Living Torah

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

Welcome to the delicious world of Jewish cuisine and traditional Shabbat foods!

Jewish cuisine is a collection of the different cooking traditions of the Jewish Diaspora worldwide. It is a cuisine that has evolved over many centuries, shaped by Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), as well as Shabbat and holiday traditions. It has been influenced by the economics, agriculture, and culinary traditions of the many countries where Jews have settled throughout the Diaspora. Just like there are many diverse Jewish communities, such as Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Arab, Indian, and Asian, there are many different styles of cuisine. Furthermore, since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and particularly since the late 1970s, an Israeli cuisine has developed, adopting and adapting to elements of all the aforementioned Jewish styles.

Ashkenazi and Sefardic Cuisine: What’s the Difference?

The hearty cuisine of Ashkenazi Jews is based on centuries of living in the cold climate of Central and Eastern Europe, while the lighter, “sunnier” cuisine of Sefardic Jews is affected by life in the Mediterranean region. Each Jewish community has its traditional dishes, often revolving around specialties from their home country. In Mediterranean countries, olives are a common ingredient, and many foods are fried in oil. The idea of frying fish in the stereotypically British “fish and chips” dish, for example, was introduced to Britain by Sephardic Jewish immigrants. In Germany, stews were popular. The Jews of the Netherlands specialized in pickles, herring, butter cakes, and bolas (jamrolls).  In Poland, Jews made various kinds of stuffed and stewed fish along with kneidelach (matzo ball) soup or lokshen (noodles). In North Africa, Jews eat couscous and tagine, a stew-like dish cooked in an earthenware pot.

As mentioned, most of the dishes cooked by Ashkenazi Jews resembled cuisine indigenous to the Eastern European nations in which they dwelled. Substitutions were made to accommodate the kosher dietary laws. Hence, dishes which call for pork are made with veal or chicken, chicken fat (or, more modernly, hydrogenated vegetable oil such as Crisco) is used in place of lard. Having been expelled from Western Europe in the Middle Ages, Jews were forced to live in poverty and thus, were limited in terms of ingredients. Dishes were made with more sparse components; they weren’t heavily spiced and ingredients that were more flavorful had to be used sparingly. This is often why some dishes in Ashkenazi cuisine are known for being blander than dishes in Sephardic or Mizrahi cuisine. As a general rule, specifically “Jewish” dishes were only prepared in honor of religious and ceremonial occasions.

How Does Jewish Food Become a Mitzvah?

Good food is an important part of the mitzvah of “oneg Shabbat” (“enjoying Shabbat”). Hence much of Jewish cuisine revolves around Shabbat. Thus, a traditional Shabbat meal for Ashkenazi Jews might include roast beef, pot roast, or chicken, served with carrots tzimmes and potatoes. A traditional Shabbat meal for Sephardi Jews would focus more on salads, stuffed vine leaves, couscous and other Middle Eastern specialties.

With kosher meat not always available, fish became an important staple of the Jewish diet. In Eastern Europe it was sometimes especially reserved for Shabbat. As fish is not considered meat in the same way that beef or poultry are, it can also be eaten with dairy products (although some Sefardim do not mix fish and dairy). Even though fish is pareve, when they are served at the same meal, Orthodox Jews will eat them during separate courses, and wash (or replace) the dishes in between. The combination of lox (smoked salmon) with bagels and cream cheese is a traditional breakfast or brunch in American Jewish cuisine, made famous at New York delicatessens.

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Jewish food has developed over thousands of years, influenced by the diverse cultures and cooking from Jewish communities around the globe. As more and more Jews return to their Jewish homeland in Israel, new and exciting twists to traditional Jewish food come with them.

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