Posts Tagged ‘Jewish food’

A (gefilte) fishy holiday tradition

September 16, 2012

These days we associate it only with Passover Seders, but gefilte fish was a traditional Ashkenazi dish at other Jewish holidays too, including Rosh Hashanah. I’m reprinting a recent email from Miriam Harel, who like me grew up in the Hashomer Hatzair socialist-Zionist youth movement in New York. Unlike me, Miriam moved to Israel, where she lives on Kibbutz Haogen near Netanya, works as a therapist at  the Adler Institute in Herzliyah,  and has three grandchildren. She is author of a book on therapy with children.


By Miriam Harel

I have memories of carps swimming around in my grandmother’s bathtub in Brooklyn (I vowed never to take a bath in her house again) and the old grinding machine locked to the table with a vise and the long, long ritual of homemade gefilte fish with a carrot slice on the belly of every gefilte. Hours and hours of work cutting, grinding, rinsing, boiling, waiting till cooling, and all the rest.

What the fish symbolised I’ll never know, but I do remember “May you be the head of the fish and not the tail,” with visible fish heads eyeing us on the holiday table.

I would have imagined that this day of long arduous labor was some kind of religious ceremony, and gefilte was symbolic of the devotion of our grandmothers to the tradition of their own mothers and grandmothers to suffer through and then provide this to their eager families on holidays, each with the seasoning of his origins — the Polish more sweet gefilte, and the Hungarians more peppery like all else.

Never in my life did I attempt the feat of soaking, killing the carp with a blow to its innocent head, cutting, boning, grinding, boiling, cooling. I watched my grandmother Malka in amazement and awe but never would I attempt this. There was always someone selling it at some food market or some chaverat kibbutz who did this as a specialty… except for this year.

I went to all the possible places in this immediate area. The local supermarmarkets tried to talk me out of it: Oh, come on. You don’t still want THAT? Some salmon, maybe St. Denis? I was offered bottles of Manischevitz gefilte pickled in something sinister and God knows how long it has been on the shelf.

Gefilte fish jars in a Miami deli

I tried the Russian specialty stores who offered me caviar and herring, and the little shops who shrugged and referred me to some Yemenite woman who makes amazing Chreime harif harif [spicy Middle Eastern fish].

I started thinking of travelling to Bnei Brak [an ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb]. Seriously. Are you nuts? I thought to myself. The young people in the family don’t eat it. It looks weird to them, especially with that red stuff, and is a nondescript color and doesn’t look like schnitzel or anything nice.

The end of the gefilte era is like the end of a thousand-year-old fixed tradition that originated in Germany or France with the origin of Yiddish (gefilte means “filled” in Yiddish) — fish stuffed with all kind of fillings so that it would go a long way like other bread puddings of the poor in Europe.

I was about to give up when I came across the ready-food take-out store of Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon.

There was a whole counter full of packed plastic boxes with six pretty little gefiltes lying side by side in their own juice or yoich as they
say in Yiddish. I was so happy to see them again and respectful of Mishmar Hasharon for holding onto this tradition.

Probably no one under the age of fifty will touch them, but they will be there. As always. My comfort fish, resonating with images of Brooklyn and my grandmother.

Shana tova to all.


Note from Ilana: The era of gefilte fish may not be dead, just ready for reinvention. My husband Sam has adapted his family’s gefilte fish recipe to use fresh wild salmon, which our local fish store grinds for us. To complete the Bay Area foodie transformation, he serves it with a wasabi creme fraiche. The result is light pink fish balls with light green wasabi drizzled around it… even our friends who hate (jarred) gefilte fish love it. 

A Karaite seder

April 12, 2011

What comes to mind when you hear “Passover foods?”

If you’re like most American Jews, it’s matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, and charoset made of apples, nuts and Manischewitz wine — basically, the European Ashkenazi tradition. Maybe if you’re a little adventurous, you’ll picture a Sephardic charoset based on dates and other dried fruits.

But here’s something completely different — a Karaite Passover menu.

No matzah balls. No charoset. No eggs, parsley, salt water, wine or even a seder plate.

Instead, a unique kind of unleavened bread with coriander, bitter lemon salad, barbecued meat on the bone, and juice made from fresh grapes and raisins.

Rollers that were used to knead matzah dough, outside the Karaite synagogue in Cairo, 1985 / Photo by Ira Nowinski, Stanford University Libraries

Karaism is a small but ancient stream within Judaism that was based primarily in Russia and Egypt. What distinguishes the Karaites from other wings of Judaism is that they don’t follow or acknowledge the Talmud, the rabbinic commentary on the Bible that mainstream Judaism sees as inspired by God. For Karaites, Jewish law ends after the Tanach.

A Karaite web site puts it this way:

Karaite Judaism rejects later additions to the Tanach (Jewish Bible) such as the Rabbinic Oral Law and places the ultimate responsibility of interpreting the Bible on each individual. Karaism does not reject Biblical interpretation but rather holds every interpretation up to the same objective scrutiny regardless of its source.

