Pickle & Preserve

The Nuances of Jewish Preserving

August  9, 2017

For centuries, people of the Jewish faith have preserved food not just to survive, but as part of their rich culture. In her latest book, The Joys of Jewish Preserving, author Emily Paster writes about this special heritage, along with modern and traditional recipes for jams, pickles, fruit butters, and more. Below, she shares a look the similarities and differences of preserving food between Jewish cultures.

Most Americans have a fairly narrow idea of Jewish cuisine—kosher dills, brisket, gefilte fish, potato pancakes, and matzo ball soup—shaped by trips to a neighborhood deli, sharing a Passover Seder, or TV and movies. But, in fact, the Jewish world consists of two distinct communities, each with their own traditions and, yes, foods. Most American Jews are Ashkenazi Jews from northern Europe and Russia, while the other group, known as the Sephardim, originated in Spain. After being expelled during the Inquisition, the Sephardim settled around the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Over centuries, both geography and the influence of their Christian and Muslim neighbors shaped two very different cuisines. Ashkenazi cuisine was one of cold, isolation, and scarcity: think chicken fat, cheap cuts of meat or offal, freshwater fish, and root vegetables—what many people in the United States consider “Jewish food.” Conversely, the Sephardic diet was one of warmth and abundance and, because they were near the Mediterranean, incorporated ingredients from around the globe. Typical Sephardic dishes include couscous, kebabs, rice pilaf, and stuffed vegetables.

No matter how different their surroundings, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews followed kosher laws, which continue to provide a framework for the culinary practices of people of the Jewish faith. A Jew who observes the laws of kosher cannot eat food from a kitchen, be it in a restaurant or someone's home, that does not adhere to these rules. Among other restrictions, kosher prohibits mixing milk and meat in the same meal. After eating meat, all Jews rely heavily on fruit, rather than dairy-based desserts, to end the meal. But while Sephardic Jews living in the Arab world had ready access to sugar, it was a luxury to Ashkenazi Jews, who used honey as their main sweetener. Sephardic housewives became famous for their dulces, or spoon sweets: luscious confections of fruits preserved in sugar syrup. Ashkenazi Jews meanwhile, made honey-sweetened compotes out of dried plums, apples, and pears, or low-sugar fruit pastes known as lekvar—far more rustic fare!

Preserving fruits and vegetables was also an important part of both cuisines. Ashkenazi Jews relied on preserved foods to survive their harsh climate, turning fruit into jam and syrups to prevent malnutrition during winter. They pickled beets, cabbages, and cucumbers not only to preserve them, but also to contrast the blandness of their winter diet. For centuries, Jews in this part of the world packed these vegetables with salt into large barrels and stashed them in a cool place to ferment, vinegar (which was typically made from wine) being too expensive for most people to use as a preservative.

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While the Sephardim typically lived in more bountiful areas, food preservation was still very much part of the culinary tradition. Sephardic families greeted guests at celebrations like the new year with fruit preserves, such as dulces made from apricots, apple or quince, in crystal bowls atop silver trays. To ensure an adequate supply, Sephardic women gathered at the end of the growing season to turn rose petals, quince, orange, apricot, dates, figs, and even pumpkins and squash into jams, whole fruits suspended in sugar syrups, and pastes. And pickled and marinated vegetables, from turnips and beets to marinated sweet peppers were served as mezze, or a spread of cold dishes, with drinks or before a meal.

Today, in places like America and Israel, Ashkenazi and Sephardic cuisines exist side-by-side. Jewish cuisine encompasses all of these traditions. Go to a place like Wise Sons in San Francisco or Brooklyn’s Mile End Deli and you will see Middle East-inspired chicken shawarma and falafel next to a classic Reuben sandwiches on the menu. Contemporary Jewish cookbooks such as Modern Jewish Cooking by Leah Koenig have recipes for gefilte fish and matzo balls alongside Sephardi dishes like carrot salad with mint and dates. Sure, kosher dills are a classic Jewish preserved food, but so is pickled okra or spicy tomato-and-pepper matbucha. And both are equally delicious.

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1 Comment

Colleen August 27, 2017
Thank you! I have never lived anywhere near a Jewish family so my knowledge in this area is very shallow. Now to find the recipes!