Editors’ Note: To celebrate the release of Joan Nathan’s newest book (her eleventh!), King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, Yotam Ottolenghi—most recently of Nopi and, soon, Sweet—asked her about her Passover menu, what Jewish food is exactly, and what more she has to discover about Jewish food (she’s been writing about it for quite some time).
Yotam Ottolenghi: The most difficult question of all: What makes food Jewish? Is there a clear definition? Or a general set of requirements? How do you approach this big question that I am so often asked?
Joan Nathan: In terms of Jewish food, to me, there are three facets to this question. Unlike French or Italian food that have literal roots in the land, Jewish food, although metaphorically connected to the land of Israel, has its roots in the dietary laws—separation of meat and milk, no shellfish or pork, kashering the meat—as well as in the holidays and the Sabbath. I believe that no matter how secular the Jew, he or she knows about these things in the back of their mind.
Secondly, since the time of King Solomon or before, Jews have always been merchants, searching the world for spices, working in the wine industry, baking, and, as you and I know, writing about food. We Jews have always been looking for the new and making space, both at home and abroad. Food is a primary vehicle.
The third aspect is that Jews have been expelled again and again. They’ve had to readjust their food according to their dietary laws in new regions, which has led to Hungarian, Siberian, El Salvadorian, and, of course, American Jewish food. These aspects are what I’ve worked into King Solomon’s Table, from the first page to the last.
YO: Could you suggest a Passover menu from recipes in your book that covers as many aspects of Jewish food as possible?
JN: I'd start with harosets on your seder plate. Don’t get me wrong, apples and nuts are still the most popular, but try these too: a haroset from Brazil with apples, dates, and cashews or a nutless one from Maine with blueberries and cranberries.
At our seder, we always started with hard-boiled eggs in salt water until I found Huevos Haminados con Spinaci (long-cooked hard-boiled eggs with spinach). It’s from the island of Corfu, Greece—the eggs are cooked so long that they are creamy.
At my seder I still make the old-fashioned gefilte fish ovals that I learned from my mother in law, but I am always tempted to switch to the salmon gefilte fish mold with homemade horseradish sauce. Most people make homemade chicken soup with their matzo balls, but it is always handy to have a good vegetarian way of doing this. I serve both, but you can serve either.
I’d also serve Carciofi alla Giudia (Roman Jewish-style fried artichokes) and Salyanka, a beef stew with red peppers from Georgia. I first tasted the stew at a simple restaurant in Jerusalem called Rashka. Go there if you have a chance.
For dessert, the Persian Ginger Almond Sponge Cake with Cardamom and Pistachios. This kosher-for-Passover sponge cake from the Nazarian family in LA is delicious any time of the year.
YO: You have been researching Jewish food all your life. Is there anything new to discover?
JN: Of course! Think about it, with DNA research and new evidence about the past, we are always learning new things. Also, with the discovery of almost lost communities, like the Jews of Azerbaijan, we have learned so much.
In King Solomon’s Table, I’ve unearthed so many dishes that have been living below the radar, like a kasha lasagne with caramelized onions and shiitake mushrooms that I learned from a friend who tasted it at a Polish Jew in Netanya, Israel—or the lost chocolate wurst dessert called schockoladenwurst from Germany, which I discovered when dining with a few of the 100 Jews of El Salvador.
YO: What is your favorite rice dish in the world?
JN: There are several—I love rice! One that immediately comes to mind would be the Persian jeweled rice with orange peels that I have in my Foods of Israel cookbook. I love it for many reasons, but top among them is the encrusted tadig on the bottom. A simpler version that I make very often now, which is also in King Solomon’s Table, is my saffron rice.
Another favorite is mujaddara (rice, lentils, and caramelized onions), a staple of Middle Eastern cuisines—and of course, your saffron rice with barberries, pistachios, and mixed herbs. I also want to thank you so much for all that you have done to make your Jerusalem food so appetizing for the rest of the world. You really have been at the forefront of this movement in every way and are truly an inspiration. I am honored you are asking me these questions!
Joan Nathan's book King Solomon's Table is out now.