The Treasure Box Project
Preserving Jewish Ethnic Cuisine
There are some phrases we use so often that they become meaningless clichés, bereft of their original poignancy. For us Israelis, one such phrase is "Kibbutz Galuyot", literally the "ingathering of exiles." More than just a phrase, this ingathering of Diaspora Jews is the ultimate goal of the Zionist movement . Or is it? What does it really mean to live in a society that consists of so many diverse ethnic groups? Does preserving one's heritage prevent embracing our newly found Israeli identity? And what is Israeli identity anyway?
For Erna Mayer, author of the first cookbook ever published in Palestine, the answer is crystal clear. In her book "How to Cook in Palestine" published in the early 1930s she wrote: "We housewives must make an attempt to free our kitchens from European customs which are not appropriate to Palestine. We should wholeheartedly stand in favour of healthy Palestinian cooking…." To our modern ears such pronouncements may sound like propagandic indoctrination, but in those early days of creating the brave new Israeli, they were perfectly in tune. Ms. Mayer, herself from Germany, speaks only about European customs because her directives were formulated some two decades before the enormous wave of immigration from the Middle Eastern countries.
Fortunately, food wise our collective past has refused to die. For the most part, newcomers have been clinging to their family culinary traditions and finding comfort in familiar foods of the old country. And so this tiny land became home to a few dozen Jewish ethnic cuisines, featuring dishes as diverse as kibbe and knishes.
With cross-culture marriage the norm in a country so small, cooking traditions are constantly mixed and reshuffled. An Eastern European chicken soup can be spiced with Yemenite hawaij and Austro-Hungarian schnitzel happily shares the plate with Moroccan couscous. This mishmash is the fertile ground on which the New Israeli cuisine thrives, and it is reason why this cuisine, still taking baby steps, already tastes so promising.
While cultural integration allows us to enjoy this delectable variety, we rarely stop to think about the future of Jewish ethnic cooking. And this future seems bleak.
Today a large percentage of the local population is still made up of first generation immigrants possessing the know-how and – even more importantly – the desire for ethnic foods from the old country. But their children have less knowledge, their grandchildren – hardly any at all. A handful of dishes, like North African couscous, Tunisian shakshuka, Ashkenazi chicken soup or Kurdish kubbe, have become all-Israeli staples, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. The majority of dishes are virtually unknown outside of their respective communities and are therefore bound to be lost.
Making this eminent loss even more poignant is the fact than almost none of these Jewish communities still exist in the Diaspora. There are no Jews left in Iran, Iraq, Syria or Morocco. And even if there are still some Jews left in places like Hungary or Poland, the communities are too small to sustain its own culinary heritage.
Israel (and to a certain extent North America with its vibrant Jewish culture) bears the responsibility of safeguarding this plethora of culinary wisdom. But how? Food is easily the most difficult aspect of culture to preserve. You can record sound, texts and images, but how do you document smells and flavors? Recipes are just flowcharts, unable to convey the richness and excitement of the prepared dish. Recipes, however, are all I have at my disposal in this humble newsletter. The rest is up to you – if you choose to prepare these dishes and share them with your friends and family, you are helping keep ethnic culinary tradition alive.
Just to whet your appetite here are a few examples of dishes worth preserving, not only for their historic significance, but simply because they are delicious.
This Treasure Box is yours, so feel free to contribute your family recipes and stories. You are also welcome to inquire about nostalgic dishes you may remember from childhood or heard about from family members, and I will try to find a recipe for you. Contact me