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Traditions of Jewish Cookings

Jewish cooking traditions, stretching back nearly two thousand years, are based on a set of dietary laws established in Biblical times. These laws are the foundation on which all Jewish cooking is built, irrespective of the country in which the cook in living. Jewish cooking is, therefore, not like any single national cooking style.

The fascination of Jewish cookery is the way in which an enormous cookery repertoire has been created, with contributions from hosts of countries, while still retaining allegiance to the Jewish Dietary Laws. The great variety in Jewish cooking stems in part from the travels of Jewish communities from country to country in the Middle East, Asia Minor and Europe. Local ingredients were made use of and variations on familiar themes became distinctive dishes in their own right. The names of dishes varied according to the country of origin, ie.e. Russian, Polish, Spanish, or Middle Eastern.

In a way, the Jewish dietary laws limit the types of foods which may be eaten and the ways in which they can be used. For example, shellfish, fame birds and all pig products are forbidden, and milk and meat may not be cooked or eaten together. However, these restrictions (fully described in the summary of Jewish dietary laws below., allied as they are to a rich Jewish culture and life style, have had the reverse of a restrictive effect on this cooking tradition.

In fact, they have acted as a challenge to the ingenuity of hospitable Jewish housewives throughout the ages. As well as adapting traditional Jewish dishes to the available raw materials, such as vegetables, fruits, fish, in whichever country they were domiciled, the Jewish cooks took local indigenous dishes and made them distinctly 'Jewish' in character. For example, the Vienness 'Apple Strudle' is seen by many to be a Jewish dish, and 'Borscht', the Jewish beetroot soup, is now made without the meat stock of its Russian ancestor.

Jewish cooking is intimately tied to the Jewish religion. Because of the home-based nature of the Jewish religion, there is a universal interest in food and cookery, in home-produced (as opposed to shop-bought) food and a love for entertaining -- for a 'celebration' -- of which there are literally hundreds of tracitional occasions.

At certain periods of Jewish history, particularly at the times of the ghettos in Europe from the Middle Ages onwards, the majority of Jews lived as underprivileged poor. Poverty fostered ingenuity -- the talent of making a little food go a long way. That is why there is such a wide range of delicious stuffed dishes in the Jewish cooking tradition -- from Holishkes (cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat) to Gefilte Fish (stuffed carp). These dishes stretched expensive foods with cheap fillers, while retaining the flavour of the costly food. Now these cleverly devised dishes are the delicacies served on special occasions for festivale and celebrations.

When these 'poor' dishes were originated the Jewish housewife was rich in one commodity and that was time, so many of these dishes were laborious and time-consuming. Now, the canning and freezing industries make them optionally available to the modern housewife via the Kisher counter in her supermarket or freezer shop.

On the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) no cooking or other work is done by observant Jews, this day being a true day of rest. From this came one of the most famout Jewish dishes -- Cholent. This complete meal-in-a-pot is a long-cooking casserole which commences cooking in a slow oven before the eve of the Sabbath (dusk on Friday night) and which is just ready for lunch on Saturday. Particularly in the colder countries of Eastern Europe, a hot lunch was essential. The main ingredients of Cholent are butter beans, potatoes, onions, seasoning, a little expensive meat, and somethings a large dumpling cooked with it. This dish, high in overall energy value, is another example of a little meat being made to go a long way. Modern nutritionises expound the value of a small amount of meat protein with the additional protein from cheap beans, an advantage hit upon through necessity by generations of Jewish Cooks.

Chicken is nigh in popularity in the Jewish cuisine. One of the reasons for this goes back again to the time when many Jewish communities were confined to ghetto areas in European towns. To raise beef or lamb requires green fields and farms. All that is needed to raise chickens is a small back yard, and so chickens, easily reared and easily slaughtered, provided a convenient and regular source of protein for the diet.

Many favourite Jewish dishes are associated with religious festivals with which the year is studded, and have seasonal or symbolic connotations. They are so numerous because Judaism is a complete way of life and takes place largely at home. For example, there is Honey Cake as Rosh Hashanah (New Year), Cheese Cake at Shavuoth (Festival of Weeks) and Hamantaschen at Purim (Feast of Esther), and a multitude of dishes at Pesach (Passover) that contain no leaven.

Dietary Laws

The Jewish Dietary Laws (Kashrut) are based on various edicts of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and consist of certain verses from Exodus, Dueteronomy and Leviticus.

