There are few people who can’t name one or two “typically Jewish” foods — bagels, cheesecake, and blintzes have become well-loved around the world. While few of these foods are exclusively Jewish, the Kashrut (dietary laws) and particular factors in Jewish history have helped shape a cuisine that reflects the unique identity of the people who developed it.
As a whole, Jewish cuisine is a marriage of cooking styles from the cultures in which Jews have lived throughout the centuries — the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Spain, Germany, and Eastern Europe. The cooking style was also influenced by dietary laws, leading to the separation of milk and meat and the avoidance of pork and shellfish. Holidays have also given rise to a number of uniquely Jewish dishes.
Jewish cuisine is anything but monotonous, though. Over time three distinct styles have evolved: Ashkenazic (Eastern European), Sephardic (Middle-Eastern, Mediterranean, and Spanish), and Israeli.
The differences between these styles originate from climate differences, trade activities, and the traditions of the surrounding cultures. The financial situation of the communities also had a noticeable impact on the cuisine. The relative poverty of Ashkenazic Jews meant a diet of peasant foods made with inexpensive, easy-to-obtain ingredients and with fewer spices. Sephardic Jews, on the other hand, enjoyed a long period of prosperity that led to many elaborate, richly-spiced dishes.
The cuisine generally thought of as “Jewish food” is actually the cooking style of Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe. Although Jews of this region were often poor and therefore many of these dishes originated as peasant food, later when economic conditions improved, these home-cooking favorites were refined and remain popular today.
In the early Middle Ages, most Jews in Europe lived in the Western half of the continent, primarily in Germany. With the increase in anti-Semitism in the thirteenth century, however, many moved east to Poland and Russia.
There they built on the German culinary traditions, both adapting original German recipes and adopting local foods. Horseradish, pickles, and knishes (pastry pockets filled with vegetables) were all brought from German traditions and passed on to later generations in Eastern Europe.
Harsh winters in Polish and Russia led to the frequent use of grains, root vegetables, hardy tree fruits and nuts, freshwater fish, and dairy products. These foods were the most readily available and, with a little creativity, could be stored.
Stews were often eaten, but sauces, except for natural cooking juices or simple meat or vegetable broth, were typically avoided. Ashkenazic cooking favors simple seasoning combinations that bring out the taste of foods rather than show off the number of herbs and spices used. Parsley, chives, dill, and bay leaves are the preferred herbs, and black pepper and paprika the most common spices.
Polish Jews in particular enjoyed sweet foods and added sugar to vegetable dishes and fish. Gefilte fish (chopped fish with vegetables) with horseradish sweetened with beets originated in Poland. Russian Jews, however, preferred peppered and sour foods.
Sweet and sour stews are another feature of Ashkenazic cooking. This contrast of sweet with sour was created by blending honey, sugar, or raisins with vinegar or lemon juice. One of the best-known examples of this is tzimmes, a stew of sweet vegetables such as sweet potatoes or carrots, dried fruit such as apricots or prunes, and often beef.
Shabbat (Sabbath) meals have long been the most luxurious of the week. Ashkenazic Jews often celebrated the day of rest with sweet and sour fish, pickled meats, chopped goose liver, and kugel (a noodle dish), and of course, braided challah bread. Cholent, a slow-cooked stew of meats, grains, and beans was and still is, often eaten for lunch.
Other lifestyle factors also had an influence. Many in these Jewish communities were active in trade and through trade, contacts were introduced to foods from farther abroad. Noodles, not popular in German cooking, entered Jewish cuisine through trade with Italians.
The Kashrut (dietary laws) brought with it the need for supervised kosher food supplies and led communities to enter the agriculture business. Many villages in Poland had their own dairies and flour mills, and rights to produce certain alcoholic beverages, such as kosher wines.
When the beginning of the emancipation (the removal of discriminatory restrictions on Jews) improved the socio-economic status of European Jews, their eating habits also changed. Dishes that had originated as peasant food were developed and refined. The thriving, middle-class Jewish population in Austria-Hungary developed a range of fine baked goods and began cooking with wine and paprika.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, large numbers of Ashkenazic Jews began immigrating to the United States, bringing with them foods that were to become some of the best-loved features of American cuisine. One of the most popular Jewish foods, the bagel, was introduced by Polish Jews. The cheesecake was popularized by Jews from Poland, Russia, and Hungary.
Sephardic cuisine came together from a large and diverse group of Jews from Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, and Turkey (all but Spain once parts of the Ottoman Empire). The generous use of herbs and spices gives this cuisine a hallmark exuberance. However, pinpointing a Sephardic dish’s exact origin – whether it’s Spanish, Arab, or Greek – is almost impossible.