At first glance, one might assume that Karaites are some kind of primitive fundamentalist sect running around Monty Python-style in Biblical tunics. Not so. David Darwish, who catered the luncheon after my Bat Mitzvah, comes from a Karaite family and is not only a cell phone-wielding citizen of the 21st century but a terrific chef who whips up a mean Caesar salad. His brother owns Mezze, a lovely pan-Mediterranean restaurant on Lakeshore Avenue.

I asked David what he ate for Passover growing up, and he referred me to the keepers of culinary tradition in his family — his cousin Nadia Hartmann and her mother Nelly Masliah.

Nadia and Nelly came to the U.S. from Egypt 46 years ago. They’re affiliated with Congregation B’nai Israel of Daly City — the only Karaite congregation in America with its own permanent building.

The Karaite community, Nadia told me, celebrates only one Seder on the first night of Passover. Like an Ashkenazi haggadah, a traditional Karaite haggadah tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt and lists the ten plagues. But the text is almost all verses from the Torah: There is no story of the Four Children, no Chad Gadya. All those readings were added after Biblical times.

Karaites don’t drink alcohol during Passover since their reading of the Torah defines hametz  as not just leavening but fermentation. Instead, they say a blessing over “wine” that is a freshly-made blend of grapes and raisins. They soak raisins in water overnight, then put them in a blender with red grapes and water.

“It’s thicker than grape juice but not as thick as a smoothie,” Nadia said.

Back in Egypt, many Karaite families made their own matzot. Today they buy them at the supermarket like everyone else. But they also make a unique kind of Karaite matza called “orsa” — thin, flat crackers made from flour, oil, water, salt and ground coriander. (Although the flour would make this off-limits for Ashkenazi Jews during Passover, the Karaite tradition allows it since there is no yeast.)  I’m including Nadia’s  recipe below.

“The coriander gives it its flavor,” Nadia said. “It’s square, easy to eat, and you can get addicted to it.”

Rather than a ritual shankbone on a seder plate, Karaite families serve a main course that involves meat on a bone — typically barbecued.  “We often have lamb chops or a lamb shank,” Nadia said.

For bitter herbs, they make a salad — bitter frisee lettuce, six other kinds of lettuce, an oil and lemon dressing, and little pieces of pickled lemon.

Other traditional parts of their Seder meal are rice dishes and grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice. (Like other Sephardic Jews, the Karaites don’t prohibit rice during Passover.) Traditional desserts are Pain d’Espagne, an angel-food-like cake with jam, or cookies with nuts — both made with flour but no leavening.

After speaking with Nadia, I decided to try baking my own orsa — before Passover, so my Ashkenazi self could eat them.

It was a strange experience following a recipe for a food I’d never tasted or even seen, kind of like a Martian following notes for some alien item called “hamburgers.” I couldn’t even find a photo of them on the Web. Here’s how they turned out:

Dough for orsa / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Karaite matzot, or orsa / Photo by Ilana DeBare

They were crisp and a little crumbly like thin, savory graham crackers. Some ended up bitter because they were in the hotter part of my oven and got a little burnt.

My daughter suggested adding cheese. (Not part of the Karaite tradition!) My husband trotted into my study  later in the evening and said, “We don’t know why, because we don’t think they taste that good, but we’ve each eaten three or four of them.”

(What was it that Nadia had said about them being addictive?)

Meanwhile, I’m thinking of making that grape-and-raisin “wine.” There are always some folks at our seder who don’t drink alcohol; this could be a tasty and fun alternative to Welch’s.

Whether you celebrate Passover, Chag HaMatzot or Easter next week, happy holidays!


Nadia’s Orsa (Karaite matzah)


5 cups & 3 oz. regular flour
11 oz. oil
1 cup water
1-1/2 tblspn salt
2 tblspn ground coriander powder — preferable to grind your own from coriander seeds, leaving it a little flaky, since the pre-ground powder from the store has a tendency to burn
Preheat oven to 350.

In a big mixer like a Kitchen Aid, combine all the flour, spices, and a little of the oil and water. With the mixer going, add the rest of the oil and water gradually until it forms a ball. It should be soft enough to work. If it’s too soft, add more flour. Too hard, add water.

Work it on a table until it is very thin. (I used a rolling pin.) Then put a little bit at a time on an ungreased cookie sheet. Cut it in shapes. There should be enough dough for three, maybe four, cookie sheets.

Bake for about 25 minutes until very light brown. Be careful not to overcook.

Jews! Food! Ecopolitics! or, how to green a Jewish deli

February 9, 2010

Did Saul’s Deli just fire the matzah ball heard ‘round the world?

The Berkeley eatery hosted a panel discussion Tuesday night on Sustainability and the Jewish Deli, featuring foodie superstar Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma), green business consultant Gil Friend, and urban farmer Willow Rosenthal, along with deli owners Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt.

And since this is the Bay Area – where people love to opine about the politics of food as much as they like to eat it – they drew a sold-out crowd of 250 people at $10 a pop.

