culture/multiculturalism · food · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism

What’s Jewish food?


Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about “Jewish food.” The phrase seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. The phrase troubles me because when people talk about “Jewish food,” I’ve noticed they seem to only be talking about Ashkenazi (Eastern European) food.

So you can imagine my distress when I stumbled upon ”A Jewish Food Cheat Sheet” and realized that there was only one Sephardic Jewish dish on the whole list. Shawarma didn’t even make the list. One friend called the list “a very narrow conceptualization of a much more varied people/nation.”

When I asked a Ashkenazi Jewish friend about this phenomena of equating “Jewish food” with only “Eastern European food,” he said, “I think that it is a symptom of a much more widespread phenomenon…where Eastern European everything is considered ‘the Jewish way’…even in halacha (Jewish law), minhagim (customs), prayers….”
He added, “Although, I would not speak about its as though it’s the worst thing in the world, it does hurt and it makes people doubt their own narratives and backgrounds, which is not good…causing ever greater homogenization in Jewish life.”

So here’s a short list of some other foods that should have made this list. Can you think of any others? I’m already thinking of Carciofi alla Giudia, those delicious Roman Jewish artichokes I tasted in Italy.

And how do we get plantains added to the Sephardic Jewish palate?

11 thoughts on “What’s Jewish food?

  1. As a typical secular ashkenzic Jew, growing up in the then secular Teaneck, the one food from that page that I had not encountered until well onto my mid-40s was cholent. I'm not sure why neither my family nor any of the families of my friends or relatives prepared or ate cholent but I suspect that because we didn't abide by shabbat restrictions, there was no need for us to have a dish like cholent which serves a specific purpose.

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  2. Aliza,

    There's a good reason that shawarma does not deserve to make a Jewish foods list. Even the wikipedia link you provided stated that it is a “Middle Eastern Arabic-style sandwich-like wrap”. Are shwarma and falafel “Jewish foods”? I think not.

    However, many Ashkenazi dishes listed on the Jewish food list you provided are distinctly or prevalently “Jewish” from a cultural and religious perspective, for example cholent http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cholent). In that case the list does include the sfardi version of cholent (hamin).

    Another good example of a “Jewish” food is gefilte fish. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gefilte_fish)

    Also, the list you refer to that is “ashkenazi-biased” is specifically catering to American intermarried Jews, who are mostly Ashkenazi. They're not going to know or care what “Carciofi alla Giudia” is, but might remember bubbe making gefilte fish.

    The list of sfardi dishes you provided are basically arab dishes that sfardi Jews happen to eat too. Matzah pizza is a more Jewish food than tabbouleh or couscous.

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  3. I want to start a gourmet kosher foodie blog when I'm actually, you know, fully kosher. 🙂 The world needs more. Like I haven't got enough blogs… I do love this blog though, Cafe Liz:

    http://food.lizsteinberg.com/

    Kosher vegetarian food and it's not all Ashkenazi.

    My Jewish grandmother, when she made “Jewish food” did cook mostly Ashkenazi stuff, but then again she'd also make ham. I've never had cholent, just read a recipe for it out of curiosity after it was mentioned and I think I hate it in advance.

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  4. The biggest wave of Jewish immigrants to hit America were Ashkenazi.

    Hence, ashkenazi food became known as “Jewish food”.

    It's not *wrong* that it happened that way, it just happens that way.

    Of course, that doesn't mean people should remain ignorant of other kinds of Jewish food.

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  5. a Chasidishe story connected to platanos would probably help. there's some pretty interesting literature out there about the power and importance of kugel on Shabbos, for example.
    other than that, just keep pushin Chifles, mangu, and mofongo on everyone you know til they stick. actually just serve them at kiddush at shul so the kids of the next generation will assume it's jewish food.

    that Cheat Sheet list is interesting. i only grew up with half those foods. i was surprised when I realized in collegethat non-Jewish Eastern Europeans ate same foods i always called “jewish.”

    oh and you gotta put some Temani food on there, if only for the flaky, buttery goodness of all the baked goods.

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  6. Just like falafel and shwarma are Middle Eastern foods that Jews from that region eat, most “Jewish” foods are just Eastern European foods that Jews from that region also eat.

    Only a very few are specifically “Jewish” in that they are tied in with observance, like cholent and gefilte fish.

    I have to say that I don't know most of those foods. I do love gefilte fish and have good memories of getting knishes from Mrs. Stahl's when I visited my great-grandmother in Brighton Beach when I was a kid. But I've never eaten cholent and never even heard of half the foods on that list.

    For good Jewish food that is not limited to what people ate in 19th century Poland, folks might be interested in jcarrot.org. It's not just recipes, lots of stuff about sustainability and ethical kashrut, but also plenty of recipes and ideas.

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  7. I don't know. Most people I know, when they hear “Jewish food” will spout out a list of things from kugel and cholent to falafel and couscous. I don't think “Jewish food” is Ashkenazi dominated, and that is just *one* list. For a lot of non-Jewish people, what they know about Jewish food is bagels and lox, but also falafel — a food made super popular in the health food movement back in the day.

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  8. wow how can anyone leave out Bourekas!! I think when it comes to listing foods that deal with such a varied culture it's only fair if they include dishes from all backgrounds. While some dishes might not be recognized by many American Jews here, most Israeli's, or Jews with Sephardi/Mizrahi background will recognize the following: Jachnun; Sabbich; Schnitzel; Shakshuka and for any Libyan Jews out there the very taste Hraime….which I just so happen to make today for dinner. Yum

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  9. I attend a Sephardic Bait Knesset and a congregant, who owns an Israeli restaurant, caters most of the Kiddushim. As a result, Ohel Shalom's notion of Jewish food is very Middle Eastern. My 8 year old, a Jewmalan, thinks Kreplach should be eaten with everything!

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  10. I had a conversation with a friend of my sister today that reminded me of this post.
    About 40 people were at my sisters house after my nieces baby naming and one man-born Jewish but not practicing, was telling me about the kosher food a relative made for when 'kosher' relatives came to eat. I was puzzled about how a non-kosher house was making food for the 'kosher relatives' and then he clarified by saying they would make “matzah balls and matzah brei- you know, kosher food.

    btw, while I was looking at this post, my husband started salivating over your shwarma picture. Next thing I know, he'll be printing it up as a 'pin up'.

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