Janna Gur says that if you have bunches of herbs in your refrigerator, she knows just what to do with them. Make herb and meat latkes, the traditional Syrian (Aleppan) ijeh b’lahmeh. As they sizzle and turn golden in the skillet, they fill the air with that familiar oil-rich, fried-latkes-for-Hanukkah aroma.
Gur, an Israeli cookbook author and magazine editor, is cooking for a group from The New Center for Arts and Culture, who are in a private home in Boston. The patties are an alternative to potato pancakes for the Jewish holiday, which begins at sundown Dec. 16, but the author makes them year-round.
“They’re one of my favorite lunch fixes,” she says. The recipe is in her new “Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh, More Than 100 Unforgettable Dishes Updated for Today’s Kitchen.” She tells the hungry crowd to tuck two latkes inside pita, add sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and drizzle them with tahini sauce.
To most Jewish families in Boston, traditional home cooking is rooted in Ashkenazi
dishes that originated in Western and Eastern Europe, such as chicken soup, gefilte fish, chopped liver, knishes, and brisket. “You don’t see much Ashkenazi food in Israel,” says the Latvian-born Gur, “especially not in restaurants.”
Sephardic cooking, on the other hand, is distinctly Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. Gur’s book features recipes from all over the Middle East, Turkey, Bulgaria, and North
Africa, including rice and couscous dishes, meat and fish stews, stuffed vegetables, meatballs, fish balls, and various savory pastries. With these kinds of foods, she says, “The boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish cooking are much more blurred.”
Gur explains that immigrants to Israel, particularly from nearby countries, brought their native cuisines with them. Most are linked by indigenous ingredients based on a temperate climate, the use of olive oil instead of butter, and a heavy reliance on vegetables. “We eat salads for breakfast,” says Gur. Hers usually consists of chopped tomatoes, cucumber, onion, and bell peppers, lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, along with hard-cooked eggs, and tahini spread.
“The most important thing in Israeli cooking is tahini,”
she says (see related story,
Page 7). The sesame seed paste is used as a dressing and dip, it’s folded into hummus and baba ghanoush, added to baked goods instead of nut butter, and is the key ingredient in the confection known as halvah.
While family traditions like Friday night Shabbat dinner are still an important part of Israeli life, Gur estimates that less than one-third of the Jewish population follows a strict kosher diet. A larger percentage, though, doesn’t mix meat and dairy products (one of the kosher dietary restrictions), she says, and “pork is a big taboo.” She shares the joke
that “Israelis don’t eat pork
unless it’s called prosciutto.”
Born in Riga, Latvia, Gur, 55, immigrated to Israel with her parents in 1974 when she was 15. In 1991, she and her husband, Ilan, started a food trade journal that evolved into a monthly food and travel
magazine called Al Hashulchan (“on the table” in Hebrew). It’s also an expression meaning to be upfront, she says.
Gur wrote “Jewish Soul Food” primarily for a North American audience, she says,
to show “the wealth of Jewish cooking and preserve some of it for future generations.” She sees her role as a curator, gathering age-old Syrian, Persian, Iraqi, Turkish, Russian, and North
African recipes of Jewish origin for modern home cooks to use.
“There are no more Jews left in some of these countries,” she says. “The cuisines are like endangered species. The only place they exist is in Israel.”
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at email@example.com.