Saul's Restaurant & Deli

Saul’s owners have had two missions for a long time – the official one of operating a traditional Jewish deli with all the comfort foods that American Jews know and love, and a second stealth mission of trying to “green” their business and serve food produced in a environmentally-friendly and humane manner.

They’d done a lot of the easy stuff over the past decade, such as switching to Niman Ranch and Marin Sun Farms beef, replacing industrially-produced rye bread with locally-baked Acme rye, and purchasing organic or local produce.

More recently they started taking on the harder stuff – the stuff likely to cause patrons to yell “shonda.”  They stopped carrying Dr. Brown’s soda and replaced it with their own house-made celery tonic. They limited borscht to the summer months when beets are in season. They stopped carrying salami, since they couldn’t find Jewish-style salami that was sourced from grass-fed beef.

And they started tinkering with the sizes of their sandwiches, figuring the planet really does not need people trying to wrap their jaws around 10 or 12 ounces of pastrami.

Traditional corned beef sandwich from Carnegie Deli

(Or more! The Carnegie Deli in New York sells a $17.95 corned beef and pastrami sandwich that contains 1.5 pounds of meat.)

“We felt a need to communicate (with our community) around the time when using local pickles tipped the cost of a sandwich past $10,” said co-owner Adelman, explaining the genesis of the event. “We needed permission to drag Jewish deli cuisine out of the museum.”

As a deli, Saul’s faces some challenges in trying to “green” itself that a more upscale fine-dining type restaurant wouldn’t:

  •  Organic and artisanal foods often cost more than mass-produced versions. Will deli patrons – looking for a casual meal, not a $40 white-tablecloth dinner – be willing to pay slightly more for sustainability?
  • Delis like Saul’s are selling memory as much as anything else. How will customers seeking beloved foods from their childhood respond to changes in the menu?
  • Eating less meat is a key environmental goal. That means smaller portions. Yet a lot of Jewish culture around meals is based on providing a surfeit of food – eat, bubelah, eat! – as a way to show love and economic well-being.

At first glance, trying to green a deli like Saul’s might seem to present a black-versus-white clash of warm ancestral traditions against rigid political correctness.

But in fact, the history and economics of delis are more complicated than that.

Saul’s owners said they lose money with every traditional pastrami sandwich they sell, due to the huge meat portions that customers expect at a low price.

“People pay only $10 for the same amount of meat that would cost $30 or $40 if they bought it as a steak,” Levitt said. “But it’s harder to put on the table than a steak, and they don’t buy wine with it…. The more pastrami sandwiches we serve, the worse our business does.”

So smaller portions are not only more sustainable environmentally: They would help the deli sustain itself as a business.

And the giant portions that we associate with places like the Carnegie Deli are in fact a relatively recent twist in Jewish deli history.


“These foot-high sandwiches are from the post-World War II era,” said Friend. “So this is not about the deli. It’s about post-war America. My dad grew up eating in New York delis in the 20s and 30s, and this is not what they had.”

In fact, there is another deli tradition that precedes the large portions and huge menus – and that is a tradition, based in eastern European poverty, of eking meals out of the smallest and most obscure pieces of meat.

Chicken soup was an effort to get second and third meals out of an already-eaten chicken. And long before stuffed kishkas became frozen, factory-produced entrees involving sausage skins, they were a meal made by stuffing flour and chicken fat into the leftover neck skin of a goose.

“There are two traditions,” Pollan said. “One is the post-war Cadillac sandwich, but then there’s the earlier tradition of using every part of the bird.”

Levitt and Adelman said that the biggest change they hope to make is to narrow their menu from four pages to two, focusing on ingredients that are locally in season.

Saul's grass-grown, corn-finished pastrami on organic Acme rye

That means customers wouldn’t be able to order things like borscht or half-sour pickles year-round. That wouldn’t be a big deal to deli owners or Jewish homemakers of a century ago, before Americans became used to finding Chilean blueberries on supermarket shelves the middle of winter.

“My bubbe, if you talked to her about having cold borscht in the winter, she’d have thrown you out of the house,” Friend said.

Saul’s owners and their eco-celebrity panelists – all of whom are regulars at the deli – clearly hope to inspire change throughout the dwindling world of Jewish delis.

“It ripples out slowly from here, bounces to the East Coast, and makes its way to the Midwest,” Friend suggested.

Will it work? Will nostalgic Jewish diners still run for comfort food to a place that touts grass-fed pastrami sandwiches and free-range chicken soup?

Is Saul’s in fact firing the matzah ball that will be heard around the world – or at least from Fairfax to the Upper West Side?

And, as panel moderator Evan Kleiman asked at one point, what will Saul’s servers say to the woman who wants borscht in February?

“Well,” Pollan suggested, “people are accustomed to taking abuse from waiters in Jewish delis.”


Postscript: Saul’s held a follow-up panel in May 2011, featuring owners of three other delis from around the country with similar artisanal, sustainable philosophies. You can read my blog post about it here.