What makes Jewish food Jewish?
After eight days you cut the end off of it.
(Sorry, I went to a bris yesterday.)
Jewish Food: The Gateway Brisket
Certainly, many people’s introduction to the Jewish community involves food: a Passover seder, a Jewish wedding or a bar mitzvah celebration, or someone bringing you matzah ball soup when you have a cold. You’ll scarcely find a gathering of Jewish people without food present. Even Yom Kippur, our traditional day of fasting and atonement, end with a feast to break the fast.
There are lots of foods we associate with Jewish holidays, of course, but today I want to answer the question:
What makes food Jewish?
Keepin’ It Kosher
Of course, there’s more to Jewish food than the religious dietary laws, but it helps to understand the the basics of kashrut (ritual appropriateness, rules of keeping kosher) as this has a big impact on the development of our distinctive cuisine through the ages.
Two principal elements of kashrut that affect Jewish cuisine:
- Restriction on the species of animals fit for eating
- Separation of meat and dairy
First, the animals we do eat:
- Mammals with a split hoof that chew their cud, such as cows, sheep, and goats
- Fish that have both fins and scales, like salmon, tuna, and carp
- Birds that are, by and large, not predators or scavengers, such as chickens, turkeys, and ducks
That’s quite a lot of animals we can eat! But there are some common animals people eat worldwide that we don’t eat, most famously pork and shellfish.
Bakin’ without Bacon
So as popular as it has become, you won’t see a lot of bacon in traditional Jewish recipes, and if you’re at a fancy party, you’re more likely to see hors d’oeuvres of smoked salmon than, say, bacon-wrapped scallops or shrimp cocktail.
Second, based on three appearances in the Torah of the phrase, “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”…Well, we crank that up to eleven and refrain from cooking any kind of meat in any kind of milk.
“But chickens don’t give milk!” you may protest.
Yeah, I know, sorry. Cranked to eleven.
This means that you won’t see a kosher restaurant serving cheeseburgers or pepperoni pizza. Much of classical French cuisine, in which chefs cook a lot of meat in a butter-based sauces, is right out. My favorite
But with all these rules about what we can’t eat, how did we come up with things like matzah balls, latkes, lox, and cholent?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Since the Babylonian exile (586 BCE), and possibly well before, not all Jewish people have lived in one place. From the Holy Land, we’ve spread out across the middle east, around the Mediterranean Sea into northern Africa and southern Europe, across Europe from Ireland to Siberia, and throughout Asia and the Americas. At every place we’ve stopped long enough to settle, we have adapted the local fare through the filter of our dietary laws.
In places where cooking with lard (usually from pork) was popular, we adapted by cooking with rendered chicken fat (also known as schmaltz).
In places in America where lots of Jews live, it’s easy to find a good hamburger. Just don’t order a bacon cheeseburger. 🙂
Jewish food from Morocco tends to be spicier than Jewish food from Lithuania, but then, everybody’s food in Morocco is spicier than in Lithuania.
I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the Maccabees did not have latkes at the first Hanukkah celebration: These fried potato pancakes likely originated in the mid-1800’s when a series of crop failures in Poland and Ukraine led to the mass planting of potatoes, a cheap and easy crop to grow.
Which brings me to another feature of traditional Jewish food: It tends to be what poor people ate.
The Cuisine of Poverty
Throughout our history in diaspora, various restrictions on Jews’ earning a living have been in place. In Europe in the middle ages, we couldn’t own property to farm or join craft guilds to do artisanal work; Jews found themselves relegated to the fringes of the economy in the merchant trades or, occasionally, moneylending. Certainly a few did very well for themselves, but most folks were broke and getting by on what we could find that was local and cheap, while keeping to the dietary laws as best we could.
I don’t know if this is how it started, but matzah ball soup is a great use of both leftover chicken parts AND all that matzah meal left over after Passover.
Gefilte fish, another delicacy likely originating in eastern Europe, is a dish made of poached ground fish. It is traditionally made from a white fish like carp, because carp used to be one of the cheapest fish you could buy. Now, more and more, we are seeing pink versions made from salmon. Thanks to factory farming, salmon (once considered a luxury) are now among the cheapest fish you can buy.
Cooking Follows Observance, Part Two
Another reason gefilte fish became so popular is because it is made from fish that has been deboned, ground, and then cooked. Observant Ashkenazi (northern and eastern European) Jews favored this dish on Shabbat, because picking the bones out of fish while you eat is violates Shabbat restrictions on borer, or sorting. So in addition to our dietary laws, Jewish food has also evolved in keeping with our laws of Shabbat.
Another delicious example of this: Cholent.
Cholent is a kind of stew that is made to be eaten on Shabbat, though you might find some people who have it other days of the week. Its ingredients vary by local custom – spicier in north Africa, potatoey-er in Siberia – but the cooking methods are largely the same: All the ingredients are put in a sealed pot that is placed by a heat source that will cook it slowly. While we traditionally don’t cook during Shabbat, it’s okay to start cooking something before Shabbat, as long as you don’t fool with the dish or its heat source during Shabbat.
Nowadays, this dish is easiest to make with a slow-cooking crockpot or something similar. I think it became so popular across the Jewish world, with a variety of different flavor profiles native to its locale, because it’s a great way to get a hot meal on Shabbat afternoon, while observing not only the dietary laws, but also keeping with the spirit (and law) of Shabbat.
Jewish Food in a Nutshell
So there you have an overview of Jewish food, which I would summarize as: Food Jews can afford, in keeping with Jewish laws, wherever Jews happen to live.
I may share some of individual recipes soon; we’re starting to see a number of students post recipes in the community forum of The Jewcurious School, and of course, I have some family favorites, like my wife’s challah and my own special hummus recipe.
What are your favorite Jewish foods? I’m hungry to find out! Let me know in the comments below.