London restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi unleashed a torrent with his books on Middle Eastern cuisine. First came his popular “Ottolenghi” (2008), then four years later “Jerusalem,” which made him a household name for adventurous cooks.
The books introduced us to an array of ingredients from Morocco to Iran, pantry items like sumac, Aleppo pepper, za’atar, and pomegranate molasses. You need to have at least one extra jar of the sesame paste tahini on hand. Fresh herbs go into these dishes by the cupful. Recipes offer vegetables that might be spicy, accompanied by cooling yogurt sauces, fish in seasonings we never thought to add to them, succulent grilled meats, syrup-soaked cakes and pastries.
Middle Eastern food and Jewish food are intricately woven. Jewish communities were well established in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, and neighboring countries since ancient times. These are Mizrahi Jews. Sephardi Jews on the Iberian Peninsula who were driven out during the 15th century Spanish Inquisition settled throughout North Africa across to Turkey, and in Latin America, the Caribbean, and South America. There were also centuries-old Jewish enclaves in Southern Italy, Ethiopia, and India. Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Central and Eastern Europe had their own language and cuisines, each quite different from the other.
Ashkenazi dishes are so varied that even in the same region, a kugel, say, a potato or noodle pudding prepared in Poland, is not the same as one made in a Romanian kitchen. Sephardi Jews might today be serving dishes with characteristics of Turkish or Mexican or Italian specialties.
With the Jewish New Year about to begin (at sundown on Sept. 29), three new Jewish cookbooks offer glimpses into this diverse cuisine. Now we have three more recipes for hummus. Three more for shakshuka. But for those of us who love this food, who are willing to fill the kitchen counter with exotic spices and more parsley and mint than you thought possible to add to a single dish, variations on these themes are exciting.
These aren’t the first books to celebrate this food. Claudia Roden’s “The Book of Jewish Food” (1996) offered a thoughtful kitchen map. The late culinary historian Gil Marks wrote, among others, a vegetarian volume called “Olive Trees and Honey,” which won a James Beard award. Author Joan Nathan has spent a career writing about Jewish food, holidays, and traditions.
More recently comes “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” by Israeli-born James Beard winner Michael Solomonov of Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia and Steven Cook, and New Orleans and Denver restaurateur Alon Shaya, who explains in his book, “Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel,” out last year, about discovering his native country’s multicultural cuisine. And there are more.
One of the new volumes is from Brooklyn, N.Y., resident Leah Koenig, whose “The Jewish Cookbook” (Phaidon, $49.95) is a hefty 400-recipe tome with Phaidon’s customary exhaustive look at a cuisine. The publisher’s style shows spare, beautiful photography. Koenig’s shakshuka is sandwiched between Sephardic huevos haminados, eggs simmered with onion skins to flavor them and turn the shells mahogany, and matzo brei, the traditional dish of crumbled matzo with eggs served at Passover.
The book offers tempting recipes for schnecken, German snail-shaped yeast pastries with a caramel glaze; kasha and mushroom knishes; Turkish leek fritters; and Moroccan b’stilla, the chicken and almond phyllo pie. Koenig has written a long and thorough history of Jewish communities and migration; recipe header notes are rarely personal, but well explained. A meatball stew with white beans and fresh spinach that I made was outstanding, though an initial simmer of beef flanken or short ribs (I used short ribs) instructs you to cook them for an hour, when they take 1½ to two.
“Shuk: From Market to Table, the Heart of Israeli Home Cooking,” by Einat Admony and Janna Gur (Artisan, $35), shouts “Cook me!” from every vibrant page. Admony, raised outside Tel Aviv by a Yemeni-Israeli father and Persian mother, owns New York restaurants Balaboosta, Kish-Kash, and Taim. Gur, born in Latvia and a resident of Tel Aviv, is the founder of Al Hashulchan, an Israeli food and wine magazine.
Lively shuk photographs take you into eight markets to meet vendors and see their wares; food photography by Quentin Bacon is brilliant. You’ll find red and green varieties of the Yemeni chile condiment s’chug; a sliced orange salad with oil-cured olives and cilantro, coated with harissa vinaigrette; chicken liver schnitzel served with a preserved lemon and mint pesto; and arayes, pita stuffed with ground meat, then grilled (I couldn’t get the 5-inch pitas called for, so used 8-inch; mine were delicious but looked nothing like the photo).
Bakhsh, a Bukharian Jasmine-rice pilaf with mixed meats, including merguez sausages, chicken thighs, chicken livers, and ground beef uses four cups of mixed cilantro, dill, mint, and parsley, which adds up to remarkable flavors. It makes enough to serve a small army. A header note about Aunt Tzippi making the dish in an old pillowcase submerged in water is charming, but it doesn’t say which of the two authors wrote it; I’m guessing it’s Admony.
Adeena Sussman’s “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen” (Avery, $35) tells the story of the American-born author’s immersion into Israeli culture. She lives with her expat American husband in Tel Aviv. One recipe for shakshuka makes a green sauce with 16 cups of chopped kale, spinach, and chard, and a cup of fresh herbs; carrots in mixed colors are roasted and drizzled with a tahini glaze; arugula, charred dates, crumbled feta, and toasted pistachios are tossed with a pomegranate molasses and date-syrup dressing (startlingly good!); and a whole chicken is covered with a thick paste of za’atar and olive oil and roasted on a bed of red potatoes and shallots (easy to prepare, beautiful in the baking dish, and delicious).
You feel like you’re discovering the cuisine as Sussman is, through friends and market vendors who give her recipes with some of their secret tips. We learn that she waits for ripe Hachiya persimmon to come into the markets, then cuts off the tops, and eats the fruit with a spoon. She makes potato vareniki with a Latvian-born chef who tops the dumplings with brown butter and vodka-soaked salmon roe. She takes the basic recipe for tahini sauce and colors it charcoal with charred eggplant skins, green with herbs, pink with beets, and gold with fresh and ground turmeric.
“Sababa,” which means “great” or “wonderful” — something she might ask a market vendor about the produce that day — has also come to mean, she writes, “everything is awesome.” Through Sussman’s eyes, in her adopted country, everything is indeed.