It has been a month of Jewish holidays with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. As chef Oded Schwartz observes in his recently republished book, In Search of Plenty − A History of Jewish food, cooking holiday food is one of the main ways of passing on tradition. One cooks for past history and dead ancestors as much as for the living family.
Tracing Jewish food traditions from Biblical times − from the lands of milk and honey, figs and dates − Schwartz takes the reader on a food odyssey that reaches as far as India and China. He finds plenty alright, and some of it is unexpectedly erotic. Best of all, Schwartz wears his encyclopaedic knowledge lightly.
There are two principal strands to this narrative. The first is the Ashkenazi kitchen of the European Jewry, with schmaltz (chicken fat) at its cornerstone, and such familiar dishes as gefilte fish and chicken soup with knaidlach. The second is Mediterranean Sephardi cuisine, largely ignored by Jewish cooks in the UK and USA until awareness developed around the 1950s − think olive oil, hummus and falafel.
The most pervasive influence is of course kashruth (kosher laws) stemming from the Jews’ early nomadic existence and extending though their global wanderings to the present day.
But remarks Schwartz, there is no Kinsey report about breaking kosher laws; Jews are more guilt ridden about kosher keeping than they are about sex.
What is kosher and what is not is still a muddle of authorities competing for influence, territorial battles over lucrative contracts, and contested interpretations, growing ever more complex as new foods and technologies throw curved balls at millennia old rules based on a limited world view.
In the USA, where the first Jewish migrations were reform minded, the purity laws were seen as historic necessity no longer relevant. Schwartz recounts how bacon and ham appeared in cookbooks for the Jewish market, but never under the appellation ‘pork’.
The situation reversed with the massive emigration from the Pale of Settlement around the turn of the century. New York became a new “Jerusalem”. Schwartz wonders what would the city be without pastrami on rye or bagels with cream cheese.
Finally, Schwartz turns his concise prose to Israel, where a cuisine has developed with an accelerated evolution in what is not so much a melting pot as a pressure cooker. Here he ranges into several fascinating accounts: how the salad revolution affected the self-image of the Jewish male; the influence of Sephardi conscript cooks in the universal Israeli experience of the army canteen; the evolution of the kibbutz kitchen; and the success story of intensive turkey husbandry that has led to the demise of the lamb shawarma.
In Search of Plenty contains over a hundred pages of recipes and a bibliography that is a treasure trove. It includes South African recipes for “mock crayfish” and one for parve (neither meat nor dairy) schmaltz, noting that the first commercial vegetarian schmaltz was made by South Africa’s Debra’s.
The prohibition on mixing milk and meat poses the greatest limitation on the Jewish kosher kitchen. Also meat may not be aged, but must be koshered within 72 hours. To compensate taste Jewish cooks preferred cuts suitable to slow cooking.
Family-run Avron’s Place (opened in 1999) is the only fleishig (kosher meat) restaurant in Cape Town. Inspired by New York, the Manhattan skyline is pictured on the walls. The décor is unpretentious to a fault. The extensive menu is like any other steakhouse’s, and doesn’t include ethnic Jewish cuisine. In addition to the usual pastas, steaks, burgers and kebabs there is sushi.
Traditionally, Schwartz writes, Jews had an aversion to raw food, favouring pickles and preserves (for which Schwartz is particularly renowned).
For Ashkenazi specialties head to Goldie’s kosher deli and diner opened in 1995 by the late Goldie Wener. You can load up on chopped liver, borscht, brisket, lokshen kugel, fish balls and tuna blintzes. Proprietor Michael Wener is proud of his vegetarian samosas (for which I can vouch) and potato latkes that burst with oil.
But herring is king. Wener says they used to import their Baltic herring in large brine barrels, but today it comes in solid frozen slabs. The herring has to be salted, whereas in the past it had to be partly desalinated.
Schwartz notes, salt plays a crucial role in koshering and is also symbolic; the covenant between man and God is the covenant of salt.
More Sephardic fare is the forte of Sababa, originally launched at the Neighbourgoods Market in 2006 by Tal Smith. For breakfast, try shakshuka (eggs poached in a tomato sauce). The R35 lunch box is especially good value with a main and choice of three salads. Sababa’s repertoire of dishes is in the hundreds, but look out for their hummus with zaátar, a Middle Eastern herb mix which includes the Biblical hyssop, the quintessential flavour of the Palestine kitchen. For dessert there is (rather pricey) rogolach, banana and granola babkas and date balls.
As Schwartz writes, the Jewish kitchen is a wonderful mix of East and West, Jewish and Arab. One day, hopefully, the harmony of the kitchen will spread to the people themselves.
Avron’s Place, 19-33 Regent Road, Sea Point. Tel: 021 439 7610.
Goldies Deli, 174 Main Road, Sea Point. Tel: 021 439 3008.
Oded’s Kitchen, Old Biscuit Mill, Woodstick. Tel: 021 447 0400.
Sababa, Piazza St John, 395 Main Road, Sea Point. Tel: 021 433 0570.