The Jews, stuffed cabbage and Simchat Torah
It’s almost encoded in your Jewish DNA: How you make your stuffed cabbage all depends on where your grandmother came from.
For many, the delicacy is served on the holiday of Simchat Torah much the same way that latkes are associated with Chanukah, hamentaschen tag along with Purim and Shavuot comes with a plethora of dairy dishes.
So how did the overcooked, gelatinous, rolled-up dish become associated with the last festival of the High Holidays season?
“Most of the traditional foods we eat on Jewish holidays start out with a seasonal reason as to why we eat them, and later a religious significance is tacked on,” says Gil Marks, a Jewish food historian and author of the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.” “Vegetables like cabbage were in season during the fall and very cheap, so stuffed cabbage became one of the most popular traditional foods eaten. Cabbage was the odor of the shtetl.”
Travel back some 500 years to the 16th century, when Jews first started living in shtetls. The Jews mostly kept to themselves, but the food they ate often was a kosher adaptation of what their non-Jewish neighbors were eating, Marks says.
Stuffed cabbage was a staple dish for peasants during the cold season in places such as Turkey and Persia, and it arrived to the Jews of Europe from the south and the east, according to Marks. Jews living in places like Russia and Poland learned the dish from the Tatars, a Turkish group that ruled the area in the 16th century, while Jews living in southern European countries such as Hungary and the Balkans learned it from their Turkish neighbors, who then were under the control of the Ottoman Empire.
Eastern European Jews adapted the dish with cabbage and kosher meat, naming it after a dove because the rolled up item resembled a bird in a nest. So in Russian it was called golub, in Ukraine holub and in Yiddish teibel — all words for dove.
Those living in the Ottoman Empire made the dish using local grape leaves. They gave the dish a more literal name in Turkish, like sarma, which means wrap, yaprak for leaf, or dolma for stuffed.
From here, Jewish communities added their variations. Many Hungarian Jews use a dash of marjoram, Syrians add cinnamon, Persians throw in some dill and mint, and Romanians toss in lots of garlic and paprika.
As meat was expensive, many Jews in the Middle East and Romania would add rice to reduce the share of meat needed, while Eastern European Jews would add bread, barley or kasha. Some Middle Eastern varieties use only rice for the stuffing.
“They didn’t always have money to buy meat, but when they did, they saved it for special occasions and served their best dish on Simchas Torah,” Marks said, using the Ashkenazic pronunciation for the holiday.
When Jews began to immigrate to America in the 19th and 20th century, the dish took on new variations, like cooking it in a tomato stew or a sweet-and-sour sauce.
“I’ve met so many people over the years that like to make their own little variation of the dish, adding a little sour cream or parmesan cheese,” Joan Nathan, a Jewish cuisine author and television producer, told JTA. “But honestly, why change a recipe that has been through so many generations and is perfect the way it is? We use the same recipe, year after year, and that’s what makes it so special.”
With the dish appearing at the end of Sukkot year after year — Simchat Torah comes the day after Sukkot ends, and some American Jews spend the holiday’s first day, called Shemini Atzeret, eating in the sukkah — Jews began ascribing new meanings to stuffed cabbage. (Or, perhaps, those points of significance were hidden in the folds of the cabbage all along.)
“Some believe stuffing a food represents the time of harvesting, since Sukkot marks the fall harvest. More importantly, it was easily transferable in and out of the sukkah,” Marks said. “It also has an interesting visual. One stuffed cabbage on a plate noticeably resembles a rolled up Torah scroll — and two, side by side, also looks like a Torah, rolled up halfway.”
Tori Avey, a Jewish convert who writes the culinary blog Shiksa in the Kitchen, says readers from all over the world have sent recipes to her. Some were identical.
“For a sweet and sour flavor, readers wrote to add sour salt, although some opt for lemon juice or apple cider vinegar,” Avey told JTA via email. “One reader with Russian ancestors uses lemon peels. Some readers said they use sauerkraut for the sauce, and others use convenience ingredients like cranberry juice, V-8, and even grape jelly.”
Whether you stew it, boil it, saute it or steam it, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to preparing stuffed cabbage. The important thing, Marks says, is to remember your roots.
“People remember the different variations of stuffed cabbage based on their mothers and grandmothers,” he said. “It’s not just about food. Eating something as traditional as this is a cultural experience, one that is spiritual and nostalgic. It manages to transcend time, its food for the soul.”