Jewish food is so much more than just Latkes, Gefilte Fish, and Matzo Ball Soup. Jews hail from all over North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and South America. So Jewish food isn't just what your bubbe made. It's vibrant and versatile, colorful and cool, and virtually unexplored. Throughout history, poor Jewish communities had to get creative when it came to food. They also adapted local delicacies to adhere to Kosher Dietary Laws. So today, we are going down the rabbit hole of obscure Jewish food.
P'tcha: Ashkenazi Cuisine
The name comes from the Turkish word for leg soup. In the 14th century, Turkish peasants made a hot soup dish with lamb’s feet, one of the animal's cheapest parts. Slowly the dish spread throughout Central and Eastern Europe, where poor Ashkenazi Jews communities picked it up. So, these Ashkenazi communities adapted the leg soup and made it their own. They opted for cow's feet and often discarded parts of the animal and preferred the cool jellied dish to the hot soup. In the early 20th century, Jewish German immigrants brought the dish to the United States, and it was well-received by a generation of American Jews. However, P'tcha did not have the staying power of Ashkenazi classics like Bazargan or Hamantash.
Roman Jewish Cuisine
Let's head over to Italy, where Jewish communities, that span back over 2000 years, contributed to the nation's world-famous culinary style. Jews have lived in the region of present-day Italy, dating back to the Roman Empire. From the 15th century to the mid-19th century, Italy was the one and only place in Europe Jews were not banished from. Italian Jews used what they had, including discarded vegetables and small bony fish, to create delicacies.
Italian Jews introduced things like Fried Anchovies and Fish Soups to non-Jewish Italians. Generally, non-Jewish Italians don't like eggplant, fennel, capers, and onions. So they gave their Jewish neighbors their unwanted "scraps'' to create delicious food. They pioneered Italian dishes, such as Caponata, a Sicilian Grilled Vegetable Salad, and Fennel Gratin. Due to Kashrut Law, Italian Jews could not enjoy pork meat that many Italian like, such as Prosciutto. So Italian Jewish communities started to raise geese to produce the Kosher equivalent of porky products, like Salami and sausage. In Italian, this goose leg Prosciutto is called Prosciutto D'oca. You can find this Jewish delicacy in certain areas, particularly in Friuli, in Italy's far northeast corner.
Puri: Mumbai Kosher
What about something sweet? Puri is a sweet pastry that the Mumbai Jewish community makes for a year to break the fast after Yom Kippur. This Puri is a layered, deep-fried crescent-shaped pastry filled with cardamom, pistachios, and a variety of other nuts. India's Jews make their sweet Puri on Yom Kippur with seven layers, as seven is a significant number in Judaism, referencing the creation story of Genesis. About 3,500 Jewish populations in the Mumbai area, but Puri unites them every October when Yom Kippur hits.
Stews: Shabbat Dishes
Jews do like stews, especially on the Sabbath. With stew, you can prepare everything on Friday, then let it cook overnight, so you have your midday meal on Saturday good to go. So you can avoid cooking on the Sabbath, which is a big NO-NO according to Jewish law. Ashkenazi Jews may think of Cholent, the traditional heavy stew made with beans, barley, potatoes, and meat. The word "Cholent" comes from medieval French words, "Chault," meaning hut, and "Let," meaning slow, in reference to the long, slow cooking.
Ethiopian Jewish Cuisine
Jews from all over the world are fans of long, slow cooking on Shabbat. Take, for instance, Doro Wat, chicken stew studded with hard-boiled eggs that Ethiopian Jews traditionally eat on the Sabbath. However, Doro Wat is a classic Ethiopian dish, so what makes it Jewish? First of all, Ethiopian Jews adopted the recipe to avoid using ingredients that would break specific Kashrut Laws. Unlike their Ashkenazi counterparts, Ethiopian Jews would prepare Doro Wat before sundown on Fridays. Typically, they would bury the pots underground to keep stew warm. Also, to signal a departure from the rest of the week. On the Sabbath, Ethiopian Jews trade in their Injera, a spongy, fermented teff flour bread typical in Ethiopian dining.
Awafi Kitchen: Iraqi-Jewish Cuisine
Iraqi Jews are known for something called T'bit; this is their regional Sabbath stew. Like Doro Wat, T'bit is much lighter than Ashkenazi Cholent. T'bit is prepared with chicken, rice seasoned with turmeric, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon, and simmered overnight on Friday.
Eggs are placed on top of the rice and browned in time for Sabbath brunch. The cooking process leaves a crispy bottom layer of rice called Khikakeh, similar to Iranian Tahdig.
It's important to note that we often think about borrowing when we are talking about Jewish food. Jews from all over the world didn't always invent something from scratch. Often, Jewish food is the result of adapting local recipes. That could have been because of poverty, persecution, Kashrut laws, and a variety of reasons. All of that makes it hard to define Jewish food. But playing the role of adapter and borrower has given Jews a rich, complicated, and delicious food culture.