After poring over four new Jewish cookbooks in the last few weeks, I can confirm that there is no single universal Jewish dish. It’s not challah, an eggy loaf that will be on many Jewish New Year tables when the holiday begins on the evening of Sept. 15, because the bread is made primarily by Ashkenazi Jews, though some Sephardic families have adopted the tradition in recent years. And it’s not matzo ball soup or chopped liver, because again, they stem from the Eastern European tradition of Ashkenazim.
Ashkenazi Jews have roots in France, Germany, and Eastern Europe; Sephardic Jews in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East. But there are many other communities that do not fall into either category. Just as there isn’t one dish you can point to that defines what Jewish food is, there is no single explanation of what the cooking is. The reason for the huge diversity is similar to what we see in today’s immigrants worldwide: Wherever they settle, they adapt their cooking to the new region.
The four authors tell food stories quite differently, of course, because their backgrounds and cities vary. Some, like London resident Silvia Nacamulli, author of “Jewish Flavours of Italy: A Family Cookbook,” rely on the dishes of her childhood in Rome. In “Shabbat: Recipes and Rituals from My Table to Yours,” Adeena Sussman, raised in Palo Alto, Calif., and now a Tel Aviv resident, weaves in recipes from her mother (whom she calls “Shabbat Queen”), along with many of the Jewish cultures who came to Israel in the last 75 years. Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Leah Koenig writes in “Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchen” about three groups of Roman Jews: Italkim, who have lived there for 2,000 years, Sephardim, who arrived after the 15th-century Spanish Inquisition, and Libyan Jews who came in the late 20th century after living in Libya from antiquity. “The Cook and The Rabbi: Recipes and Stories to Celebrate Jewish Holidays,” written by Susan Simon (the cook) and Zoe B Zak (the rabbi), who reside in New York’s Hudson Valley, is an ongoing conversation about rituals and specialties on the Jewish table.
Cooking from these books, from such a wide cross-section of cultures, was eye-opening. The food is wildly interesting, sometimes spicy, as in the popular North African egg dish Shakshuka, sometimes unrecognizable, as in Uzbeki dumpling soup, and sometimes intriguing, as in Chocolate and Biscuit “Salami.”
There are three recipes, all different, for a savory tomato spread, in which several pounds of chopped tomatoes are simmered until reduced to a thick, jammy consistency. I was so taken with the one from “Portico,” which offers the Libyan Italian version called Merduma — in the pot with tomatoes is garlic, a single red chile pepper, a little tomato paste, and a tiny amount of sugar — that I made it three times. Then I spread it on toast, on crackers, and on fresh pita before rolling up chicken kebabs. Koenig writes that it can be served with warm challah or other breads for dipping.
Nacamulli’s recipe for Merduma in “Jewish Flavours” simmers canned tomatoes with yellow bell peppers, a chile pepper, and a splash of vinegar. She’s had it at many Tripolitanian friends’ homes. Sussman’s Tomato Jam in “Shabbat” is a riff on tomato chutneys served at Indian restaurants, she writes, and adds a lot of sugar and lemon, plus turmeric, cumin, Baharat spice blend, crushed red pepper, mustard seeds, and paprika.
Sussman’s stunning “Shabbat” cover photo of chicken thighs roasted with fresh figs, grapes still on their stems, wedges of onion, whole-grain mustard, date syrup, and honey, seemed so intriguing that I made it right away to see if mine would come out like that. It looked exactly like hers. Fruits roasted in chicken juices are pretty fabulous.
Nonna Emma’s Spaghetti Frittata in Nacamulli’s “Jewish Flavours,” which her grandmother made every Friday night for the Sabbath, is very simple, works like a charm, and adds up to something wonderful. You cook spaghetti while simmering canned tomato puree (or sauce) with garlic. Toss them together with an egg and some basil and cook the mixture in a skillet until the underside browns, then turn it and brown the other side. The exterior is crispy and the inside very soft.
Nacamulli can trace 16 generations of Jewish Italians on her mother’s side (she considers herself a Roman Jewish cook). Her historical account of Italian Jewish cooking is thorough, complete with maps of where Jews settled since the 12th century. She also relates her parents’ captivating story of hiding in their Christian housekeeper’s home during the German occupation in World War II.
In “Portico,” Koenig tells the Roman Jewish story, sometimes from its residents. Several thousand Libyan Jews arrived in 1967 after the Six-Day War and their presence in Italy was met with xenophobia from other Jews, she writes. “We were considered a little primitive,” one Libyan Jewish restaurateur told Koenig. “They did not know that Tripoli was a cosmopolitan city with wonderful architecture and people from all over the world.”
“Shabbat” and “Portico” are slick books with beautiful, nicely lit, studio food photography. “Jewish Flavours” has some polished photos and others that don’t do the food justice.
“The Cook and The Rabbi,” with its spiritual and practical back-and-forth chats, and illustrations by co-author Simon, has a community cookbook feeling. Simon introduces some Sephardic specialties, such as the Andalusian fried eggplant dish Berenjena, and offers list of recipes that cooks can prepare for each holiday, while the rabbi explains the Jewish liturgy.
One of their suggestions for the menu at the start of Yom Kippur, when a substantial dinner precedes a day-long fast, is Elvis Presley’s Fried Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches. Apparently, this was something the iconic rock and roll singer, then a teenager, made with the challah served to him by the rabbi and his wife, who were upstairs neighbors of the Presley family in Memphis.
So what is Jewish cooking? Of course it can be roast chicken or tzimmes or Roman fried artichokes or semolina cake soaked in syrup. But when a talented 19-year-old Elvis takes the rabbi’s wife’s challah and makes his favorite peanut butter sandwich, well that’s just adapting what you love to the ingredients at hand. The way Jews have done for thousands of years.
Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.