When Alana Newhouse invited suggestions from culinary experts, writers and historians for the “most Jewish” foods, some requested the resulting list was not too Ashkenazi, too Middle Eastern, or indeed too obscure.
“And one contributor was very specific and said: ‘If brisket’s not on there, I’ll kill you,” laughs Newhouse, editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine, of her diligently-researched and at-times suitably quirky guide to foods with Jewish significance.
The 100 Most Jewish Foods, which by the subtitle’s own admission is “a highly debatable list”, brings together a culinary kaleidoscope of dishes and recipes that evoke the history and culture of Jewish communities throughout the world.
“We didn’t want to do the 100 ‘most popular’ Jewish foods, which would have been so subjective as to be uninteresting,” explains Newhouse, who is based in New York.
“What we wanted to do was examine the role that food has played in the Jewish experience. We wanted to judge foods not by their culinary qualities or even their lasting power, but by how significant they were for Jews to eat them.”
Controversially perhaps, Newhouse includes an entry for “treyf” in the book, but she argues these forbidden foods have been just as significant as their kosher counterparts for Jews.
“Trying to imagine Jewish cuisine without it is like conceiving Harry Potter without Voldemort. The whole story of Jewish cuisine would be completely different if we didn’t have boundaries – they are what gave rise to the creativity of Jewish cuisine.”
Among the many foodie experts who contributed to the list are Israeli-English chef Yotam Ottolenghi, who describes sufganiyot as “a magnificent miracle of billowy lightness accentuated by a creamy or fruity filling” and fashion designer Zac Posen, who enjoys the “retro and unusual” balance of borscht.
Meanwhile, sex therapist Dr Ruth Westheimer appropriately chooses the pomegranate, which she notes is mentioned in the Bible as a symbol of fruitfulness.
Casting an eye over the selection, there is a plethora of dishes familiar to those of Eastern European extraction, from challah, chopped liver and chicken, to kneidls, pickles and cheesecake.
Schmaltz, once considered so valuable in the shtetls that it was secured in vessels with padlocks, was largely shunned in more recent decades over health concerns, but is now apparently enjoying a comeback, thanks to the renewed acceptance of saturated fats.
Readers will also enjoy learning about the more unusual selections on the list, including ptcha or jellied calves feet and eyerlekh, the eggs found inside a chicken, which contributor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes “solidify into the most delicate and delectable pale yellow yolks” when dropped into chicken soup.
Some are not dishes at all, but rather a whimsical selection that evoke a knowing smile, such as ‘leftovers’ or ‘used teabags’.
“That one actually has the best story,” laughs Newhouse, who recalls discovering one of her quirkiest entries while on a photo shoot of the 100 foods.
“I went off to make myself a cup of tea. Stephanie Butnick, the deputy editor, looks at me and says, ‘can you save me that teabag’? I said sure. And then someone else from across the room yelled, ‘leave it on the table for me’. We all looked at one another and realised our mothers and grandmothers had all done this. We had a shared experience. It was true for everyone, whether they were Ashkenazi or Sephardi.”
Problematically, the 100 foods had already been selected so Newhouse began wondering how the teabag could make it into the book. As it turned out, the team had actually miscounted and so there were only 99 foods on the table, not 100.
Newhouse quips: “Like some hilarious reverse Chanukah miracle, the teabag made it in!”
Away from the more familiar foods, the list also aims to expand people’s knowledge of Jewish cuisine from around the world.
For Newhouse, one of the more exotic dishes on the list is malida, a sweet porridge made from flattened rice cakes, which is festively decorated with fresh fruit and flowers, and emanates from India’s Bene Israel Jews.
Meanwhile, her own contribution to the book is her grandmother’s recipe for haminados, or Sephardic slow-cooked eggs.
No doubt some readers will be disappointed by the inclusion – or omission – of certain foods on the list, but Newhouse is certain the book will at least get everyone talking.
“The list is meant to be a conversation starter, not a conversation ender,” she smiles.
“What people will get is a sense of excitement about seeing their own favourites, while also hopefully learning more deeply about Jewish foods they knew little about.”
The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List by Alana Newhouse, editor in chief, Tablet Magazine, is published by Artisan priced £18.99. Available now
Serves 4 to 6
2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 bay leaf
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced lengthwise
1 large carrot, cut into ⅛-inch-thick (3-millimeter) coins
2 to 3 tablespoons (30 to 45 milliliters) water
2 medium beets, peeled, quartered, and sliced ⅛ inch (6 millimeters) thick
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
5 cups (1.2 liters) vegetable broth
About ¼ head cabbage, chopped into ½-inch (1.5-centimeter) pieces (2½ cups/170 grams)
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar, plus more to taste
Sour cream, for serving
Dill sprigs, for garnish
Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and stir to coat with the oil. Add the bay leaf, cover the saucepan, and cook until the onion is translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic, stir to combine, cover, and cook until softened, about 2 minutes.
Add the carrot and a pinch of salt and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrot starts to soften, 7 to 9 minutes—do not let the vegetables brown. Add 1 tablespoon (15 milliliters) of the water if the pan gets too dry.
Add the beets, ½ teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) water, and the pepper to the saucepan and stir to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beets start to soften, 10 to 15 minutes.
Add the broth, increase the heat to high, and bring the broth to a boil. Add the cabbage, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pan with the lid ajar, and simmer until the cabbage has softened completely, 20 to 25 minutes.
Add the vinegar. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding salt, pepper, and/or more vinegar if needed.
Ladle the hot soup into bowls, top with a spoonful of sour cream, and garnish with a sprig of fresh dill.
The soup will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
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