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About Jewish Food
Jewish food is difficult to define. Over time, Jews have eaten many different types of foods, often no different from those of their gentile neighbors. Nonetheless, the foods Jews have eaten bear the stamp of the unique socio-economic and migratory patterns of the Jewish community, while also reflecting the Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and other religious requirements; for instance, the prohibition against creating fire on the Sabbath inspired slow-cooked Sabbath stews in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic cuisine.
Jews and Food in the Ancient World
Seven types of produce are mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8–wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranate, olives, and dates. Legumes, wild plants, and meat–mostly mutton–were also eaten in biblical times. The dietary laws found in the Torah, and analyzed in detail in the Talmud, governed all eating in ancient years. The Torah and Talmud also enumerate other food-related laws, such as those related to the shmita or sabbatical year, during which all land must lay fallow.
Sephardic cuisine refers to the foods eaten by the Jews of the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, the Red Sea region, and India. Most of these lands were once part of the Islamic world, and they reflect the varied yet related food customs of this culture. In the early Middle Ages, the Jews in Islamic lands flourished culturally and economically. Their foods reflect this socio-economic position in quality, quantity, and presentation. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, most Sephardic Jews made their way to North Africa and the Ottoman lands, where they continued to influence and be influenced by local cuisine.
In contrast to Sephardic Jewry, most Ashkenazic Jews–those from Europe and Russia–were very poor, and their food reflects this. Ashkenazic food also reflects the migration of a community first based in Germany that ultimately spread eastward to Russia and Poland. What Americans usually refer to as “Jewish food”–bagels, knishes, borscht–are the foods of Ashkenazic Jewry, and indeed, in many cases were foods eaten by the non-Jews of Eastern Europe as well.
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