The Essential Jewish Cookbook isn’t your typical kugel-and-brisket cookbook, or even the usual falafel-and-hummus cookbook. Jews have found homes all over the world, and their food reflects each location’s geography, climate and broader food traditions.
In writing her new book, (beloved JFE® Advisory Council member and contributor) Marcia Friedman delved into what is essential to each tradition’s menu and reviews the interesting history of this mixing of cultures and food. She wants Jewish food to be viewed as a true global fusion cuisine.
Friedman sought to balance being true to tradition with making her book “friendly and approachable.” Her recipes are easy to follow, and most have fewer than ten ingredients. She took the task of narrowing down “essential” to just 100 recipes very seriously, balancing cultures, ingredients and holidays. Surveying many resources, she made her recipe selections by seeing which foods came up over and over as “beloved foods across traditions” and seemed most representative and reflective of Jewish experience in different cultures. Tracing the history of food went along with the history of the people.
Ashkenazi foods are usually the first that come to mind among North Americans when thinking about typical Jewish foods. Based on an existing Eastern European food culture that was subjected to cold winters, the Ashkenazi diet is marked largely by the soups, hearty stews, root vegetable dishes and pickled foods that were popular across the region. Even challah derives from fancy German braided breads. This is the predominant “American Jewish” food today, but palates are widening.
Heading south (in Europe), Sephardi cuisine, originating in the Iberian Peninsula and then spreading through the Mediterranean, shared many characteristics with the region’s early ruling Arab cultures. Rice, nuts, lentils and meat-and-fruit combinations are typical, and later New-World vegetables like tomatoes became central, too. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and then Portugal, Jews were forced to moved east. Many resettled in North Africa and the land that would become Israel, further blending ingredients.
The cuisine of Mizrahi Jews, those living in the Middle East, North Africa and parts of the Mediterranean continuously for thousands of years, is what we think of when we think of modern Israeli food, though it is so much more—fresh fruits, salads, aromatic spice blends and flatbreads blended with countless other cultures in this area, which was part of trade routes since the beginning of history. Throughout the various originating cultures, Jews adapted recipes to keep in line with the rules of kashrut.
Friedman used food as a guide for exploring all of these different branches of Jewish culture and Judaism after her conversion over 20 years ago. “It’s a very powerful, a very tangible way to connect,” she said. She loved exploring the rich history and the complex mixing of flavors and traditions, and found food to be a great way to build a personal connection with the culture. Much like her first cookbook, Meatballs and Matzah Balls, which explored Italian-Jewish food, Friedman sees cuisine as a foundational part of the global Jewish story.
Creating a cookbook and testing recipes during the pandemic presented challenges to Friedman. But she and a team of dedicated recipe testers working in their own homes (home cooks and a professional chef) worked to procure ingredients and test, taste and tweak the recipes to get results that are sure to become favorites in many homes, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
The Essential Jewish Cookbook is broken up by category, such as breakfasts, noodles and grains, and salads, rather than cuisine or holiday. The robust vegetarian section has a dozen recipes, including some vegan options. Friedman also created holiday menus with a selection of recipes that blend these different traditions to make new and tasty celebrations.
The recipes capture favorites but with many modern updates for today’s time constraints, special diets, tastes and ingredients. The rich variety includes recipes like lemon-garlic roast chicken and chicken sofrito alongside North African-style spicy fish, and a savory kugel sharing a chapter with Persian-style rice and Egyptian-style fava beans. And there are lots of recipes that are just pure fun, like blueberry and cream cheese bourekas, matzah lasagna and an egg cream updated with gelato.