With all the heavy topics we’ve been covering lately, it’s definitely time for a light post. Um, thematically, that is.
For awhile I was tortured by brisket. Not as in heartburn, but in trying to figure out how it became a Jewish food. I posted it on Facebook, with not much info forthcoming. From there I wondered about rugelach, knishes, and matza ball soup. So I hereby present to you what I have learned. Turns out some Jewish food is seriously, spiritually Jewish; some peripherally Jewish; and some barely Jewish. Note: this list is specific to Ashkenazic eating, since it’s what I know. I’d love your input on Sephardic foods. Here’s what I know, in reverse order of Jewishness:
The Barely Jewish
What’s up with the ubiquitous Kosher Pickle? Turns out that pickling your food was a highly common practice in Eastern Europe, by Jews and non-Jews alike. But Jews discovered a great use for the pickled cucumber and imported it to the shores of NY marketed in just that way: as a palate cleanser while eating the highly tasty (and fatty) cuts of deli meats they favored. As such, the Jewish/”kosher” pickle became a fixture on the Lower East Side, to the point where Heinz made the marketing decision to brand their pickles kosher so they’d sell (even though pretty much all pickles are kosher).
Sorry, folks, there’s nothing Jewish about a knish. It’s a Russian food that Jews – once again – imported, popularized, and marketed on the street corners of the Lower East Side. And boy, is it good.
I could find absolutely no info about how rugelach became a Jewish food. Ah, well. I still highly recommend them. Especially the ones from the shuk in Jerusalem, warm and fresh out of the oven…mmmmm. But I digress.
4. Hummus, pita, falafel
Speaking of Israel, I am equally sorry to inform you that hummus, pita, and falafel are not Jewish at all. More middle-Eastern. More Lebanese, actually. But go ahead and indulge, if it makes you happy.
The Peripherally Jewish
I am going to out this Jewish food right here, right now. For those of you that haven’t yet noticed, mandelbroit is nothing more or less than Italian biscotti. Sorry! I know, it’s like the end of the Wizard of Oz. Turns out Jewish travelers from Eastern Europe went traveling and discovered this pastry in Italy. They immediately sniffed out the Jewish benefits: one, it was made without butter – and hence, was pareve – a big perk in kosher dining, especially for special occasions such as Shabbat and holidays when meat or chicken were usually served. Secondly, and this I’m making up, they last forever. Because, actually, they’re stale to begin with. So they brought it back to the shtetl, called it “almond bread” – or mandelbroit in Yiddish. Voila! A Jewish pastry is born.
This is a pasta, not dissimilar to couscous, that you will routinely find in the kosher aisle of your local grocery store. It became customary to eat this with Shabbat dinner, since its name is similar to the Yiddish “farfallen,” which means “it’s over with, it’s fallen already.” This was to remind ourselves that once Shabbat begins, the problems, decisions, and stresses of the week are to fall away.
3. Matza ball soup
Ah, that fixture of Jewish cooking. First let’s talk about the matza balls. Clearly, this custom began on Passover, when we were looking for just about anything that could be prepped with that bane of Jewish eating: the matza (also to be inexplicably found in your local grocery kosher aisle year-round, possibly due it’s always/never getting stale…see mandelbroit). In any event, matza balls must’ve been such a hit and as such spread (no pun intended) to the rest of the year’s menu. What about the soup it is featured in? Let’s call it what it is: chicken soup. It’s obvious what’s Jewish about chicken soup: chicken is kosher, so let’s start there. Many Jews in Eastern Europe could not afford meat, but it didn’t take much in the way of finances or property to buy some chickens and let’s face it, soup is the best method to make a little go a long way. Hence, chicken soup: a Jewish staple, and the perfect backdrop to those fluffy matza balls, also called by the Yiddish kneidlach (literally, “little kneaded things”).
4. Brisket, pastrami, and the Jewish deli
Brisket IS Jewish, after all. Here’s why: it turns out that not all cuts of beef are kosher. Jews don’t eat the hindquarters of the animal due to the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of Esau (yes, Jews believe in angels) and his thigh being dislocated in the process. Thus, states the Torah, a Jew is not to partake of the animal’s hindquarter. Brisket is from the front of the animal and as such is kosher (some are more kosher than others, cough, cough).
