Diasporic Cuisine: reviewing The Jewish Cookbook by Leah Koenig5 min read

 In Caucasus, Culture, Eastern Europe, Review, Russia
In the United States, Jewish has become synonymous with Eastern European. Most of the people who are descendants of Ukrainian and Russian immigrants in the United States are also Jewish. While this takes on interesting and often anti-semitic reactions abroad, the reality is that the United States has become such a large melting pot of cultures and influences that clearly defined borders that distinguish national identities that may exist in Europe simply do not play a large role in American life. The Jewish Cookbook is a manifestation of that concept.

New York Times bestselling cookbook author Julia Turshen writes in the foreword, “Jewish food is not defined by space, but by spirit, culture, and faith in so many senses of the word. Unlike just about every other cuisine in the world, Jewish food is not distinguished by geography. It is a diasporic cuisine, which means it’s also defined by resilience, adaptability, and indefinite adjustments.” 

While there are many secrets and advice passed down in my own family, I also wanted to use this book to see if there were more widely acceptable ways to make certain meals. To my dismay, this book did not claim to be an authority, rather, a glossary of the wisdom of many cooks and traditions. Jewish cuisine seems to master the balance of making do with regional preferences and family routines.

Passover classics

This year, Passover fell on the last week of March to the beginning of April. I have been making matzo ball soup from store-bought mixes for over three years and this time I wanted to try making them from scratch. Ashkenazi matzo balls, also called knaidlach, are made with matzo meal – dried crumbs made from unleavened flatbread – instead of flour.  According to Koenig (and my mother-in-law), the secret is seltzer added to the batter to give the balls the extra lift. Koenig also suggests a pinch of ground ginger as “a distinctly Hungarian twist on this Ashkenazi classic”.

Koenig advises creating balls that are one inch in diameter, but I’ve never seen matzo balls that small. “While some people are fond of ‘sinkers’ (dense, heavy matzo balls that tend to sink to the bottom of the soup pot), most prefer them to be light and fluffy in texture.” My matzo balls were large sinkers, going against the grain. 

Georgian influences

Jews have been living in Georgia since the 6th century. In the cookbook, Koenig introduced pkhali: “In Georgia, pates called pkhali made from minced vegetables blended with a vinegary walnut puree are commonly served as a meal starter.” I have never worked much with walnuts so I was excited to try this. Pkhali made from fresh walnuts from the fertile coastal plains of Georgia are probably superior to the (expensive) walnuts I had to get from the store.

The walnuts should be halved, then toasted in a small, dry frying pan at medium-low heat. Interestingly enough, everything has to be cooked before placing it into a food processor, instead of the other way around. This recipe suggested spinach and I’m eager to hear from other cooks on the internet about other vegetables that can be used in pkhali. I know beets are commonly used in Russia. 

Shakshuka – a North African tradition

The third recipe I tried was shakshuka. Shakshuka is a North African dish of eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce. In recent years, it has been rebranded as an Israeli dish due to mass migration in the twentieth century. It was simple enough, starting with a simmer of chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, salt, and pepper. The receipt suggested feta cheese, but I used dairy-free mozzarella. I also decided to put fried gyro meat on top, and served it on a bed of fresh arugula, as it lacked the bite to be a fully nutritious meal in my opinion. 

It was tasty and certainly a plant-based, low-carb alternative compared to most other dishes involving tomato sauce. The second time I tried making shakshuka, I fried the eggs instead of letting them cook in the oven, and I liked the texture more. I’m sure people at r/IDidntHaveEggs are cringing as they read this.

A project for another day

When I received this cookbook as a wedding present, I thumbed through it immediately, in search of the final boss. Who is the final boss in Jewish-American cooking, you may ask? Its notorious reputation precedes it – gefilte fish.

Koenig writes, “gefilte fish is one of the most contentious foods within Ashkenazi cuisine. Some adore the chilled fish appetizer and can’t imagine a Jewish holiday without it. Others find it utterly unpleasant. It is rare to find someone whose opinion exists in the middle of these two poles.” In Yiddish, gefilte means stuffed. It was historically made with carp, pike, or whitefish, but many cooks now use cod, snapper, and hake. It typically takes on the shape or texture of a fishy meatloaf. In the book, it appears in a granola bar shape.

The recipe requires putting fish into a food processor and while intriguing, I did not want to subject my Vitamix to that. I think using thawed cod would be easy enough to chop into tiny bits without requiring a food processor. Koenig also shares that the British-Jewish variant of this recipe requires frying the fish mixture into crispy fish balls that resemble falafel, which actually sounds pretty appetizing compared to the Americanized Jewish version of a fishy meatloaf.

Final thoughts

Overall, The Jewish Cookbook is a great addition to any chef’s shelf. It reads like a Jewish How to Cook Everything – a treasury of more than you could ever want. I liked how the cooks showcased throughout the text are contemporary Jews with restaurants you can actually visit and dine at to further explore Jewish gastronomy. I also enjoyed how the original geographic origin of recipes was cited at the beginning of each dish, highlighting just how diverse the diaspora really is.

Book details: Koenig, Leah. The Jewish Cookbook, 2019. Phaidon Press. It is available to buy here.

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