I have often joked that I am the only woman in America who doesn’t cook anything that she grew up eating. Now this is not a reflection on my mother’s cooking abilities, but rather a result of my marriage to a Moroccan Israeli with very different ideas of what constitutes good food.
My husband was born in Marrakech and moved as an infant to Beersheva, Israel where much of his family still reside. There amidst the trials and tribulations of raising a family in the “ma’aborot” or tent cities, my heroic mother-in-law cared for her large family. Her main occupation in life was clearly feeding her family and in their home this meant the daily preparation of good Moroccan food translating into hours of daily cooking each day.
The food and spices she used were completely different than those that constituted my Ashkenazic upbringing. Couscous was a staple and always made properly (no instant Osem for her) and could be combined with vegetables with chicken on the side for a meat meal or could be made dairy and eaten with leben, a yogurt-like cheese quite popular in Israel. Shabbat would include Moroccan fish and would always feature the Moroccan version of cholent called skhina (meaning “hot in Arabic) or hamin (like the Hebrew word for hot, “cham”) which would include foods like eggs in their shells and chickpeas. Other popular dishes were chicken with olives and different vegetable soups including chickpea pumpkin soup, traditionally served on Rosh Hashanah and my son’s favorite.
Moroccan cooks are also famous for their many salads which make their appearance primarily on Friday nights (carrot, beets, anise, pepper, eggplant etc). My mother in law was also busy pickling olives, peppers and carrots.
Of course one cannot discuss Moroccan food without emphasizing the spices. Onion powder and garlic powder, perhaps the staples of Ashkenazic cooking, have no place here. Instead saffron, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, paprika and allspice rule. Moroccan cooks also create their own blended spice called “mashia” which is great on ground beef. Lemons and olive oil are also staples with preserved lemons often used to flavor various dishes.
Then there are the exquisite foods made for special occasions which I won’t go into here since they merit their own blog post!
I often kid that my husband will only eat food if it is from somewhere between Spain and Iraq (excluding Eastern Europe of course!). Having grown up eating exclusively Moroccan and some Israeli/Middle Eastern food at home, he is not interested in anything else. In fact, when we first started dating he wouldn’t eat anything at my parent’s home not due to any kashrut concerns, but just because everything was so foreign to him. Eventually he tried my mother’s chicken soup, but he prides himself on never having tasted a matzah ball nor gefilte fish.
The fact is that I have never made these foods. Honestly, I prefer my adopted Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine. My “mixed” kids get their fix at their grandparent’s home if they need it. Otherwise, we are all happy embracing our Moroccan heritage.
Moroccan Chickpea/Pumpkin Soup
1 ¼ cups yellow split peas or chickpeas (if using chickpeas, soak for at least ½ hour)
1 large onion, chopped
2 ¾ quarts chicken stock (you can use Osem chicken mix as an option)
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons sunflower oil (I normally use canola)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon saffron
1 pound orange pumpkin, cubed (I use calabazzo pumpkin or a butternut squash will work. I usually use about 2 pounds though the original recipe suggests 1 pound)
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leafed parsley
Put the yellow split peas and the onion in a pot with the stock.
Bring to a boil and simmer for at least a ½ hour or until the split peas are tender.
Add salt and pepper to taste, the oil, cinnamon, ginger and saffron and put in the pumpkin.
Simmer until the pumpkin falls apart
Use an immersion blender or a masher to make the soup smoother.
Sprinkle with flat-leafed parsley before serving.
*note that when using chicken powder I omit the salt. Also the soup can get very thick so feel free to add water to it if it feels too thick.
2 lbs carrots
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons paprika
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
Flat leaf parsley or coriander
Peel and clean carrots.
Peel and clean carrots.
Boil carrots until a fork easily pierces the thickest carrot.
Rinse carrots with cold water and then slice them about ¼ to ½ inch thick.
Crush or finely chop the garlic.
Mix the garlic with the juice of two lemons, all the spices and the olive oil.
