Jewish Foods of the World
Central and Eastern Europe
by Daniel Rogov
When most people think about "Jewish food" it is often gefilte fish, knishes and cholent that come to mind - dishes that came to Israel and the rest of the world from Central and Eastern Europe. These dishes have been adopted comfortably into the cuisine of Israel (as well as of New York, Buenos Aires and Paris) because they were originally prepared in the homes and restaurants of Jews the world over, who later immigrated to Israel and other countries. As "Jewish" as we may consider such dishes (and the delicatessens and restaurants in which they are served) to be, they are, of course, no more Jewish or Israeli than couscous, shishlik and halvah which have their roots in the Middle-East, North Africa and the Mediterranean Basin.
European nations have had as much impact on Israeli dining as Hungary, Poland and Russia. From a culinary point of view, the Jews of Hungary were in an enviable position, for the cuisine of Hungary is surely the most sophisticated of any Central European nation.
Paprika, the favorite spice of Hungarians, and goulash, their favorite dish, are now everyday parts of the Israeli diet. It is interesting to note that while goulash has been around in Hungary for more than fourteen centuries, paprika is a later addition to their diet, the spice having been brought by the Turks during their 16th century occupation.
Despite the fact that paprika is a relative latecomer to their tables, Hungarians prescribe it, whether taken internally or applied externally, as a cure for nearly anything that can ail a human being. So popular is this spice that within Israel it is found, even in the poorest of markets, in no less than eight varieties, each boasting a uniquely different taste and level of sharpness.
The only major change that Jews had to make in adapting to the local cuisine was to avoid the use of pork, by far the most popular meat in the country. Within Hungary, nearly every cooked dish is, at one time or another, rubbed, wrapped or sauteed in pork fat. This posed no real problem, however, as kashrut (the dietary laws followed by observant Jews) allows for the use of no less satisfying goose fat in cookery.
The following recipes may be found in a kosher restaurant in Budapest or in the home of a Hungarian now living in Israel.
For the last millennium, no European nation has had such flexible borders as Poland. This is a country that, in part or in whole, has been occupied by one or more of her neighbors for longer than most Poles care to remember. This goes a long way in explaining why there is probably no uniquely Polish cuisine. Although sour cream and dill are the two cooking ingredients almost inescapable on the Polish table, these do not a national cuisine create. Throughout the country, one cannot help but note that what is set on the table is invariably a blend of the cooking styles of bordering neighbors (Germany, Russia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary), each of which has at one time or another held a claim on at least some part of Polish geography.
The French and the Italians, neither of which ever invaded, also had their impact on Polish cookery. And the Jewish table, too, had an undeniably strong impact on the national cuisine.
The Jews of Poland, whether they lived in the shtetls or the large cities, did well to overcome a tradition in which pork was the major source of protein and where nearly every meat dish incorporated dairy products in the cooking. Each of the following dishes, distinctly Jewish in origin, is now considered part of the repertoire of any good Polish cook in Israel as well as in Poland.
Because Jerusalem boasts more than a dozen Romanian restaurants, many Israelis have come to associate the cookery of this Balkan land primarily with lemon-flavored soups and grilled meats. This is fine because ciorba, a thick and hearty soup based on chicken stock, lemon juice, boiled beef and carrots, beans, okra and tomatoes is a marvelous treat.
Nor can one fault the traditional Romanian mixed grill. Cooked over open charcoals, garlicky minced meat patties, steak, liver and seasoned kebabs are a carnivore's delight. Those who like variety meats will also find the brain, spinal cord and kidneys that make up a part of this grill much to their taste.
As delicious as these dishes may be, they are not fully representative of the rich Romanian kitchen. This is a style of cookery that may best be described as earthy. With few frills, Romanian cooks have evolved a country-style cuisine that falls somewhere between the dishes we normally associate with Europe and those of the Middle East. Sausages are as popular as they are in Central Europe, but minced meat patties like the garlicky beef mititei are skewer grilled, like Middle Eastern kebabs. Tarator, the favorite cold yogurt and cucumber soup of Romania is another dish that has many Middle-Eastern cousins.
While the Jews of Romania did not make significant contributions to the cookery of that nation, they had little trouble in adopting this style of cookery to the needs of kashrut. Here are a few sample recipes.
Noted for their hearty appetites, pre-revolutionary Russians enjoyed talking and writing about food nearly as much as they enjoyed eating it. No literature, in fact, has set so many of its scenes around the table. In Tolstoy's magnificent Anna Karenina, for example, there is a delightful scene in which the sensual and polished Oblonsky and the spiritual Levin go out to dine together at a fashionable Moscow restaurant. Oblonsky wants to order elegant dishes in the French style: oysters, soupe printaniere, turbot with sauce Beaumarchais and capons à l'estragon. Levin, who in Tolstoy's mind was evidently a symbol of virtuous Russian simplicity is unhappy at this and would have preferred plain porridge, cabbage soup, bread and cheese.
Thanks to Czar Peter the Great, who encouraged the importation of Western European culture, the best Russian cuisine since the 18th century has been heavily influenced by the French chefs who came to work in the homes of the royal family. In fact, not a few well-known "Russian dishes" (Beef Strogonoff, Charlotte Russe, Chicken Pojarsky and Chicken Kiev) were invented by Frenchmen.
The massive immigration of Russian Jews to Israel in the last two decades of the 20th century guaranteed that the cuisine, both of the Tsars and the peasants, would become a permanent part of the Israeli culinary scene. Following are sample recipes.
Daniel Rogov is the restaurant and wine critic for the daily newspaper Ha'aretz. He is also the senior writer for Wine and Gourmet Magazine and contributes culinary and wine articles to newspapers in Europe and the United States.
Source: Israeli Foreign Ministry and Rogov's Ramblings. Reprinted with permission.