Whilst living and travelling in eastern Europe I always try to make an effort to taste some of the foods on offer. I have already reviewed Polish food and today I would like to review Jewish food which traditionally has a rich culinary heritage. Jewish food has influenced Polish, German, Lithuanian and Russian cuisine over the centuries due to the fact that Jews have moved around the globe. They have moved from country to country, taking their customs and cooking pots with them. The result is that Jewish cuisine is enormously varied. Observant Jews have always kept to rigid rules set down in the Old Testament about what they can and can't eat. So wherever they settled they found new foods and adapted them to compliment the dishes they already knew. There are two distinct Jewish groups: one is Sephardi (broadly from the Mediterranean, the Middle and Far East), the other is Ashkenazi (from France, Germany, Russia and eastern Europe). Sephardi foods include ingredients more frequently found in Southern European countries - Spain, Italy or Greece - olive oil, vegetable or meat-stuffed peppers and aubergines, combined with exotic Middle Eastern fare, such as spicy rice from Iraq and sweet syrupy pastries from Turkey. Ashkenazi dishes feature heavier fare, ideal for the cold winters of eastern Europe: dumplings, soups, pulses, stews, hearty desserts and filling breads. This productive synthesis of culinary traditions is what makes Jewish cooking a unique and exciting experience.
If you have ever tried cooking the Jewish way then you will know that it can be rewarding, nourishing and enjoyable. Eating is a social occasion, a time for family and friends to come together and share one of life's great pleasures. There are many causes for celebrations and festivals during the Jewish calendar where food assumes a central role - Passover, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) or Barmitzvah - all are celebrated with eating and drinking.
Food is a vital part of the Jewish cultural and religious tradition. The end of week celebration is called the Shabbat, or the Sabbath. Each Friday and Saturday, the whole family comes together over long and delicious meals. Work is not allowed on Sabbaths or festivals. Since cooking is considered work - however enjoyable - everything has to be prepared beforehand. So cooks have devised recipes that can be made before Friday evening or left to cook slowly overnight for lunch the next day. For both meals, the table is set with a fine white cloth and the best china and glass. There is always wine and plaited white loves called challah. The classic Shabbat dish would have been a large stuffed fish, but in hard times inventive cooks adapted the dish to Gefilte Fish Balls, small balls of chopped fish now served at the beginning of a meal. The best known Shabbat dish is called cholent, which is a large casserole full of meat, vegetables and a combination of beans, barley. chickpeas or potatoes. Designed for overnight cooking, it is a perfect all-in-one dish.
Another important festival is Passover. The seder, or special meal, is eaten to symbolise the 'passing over' of the Israelites when God ordered the death of the first born Egyptian sons, in biblical times. No leavened breads, cereals, biscuits or flour are eaten during this time, Unleavened bread is eaten instead, and nut cakes and dumplings are specially made. Other important festivals include Rosh Hashanah or New Year, when honey cakes are eaten in hope that the coming year will be sweet. These are eaten in Poland on New Year's Eve also.
The main rules observed in Jewish cuisine originate in the strict dietary laws or Kashrut (from which the word "kosher" comes), laid down in the Old Testament. Forbidden ingredients include camel, hare, pig, shellfish, snails, monkfish, prawns, lobster, eels, octopus, birds of prey, any part of an "unclean" animal, or an animal that has not been killed humanely.
Meat dishes must not be mixed with dairy products eiher in a dish or immediately after each other - so creamy sauces with chicken, for instance, are forbdden, as is cheese after a meat dish, and coffee must be served black. However, dairy products can be mixed with fish dishes. If you ever have to prepare food for observant Jewish friends or colleagues it is advisable to read the labels and packaging carefully, or opt for vegetarian dishes only. Many animal fats, gelatine and stocks contain pork-based products. On one occasion, I remember, preparing dinner for some friends of my husband's. He had forgotten to mention that one of the guests was Jewish so I prepared a pork and sultana casserole amongst other things. Just as it was nicely bubbling away in the oven - about 60 minutes before the guests were due to arrive, I received a call to say, 'I hope you haven't cooked anything with pork in - as one of the guy's is Jewish.' I am sure you can imagine my words of exclamation - they were not joyous! Because of the strict seperation between milk and meat, observant Jews keep seperate utensils, so it is not uncommon to find two sets of crockery, saucepans and cutlery in the kitchen of a Jewish home.
To balance the outlay in kitchen tools, Jewish dishes are often based on inexpensive ingredients such as grains, pulses and vegetables. There are many one-pot dishes that use barley, noodles and lentils, which stretch a long way. Nuts are also widely used - ground and used instead of flour, added to stuffings, toasted,or used to decorate fruit puddings or delicious salads.
Below is a selection of my favourite Jewish Dishes I love to eat and to cook:
Matzo - this is a flat cracker made of flour and water and is quite hard in texture. I eat these all the time with cheese on as I don't like other crackers in Poland - they are too greasy and high in fat content.
Barley Soup - You have to remember that eastern European winters are bitterly cold so traditional soups like this one often contained a mixture of filling ingredients such as beans, lentils and barley and meats such as beef or lamb.
Falafel - A typical street food in Israel, hot, crispy falafel are served in warm pitta bread. They make an excellent starter or buffet dish. I personally love them between two slices of bread and placed in the toastie machine.
Hummus - Traditionally served with falafel, this chick-pea and sesame seed dip is also good with matzo crackers or raw vegetables. You can buy hummus in nearly all supermarkets and health shops now but it is easy to make your own and if you do you can make large quantities and can be frozen.
Beef Cholent with Beans and Hamin Eggs - There are many different versions of this classic, slow cooked casserole. This ome has the addition of whole eggs. which are cooked in their shells.
Gefilte Fish - There are two ways of cooking this popuar fish, either by poaching or frying. It is eaten at the sabbath meal, and often made as a starter to accompany cholent. This dish was created in hard times as a cheap alternative to an expensive whole fish. A variety of fish can be used such as bream, haddock and cod.
Tabbouleh - A salad that actually improves if it is made the day before. The bulgur or cracked wheat, is uncooked and absorbs the moisture and flavour of the vegetables and dressing.
Spiced Rice - Rice is an important staple in Jewish cookery. It is served for both everyday meals and festivals. Spices, nuts and dried fruits are used here to make simple, boiled rice into a special dish, which can be eaten hot or cold.
Date Bread - Dates have been used in cooking since ancient times. Dried fruits have a natural sweetness, so this loaf needs no added sugar.
Challah - One of my favourite breads - challah loaves are traditionally served at sabbath meals and feasts.
Fruit Tree Pie - A pie for Tu B'Shva, a celebration at the end of winter, when the almond trees blossom in Israel.
Cocounut Pyramids - I used to make these with my dad when I was a kid. I didn't know then that they were a Jewish speciality. Cocounut is a traditional passover ingredient for cakes, biscuits and pastries, They are sold piled high on Israeli street market stalls. In Poland this Jewish influence has been left behind as coconut is present in lots of biscuits and cakes here.
Well that's my review over. I think there should be at least one dish on the list that most people will find enjoyable. I can't say I have ever tried camel and probably never will but I think on the whole Jewish cuisine is varied and very simple to cook. As for Jewish restaurants we only have 2 in the whole of Warsaw which I find incredible but there are many in Lithuiania, Bulgaria and Czech Republic and I am sure there are lots in various areas of London and other UK cities, so when you are next out and about why not give Jewish food a try.