adopted by the Jews from their gentile neighbors. Only on religious and ceremonial occasions did they cook special Jewish dishes. In the United States, in particular, Jewish cooking (and the cookbooks that recorded and guided it) evolved in ways that illuminate changes in the role of Jewish women and the Jewish home.
Jewish cuisine variations
While Ashkenazi cuisine as it is known today is largely based within the context of American-Jewish food, much of the culinary traditions of Ashkenazi Jews sprung from Eastern Europe. After having been expelled from Western Europe in the Middle Ages, Jews were forced to live in poverty and thus, were limited in terms of ingredients. Dishes were made with more sparse components; they weren't heavily spiced and ingredients that were more flavorful had to be used sparingly. This is often why some dishes in Ashkenazic cuisine are known for being blander than dishes in Sephardic or Mizrahi cuisine.
The Jewish love of fish goes back to ancient times. With kosher meat not always available, fish became an important staple of the Jewish diet. In Eastern Europe it was sometimes especially reserved for Shabbat. As fish is not considered meat in the same way that beef or poultry are, it can also be eaten with dairy products (although some Sefardim do not mix fish and dairy). Even though fish is parve, when they are served at the same meal, Orthodox Jews will eat them during separate courses, and wash (or replace) the dishes in between. Gefilte fish and lox are popular in Ashkenazi cuisine.
Gefilte fish (from German gefüllte "stuffed" fish) was traditionally made by skinning the fish steaks, usually German carp, de-boning the flesh, mincing it and mixing with finely chopped browned onions (3:1), eggs, salt, pepper, and vegetable oil. The fish skin and head were then stuffed with the mixture and poached.
A more common commercially packaged product found today is the "Polish" gefilte fish patties or balls, similar to quenelles, where sugar is added to the broth, resulting in a slightly sweet taste. Strictly speaking they are the fish filling, rather than the complete filled fish. This method of serving evolved from the tradition of removing the stuffing from the skin, rather than portioning the entire fish into slices before serving.
While traditionally made with carp, gefilte fish may also be made from any large fish: cod, haddock, or hake in the United Kingdom, carp or pike in France. In United States whitefish is added to the above as a mince.
A number of soups are characteristically Ashkenazi, one of the most common of which is chicken soup (יױך, yoykh), traditionally served on Shabbat, holidays, and special occasions. The soup may be served with noodles (lokshen in Yiddish), rice, or Shkedei marak (lit. "soup almonds" – croutons popular in Israel). Other popular ingredients are kreplach (dumplings) and kneidlach (matzo balls) – a mixture of matzo meal, eggs, water, melted fat, pepper and salt. Some reserve kneidlach and kreplach for holidays or other special occasions.
In the preparation of a number of soups, neither meat nor fat is used. Such soups formed the food of the poor classes. An expression among Jews of Eastern Europe, soup mit nisht (soup with nothing), owes its origin to soups of this kind. Soups such as Borsht were considered a staple in Ukraine. Soups like krupnik were made of oatmeal, potatoes, and fat. This was the staple food of the poor students of the yeshivot; in richer families, meat was added to this soup.
At weddings, "golden" chicken soup was often served. The reason for its name is probably the yellow circles of molten chicken fat floating on its surface. Today, chicken soup is widely referred to (not just among Jews) in jest as "Jewish penicillin," and hailed as a cure for the common cold.
There are a number of sour soups in the borscht category. One is kraut or cabbage borscht, made by cooking together cabbage, meat, bones, onions, raisins, sour salt (citric acid), sugar, and sometimes tomatoes. Beet borsht is served hot or cold. In the cold version, a beaten egg yolk may be added before serving, and each bowl topped with a dollop of sour cream. This last process is called farweissen (to make white).
Bread and cake
The dough of challah is often shaped into forms having symbolical meanings; thus on Rosh Hashanah rings and coins are imitated, indicating "May the new year be as round and complete as these"; for Hosha'na Rabbah, bread is baked in the form of a key, meaning "May the door of heaven open to admit our prayers." The homentash, a triangular cookie or turnover filled with fruit preserves (lekvar) or honey and black poppy seed paste, is eaten on the Feast of Purim. It is said to be shaped like the hat of Haman the tyrant. The mohn kihel is a circular or rectangular wafer sprinkled with poppy seed. Pirushkes, or turnovers, are little cakes fried in honey or dipped in molasses after they are baked. Strudel is served for dessert. Kugels are prepared from rice, noodles or mashed potatoes.
In Eastern Europe, the Jews baked black ("proster," or "ordinary") bread, white bread, and challah. The most common form is the twist ("koilitch" or "kidke" from the Romanian word "încolăci" which means "to twist"). The koilitch is oval in form, and about one and a half feet in length. On special occasions, such as weddings, the koilitch is increased to a length of about two and a half feet. The bagel, which originated from the Eastern Europe bublik, is a popular Ashkenazi food.
