What is Jewish Food

Written by Ruth Abusch-Magder onNovember 10th, 2009 

When I’m not working on Alumni Education, I write, teach and study Jewish food. I often get asked if there is such thing as Jewish food. After all, Jews are not the only ones to smoke meat, eat couscous or make fish into little balls. So when I was asked to put together a short description of Jewish food to sit on the tables at the upcoming HAZON conference I was excited to try and answer the question. The topic is a big one but here on one foot is a succinct overview.

Jewish Foodbagel

Brisket, barches, blintzes, burekas, kugel, jachnun and shalet. The list of Jewish foods is endless. Since biblical times food has been a central part of Jewish life playing a role in Jewish life, culture and tradition. It would, for example, be impossible to separate out food from the story and observance of Passover. But in many ways Jewish foods have counterparts in other cultures. What for example is the real difference between a kreplach and a wonton? What distinguishes challah from brioche? While it is difficult to define specific foods as Jewish, it is easy to pinpoint some of the forces that have shaped Jewish cuisine. The triumvirate of Jewish food law, food based rituals, and Jewish history have worked together to shape Jewish foodways.

Many Jewish rituals require foods. Bread is blessed on Friday night. Maztah is eaten on Passover. Feasts and gifts of food are mandated to make the carnival festival of Purim truly festive. To celebrate the New Year, the Rosh Hashana table is set with edible omens for the year to come. Jews evolved recipes, such as hamantaschen and honey cake, to meet these ritual needs and enhance the festive nature of celebrations.

Additionally, there are many religious Jewish laws that deal directly with or strongly impact cooking and eating. The dietary laws, kashrut, are perhaps the strongest force in shaping Jewish eating patterns. Based on biblical verses, the rabbinic laws of kashrut prohibit the mixing of milk and meat not only within a given dish but within the same meal. Meat, fish and fowl were further divided into permitted and forbidden. No shellfish, no birds of prey, no pork. Prohibition against cooking on the Sabbath, meant that slow cook dishes became essential elements of the Jewish culinary repertoire.
Working in these parameters, Jews throughout history adapted to the historic and geographic circumstances in which they found themselves. Jews worked with the foods and flavors of the regions in which they lived. Moroccan Jews roasted vegetables and meats with spices and fruits. Hungarian Jews made goulash –but without the cream. In places like Poland, poverty meant that potato dishes became a mainstay of the diet. Expulsions and migrations meant that Jews brought new foods and modes of preparations from one country to another. Artichokes for example arrived in Italy with Jews from Spain.

In America, most of what is known as Jewish food is the Americanized version of Eastern European Jewish cuisine. Some historically Jewish American foods such as bagels and “deli” have crossed over into the mainstream while others such as chopped liver have fallen out of favor. As we sit here today, eating together and talking food seriously in a Jewish context, we are playing a part in a long and evolving conversation about what it means to be Jewish.

Questions for reflection:

Is a blueberry bagel Jewish? why or why not? what about a bacon bagel?

What is more Jewish? kosher sushi or ham and cheese on matzah?

Is the fact that a food is made by or eaten by Jews enough to make it Jewish?