Toss the carrots with the mixture.
Sprinkle chopped coriander of flat leaf parsley on the top of the carrots and toss.
It’s hard to kvetch about being a Japanese Jew when you’re being spoiled by ladles of chicken schmaltz spoon-fed to you by your father, while your mother asks if you would like some more teriyaki sauce on your beef yakitori.
And did I mention my parents arguing about whether both challah and rice should be served at every meal?
Let’s just say they both usually got their way, which was a good thing. What’s not to love about a dinner table with both borscht soup and miso soup, alongside beef brisket, sashimi and some latkes just for good measure?
While that may sound like an overly-exotic combination for some, the sharing of cultural recipes passed down from both cultural sides is what brought us closer together as a family.
As a kid, I assumed everyone had parents who debated whether lox or sautéed salmon was the healthier choice well before “Omega-3 Fatty acids” was ever a religion, while I enjoyed both macaroons and mochi balls for dessert.
And the generation of food-love didn’t end with my parents. My Jewish grandfather “Booby” made a hearty feast of sweet and sour cabbage stew. And my Japanese grandma “Hatsuyo” was known for her Sukiyaki, also known as ”steamboat cooking,” made with beef, vegetables, soy sauce, sugar and sake.
Not so shabby.
You can bet my house was popular in my all-Jewish neighborhood. And I thought kids liked me for me. Who was I kidding? They just wanted to get closer to my mom’s home-cooking.
Word got around alright, and I couldn’t blame friends for wanting charoset and mandelbrodt served alongside chicken gyoza and udon noodles. And to make things brighter, my father was the resident stand-up comic with his borsht-belt humor and one-liners we awaited each night.
Dinnertime was “the time” we felt most connected; a moment when we could forget about the angst we often felt as a culturally blended family, in the days when interfaith families were far from being accepted.
Comedian Milton Berle once observed, “Any time a person goes into a delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies.”
Uncle Milty, perhaps that once “seemed” to be the case, but today there are Jews who enjoy a much more diverse palette. For example, at a Japanese restaurant last week, there were more Jewish patrons who knew varieties of California rolls than I did.
Soy vey, this is a great thing.
Today, I am blessed with daughters of my own who I can lavish with tasty dishes that have been passed down from both sides of my food-obsessed family.
And yes, I will admit that I have officially become both my mother and my father, which used to be my greatest fear.
I recently guilted my older daughter when she wouldn’t eat my larger than usual matzah balls. Under my breath I muttered, “Is it too much to ask that you should want to eat your own mother’s food I spent all day cooking?”
And I channeled my father today when I asked my younger shayna maidel to tell jokes for people at the market, bribing her with some tasty knishes..
“Oh, don’t be such a nudge,” she said to me as she gave me a quick hug and prepared to deliver a joke that could rival my father’s.
This is bashert, I thought. Each generation carrying on traditions that can only be described as poignant and even sweeter than my famous babkas.
Below you will find two favorite family recipes. May you serve and enjoy eating them with your family and friends.
And if you don’t, no worries. I’ll just sit here in my kimono in the dark, eating a knish or two.
3 chicken thighs, or more if you’re real hungry, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
3 packages of Udon noodles, preferable thawed
5 green onions, chopped fine on cut diagonally
2 Tbsp of soy sauce
1 teaspoon Table salt
4 cups Dashi, Japanese cooking stock
2 Tbsp Sake, if you’re on the wagon, you can omit!
A sprinkle or two of shichimi to taste, hot pepper condiment
2 Tbsp Mirin, a white rice wine
Fishcake, as many thin slices as your appetite suggests
Cooking preparations & instructions:
Lovingly gather a large pot, like you would for a hearty chicken noodle soup. Add Dashi to pot and bring to a hearty boil and add sake, salt, Mirin, soy sauce, and some words like “This is going to be the best Udon ever, because I made it.”
