(November 29, 2011 / JNS) “This is goyish,” said my friend during brunch one Sunday, as I was enjoying my lox and cream cheese bagel, overflowing with onions, cucumbers, and a host of other vegetables. I looked behind me to see whom he might have been addressing, but it turns out he was referring to the bell peppers on top of my lunch. My confusion sparked a debate at that moment – and a question that has stuck with me since: What is Jewish food?
When I was a young girl in upstate New York in the late 1950s, bagels were still considered to be ethnic bread. There were only a handful of bagel bakeries across the U.S., and most were centered in the lower east side of New York City. Our bagels were flown up from the city only on Sunday mornings (in very limited editions), and delivered directly to Mr. Rasnick’s tiny grocery store, where they sold out in a matter of hours. And then we had to wait a week for more.
We knew there were only two kinds, plain and poppy seed— and as far as my family was concerned, there were only three acceptable ingredients to eat them with: butter, cream cheese, or lox. Bagels were Jewish, bagels with cream cheese were Jewish, and bagels with cream cheese and lox were Jewish, and that was Jewish food.
It never went further than that for me, until I moved to Berkeley decades later, and began serving the by-then available-everywhere-far-inferior California bagels with a platter of vegetables. And it was then that I received my friend’s shocked declaration. I responded that whether or not he thought my food was Jewish, I was, it was, and that was all good enough for me. “To my family,” he shrugged, “that would be goyish.” I laughed as daintily as I could with a mouth full of vegetables.
That was when I realized that the definition of a non-Jewish food is whatever your family didn’t eat.
Jewish food is by its nature subjective. There is not one kind of Jewish food –nor can we boast of a bona fide cuisine. Diaspora Jews have lived all over the world and we have adopted the cooking customs from wherever we’ve lived. So affected have Jews been by our locale’s foods, that it has, at times, influenced religious tradition (rather than the other way around). Sephardic Jews, for example, are permitted to eat kitniyot (maize, peas, beans) on Passover, while Ashkenazi Jews are restricted from it. So Jewish food has always been subjective by geography, but as my friend demonstrated, it is also sentimentally defined by each family.
While often extremely creative and adventurous in many other areas, we humans tend to hold on to the familiar when it comes to food. The meals we grew up with remind us of our childhood, giving us stability in a world that can change at the drop of a hat. We form an emotional attachment to it.
So all of these things—geography, family, and our sense of personal connection— weave together to define Jewish food as whatever our mothers and grandmothers made.
Keeping all of this in mind, I have been having fun incorporating a few ethnic flavor touches into the infrastructure of the foods we’re used to. For the more conservative palates in our families, I took three staple Ashkenazi Jewish dishes, and gave them a twist. You might call it goyish, but enjoy it anyway.
Mexican-Style Chicken Soup with Chile, Avocado, Lime – and Jewish Fried Onions
Chicken soup is the diplomat of foods, with some form of it existing in almost every culture. Although we Jews feel like we own it, with just a few little turns of the wrist it can travel around the world and acquire other accents. And it can still be “ours.”
Mexicans make beautiful soups, and to give chicken soup a Mexican twist, we don’t have to go the route of cooking beans or pressing homemade tortillas (although both are nice). We can take a bowl of chicken soup south of the border simply by adding a squirt of fresh lime juice and a pinch of chili flakes. Float some tortilla chips on top, garnish with sliced avocado, and Mexican-style chicken soup is all yours.
Chai-Spiced Kugel with Cinnamon, Raisins, Saffron, and other Indian spices
For most families, especially those with eastern European roots, noodle kugel is a baked rectangle of noodles, sour cream, cottage cheese or cream cheese, and cinnamon. Not sweet enough to be a dessert, it’s more of a fun brunch dish, and best of all—it can easily become chai flavored.
Going beyond the cinnamon already in the kugel, dissolve a few strands of saffron in a tiny bit of water or milk, and stir that into the noodles. Toss in pinches of cardamom and turmeric, and the combination of the spices will start to taste like chai. Bake with a topping of chopped almonds and pistachio nuts, and serve with a dollop of yogurt, and it becomes an Indian-style kugel that you will likely want to make repeatedly.
Morroccan-Style Latkes with Chermoula Sauce and Yogurt
Potato latkes are perfect for this time of year. To give them a Sephardic angle, add some minced jalapeno—or just dump in a 4-ounce can of Ortego brand diced green chilies and a large pinch or two of whole cumin seeds.
In addition to serving with sour cream, consider chermoula—a Moroccan green sauce, similar to a pesto, and usually served with fish. Chermoula can be made by pulverizing fresh cilantro in a processer with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and pinches of cayenne, cumin, and salt. It’s very nutritious, almost like topping the latkes with a serving of green vegetables.
As you prepare these dishes remember that the one thing people will want to be unchanged is texture. People will accept different flavors, but will tend to expect the mouth feel to be something familiar. That is why these three recipes don’t recreate the food, but rather build on the original template of each dish.
So, for those of you who’d like to keep your Jewish food traditional (whatever that means to you), but are yearning for a taste adventure, or even just a slight variation, give the dish a little twist. Keep it familiar, but let it run with new flavors.