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Jewish Cooking - Foods of the Diaspora


by Diana Viola with Elinoar Moore

To speak of Jewish food and Jewish cooking is to speak of a complex subject.  We speak of the Jewish Diaspora as if it were singular, but, in fact, there has been more than one. Like opening a large box, only to find a second, a third, a fourth, nestled one inside another, Diaspora led to Diaspora. In this complex network, Jewish cooking developed, adapting to the cuisines of countries around the world, using the foodstuffs of those countries while maintaining respect for the rules of kashrut or what so many call 'kosher.' Jewish food is varied, Jewish cooking is global.

In the land of Judah, diet was dictated by biblical commands which have been sustained through the years. We call them kosher laws and they have been maintained in every country where Jewish peoples have lived. They are complex laws, but helped to shape the way the Jewish peoples ate, even as they adapted to the available foodstuffs of every country.

To talk about Jewish cooking and food we must understand the history. In biblical times, the temple evolved to be central in Jewish life. Despite the subjugation inflicted on the tribes of Judah by invaders and conquerors,we date the beginning of the Diaspora to the year 70 BC. The Jewish peoples began their wanderings and in subsequent centuries scattered north to the German states and were known as Ashkenazi Jews, as well as to Spain where they were called Sephardic Jews. In a few instances, a city might be settled by both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. Venice is one example.  Jewish food is therefore Ashkenazy or Shephardic food.

Before the Diaspora, however, there was a community living in Rome, the oldest continual Jewish settlement in the history of Europe, always part of the cultural landscape, always living in isolation of one kind or another.  Jewish food was and is Roman food.  Today, within the world of Jews in Italy, there are several smaller worlds: those of the native Italian Jews, of the Sephardim driven out of Spain, and of the Ashkenazim moving down from Germany and Eastern Europe. Italian food prevails and Jewish food remains Roman food.

Sephardic Jewish Food and Cooking

Sepharad is the Hebrew word for the Iberian peninsula that includes Spain and Portugal. Jewish cooking would need to adapt to these circumstances.Jews lived in Spain long before the Visigoth (Germanic) tribes invaded in 412, however after the Moorish invasion of Spain in 700, there was a large influx of Jews immigrating to Spain. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, Spanish Judaism flourished under Muslim rule, producing poets, scholars, and courtiers - what is known as "the golden age of Jewry." By the mid-thirteenth century, however, the Christians controlled all of the Peninsula except for a small area from Granada to the Mediterranean. In March, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decreed the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Many Jews converted or left while others went to Portugal, where Judaism could still be practiced freely. But Portugal expelled its Jews in 1497, and the tiny kingdom of Navarre followed suit in 1498. Judaism could be practiced openly nowhere in the Peninsula. Driven from home, the Sephardim established their own congregations in such places as Morocco, Italy, Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, the Land of Israel, and elsewhere.

With plenty of herbs and sometimes generous use of spices, Sephardic Jewish cooking is aromatic. They use a lot of lemon, garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, cumin with turmeric and more. Sephardic Jews are known for their love of cooking vegetables, from salads to vegetables stuffed with fragrant meat and rice, and pies or Burekas which often have feta cheese, spinach, or potato fillings. Sephardic Jews from Morocco and other North African countries enjoy cumin, ginger, and saffron & chilies. Jewish cooks from the eastern end of the Mediterranean have adapted their food and cooking as well and make heavy use of cinnamon in their cooking, so much that they use it as a savory accent for meat dishes The kebabs, pilafs and dolmades (stuffed vegetables) of Turkish Jewish cooking are still some of the most recognizable Sephardic dishes. Fruits, vegetables, spices, and grains were plentiful in the Mediterranean climate, and thus plant foods figured heavily into Sephardic Jewish cooking.

Ashkenazi Jewish Cooking

Ashkenazi is a traditional Hebrew word for Germany, and in particular refers to the area along the Rhine where the allemani tribe once lived. Their language is the familiar Yiddish - a mix of German and Hebrew. Once again, the history is complex, and we see Jewish cooking of a vastly different nature. Welcomed, even exploited, for their talents, the Ashkenazi Jews flourished throughout Europe until the Crusades, though always as a separate and somewhat isolated group. Expelled from France and England in the 11th and 12th century, the Ashkenazi came to live in countries such as Poland and Hungary, as well as some areas of Russia. In this complex history, it is safe to assert that in general, Jews would be welcomed by a country only to be later reviled. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization to arrive at a core attitude.

Ashkenazi cooks prefer seasonings rather than a large number of herbs and spices. Sweet and sour stews of meat and vegetables are another form of Jewish cooking in the Ashkenazi style. To create the sweet and sour effect, cooks use sugar, honey, or raisins tempered with vinegar or lemon juice. They employ this flavoring technique for soups and meatless dishes as well.  This is a sweeter Jewish form of cooking.

Because the Ashkenazi emigrated to the United States in such vast numbers, most people think of Ashkenazi cooking as all Jewish cooking. Here we find the knishes, the kugels, the tsimmes, the cholent. But it must be remembered that Jewish people cooked the food of the country they lived in, their only alteration a respect for kosher laws.

Israeli Cooking - A Food Mosaic

"The Israeli table is composed of all the dishes from around the globe where Jews have been and still are. New ways of preparing old recipes combined with the ability to adopt new ingredients to old dishes, alters the dish for contemporary Israel. To these cooking styles and more, Jews from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Yemen etc., have each made unique contributions to the national table. All Arabic countries have more or less the same dishes only sometimes different names and adding this or that herb or spice. It has such an influence on Israeli table that even the original names stayed the same." Elinoar Moore

Jewish Recipes:





click to read about the cookoff


Schweitzer, Frederick M., A History of the Jews Since the First Century A.D., (New York, The Macmillan Company 1971).

Gerber, Jane S., The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, (New York, The Free Press, 1994).

Davis, Robert C. and Ravid, Benjamin, Eds., The Jews of Early Modern Venice, (John Hopkins University Press, 2001).

Vogelstein, Hermann, Rome (The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1941).




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