German-Jewish Cuisine

The roots of Ashkenazic cuisine lie in medieval Germany.

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But there were also foreign elements in their cooking, adopted through their contacts with their European coreligionists. Noodles came from Italy. Pasta had been introduced there by the Arabs in Sicily when the island had a substantial Jewish community The Jews called it “grimseli” and “vermisellish,” after the Italian vermicelli. Their mercantile activities brought the Jews of Europe into contact with exotic ingredients and Oriental culinary styles. Since the early Middle Ages, they had been involved in international trade, trafficking by raft and craft down the valleys of the Rhone, the Danube, and the Rhine, and going far afield. For their own ritual requirements, they imported myrtle from France and citrons from the coasts of the Mediterranean. They dealt in sugar, spices, dried fruit, and nuts, and all kinds of foodstuffs from the East. Their role in introducing such comestibles to Northern Europe produced an enlightened spirit in their own cooking. They became known for their immoderate use of garlic and onion, and for their taste for spices, fruits, and nuts (they were famous for using almond marzipan in their pastries).

By the time Jews became segregated in their ghettos, by edict, in the 16th century, they had developed a unique and powerful internal social culture. As the French historian Fernand Braudel commented, the ghetto became their prison but was also the citadel into which they withdrew to defend their faith and the continuity of their culture. It was at that time that ritual took an increasing hold on Jewish life. A code of kitchen and table manners was formalized, and particular dishes were adopted to celebrate the Sabbath and festivals. The men, who often devoted themselves entirely to studying Jewish Law and left their wives and daughters to earn the family living, took a particular interest inthe kitchen. They became involved with the minutiae of the dietary laws and rituals concerning food. On Thursdays and Fridays they would be seen bargainingfor Sabbath delicacies at the market, and on Fridays they helped with cleansing the dishes and saucepans and setting the table.

It is in the cooped‑up world within the ghetto walls, in the tall houses that met at the top and obscured the sunlight from the narrow streets, that a set of dishes became associated with holidays and were marked forever with a Jewish stamp. Everyday food could be desperately poor, but the best German burgher dishes were reserved for Sabbath and religious festivals. Braided white challah bread, sweet‑and‑sour fish, stuffed fish, chopped goose liver, broth with noodles, meat pies, boiled pickled beef, roast goose, and kugel—a sweet pudding made with noodles or bread—were eaten on Friday evening.

Cholent was left to cook overnight in the communal oven for Saturday. This dish—one of the most representative of Jewish cooking—in a version cooked today combines different meats, sometimes including goose and sausage, with barley or buckwheat and beans, and is cooked slowly in plenty of goose fat. It is believed to be related to the French cassoulet, and its name to be a combination of the medieval French words chauld (hot) and lent (slow).This interpretation is given weight by the fact that Jews in the region of the Languedoc, where cassoulet originated, were expelled in 1394 and headed for Germany. In Eat and Be Satisfied, John Cooper notes that the first reference to cholent was by Rabbi Isaac of Vienna (c. 1180‑c. 1250), who reported that he had seen it in his teacher’s home in France at the end of the 12th century. White haricot beans, which came to Europe from the New World, were a late addition to the dish. They may have arrived through connections with the secret Jews from Portugal, who were very familiar with the beans and who settled in cities in southwestern France in the 16th century. In Spain, today, large white beans are called judias, meaning “Jewish.” I wonder if there is a link.

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Claudia Roden

Claudia Roden is one of England's leading food writers. Her works include the James Beard Award winning The Book of Jewish Food and A Book of Middle Eastern Food.