Only certain fish, those that have both fins and scales may be eaten.

Domestic poultry, i.e. chicken, duck, goose, turkey, and their eggs may be eaten.

Certain animals, only those that chew the cud and have cloven hooves, may be eaten. The animals and poultry must be slaughtered in a special manner (Shechita), purged of certain veins and fat, and sold under recognized Rabbinical supervision. All meat, poultry and liver must be koshered as below before placing in any utensil or into the freezer -- even though it will have been bought from a kosher butcher.

To Kosher Meat
This should be done as soon as possible after it is brought home. Immerse the meat or bones in cold water for 30 minutes in a bucket or deep bowl, e.g. enamel or plastic which is kept for this purpose only. Remove the meat, etc. and place it on a wooden, plastic, or wire grid which allows free drainage and is kept for this purpose only. Leave it to drain for a few minutes and then sprinkle it with coarse salt on all sides. Leave for 1 hour. Make sure that drips from the meat never splash on any utensils and that the meat never falls back into the soaking water, as this would make the meat trefa, ie.e. not permitted. After 1 hour, wash it thoroughly in cold water three times.

To Kosher Poultry
Remove the liver and kosher separately as given below. Place the pieces of poultry hollow side down. If the bird is to be cooked whole, salt inside very carefully as well as outside. Eggs found in the poultry, even with shells, should be koshered with the poultry and used only in meat dishes.

To Kosher Liver
Cut open the liver with a knife kept specifically for this purpose. If the liver is in thin slices make slits across the surface. Rinse it well with cold water and sprinkle with salt on all sides. Place the liver in a wire basket or on the grid of a grill pan, kept for this purpose only, so that blood can run away freely. Grill it until cooked on all sides. Wash it thoroughly. Liver should be grilled immediately after washing and sprinkling with salt. Always wash and then wipe the koshering equipment with paper towels and store in a separate place in the kitchen.

Should be broken separately into a glass and examined before using. If a blood spot is found, the egg should be discarded.

Vegetables And Cereals
Are permitted, but must be examined and cleaned to make sure that they are free from insects.

Milk And Meat
May not be cooked or eaten together. Milk and meat dishes may not be placed in the oven at the same time. Quite separate and easily distinguishable sets of cooking utensils, china, cutlery, table linen, washing up bowls and working surfaces are required for mean and milk. If at any time a mistake has been made by mixing meat and milk dishes or if there is any doubt about the foodstuffs, then a Rabbi should be consulted. After eating meat foods, at least three hours should elapse before milk foods and milk beverages are taken.

Kosher Cheese
only should be used.

Kosher Wines
only should be used.

As no 'leaven' may be eaten, only those foods (other than fresh fish, meat, poultry, eggs and most vegetables) should be bought that have been manufactured unthe the supervision of a recognized Rabbinate. Completely separate sets of milk and meat cooking utensils, crockery, cutlery, etc., and koshering equipment are required and these should be stored away for the rest of the year.


The Jewish New Year
This festival takes place in the autumn. Jews pray for happiness in the hear to come. Foods associated with Rosh Hashanah are honey and honey cake (Lekach), apples and all sorts of apple dishes, and carrots made into sweet dishes. Honey cake and sweet wine are served to sympolize 'sweetness' in the New Year.

Yom Kippur comes ten days after the New Year. It is a fast day, and the most holy day in the Jewish calendar. The eve of Yom Kippur is the occasion for a special meal in which no highly spiced items are served, but bland foods which will fit the family for the fast of twenty-five hours ahead of them. This day is spent in the synagogue when Jews pray for forgiveness. Typical foods served on the eve on Yom Kippur are Chicken Soup (Goldene Yoich), poultry, apple pies and Apple Strudle and Kreplach. After the fast is over most families have their own favorite menus, which might contain some of the following: pickled and chopped herrings, olives, pickled cucumbers, fried fish and gefilte fish and all types of salads. Some families, however prefer a full chicken dinner.

Feast of Tabernacles
This festival or late autumn commemorates the Biblical time when the Jews left Egypt to wander in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. They then lived in makeshift huts or "Succoth' and observant Jews today build such a structure out of wood and branches with the roof intertwined with leaves and harvest fruits -- yet open to the skies. The family eat thier meals in the 'Succah' which has been decorated with vegetables and autumn fruits by all the family. During the Succoth festival four symbolic objects are used -- the esrog (a type of citrus), the luluv (palm branch), the hadassim (myrtle) and arovot (willow) twigs. These form part of the Succoth synagogue service when Jews give thanks for the fruits of the earth.