Bring to a simmer and slowly add chicken so as not to burn your hand, let simmer for 3 to four minutes.
Next, add all of the green onions for a zesty flavor, and the udon noodles as well.
For beauty and a delicious subtle flavor, add the pink and white fishcake to garnish each individual serving,
Now, happily call about four people in the house for a great dinner that will have them asking for more!
Grandfather Booby’s Sweet and Sour Cabbage Stew
2 pounds beef brisket
2 onions, chopped fine
1-quart broth (beef)
2 cups tomatoes
1-cup tomato sauce
1½ – 2 pounds cabbage, shredded fine
1 teaspoon salt
1-teaspoon ground pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
Extra ingredients such as potatoes, peas, and other vegetables can be added as well for variety.
Combine water, broth, and brisket in a large pot and bring to a boil, watching over carefully.
Simmer and add other ingredients, stir as needed and simmer with cover for two and a half to three hours until meat is tender and soft.
Happily sample the stew and add additional seasoning to taste. The stew is best when accompanied by bread, potatoes, rice, and sides of horseradish and salads.
Grandmother Hatsuyo’s Easy & Delicious Sukiyaki
1 cup water
2 pounds tender stew meat
1 teaspoon salt
¼-cup soy sauce
½-pound baby carrots
½-cup Japanese sake
3 potatoes, peeled and chopped
Extra ingredients such as peas, cabbage, and fish are delicious too!
Simply put all ingredients into crock-pot on high for 4-6 hours or on low for 10-12. Can also be cooked on low heat in a large pot or skillet on stove.
Great for freezing and reheating for all hungry family members and guests for both lunch and dinner.
Charoset is the star of the seder plate. Amidst the parsley leafs and lamb shanks, this sweet sticky treat teases and tantalizes as we make our way through the story telling. Charoset recalls the mortar used by the Israelites when they were slaves. Jews, spread over the four corner of the earth, and brought the story of the Exodus and the celebration of Passover to every land.
With time, the recipes for Charoset reflected local ingredients and tastes. Whether you make one, two or all of the seven classic and modern recipes we have collected, we doubt that you will be able to wait until the seder to taste these outstanding Charoset!
Uganda: Tziporah Sizomu’s Charoset Recipe
Tziporah Sizomu is a leader in the Abayudaya community in Uganda. Passover is an especially meaningful holiday for the Abayudaya. Her husband Gershom is the community rabbi and Tziporah is responsible for the Shabbat and holiday meals that are eaten together by the Abayudaya as a community. Apples are expensive, as they must be imported from South Africa, while peanuts, known as groundnuts, are local to Uganda. This Charoset makes a fabulous spread for Matzah all week long! (Note: peanuts are legumes and there are some Jews who do not eat them during Passover. They can be replaced them with cashews.)
4 cups roasted peanuts
3 apples, chopped fine
2 bananas, chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup sweet wine
Grind the peanuts in a blender and place them in a medium-sized bowl. Rural Ugandans use a mortar and pestle. They don’t have blenders as very few have electricity.
Mix with the chopped apples and bananas.
Add the wine and stir.
Add the honey and mix everything together. (If it isn’t thick enough, add more peanuts)
Syria: Meil Family Recipe, Charoset Halebieh
Originally from Philadelphia, Heather and Jason Meil have been living in the Bay Area for the past 10 years and are active members at Oakland’s Temple Sinai. This recipe was passed down from Jason’s great-grandmother, Jammila Dweck Marcus who was born in Allepo, Syria to his grandmother, Leah (born in the Sudan) to his mother, Joan. It has been in the family for generations and makes an appearance yearly at the Meil seder.
3 pounds pitted dates
1 cup sweet red wine
1 t ground cinnamon (optional)
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Put the dates in a medium saucepan with enough water to cover.
Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer.
Stir frequently, until the dates are soft.
Pass the date mixture through a strainer or a rotary grader. A food processor may also be used.