Meat and fats
Gebratenes (roasted meat), chopped meat, and essig fleisch (vinegar meat) are favorite meat recipes. The essig or, as it is sometimes called, honig or sauerbraten, is made by adding to meat which has been partially roasted with some sugar, bay-leaves, pepper, raisins, salt and a little vinegar.
The rendered fat of geese and chickens, known as schmaltz, is kept in readiness for cooking use when needed. Gribenes or "scraps," also called griven, the cracklings left from the rendering process were one of the favorite foods in Eastern Europe. Gribenes is eaten spread on bread.
A spread of chopped liver, prepared with onions and often including gribenes, is a popular appetizer, side dish, or snack, especially among Jews on the eastern coast of North America. It is usually served with rye bread or crackers.
Stuffed cabbage, also known as the "cabbage roll" is also a European Jewish dish that emerged out of more impoverished times for Jews. Because having a live cow was more valuable than to eat meat in the Middle Ages, Jews used fillers such as breadcrumbs and vegetables to mix with ground beef. This gave the effect of more meat that was stuffed into the cabbage leaves.
Sweets and confections
Teiglach, traditionally served on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, consists of little balls of dough (about the size of a marble) drenched in a honey syrup. Ingberlach are ginger candies shaped into small sticks or rectangles.
In Europe, jellies and preserves made from fruit juice were used as pastry filling or served with tea. Among the poor, jelly was reserved for invalids, hence the practice of reciting the Yiddish saying Alevay zol men dos nit darfen (May we not have occasion to use it) before storing it away.
Because it was easy to prepare, made from inexpensive ingredients and contained no dairy products, compote became a staple dessert in Jewish households throughout Europe and was considered part of Jewish cuisine.
Tzimmes consists generally of cooked vegetables or fruits, sometimes with meat added. The most popular vegetable is the carrot (mehren tzimes), which is sliced. Turnips were also used for tzimmes, particularly in Lithuania. In southern Russia, Galicia, and Romania tzimmes was made of pears, apples, figs, prunes or plums (floymn tzimes).
Kreplach, similar to Russian "pelmeni" are ravioli-like dumplings are made from flour and eggs mixed into a dough, rolled into sheets, cut into squares and then filled with finely chopped, seasoned meat or cheese. They are most often served in soup, but may be fried. Kreplech are eaten on various holidays, among them Purim and Hosha'na Rabbah.
Sephardi and Mizrahi
The exact distinction between traditional Sephardic and Mizrahi cuisines can be difficult to make, due to the intermingling of the Sephardi diaspora and the Mizrahi Jews who they came in contact with. As a general rule, however, both types reflect the food of the local non-Jewish population that each group lived amongst. The need to preserve kashrut does lead to a few significant changes (most notably, the use of pareve olive oil instead of fleishig animal fat is often considered to be a legacy of Jewish residency in an area). Despite this, Sephardic and Ashkenazic concepts of kosher differ; perhaps the most notable difference being that rice, a major staple of the Sephardic diet, is considered kosher for Passover but is forbidden kitniyot for most Ashkenazim.
Sephardic cuisine in particular is known for its considerable use of vegetables unavailable to the Ashkenazim of Europe, including spinach, artichokes, pine nuts, and (in more modern times) squash. The cooking style is largely Middle Eastern, with significant admixtures of Spanish, Italian, and North African flavors.
Shabbat and holiday dishes
Good food is an important part of the mitzvah of "oneg Shabbat" ("enjoying Shabbat"). Hence much of Jewish cuisine revolves around Shabbat.
As observant Jews do not cook on Shabbat, various techniques were developed to provide for a hot meal on Shabbat day. One such dish is "cholent" or "chamin," a slow-cooked stew of meat, potatoes, beans and barley (although there are many other variations). The ingredients are placed in a pot and put up to boil before lighting the candles on Friday night. Then the pot is placed on a hotplate, traditional "blech" (thin tin sheet used to cover the flames, and on which the pot is placed), or in a slow oven and left to simmer until the following day.
A prominent feature of Shabbat cookery is the preparation of twists of bread, known as "challahs" or (in southern Germany, Austria and Hungary) "barches." They are often covered with seeds to represent manna, which fell in a double portion on the sixth day.
