Cookbook author and food writer Leah Koenig has gone to great extremes to provide us with a Jewish cooking canon. Over the last several years, she has written a series of three “little books,” the last of which, Little Book of Jewish Sweets, was just published in July 2019 (and the first of which we reviewed here). In poetic contrast, her recently released The Jewish Cookbook is a weighty bible of Jewish cooking around the world.
Where the “little books” comprised a highly curated collection of the appetizers, main dishes and desserts that we think of as Jewish cooking, this latest book is meant to provide a more comprehensive resource. The publisher, Phaidon, is known for publishing culinary tomes that take us on a deep dive into a single cuisine.
While Koenig acknowledges many earlier Jewish cookbook authors, it’s apparent that this book builds on their work and goes a step beyond to include some communities not reflected in other compilations. In a phone interview, she tells me that as Jewish cuisine is constantly evolving and incorporates regional ingredients consistent with the varied places Jews have lived, “this is a book that needs to be told over and over again.” This book is a snapshot of our cooking at this moment in time.
While some of us in the US might be more familiar with Ashkenazi and Sephardi cooking, Koenig has tried to embrace a wide-ranging palate, including Mizrahi recipes from Middle-Eastern and Central Asian countries, as well as recipes of Jews from Rome to Mexico to India to Ethiopia and Uganda and everywhere in between.
The variety of styles and influences is what she says makes Jewish food “endlessly interesting and endlessly exciting,” and what made this project so interesting to work on. She’s been developing recipes and writing about Jewish food and culture for over a decade and sees this book as the culmination of her past work, raising our awareness that Jewish food is “so much more than Ashkenazi cuisine and so much more than Sephardi.”
This was no easy task, as this bible includes 400 recipes that Koenig herself researched and developed as well as 25 more recipes that she gathered and tested from Jewish chefs around the world. These additional recipes, along with short essays interspersed throughout on topics such as the history of the New York appetizing shop and the varied traditions of Shabbat stews, give the book a little color and flair that some of the larger comprehensive single-subject cookbooks can lack.
The recipes are grouped by categories, putting dishes like a German-style Ashkenazi Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup in the same chapter as the Persian Jewish Bean, Herb and Noodle Stew (aash-e reshteh), and making near neighbors of Ashkenazi Chicken Fricassee, Moroccan Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemon (and, yes, she provides a recipe for Preserved Lemons in the book!) and Ethiopian Doro Wot.
Speaking to Koenig just before the holidays got me thinking about the challah-like Sephardi Yeasted Pumpkin bread (pan de calabaza) and a simple and elegant dish that she pointed out to me. Called “Chilled Apples with Rose Water,” or faloodeh sib, it is essentially a mixture of grated apple, rose water and sugar that some Persian Jewish families serve to break the fast. In an adaptation that is typical with Jewish food, this dish is a seasonal variation of an Iranian treat normally made with vermicelli noodles.
With this book, Koenig has managed to make the universe of Jewish food seem simultaneously diverse and yet cohesive. Our food ways may vary regionally, but they are all a product of what we share as Jews, food influenced by Shabbat and holidays, feast, famine and kashrut.
The Jewish Cookbook has been on just about every media outlet list of eagerly anticipated fall release cookbooks for good cause. It’s an interesting read, a helpful primer and a great recipe resource, not to mention that it’s truly lovely to look at, with its blue fabric cover decorated with spirals of silver and gold. I recommend you put it on your own wish list and think about it as a gift for others—it’s likely to be a classic for years to come.