Warm Bagels and Apple Strudel
Let’s get the limitations over with straight away. In this book you will find no shellfish, no pork (only meat from animals ‘with cloven hooves that chew the cud’), no rare meat, no meat and dairy together, and no meat and fish together. Them’s the rules, or the kashrut, as Jewish dietary law is properly called.
Get past that and what you will find is something you perhaps wouldn’t expect from a humble cookbook: a history – an edible history – of an ethnic culture that stretches back six millennia. Of course, we’re not talking a deep hermeneutical insight into the Talmud here, but you may well be reminded of the apple illicitly munched by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or the ‘mess of pottage’ (probably red lentil stew, historians think) sold for his birthright by Jacob to his brother Esau. You’ll certainly find out why soups and stews have such a central role in Jewish cooking, why Jewish cooks are such past masters with chicken and just how symbolic much of Jewish food is.
This symbolism has roots in the Passover meal, which religiously observant Jewish people eat in memory of the Exodus, the time when the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. There’s the matzo, or unleavened bread, eaten to reflect the story that the Jews who were fleeing their persecutors left in such haste that they didn’t have time to allow their bread to rise. There’s also the sweet round challah loaves (for which there is an excellent recipe), which are said to represent the circle of life or, some argue, the Jews’ defiance of their Egyptian taskmasters. The circular bread symbolised their belief in one indivisible god; in contrast, the Egyptians are said to have eaten multi-cornered bread symbolising their belief in many gods). The symbolism goes beyond the Passover meal though. Hamantaschen (recipe included), for example, which is eaten on the festival of Purim. Translated as ‘Haman’s pockets’, hamantaschen hark back to the Persian vizier Haman, who plotted to annihilate all Jews living within the Persian empire.
Aside from the symbolic aspect, it’s the names of the foods that I love. Yiddish is full of brilliant words. I’ve always been tickled by words like ‘meshugena’ (‘crazy person) ‘shlemiel’ (‘fool’) and shmegegge’ (‘nonsense’). Now, thanks to Warm Bagels, my vocabulary has expanded with a fresh set of words for foods: ‘cholent’ (Sabbath stew), ‘knish’ (little pillow-soft pasties), ‘knaidlach’ (little dumplings), ‘kreplach’ (like ravioli) and ‘kugel’ (baked pudding). For all of these, there are recipes in the book.
The food itself is not groundbreaking, but neither does it claim to be. Nostalgia is at the heart of food writer Ruth Joseph’s endeavour here. Nostalgia for the food her mother (a classic balaboster - see the book’s glossary of terms), cooked for her as she was growing up. But the author does provide a few updates on Jewish staples. There's a Vietnamese pho-inspired chicken soup, or ‘Jewish penicillin’, for example. A good case is also made for arguing that much of Jewish cuisine is ‘on-trend’ anyway, with its emphasis on slow cooking well before there was a Slow Food movement, and its tendency to use rice, pulses, lean meat and fish.
There are some very good comfort soups: apart from the jazzed-up penicillin already mentioned, you’ll find watercress and baby leek, and butterbean and barley flavours, and of course borscht (both vegetable and meat versions). You can also depend on some very moreish slow-cooked stews, oxtail cholent (the Sabbath stew) and lamb goulash with gnocchi among them. Because of the law against meat from animals with cloven hooves, traditional Jewish cooks are experts with chicken. The turmeric poached chicken I made with basmati rice and zhug (a spicy sort of salsa verde originally from Yemen but now very popular in Israel), was a definite success. It tasted summery, super-healthy and full of flavour. This is not to forget the toothsome breads and pastries, from the pitta to the pretzel, the blini to the bagel, plus apfel strudel and apple pie, like mother (or should that be muter) used to make.
One point I noted when leafing through the book is that the culinary consequences of the diaspora are written into almost every page. After the exodus from Israel and the Jewish people’s dispersal around the globe, they divided into the Ashkenazis (who settled in Europe and Russia) and the Sephardis (who settled in the Middle East, Mediterranean and Asia). Just how many countries these exiled communities settled in is impressive, and one of the most positive things about this is that, over time it created a modern Jewish food culture that is possibly more diverse than any other. That you can get a sense of this, and enjoy the result, with a humble cookbook, is a reason to celebrate. Masel tov.
Warm Bagels and Apple Strudel is out now in hardback, priced at £25. Published by Kyle Books.
Written by: Darren Smith