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
Israeli Cooking - A Food
"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
Schweitzer, Frederick M., A History
of the Jews Since the First Century A.D., (New York, The Macmillan
Gerber, Jane S., The Jews of
Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, (New York, The Free
Davis, Robert C. and Ravid, Benjamin,
Eds., The Jews of Early Modern Venice, (John Hopkins University
Vogelstein, Hermann, Rome
(The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1941).