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What is traditional Jewish cooking

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Traditional Jewish cooking and dishes are as rich as their heritage

If you think traditional Jewish cooking is bagels, potato pancakes and kosher hot dogs, then you don't know Jewish cooking. There are few cuisines with more history and symbolism than Jewish food due to its widespread geographic origins, many holidays with unique foods and strict rules for the preparation process.

So what exactly is traditional Jewish cooking?

Kosher cooking

To understand Jewish cooking, first and foremost you must understand the meaning of "kosher"  - the set of laws that govern Jewish foods. It's easiest to look at what is prohibited. All meat must be from an animal with cloven hooves that chews its cud, thus eliminating hogs and rabbits. Chicken and poultry are kosher, but shellfish are not. Fish with easy-to-remove scales like salmon are kosher but catfish and swordfish aren't. Dairy foods must not be cooked with or served at the same meal as meat, but eggs, grains, fruits and vegetables are allowed.

At the supermarket, kosher foods are marked on the package with a U or a K in a circle. The kosher laws become stricter on certain Jewish holidays.

Geographic influence

Because Jews lived throughout Europe and the Middle East, there are different styles of traditional Jewish cooking based on geography.

Ashkenazic cooking originated in Eastern and Central European countries and contains the dishes most American associate with Jewish foods. Ashkenazic meals begin with Challah, a sweet egg bread baked in a braided loaf. It is served with chicken soup containing one or more large matzoh balls, which are dough balls made from matzah meal - fine crumbs from crushed unleavened bread. The most popular meat dish is brisket, which is a tough cut from the leg of a cow that requires long slow cooking until it is tender. Potatoes are the main side dish, often prepared in a casserole called a kugel or as pancakes called latkes. Desserts are cheesecakes, blintzes and babka, a sweet bread with almonds and raisins.

Spehardic Jewish cuisine is the food of Jews living in Mediterranean areas, the Middle East, Spain and North Africa. The primary meat is lamb and the side dishes include rice, chickpeas, eggplant, olives and artichokes flavored with pungent spices like cumin and coriander. Grains are made into pita bread or served whole in salads like tabbouleh. Desserts are cakes made with layers of filo dough and filled with honey, pine nuts and pistachios.

Holiday cooking

Jewish holidays often have additional traditional Jewish dishes. Passover includes unleavened bread or matzah and desserts made without yeast or wheat flour, such as macaroons and sponge cake. Jewish holidays have their own set of traditional dishware and serving pieces, and rituals that accompany the preparation and serving of meals.

Oil plays an important role in the feast of Hannukah, so dishes cooked in oil - potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts - are served.

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is a fall festival so there's plenty of fruits and vegetables from the garden harvest served. Beets are cooked or made into a soup called borscht. Cabbage leaves are filled with meat and rice and rolled into stuffed cabbages.

Food lore

There are many more foods in traditional Jewish cooking with equally interesting histories. The bagel originated in Poland and was thought to be a gift for new mothers. Whatever your nationality or heritage, when you're eating delicious Jewish foods, always toast your cook with a hearty "Mazel tov!"

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