When the Jews were expelled from Spain in the late 15th century, the majority went to North Africa, particularly Morocco and Ottoman territories such as Turkey and the Balkans. Jews who settled in the Ottoman areas were often upper class and were successful participants in the cultural and political and affairs of Islamic society.
This success was reflected in a refined, complex cuisine similar to that of the urban nobility. These spicy, aromatic dishes often came with long lists of ingredients and complicated preparation instructions. The quantity was as important as quality and a celebration such as a wedding was cause for a lengthy and extravagant feast.
Elaborate seasoning is a significant factor in Sephardic cooking. Italian parsley and cilantro are favorites herbs, along with dill, thyme, fennel, coriander, citron, and rosemary. Middle Eastern Jewish cuisine often combines turmeric and cumin, while Morocco and other North African cooking styles include ginger, cumin, and saffron. In Jewish cooking from the eastern end of the Mediterranean, cinnamon is used to accent both meat dishes and sweets.
The warm climate’s abundance of fruits, vegetables, spices, and grains has been put to good use. Spicy salads with peppers, artichokes, eggplant, zucchini, and beans begin many Sephardic meals and vegetables braised in herbed tomato sauce and dolmades (vegetables stuffed with meat and rice) are common holiday specialties. Braised meats with rice or couscous are typical main courses. For special occasions, rice may be garnished with dried fruit and nuts. Garlic, lemon, and olives are also characteristic flavors.
Although heavily influenced by surrounding nations, the cuisine does include dishes and cooking habits that are uniquely Jewish. Italian Jews prepared artichoke in an innovative way. Leeks and fennel, now commonly used in the area, were first used in Jewish cooking. Mediterranean Jews did eat meat but, except on Shabbat, fish was preferred.
In the 18th century, colonialism and natural disaster took a heavy toll on these communities, but the food philosophies and recipes survived and still, today are enjoyed in Jewish communities worldwide.
There is still debate over whether a separate “Israeli cuisine” exists, but if there’s one thing that defines the culinary style of Israel it’s the happy blending of Jewish traditions.
Jewish immigrants to Israel, coming from over 80 countries, have brought along the culinary traditions of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic societies. These two styles have not only mingled with each other, but have been adapted and expanded to make use of ingredients native to Israel.
Many “typically Israeli” foods entered Israeli cuisine from elsewhere in the Middle East. The falafel (deep-fried chickpea balls in a pita), hummus (chickpea paste), and “Israeli salad”, a dish made of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, all originated outside Israel.
The cooking traditions of Eastern Europe also play a role in Israeli cuisine, bringing ingredients such as sour cream and paprika and dishes such as borscht. Naturally, foods common to the region, such as olives and olive oil, chickpeas, and yogurt are also frequently used. With fresh fruits and vegetables so plentiful, cooks can experiment with creative recipes, and vegetables are eaten even for breakfast.
Jewish holidays and traditions have helped shape the cuisine in such a way that holiday food can almost stand as a category of its own. Although Ashkenazic and Sephardic holiday dishes may differ from each other, the roots are the same. It’s these holiday foods that, because they were born out of a uniquely Jewish way of life, are the most Jewish of all.
Shabbat dinner, and to a lesser extent Shabbat lunch, has been the main festive meal in Jewish homes around the world throughout the centuries. As cooking on Shabbat is forbidden, there was a need for a substantial dish that could be prepared in advance.
In Eastern Europe, the solution was cholent, a stew of beans, beef, barley, and sometimes potatoes that can be started before Shabbat begins and left cooking throughout Shabbat. Challah, braided egg bread, is also unique to Shabbat and the holidays and used in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions.
On Rosh Hashanah (the New Year), challah is formed into a circle to symbolize the cycle of life and of the year. Tzimmes is served because its sweetness symbolizes hopes for a sweet new year. During Chanukah, latkes (potato pancakes) are traditionally served among Ashkenazic Jews and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are served among Israeli Jews. Both require the use of oil, symbolizing the oil of the Chanukah lamp.
During Purim, Hamentaschen, filled cookies said to look like the hat of Hamen (an enemy of the Jews), are often made. Each cooking style has its own recipe for charoset, a mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine, served during Passover to represent the mortar used to build the pyramids. Cheese blintzes are a common dish for Shavu’ot when dairy meals are traditionally eaten.
Although time and circumstances have led to distinct differences between the Ashkenazic, Sephardi, and Israeli culinary styles, there are still many uniting factors that give Jewish cuisine a unique character.