Rejoicing of the Law
This festival, which celebrates the completion of the reading of the law and its new beginning, has special attractions for children. In the synagogue children join in a procession waving Simchat Torah flags topped with apples. When the service is over the children receive gifts of sweets, cakes and fruit. Special dishes associated with this festival are Holishkes and stuffed peppers and, in some countries, grape vine leaves stuffed with minced (ground) meat.

Festival of Lights
This holiday takes place in midwinter and marks the rededication by the Jews of the holy temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the Greeks. During this festival, which lasts eight days, one candle is lit in a candelabra -- the Menorah -- on the first night, and on each succeeding night an additional candle is lit until eight are lit on the last night. Children usually receive gifts of money (Hanakkah Gelt). Popular Hanakkah foods are grated potato latkes (pancakes) and doughnuts.

New Year for Trees
A one-day festival coinciding with the blossoming of trees in Israel, Tu B'Shevat occurs towards the end of winter. In Israel today saplings are planted to mark the occasion and all sorts of fruits are eaten.

Feast of Lots
Sometimes called the Feast of Esther. Purim joyously celebrates the downfall of the tyrant, Haman, through the efforts of Mordecai and his niece, Queen Esther. A very happy festival, Purim is the occasion of present giving, plays, and dressing up for children, games and great merry making. The waving of noise Purim gregars (rattles) is traditional and at the festival meal the foods would include the Purim Kalisch (decorated sweet plaited loaf) taking place of honour at the festive meal, and Hamantachen, triangular pastries filled with poppy seets, and bobs (brown beans).

This eight day Spring festival celebrates the freeing of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. During the first two evenings of the festival -- the Seder nights -- Jews read from the Haggadah the Passover story. This tells of when they left Egypt in haste unable to bake their bread properly and instead baked Matzot or unleavened bread. During the period of Passover, only Matzot or unleavened breat is eaten and no foods containing leaven are allowed. In fact, before the Passover, the whole house is cleaned and on the night before Passover starts, a symbolie search throughout the house for Chametz (leaven) takes place. Foods eaten at Passover must have been manufactured un the supervision of a recognized Rabbinate. Special sets of 'milk' and 'meat' cooking utensils, crockery, cutlery and koshering equipment are reserved for use at Pesach only. Typical of Pesach foods are those using matzo meal, potato flour and lots of eggs.

Festival of Weeks
In early summer the synagogue is decorated with flowers, foliage and fruits to mark Shavuoth -- to commerate the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Shavuot is also the time of the wheat festival in Israel, hence the flowers and fruit. Milk foods are traditionally served at Shavuoth and cheese blintzes, cheese cakes and tarts abound.

Glossary of Jewish Cooking Terms

Traditional yeast roll with a hole in the center, first boiled and then baked.

Thin pancakes filled and foldes parcel-like.

A cut of Kosher forequarter meat.

challah Plaited Sabbath Loaf.

A brown roux made by cooking flour with fat until a light brown.

Sweet and sour meat

Noodle dough which is coarsely grated and used as soup garnish.

gedempte fleisch
Stewed meat.


Dumplings, often made with matzo meal.

Baked stuffed patties.

Kosher 'Ravioli'. A type of dough, boiled, fried with a tasty filling, usually savoury.

Any baked pudding.

A kind of pancake-cum-fritter made with grated raw potato or sometimes matzo meal and egg.

Honey cake.


Unleavened bread, bought from delicatessens and Jewish grocers.

matzo meal
Finely ground unleavened bread.

parve cream
A non-dairy cream substitute commonly available in Jewish delicatessens.

pirogen or piroshki
See Kreplach.

Soured milk, specially cultured, often with added cream, available at most good delicatessens and health food shops.

A very thin pastry dough, filled and tightly rolled up -- either sweet or savoury.

Snippets of pastry cooked in honey.

Sorrel soup.

Meat and carrots cooked in honey.

See Kreplach.

A smoked Continental sausage, served in slices and often uncooked. Available from Kosher butchers and delicatessens.

The gourmet's guide to

Bessie Carr and Phyllis Oberman.
© 1973 by Octopus Books Ltd.

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