‘Food Maven’ Saves Endangered Recipes
“Jewish Food: The World at Table” by Matthew Goodman (HarperCollins, $29.95)
When the El-Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia was bombed by Al Qaeda in 2002, the fragile remnant of a once thriving Jewish community was even further shattered.
“The Tunisian Jewish community is one of the oldest continuous Jewish communities in the world,” said Matthew Goodman, author of “Jewish Food: The World at Table,” from his home in Brooklyn, “and the site of El-Ghriba was one of the most ancient, going back, I believe, to the fifth century B.C.E. As of 1948 there were 100,000 Jews in Tunisia. Today there are fewer than 2,000.”
As the “Food Maven” columnist at The Forward, Goodman used his reporting skills to search out diverse cuisines of far-flung, once vital centers of Jewish life, some now on the brink of extinction.
“What I tried to do with this book was to locate and preserve food traditions from communities around the world that are today endangered because the communities themselves are endangered,” he said. “So many of them weren’t able to survive the 20th century or survive only in the most attenuated form.”
More than 170 recipes, some of which have never before been written down, document the rich and varied Jewish culture of 29 countries, linked by law and ritual, yet distinguished by unique customs, traditions and celebrations, the history of a people told through its food.
But what is Jewish food? Can it even be defined?
“There are very few dishes that are shared by all Jewish communities around the world,” Goodman noted, “only two or three, and only one shared ingredient, matzah. You couldn’t define a cuisine based entirely on matzah. Jewish food is food that has been made by Jewish communities through the centuries and sustained by them, wherever they happened to be.”
Both Ashkenazic and Sephardic cuisines and cultures are celebrated, so you see the Sabbath stew, one of the few dishes shared by all Jewish communities — charoset is another — in the Solet of Hungary and the Moroccan Dafina.
“Jewish Food” is an exciting read, filled with fascinating history. Did you know the mother of King Ferdinand of Spain was a converso, that Yemenites were the only people on earth who used Hebrew for communication before it became the official language of Israel and that the earliest borscht was made not from beets but from parsnips?
Nestled among the recipes are essays on selected ingredients, dishes and communities, deepening our understanding of their historical context.
“Food is kind of a repository of a community’s history,” Goodman observed. “You can see the wanderings of people over time. You can see the influence of conquest, of poverty, of travel. Food becomes a history lesson on a plate.”
As an example, he cited the use of pine nuts and raisins in Roman Jewish cooking, as in the Italian Matzo Fritters with Honey Syrup.
“These ingredients were brought to Sicily by the Arabs where the Jews learned how to use them. Then when they got kicked out of Sicily during the Spanish Inquisition, they brought them when they moved up to Rome. The cinnamon and honey sauce, giulebbe, you find in a lot of Roman Jewish desserts. You can see the history of these people in this dish.”
And what would Passover be without macaroons? But, if you’ve tasted only the store-bought variety, you’re in for a treat.
“The same way that gefilte fish has gotten a bad name because most people think it comes out of a jar, macaroons got a bad name because they think they come in those metal tins,” noted Goodman. “Macaroons you make yourself are so much better and just phenomenally simple to make.”
The Pistachio Macaroons are made with rosewater, “a very common ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking, as are pistachios, and used a lot by Syrians,” he said. “They’re a nice alternative for people who want something a little different than the typical coconut macaroons.”
Sadly, some recipes are irretrievable, Goodman said.
“There are so few of these dishes left,” he said. “It’s really like an extinct species. So many generous people shared their recipes with me. Some in the New York area would invite me to their home and let me cook with them in their kitchen. It was just an amazingly moving experience for me. But with each recipe they’d give me, they’d say, ‘I wish you could have tried these other two that so-and-so used to do, but she died.’ That dish is gone forever.”
Pizzarelle Con Giulebbe (Italian Matzah Fritters with Honey Syrup)
1 cup honey
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
5 matzahs, broken into small pieces
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher for Pesach vanilla
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup pine nuts
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 egg whites
Vegetable oil for deep frying
1. Make the syrup: Combine the honey, water and cinnamon in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cover and bring to a boil, then uncover, lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring regularly. Remove from heat and let cool. Pour into a serving bowl.
2. Make the batter: Place the matzah pieces in a bowl of cold water and soak until soft but not falling apart, one to two minutes. Drain in a colander and squeeze out any excess water. In a large bowl, mix together the matzah pieces, sugar, vanilla, salt, raisins, pine nuts and egg yolks.
3. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the matzo mixture.
4. Make the pizzarelle: In a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot, heat at least 2 inches of oil to 375 F on a deep-fat thermometer. In small batches, drop heaping tablespoons of the matzah mixture into the oil. Fry in batches, turning as necessary, until they are a deep brown on all sides, about five minutes total. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve warm or at room temperature, accompanied by the honey syrup.
Makes about 25.
3 cups (about 1 pound)
1 cup sugar
3 egg whites
1 1/2 teaspoons rosewater
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease two baking sheets or line them with parchment paper.
2. Grind the pistachios with the sugar in the bowl of a food processor, leaving some chunks for texture; transfer the mixture to a large bowl.
3. Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Gently fold them, with the rosewater, into the pistachio mixture.
4. Drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls in balls onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least 1 inch between. Bake until lightly browned, 17 to 20 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheets for a few minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.
Makes about 30.