November 17, 2018

Traveling through time in search of Jewish cooking with Joan Nathan

The acclaimed cookbook author Joan Nathan has done more than perhaps anyone to popularize Jewish cooking in America. Her latest book, “King Solomon’s Table,” digs deeper into Jewish history, uncovering connections between cultures to reveal that Jewish cooking is more complicated — and delicious — than we ever realized.

“By having a knowledge of the history, I think I understood what Jewish food was in a different way,” Nathan said in an interview with the Journal in anticipation of the book’s publication and two upcoming local appearances.

[Recipes from “King Solomon’s Table”]

Her journey of discovery reaches back to biblical times and the reign of King Solomon, who sent explorers to various parts of his kingdom to bring back spices and jewels. Nathan finds that Jewish merchants and traders brought these exotic ingredients into their home countries, and these flavors were intermingled with the culinary traditions of their home communities. This culinary cross-pollination resulted in dishes that still are eaten today.

In the universe of Jewish food, Nathan is the Big Bang. Her 10 previous books include six about Jewish cuisine and two on Israeli cuisine. The two James Beard award-winning books, “Jewish Cooking in America” and “The New American Cooking,” have become essential reference books for preparing Jewish meals for holidays and throughout the year. It is unlikely that any hip artisan deli owner or new-wave Jewish food blogger didn’t at some point dig deep into Nathan’s works for inspiration, ingredients or proportions. 

Nathan, 74, lives in Washington, D.C., and on Martha’s Vineyard with her husband, the prominent lawyer Allan Gerson, and is the mother of three adult children. She also hosted a nationally syndicated PBS television series about Jewish cooking, and writes regularly for The New York Times, Tablet magazine and other publications.

Her latest book will be published just in time for Passover, when Jews remember the Exodus story and connect it to other stories of displacement and diaspora. The publication also coincides with stepped-up immigration raids in the United States and a backlash against refugees in Europe.

“Every cuisine is helped by immigrants,” Nathan said. “In writing this book, I began to realize that after 1965, when immigration opened up all over the world — to immigrants from Southeast Asia, from Russia, from all parts of the world — it embellished Jewish food, because we had Afghani immigrants, Uzbek immigrants, Azerbaijani immigrants. And so, in most cases, I tried to go around the world to try this food, but because I couldn’t get to Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, I could get those in Brooklyn and L.A.”

Her new book includes more than 170 recipes that traverse the globe. They include her takes on classics like Yemenite chicken soup, bourekas, hummus and hamantashen, as well as modern riffs on traditional dishes such as shakshuka, herbed labneh and Baghdadi chicken. There also are recipes that combine cultures, like Syrian-Mexican chicken with apricot, tamarind and chipotle sauce.

Nathan’s voracious appetite for stories shines through every anecdote and historical gem in the book.

Nathan’s voracious appetite for stories shines through every anecdote and historical gem in the book. “King Solomon’s Table” is as much a kitchen reference guide as it is a page-turner about Jewish history and culture told through food.

Take the macaroon, a cookie many enjoy during Passover. The treat has roots in the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now southern Iraq. It’s made with almonds, sugar, rosewater and sometimes eggs blended together with cardamom. Macaroons have become a Purim and Passover staple for Iraqi and Iranian Jews, though they’ve picked up flavors as Jews have spread across the globe. Nathan’s cookbook includes a recipe for walnut-almond macaroons with a raspberry jam thumbprint.

Nathan leaves no stone unturned when sniffing out Jewish culinary history. Her research trips uncover Jewish connections from China and India to Mexico and Iran. Jews lived along the Silk Road and adopted kreplach from the Chinese wonton. She includes a recipe for Sri Lankan breakfast buns with cinnamon-laced onion confit, adapted from a bun she found at a roadside stand in Sri Lanka, where a small Jewish community once lived.

Another example is chicken paprikash, a favorite dish among Hungarian Jews. In her research, Nathan realized the paprika was probably brought by Sephardic Jewish merchants from the New World. Similarly, knödel originated in Alsace-Lorraine and southern Germany and later became kneidlach, or matzo balls.

“I remember when I was much younger and I was hiking in the Alps and, in a hut at the top, there was this huge knödel in the soup, and I thought, Oh, my God, matzo balls! And the matzo balls that we have in America are not like what they were in Europe,” Nathan said.

At times, it feels like the definition of “Jewish food” stretches so wide that it seems to lose meaning, but, Nathan says, “the core, even if you don’t agree with it, are the dietary laws” along with the foods traditional to the Jewish holidays.

Another thing that sets apart Jewish cooking from, say, Italian cooking, is that Jewish merchants brought back spices from other lands and incorporated them into the foods of their home countries. So the recipes have a multilayered aspect that merges different cultures’ flavors.

The way Jewish food spans place and time was evident during Nathan’s keynote address earlier this month at a symposium called “Jewish Food in the Global South.” She hosted a cooking class and made carciofi alla giudia, fried artichokes Jewish style; fessenjan, a traditional chicken-and-walnut stew made with pomegranate and served with saffron rice; and upside-down fruit cobbler. She also discussed the evolution of schnecken, a kind of sweet bun. In Arkansas, Jews replaced the walnuts used in Germany with pecans.

“King Solomon’s Table” is as much a kitchen reference guide as it is a page-turner about Jewish history and culture

She also revealed a recipe for a Lithuanian stuffed matzo ball she discovered in Mississippi. It was made in a muffin tin and stuffed with meat and cinnamon. “A Lithuanian immigrant brought that recipe in the 19th century and made it in a wood stove,” she said.

In writing the book, Nathan’s voyage of discovery also landed her at the Babylonian Collection in the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, where she was able to (very carefully) handle three clay tablets from about 1700 B.C.E. These earliest known “cookbooks” had chiseled on them 44 recipes inscribed in cuneiform in the Akkadian language.

Nathan spends a fair amount of time in Los Angeles, where she interacts with Persian Jews eating fessenjan and gondi kashi, a rice dish filled with spices, herbs, meat, beets and fava beans. Her recipe for sweet-and-sour Persian stuffed grape leaves begins with a delightful anecdote about walking into Maryam Maddahi’s home in Beverly Hills, where she heard Persian music and found 60 family members singing, dancing, talking mostly in Farsi and snacking on platters of pistachios and dates. The grape leaves described in her book come stuffed with raisins, barberries, apricots and golden plums.

Another cross-cultural recipe included in the book is chilaquiles, using fried pieces of either corn tortillas or matzos. Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold told Nathan he prepares the dish for his family for breakfast, referring to it as “Mexican matzo brei.”

Jewish cooking is not static. Nathan finds infinite variations on traditional recipes. Potato kugel may be of Eastern European origin, but it morphed into noodle kugel in America. Nathan’s recipe calls for adding leeks to potato kugel, and recently she met a woman who says she makes it regularly with sweet potatoes.

“King Solomon said there’s nothing new under the sun,” Nathan said. “Well, let me tell you, we’re using chickpeas the way they used them in the ancient world. We’re using pomegranate syrup. Of course, it’s processed pomegranate syrup, but that’s what they used. Date jam, which is the jam used in the Bible. We are now rediscovering all these ingredients.”

Joan Nathan’s cookbook “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking From Around the World” (Knopf, 382 pages, $35) will be published on April 4. She’ll speak with KCRW’s Evan Kleiman at 2 p.m. on April 6, at the Skirball Cultural Center, and with the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Gold at 7:30 p.m. on April 6, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Irmas Campus.