With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just around the corner, secular and religious Jewish families alike will turn to the warmth of the kitchen, where traditional dishes will be prepared and enjoyed in the company of distant relatives. When most folks think of Jewish foods, kosher New York-style deli comes to mind: mounds of pastrami, corned beef and brisket draped in mustard and pickles on rye, or perhaps donuts with lox and “schmear” (aka cream cheese).
Roman Jewish cuisine has enjoyed a popular resurgence, with carciofi alla giudea, deep-fryed artichokes, now en vogue from San Francisco to Brooklyn to the Ghetto in Rome. But there are many Jewish holidays, and only a handful of dishes are well-known, even to ethnic Jews. On the cusp of the highest of high holidays, an investigation is called for into the classic, traditional dishes associated with the most-celebrated Jewish holidays.
To aid in our inquiries, Fine Dining Lovers spoke to Jayne Cohen, an authority on Jewish holiday cooking and author of a James Beard finalist cookbook with the apt title, Jewish Holiday Cooking. Here is a holiday-by-holiday guide to what one should eat and why.
The Jewish New Year is celebrated with the sounding of the shofar, a ram’s horn trumpet, but foods feature prominently. The combination of apples and honey serve to summon up a sweet new year. As Jayne Cohen adds, “In our family, we also sprinkle a little sea salt on top, so we have not only a sweet year, but one with a bit of spice as well.” Some families prepare a Yehi Ratzon platter, consisting of apples and honey (which may be combined into a compote called mansanada, pomegranates, rodanchas (pumpkin-stuffed pastries), keftedes de prasa (leek fritters), legumbres yaprakes (stuffed vegetables), beets, and a whole fish head, which recalls a prayer “let us be the head and not the tail.” Sweet challah bread or lekach, a honey cake made in a Bundt pan, accompany the dishes, all of which have the theme of a sweet new year.
The “Day of Atonement” sees not a food but the lack of it as its primary culinary distinction. Observant Jews fast for one whole day, in order to atone for the sins they committed during the previous year. From sunrise to sundown, all healthy adults are expected to fast, but large meals are likewise expected before and after the fast begins, to keep things in balance, with the fast often broken with a fish feast, featuring bagels and lox when available. Smoked fish, as Cohen notes, are there “to replenish the essential salts lost during fasting."
The best-known Jewish holiday, the festival of lights, commemorates the victory of the Maccabis over the army of King Antiochus, during which time the oil in the holy lamp in the Temple in Jerusalem miraculously burned for eight days, when only a day’s worth of oil remained in it. The holiday is not actually of great importance in the liturgical calendar, but it enjoys popular attention, perhaps because of its proximity to Christmas, and the tradition of giving a gift each night for eight days. Along with lighting an additional candle each night in the eight-strong candelabra called a menorah, the dish to eat are latkes, or potato pancakes. Patties of grated potato, egg and flour are lightly fried in oil—the oil recollecting that of the lamp in the temple. Eaten with a side of sour cream or apple sauce, this is easy to make, a hit with children, and appeals to any palate and any level of cooking skill. A good choice to make with the young ones. Of course, potatoes were not introduced into the Mediterranean diet until the discovery of the New World, North America, as the potato was indigenous to the Americas. Its ancestors were likely made of patties of different vegetables.
The holiday most associated with highly-specific dishes is Passover, which commemorates the story of Exodus, when Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt and to the Promised Land. The main dishes for the meal can vary, with slow-braised brisket a favorite for any Jewish holiday (Jayne Cohen’s special recipe is provided below), twice-baked potatoes, matzot ball soup (which Cohen likes to spice up with cilantro and serrano chile), kugel (an egg noodle or potato baked as a casserole), and gefilte fish (an acquired taste, ground deboned white fish pressed into balls and poached). But during the Passover seder, a step-by-step reading of Exodus with commentary and foods eaten at specific moments, there are ritualistic dishes to be made and consumed. They key foods are placed on the “seder plate,” which has a slot for each of the following six items: maror are bitter herbs, often raw parsley, eaten to symbolize the bitterness of the enslaved Jews in Egypt. Karpas is a vegetable that is dipped in salted water, the salt water recalling the tear of the Jews during their slavery. Z’roa is a roasted lamb or goat shank, which recalls the lamb sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem and eaten on the Seder—but since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans during the Jewish War in 70 AD, the z’roa is not eaten, but is a visual reminder. It also recalls the blood of a lamb which the Jews smeared onto their doors in order to tell the Angel of Death not to enter their homes when God sent the angel to slay all first-born Egyptians as the last of the Plagues of Egypt. Beitzah is a hardboiled egg, also recalling the Passover sacrifice, but linked to mourning, as eggs are traditionally the first item served to guests after a funeral. Matzot is a type of unleavened flatbread, more like a cracker. Its story is that Moses convinced Pharaoh to free the Jews, but was aware that he might change his mind (which indeed he did). Preparing to flee Egypt, the Jews baked bread but did not want to wait long, and took it out of the ovens before it rose. Finally, charoset is a combination of chopped apples, walnuts, cinnamon and sweet wine, which is meant to be reminiscent of the mortar that the Jews were forced to use when building as slaves in Egypt—slave labor was responsible for the building of the pyramids. The last symbolic component is sweet red wine, out of which drops are taken and not consumed, one for each of the Plagues visited upon the Egyptians until they released the Jews from slavery—removing a drop of one’s own enjoyment to commemorate the blood and suffering that was required to free the Jews from Pharaoh’s servitude.
The Purim celebration, “days of feasting and gladness” according to the Book of Esther, features mishloach manot, colorful baskets of food that are sent to friends and neighbors. The tradition holds that these baskets should include at least two different items that do not require cooking, but can be eat directly. A favorite among children to prepare and eat are hamantashen, meant to recall the tri-cornered hat supposedly worn by the Persian villain in the Book of Esther, Haman, who plotted the destruction of the Jews but was foiled. These are simple pastries with the dough cut into triangles, a dollop of fruit preserves (often prune or apricot) placed in the middle, and then the corners folded in before baking. There are limitless variations on the basic themes of Jewish holiday cooking. “While the rituatlistic aspect of the food remains constant, the specific dishes continue to vary according to what is available,” says Cohen. “Jews have always adopted and adapted local foods.” Regardless of one’s religion, and the vigor with, and location where, it is practiced, there is one thing everyone can agree on: good food. Jayne Cohen’s Brisket with 36 Cloves of Garlic, from Jewish Holiday Cooking.