Another Shabbat dish is calf's foot jelly, called p'tsha or šaltiena in Lithuania and galarita, galer, galleh,or fisnoge in Poland. Beef or calf bones are put up to boil with water, seasonings, garlic and onions for a long time. It is then allowed to cool. The broth then jells into a semi-solid mass, which is served in cubes. Drelies, a similar dish originating in south Russia and Galicia is mixed with soft-boiled eggs and vinegar when removed from the oven, and served hot. In Romania it is called piftie, in Serbia pihtije; it is served cold, with garlic, hard boiled eggs and vinegar sauce or mustard creme and considered a traditional dish in the winter season.
Kugel is another Shabbat favorite, particularly lokshen kugel, a sweet baked noodle pudding, often with raisins and spices. Non-sweet kugels may be made of potatoes, carrots or a combination of vegetables.
Traditional noodles—lokshen—are made from a dough of flour and eggs rolled into sheets and then cut into long strips. If the dough is cut into small squares, it becomes farfel. Both lokshen and farfel are usually boiled and served with soup.
On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, a variety of symbolic foods are eaten:
- Apples and honey—for a sweet year
- Round Challah (for Ashkenazi Jews)
- Tzimmes (for Ashkenazi Jews)
- Teiglach (for Ashkenazi Jews)
- Honey cake
- Pomegranates – for a year of many blessings (as many as there are seeds in a pomegranate). Also pomegranates are popular on this holiday because the number of seeds in the fruit—613—is the number of mitzvot[commandments] in the Torah[dubious ].
- Fish, with head, for a successful year in which we are the "head," not the "tail."
Yom Kippur is a fast day. The pre-fast meal, called seuda hamafseket, usually consists of foods that are digested slowly and are not highly spiced, to make fasting easier and prevent thirst.
It is customary to eat foods fried in oil to celebrate Chanukkah. Eating dairy products was a custom in medieval times.
- Latkes—Potato pancakes (may be topped with sour cream or applesauce) (Ashkenazi food)
- Sufganiyot- Jelly doughnuts (in Israel)
- Hamantaschen - triangular pastries traditionally filled with poppy seeds or prunes
Passover celebrates The Exodus from Egypt where it is said the Jewish people left so quickly, there was no time for their bread to rise. Commemorating this event, Jews eat matzo and abstain from bread, cakes and other foods made with yeast and leavening agents. In modern times, rabbinical authorities permit the use of chemical leavening, such as baking powder. Matzo is a staple food during the holiday and used as an ingredient of many Passover dishes. Kneidlach (matzo ball) soup is traditional. Fish is coated with matzo meal before frying, and cakes and puddings are made with potato starch and matzo meal. Jewish cooks use both matzo meal and potato starch for pastries during Passover. Whisked whole eggs or egg whites are frequently used to make pastries without leavening agents, such as angel and sponge cakes (potato starch replacing cake flour) and coconut and almond macaroons.
Passover foods vary distinctly between Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities. Ashkenazim exclude rice, while it is served by Sephardim. Matzo is traditionally prepared from water and flour only, but there are other varieties, such as egg matzo, which may also contain fruit juice. At the seder, it is customary in some communities, particularly among strictly Orthodox Jews, to use handmade shmura matzo, which has undergone particularly strict kashrut supervision.
The exclusion of leaven from the home has forced Jewish cooks to be creative, producing a wide variety of Passover dishes that use matzo meal and potato as thickeners. Potato flour is largely used in cakes along with finely ground matzo meal and nuts.
Popular Ashkenazi dishes are matzo brei (crumbled matzo with grated onion, fried with scrambled egg), matzo latkes (pancakes) and chremslach (also called crimsel or gresjelies; matzo meal fritters). Wined matzo kugels (pudding) have been introduced into modern Jewish cooking. For thickening soups and sauces at Passover fine matzo meal or potato flour is used instead of flour: for frying fish or cutlets, a coating of matzo meal and egg, and for stuffing, potatoes instead of soaked bread.
"Noodles" may be made by making pancakes with beaten eggs and matzo meal which, when cooked, are rolled up and cut into strips. They may be dropped into soup before serving. Matzo kleys(dumplings) are small balls made from suet mixed with chopped fried onions, chopped parsley, beaten egg, and seasonings, dropped into soup and cooked.
Dairy foods are traditionally eaten on Shavuot.
Tisha B'av is a fast day, preceded by nine days when Jews traditionally do not eat meat, except on Shabbat. Thus dairy and vegetarian dishes are prepared during this time of year. The meal before the fast (the seudat mafseket) also consists of dairy foods and usually contains dishes made from lentils and eggs, both ancient Jewish symbols of mourning. Some Ashkenazi Jews eat hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with ashes to symbolize mourning.
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- Appetizing store
- Cuisine of Israel
- Cuisine of the Sephardic Jews
- Cuisine of the Mizrahi Jews
- Jewish vegetarianism
- List of Jewish cuisine dishes
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- Sometimes translated as purgative
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