Pastrami on rye – Jewish? Well, pastroma
is a Romanian/Yiddish word for salted brisket cuts – and the Jews,
again, imported and popularized this cut of meat. They also changed the
name to “pastrami” to be similar to the Italian “salami.” What was
Jewish about it? It was from a kosher animal, and a kosher cut, to
boot. Why did Jews keep delis in the first place? There were some
kinds of foods (in the technologically simpler age) that one could buy
universally – fish, baked goods, produce – but kosher meat was not one
of them. The Jews always had to manage that one themselves. Hence,
Jews opened delis to provide their own meat, and it quickly became the
equivalent of the Irish pub: a place where Jews could gather, talk
Jewish talk, catch up on Jewish news, and just hang out and be Jewish.
To this day, the “Jewish deli” is a fixture – but make sure your
kosher-style deli is not serving you ham (which is neither kosher nor
kosher-style). As for rye, I have no idea.
5. Bagels and lox
Bagels were also a regionally Eastern European food, but became popular among the Jews for Saturday night consumption. It was a religious tradition to cook something new for Saturday night, pursuant to the belief that an “extra soul” was given to us for Shabbat, and departed on Saturday night, and thus, both to “console” ourselves on its departure, and to “escort out” its presence, a new food was cooked and eaten. Bagels may have become popular because it’s quicker than bread (if you prep the dough prior to Shabbat). And maybe the extras were readily available for Sunday morning – hence Sunday morning bagels! As for lox – again, the Jews of Eastern Europe discovered this from the Scandinavians, and considering it (and herring) came from kosher varieties of fish (salmon, carp), it instantly became a favorite. The way it was prepared was also ideal, since it didn’t need refrigeration. Some unknown person capped it off with a shmear of cream cheese, the immigrants made it famous in New York, and lo and behold, the bagel became synonymous with the Jew. Frighteningly, if you google bagels and Jews, expect to be hit with a boatload of virulently anti-semitic literature. It’s that iconic.
The Super Jewish
Kugel is a really, really good food. In High German it means “round things.” It started as kneaded dumplings and eventually morphed into the baked [insert insufficient translation here, such as pudding and casserole]. Word has it that it is similar to the Hebrew “k’igul” which means “like a circle,” and was intended to replicate the round manna (which is described in Torah sources as “round like a coriander seed”) which we celebrate on Shabbat. Hence, its centrality on Shabbat and holidays (and random Tuesdays when we’re in the mood…just sayin’). Why potato kugel specifically? No special reason other than… it was readily available in Eastern Europe. Now you can find recipes for all kinds of avant-garde kugel such as butternut squash, broccoli, strawberry and other random items more traditionally called “dessert.” But that’s the beauty of kugel. Mix it, bake it round, call it a kugel, and it’s a kugel. Check out www.www.joyofkosher.com for lots of awesome kugel ideas and recipes.
2. Gefilte fish
Guess what? The weird jarred stuff in the jelled broth is not up to par. But let’s discuss why it came to be Jewish. In halacha (Jewish law), there is a rule that on Shabbat one of the creative labors we refrain from is “sorting/organizing.” This would apply to eating fish, because you have to sort through the bones to eat the fish. So them Jews came up with an equally creative solution: grind them bones in with the fish, and cook! Ha ha! Then you can pretend there aren’t any bones. Throw in a carrot and onion, and maybe you won’t even notice them! No sorting necessary. Now we got a little smarter: we eliminate the bones entirely, beef it up with a little matza meal/breadcrumbs, and cook. Me, I buy the frozen raw loaves and I actually bake it. It’s goooooood. And very halacha-compliant. Bon appetit.
3. Braided challah
What makes challah challah? The braiding, of course. A braid has many spiritually significant themes. Here’s one, lifted from aish.com: Part of the preparation for the Shabbat is engaging in melacha,
creative activity. Braiding is creative activity. The braid is a shape
that does not appear in nature. (Ficus trees are hand-braided.) It is a
shape that is made by humans and it is representative of the human
ability to manipulate the raw material of the world. Braiding the
challah strands helps us harness our creative capacities for the purpose
of observing the Shabbat. I love that.
4. And finally, stuffed cabbage and kreplach
While these foods aren’t inherently Jewy, but merely a regional favorite in Eastern Europe among Jews and non-Jews alike, they were incorporated into Jewish eating on special occasions such as Yom Kippur pre-fast meal; Purim dinner; and Simchat Torah, due to their “wrapped” construction. This was significant as it symbolized God’s hidden and concealed plan on those spiritual days.
What Jewish foods are your favorites? Do you know what’s Jewish about them? Most importantly, are you hungry yet?
Related posts: Read about cholent!