Before serving, add the wine, cinnamon and walnuts and mix thoroughly.
Greece: Traditional Greek Recipe
Sarah Aroeste’s familial roots in Greece trace all the way back to the expulsion of Jews from Spain. A vocal artist, she has dedicated her career to modernizing Ladino classics and creating new music that captures the vibrancy of the Sephardic experience. For Passover, she draws on traditional Greek customs and makes this fruity recipe that gets its punch from a variety of spices.
1 cup black currants, finely chopped
1 cup raisins, finely chopped
1 cup dates, finely chopped and then mashed (if they are very dry soak them in boiling water for 10 minutes)
Pinch of grated orange rind
Cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg to taste
Sweet red wine
Chop all the ingredients as fine as possible.
Mash them into a paste in a mortar and pestle. Or briefly process in food processor.
Moisten as necessary with the red wine.
Makes 3 cups
Guatemala, Two Ways: Modern Twist
The members of Adat Shalom, Guatemala’s only Reform community have created a unique take on Charoset. It was a big hit at last year’s seder in Guatemala City and it will be at yours too.
4 apples, peeled, cored, and finely chopped
1/2 cup sweet red wine (such as Manischewitz)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 tablespoon maple syrup
5 oz of refried red beans
4 oz of chopped almonds
Chop the apples by hand as finely as possible and press them with a fork.
Add the rest of the ingredients. mixing everything well.
Beans should be added at the end, depending on how juicy the apple is so that the charoset thicken.
After plating, add a little of the almonds as decoration.
Brenda Rosenbaum’s Charoset
Brenda Rosenbaum, is the founder of Mayan Hands. She grew up in Guatemala and left as a young adult due to the civil war. Her family is half Ashkenazi and half Sephardic. Her mother lives in Guatemala City and this is her recipe. This recipe came via Ilana Schatz of Fair Trade Judaica.
1 pound dates
2 granny smith apples
1 cup chopped nuts (macadamia nuts are native to Guatemala)
Soak dates in hot water for a few hours.
Drain the dates but put them in the food processor but don’t process them completely, leave some chunks in it.
Peal and cut apples into one inch chunks.
Put apple pieces in pan, and bring to boil with a bit of water. Simmer until they become puree.
Mix dates and apples.
Add cinnamon to taste, sweet wine.
Just prior to serving add chopped nuts.
Cuba: Mango and Pineapple Charoset Balls
For Jennifer “The Cuban Reuben” Stempel blogging about food allows her to explore her twin Jewish and Cuban heritages. This Cuban Charoset is her own invention inspired by the island flavors that influence so much of her cooking. While most Charoset is served as a paste, Stempel drew on the Sephardic tradition of making Charoset into small balls for this unique take on a classic dish.
5oz dried unsweetened mango, coarsely chopped
8oz dried unsweetened pineapple, coarsely chopped
½ cup almond slivers, toasted
2 cups shredded coconut, toasted and separated
In a small bowl, soak the mango in hot water for ½ hour.
Drain well, and add to a food processor. Add pineapple, almonds, and 1 cup of the coconut to the mango in the food processor, and pulse only until the mixture starts to form a ball. There should still be some visible chunks.
Form the mixture into bite-sized balls, and set atop a pan lined with wax paper.
In a small bowl, add the last cup of shredded coconut. Roll the balls in the coconut until they are lightly coated, and return them to the wax paper.
Refrigerate the balls for 1 hour or until set.
United States: Rabbi Ruth’s Charoset Recipe
One of the joys of Jewish life in America is the diversity not only of the community but also of the ingredients from around the world that are at our fingertips. This recipe draws on traditional as well as exotic flavors. Sweet with a touch of the sour with a red tinge which reminds us of the mixed emotions with which we greet our freedom, always recalling the hard work and suffering that preceded the Exodus.
1 cup dried figs
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup roasted hazelnuts
1 large or 2 small whole blood oranges
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (available at Middle Eastern markets)
Additional orange juice as needed
Cut blood oranges into quarters or chunks depending on size.
