Top Twelve Famous Jewish Dishes by Ethnicity
By Shalom Goldfarb Submitted On July 06, 2010
When speaking about Jewish food and eating habits, it’s hard to isolate a single strain. That’s because Jews have been spread out among so many different countries and cultures ever since their exile in the year 70CE that you’d have to talk about each Jewish ethnic sect separately to make any sense of Jewish eating habits and Jewish food. Each Jewish ethnicity took recipes and dishes from its host country, whether it be Africa, Europe, Yemen, or the Orient. So what we’ll do is a top three Ashkenazi (European) foods, top three African foods, and top three Yemenite foods, and top three Oriental Jewish foods.
The most stereotypical Jewish food is that popularized by the Ashkenazi ethnic sect, coming out of Europe and especially Germany and Eastern Europe. Jewish eating habits from there are influenced by constant poverty that struck the Pale and forced the Jews to eat cheaply. The dishes that became a mark of the poor man back then are now cultural phenomena, mostly because Ashkenazi Jews are the most heavily Westernized of Jews, and the most in contact with American culture. Therefore, when an American thinks “Jew” he thinks Ashkenazi Jew.
1) Cholent. This is a Yiddish word that I just found out from Google Translate means “spares.” I thought it meant stew, but it doesn’t. This makes a lot of sense, because spares are essentially what cholent is. The actual food is pretty much any scrap you can put in a slow-cooker, vegetable, meat, grain (usually barley because it’s cheap), and water, chuck it in there and simmer it on low for 24 hours. It’s incredibly easy to make, requires no effort, and is a good dish if you have a bunch of refrigerator scrap left over you don’t want to throw out. You also go to your butcher and take his scrap (bones, fat, some meat chunks cut off that nobody wanted because they’re not very good), and your cholent comes out really cheap. Since it’s cooked for so long, though, everything turns out delicious in the end. For authentic Ashkenazi cholent, you’ll need some intestine stuffed with pureed vegetables. This can get dangerous if you don’t clean it properly.
2) Gefilte Fish. Once again the cheap stuff. Carp is such a bony fish that it’s nearly impossible to eat. This is why it’s so cheap, and this is also why gefilte fish is made out of carp. In order to get rid of the bone problem, Jews of Ashkenaz just put the entire thing in a grinder and made fish puree, re-stuffed the skin, and called it a day.
3) Gribinis. Cheap again? Of course. Go to your butcher and ask him to give you the leftover skin for free. He’ll probably do it. Then you put a bunch of oil in a pan and fry the stuff up with some onions. Very, very bad for you, but very, very good.
We can see now how cheap Ashkenazi Jews are, especially now that they’ve made everyone culturally aware of these foods and now everyone thinks they’re delicacies or something. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, so it makes me laugh. Let’s move on to the Sephardim.
1) Hamin. This is a straight up Hebrew word meaning, “Hot stuff.” Doesn’t necessarily mean spicy, but it’s basically cholent with different ingredients. Instead of garbage, the Sephardim use rice in place of barley, and hard boiled eggs instead of meat scraps. Sephardim also actually use spices, which Ashkenazi dishes don’t usually have much of besides salt and pepper.
2) Shakshouka. I’ve had this made really horribly (Israeli Army) and really amazingly (my wife). Basically tomato sauce, paprika, baharat (google it), cilantro, parsley, onions, and eggs fried over easy in the juices. If made right, it’s really great stuff. If made badly, it tastes like tomato-flavored rubber tires from your local mechanic.
3) Sahlav. This is a rose-water based thick pudding-like drink that tastes like a combination of perfume and Pier1Imports smell. I personally think it’s gross.
Am I biased towards Ashkenazim? Probably. On to Africa.
1) Injera. I had this at an Ethiopian absorption center in northern Israel. It’s a savory pancake, and it’s pretty good. I hear it’s made from tif flour, a grain found in Africa.
2) Waat. A spicy sauce made of meat, vegetables, and beans. It’s what you put in injera.
3) Taj. Home brewed honey wine with lemon juice.
On to Yemen? Let’s do it.
1) Lamb’s head. This is exactly what it sounds like. Yemenites eat it on Rosh Hashana instead of a fish head. They basically roast the whole thing and eat it off the skull. I intend on getting one this year to try it out.
2) Jahnun. Yemenite Jewish pastry, fillo dough wrapped in a spiral and coated with vegetable oil and fried. It’ll make you sick, that I guarantee.
3) Arak. There’s an argument over whether this is primarily Sephardic or Yemenite. But either way, it’s an anise flavored highly alcoholic beverage, my favorite drink, though I mix it with coke.
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