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Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins next week. Jewish families all over the world are gearing up for a meaningful and busy time gathering family and friends around symbolic holiday meals. I rely on my collection of Jewish cookbooks for a source of inspiration to help with the marathon cooking days ahead. (This year it will be like packing in six Thanksgiving meals in 3 days).
There is no unified Jewish cuisine. Jews have been scattered around the world for 2000 years and have adapted their foods to the flavors and cultures of their region. What unifies Jewish cooking is the kosher dietary laws and the significance of the Jewish Holidays and the Sabbath. It is a continuous cycle of cooking that has been going on for generations; week to week gearing up for Shabbat, and holiday to holiday, where recipes would be passed down through generations and unite communities through times of hardships and celebrations.
The genre of Jewish and kosher cookbooks is rich and varied. You can find books geared to specific regions (the cuisine of Syrian, Israeli, Iraqi, and Hungarian Jews), by holidays (especially Passover cookbooks), and even by diet (vegetarian, low-fat, and dairy-free). My criteria for choosing the best in this field were great recipes and a rich cultural context. These are my top 3 favorites:
1. The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden
The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York is a masterpiece of the genre. (The Guardian listed it number 3 in their list of The 50 Best Cookbooks). Claudia Roden explores Jewish cooking over centuries of history weaving in stories with 800 recipes. The Moroccan Agneau aux Pruneaux (Lamb with Prunes) is part of my holiday repertoire. Lamb stew recipes are found all over the net but the beauty of Roden’s book is that I also learn how Moroccan Jews adopted to a local Muslim tradition of serving sweetened meat stews, and connect with this culture through pictures and the historical synopsis of this Sephardi community. In her books every recipe really tells a story.
2. Jewish Food: The World at Table by Matthew Goodman
Jewish Food: The World at Table explores recipes through a historical and cultural lens analyzing the significance of specific ingredients (like olives, herring, and fish), exploring dishes (like lox, chicken soup, and borscht), and expanding on the history of specific communities (Yemen, Bombay, Salonika, and Rome). Chicken in Pomegranate Sauce with Walnuts and Figs is one of my favorite holiday recipes. Goodman delves into the symbolic significance of the pomegranate in the Jewish tradition, a symbol of lushness and abundance also used in celebrating the Jewish New Year. Goodman’s book has a narrower focus then Roden’s but both offer a window into Jewish history and culture.
3. The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey by Janna GurIsrael plays such a significant role in Jewish culture and tradition that this list would not be complete without a book on Israeli food. Gur’s book, The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey, takes you on a tour of Israel’s markets, bakeries, olive groves, and its people. The photographs are stunning (photographed by Eilon Paz). The recipes are fresh and modern. Her book celebrates the quick transformation of a young nation to a culinary destination for Middle Eastern cuisine. This “renaissance” is enhanced by the availability of quality local ingredients through the rise of high-end wineries, cheese producers, and olive oil presses. There are salads, street food, Shabbat and Holiday dishes, and desserts. It is not limited to Jewish cooking either, Gur includes a section on dishes prepared for Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic year.
Claudia Roden writes that every cuisine tells a story, “Jewish food tells the story of uprooted, migrating people and their vanished worlds.” But as Janna Gur demonstrates it is a culinary journey that continues to evolve in modern times.
What are some of your favorite Jewish cookbooks? Did I leave out an important contribution to this genre? What other cultural based cookbooks can you recommend?
This post is linked to Food Renegade | Fight Back Friday.