Place all the ingredients except the orange juice in food processor
Pulse until mixture resembles a paste.
If mixture is too dry add a tablespoon of additional orange juice and pulse again.
Repeat until the mixture is moist.
I am often asked whether I feel more Cuban-American than Jewish, or vice versa, and it has always struck me as an odd question. That’s like asking whether I like my right eye better than my left. Sure, if you close one eye, you can still see, but the world looks so much better with both eyes open. That is sort of how I feel about my two cultures. On the surface, it may seem like my Cuban culture is in direct conflict with my Jewish one, particularly when it comes to the pork-friendly nature of Cuban cuisine and the dietary laws of the Jewish faith, but just like seeing the world with both eyes open, I feel most comfortable when my cultures work in conjunction with each other.
Fortunately, there is plenty of common ground between the two. Given the fact that both place a high priority on family and tradition, and get-togethers almost always revolve around food, my family has been blurring the cultural dividing lines for decades. This melting pot approach jumps into high gear around the holidays and other family gatherings. My “Jewban” family has been known to serve a creamy flan during Shavuot, a citrus and garlic-infused Cuban-style chicken for Shabbat, and minty Mojito-scented quinoa during Passover. These incredible dishes aside, nothing holds a candle to my family’s recipe for Ropa Vieja, Cuban comfort food at its very best.
Ropa Vieja, which literally translates to “old clothes,” or as my paternal grandmother would call them, “shmatas,” is the Cuban answer to a traditional Jewish brisket. Both use inexpensive cuts of meat that are slow-roasted until tender and falling apart, but Ropa Vieja takes it a step further, and actually calls for the chunks of meat to be shredded to resemble rags. This may seem like it would diminish the allure of the dish, but as Jewish brisket is usually reserved for the holiday table, a good Ropa Vieja is truly cause for celebration. Additionally, as it is important in the Jewish culture to pass our traditions from generation to generation, most Cuban families have had a recipe for Ropa Vieja for ages.
The recipe I feature originated with my Abuela (maternal grandmother), but was passed to me by my Tia Pipa (Aunt Felipa), both seriously tough culinary acts to follow. And while I have the added benefit of modern kitchen electrics like the slow-cooker, the spirit of the recipe remains the same. The perfume of a traditionally Cuban sofrito, made from garlic, onions, and sweet bell peppers, marries beautifully with the warm smokiness from the cumin. And while the brine-y capers that adorn the meat and add a splash of color may seem like a distinctly Mediterranean choice, they act as a nod to the migration of Spaniards that made their way to Cuba and the other Caribbean islands in days of old.
One bite may make you want to close your eyes and savor the moment, but I challenge you to resist the urge. See the world with both eyes open, and celebrate the diversity that makes Cuban-Jewish families unique.
Ropa Vieja, by Jennifer Stempel of TheCubanReuben.com
• 5-7 lbs. Brisket, trimmed of most visible fat
• 2 onions, divided
• 6 cloves of garlic, divided
• 2 large red bell peppers, divided
• 2 bay leaves, divided
• 4 cups beef stock
• 3 tsp. Olive oil
• 1 Tbs dried oregano
• 1 Tbs ground cumin
• 1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
• 1 8 oz can tomato sauce
• 10 stuffed green olives, sliced in thin rounds
• 2 Tbs capers, plus 1 Tbs. of the brine.
• Salt and Pepper to taste
1. Cut your brisket into 2-inch wide strips.
2. The night before you want to serve, add the brisket, 1 onion, roughly chopped, 2 whole cloves of garlic, ½ a bell pepper, 1 bay leaf, and beef stock to a slow-cooker, and set to cook on low for 6-7 hours.
3. Remove the beef and set aside. Once the beef is cool enough to be handled, use 2 forks to shred the beef.
4. Strain the cooking liquid, and reserve for later use in a medium bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate long enough for the fat to solidify on top (about 20-30 minutes). Skim the fat from the liquid.
5. Discard the rest of the contents from the slow cooker.
6. Meanwhile, finely dice the remainder of the onions and half of the remaining bell pepper. The rest of the bell pepper should be sliced in short, thin slices.
7. Mince the remaining garlic.
8. Heat a large pot (dutch oven style) over medium-high heat. Add olive oil.
9. Add the diced onions and both diced and sliced bell peppers, and cook for 5-10 minutes, or until onions become translucent. Add the garlic, and cook for 2 more minutes.
10. Add the shredded beef to the pot, as well as ½ of the now-skimmed stock, the oregano, the cumin, the diced tomatoes, and the tomato sauce. Stir to combine.
11. Lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until liquid reduces and thickens a bit.
12. Add the olives, brine, and capers, and cook for 15 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
13. Leave simmering on low on the stove until ready to serve.
14. Serve with white rice.
To read more about Jennifer’s culinary adventures, check out her blog.
There’s a not-so-funny joke that goes, “A man walks into a Chinese restaurant and says to the waiter, ‘Excuse me sir, but are there any Chinese Jews?’ To which the waiter replies, ‘No, sir, we just have orange juice, apple juice, grapefruit juice…’”
It’s slightly bearable if the delivery includes an awful impression of a Chinese accent. But there are apparently many people who do appreciate this joke, and they make sure that it makes its way through the grapevine to me, a Chinese Jew.
I enjoy being a Chinese Jew.
I eat plenty of matzo balls and potstickers, I celebrate three New Years, and in high school I crushed my math classes.
I’ve often had to convince people that I’m Jewish, which is amusing and usually results in a new friend feeling like they can connect with me better due to a shared religion. Other than that, I can’t say I really thought about what it meant to Chinese and Jewish while I was growing up.
The only time my Chinese Jewishness got me into trouble was during my dating days in New York. Jewish guys with “yellow fever” would take me on casual dates to casual places, but the second they discovered I was Jewish, things got weird. Suddenly I wasn’t a casual date, suddenly I was the first Jewish girl that didn’t remind them of their mother and do I want to get married.
Speaking of boys.
I recently followed a Norwegian one out to rural North Dakota, population six Jews and about 10,000 Scandinavian descendants. Things are quiet here, people are Midwestern nice, and the small town life is pretty darn wonderful.
For the first time in my life, I feel a bit like an oddball, in a sea of light-haired Lutherans, but people embrace me when I introduce them to challah. North Dakotans love challah! And I love their food too, like Lefse and dessert bars of all sorts.
All of my Challah here is homemade. As are my latkes, kugel, matzo balls… you get the picture. There’s not a deli in sight. Not even a bagel. I do miss bopping down to Zabar’s for babka and bagels, but on the other hand, with the necessity to make everything from scratch comes the opportunity to put my own spin on things and mash up my Chinese/Jewish/Midwesternness.
Brisket in my potstickers, ginger sugar beet latkes, egg rolls with home cured pastrami from a cow that I’ll one day raise…
I’m getting carried away.
Here is an Asian twist on my all time favorite challah. It’s inspired by the scallion pancake.
Makes one large loaf
Basic Challah Dough
Based on Food 52′s Recipe
1 tablespoon instant yeast
3/4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons honey
1/3 cups vegetable or canola oil
Filling and Topping
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2-3 stalks scallions or green onions, minced
salt, pepper, and red chili flakes to taste
Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
A few pinches of toasted sesame seeds and black sesame seeds
In a small bowl, proof yeast in 1/2 cup warm water mixed with 1 teaspoon of sugar.
While yeast is proofing, mix flour, salt, and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in a large bowl.
In a medium bowl, mix remaining 1/4 cup of water, honey, oil, and eggs.
Once yeast has finished proofing, add it to the flour, followed by the wet ingredients. Mix with a large wooden spoon until dough becomes too thick to stir. Empty dough onto well-floured surface and knead by hand. Knead dough until smooth and no longer sticky, adding flour as needed.
Transfer to an oiled bowl and cover with a damp towel. Let rise for about two hours, or until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 375.
Divide dough into three equal parts and then roll each part into a 1-foot log. Gently flatten each log so that it is about 3 inches wide.
Brush each with toasted sesame oil and then sprinkle with salt, pepper, chili flakes, and scallions. Roll them up length wise like a jellyroll, and then braid.
Place the loaf on a parchment lined baking sheet and then brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds and black pepper.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until the top is golden brown and the challah is cooked through.
If you could only cook three dishes for Shabbat dinner what would they be?
This was the question we posed to culinary historian Michael “Kosher Soul” Twitty, author of the Afroculinaria blog and a Jewish educator. Twitty, who was most recently featured on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The African Americans on PBS will be the chef-in-residence at Be’chol Lashon’s upcoming retreat.
The Shabbes table is reminiscent of the way my grandmother would frame occasional Sunday dinners and holiday meals, white tablecloths and candles. So that Jewish esthetic makes sense to me. It engenders respect and sacredness. I would polish candlesticks and set out tablecloths. I’m not great at setting the table but how the food looked was important to my mother and my grandmother. Julius Lester says, “the Shabbes Table is a banquet for God.” The table becomes a crossroads between the divine and earth, a sacred circle. In both the African and Jewish Diasporas, the sacred circle, where multiple parts of ourselves meet, is an important theme. That is what helps make the table be a mizbeach, a holy alter. I find myself cooking for Shabbes with a great spirit of urgency and putting as much kedusha [holiness] as possible. People sometimes forget this ;— kedusha is the greatest spice.
If I could only cook three dishes it would have to be all the parts of who I am.
Number one would be Kasha Varnishkes. I make a mean kasha varnishkes in its pure form with onions browned and a little bit of garlic. Really earthy. I’m not a groats and seed feeder but there is something is very satisfying about a plate of kasha varnishkes. It is brothy, I use 3-4 kinds of onions. The whole garden goes in the broth. So simple and so pleasing.
In Jewish cooking you have foods dictated by text, food that the Torah talks about. Then you have foods that speak to the land of Israel and what grows there. Then you have foods that come from the places we have been, from our diaspora. And then there is identity cooking. The foods that are tied up with your sense of self and the place you are in, where you are and how you are connected to that place.
When I make kasha varnishkes, that is straight up s’htep food. When you can master traditions like that it is a way of saying I’m here. I’ve arrived here and I’m not going anywhere.
My second food would be barbecue beef ribs. Because you can’t get Blacker than barbecue. That is our unique contribution to American cuisine above the rest. It is not a food you make just because you feel like it. You make it for a special occasion. It makes your clothes smell a certain way. Your hands smell a certain way. You plan for it, work for it. And I don’t mean making it in the oven. You marinate it. You rub it. Out comes the hickory. It cooks for three to four hours and then you cut them up and there they go.
Barbecue connects me with my father and my grandfather. Very male food in terms of who made it. A patrilineal dish. We get it passed down to from our fathers, and from their fathers. I make two recipes, one more traditional; marinate forever, rub forever and smoke forever. And the other I call Yiddishe Ribbenes which takes all the flavors from all the parts of the Jewish Diaspora and makes the same flavor profile I grew up with. I like to do both.
For the third dish, I have to say Kosher Soul Rolls. Kosher soul rolls are Black Jewish egg rolls. Instead of cabbage, collard greens. Instead of ham or pork, I use pastrami. One thing Blacks and Jews have in common is loving Chinese food. Deep-fry them, of course.
Can I add a bread? My favorite challah recipe is the Beigel Family Challah from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today. It is best challah I’ve ever made or tasted so that’s the one I make. And every time I make the challah the story comes with it. This was a family that survived the Shoah and made their way to Israel. Tribute challah.