The Eastern European Jews who immigrated to America in the early 20th century brought with them the flavors of home — hearty peasant foods seasoned with grease, onions and brine. Out of this gastronomic introduction emerged the delicatessen tradition and a canon of dishes that most Americans recognize today as traditional Jewish fare.
Over the past 60 years, however, many of these classics have faded to near extinction — the victims of changing tastes and our current preoccupation with healthy, low-cholesterol eating. From a nutritional perspective, of course, there is no justification for keeping foods heavy in saturated fats at the center of our diets. But when savored on occasion and with reverence, these Old World foods arguably nourish our souls.
Back in 2011 we turned to the Forward readers for help, asking, “Which foods would you bring back to the contemporary table?” Not surprisingly, the feedback was abundant and passionate. Nearly 100 readers cheered on their favorite Jewish dishes and, along the way, reminisced about family and childhood memories. “My bubbe used to make all of these awesome delicacies… I miss them and I miss [her],” reader Laura Weinberg wrote. And ultimately, aren’t these connections and remembrances what Jewish food is all about?
On that note, here is the Top 10, guided by their responses. Of course, the only way to ensure that these treasured tastes survive is to cook and eat them — so read on, then dig in.
Schmaltz (Rendered poultry fat)
The undisputed favorite among readers, schmaltz — that onion-scented, jellified embodiment of home that Forward contributor Gordon Haber called “early-grave food heaven” — tugs terribly hard on our nostalgic heartstrings. Schmaltz is delicious simply smeared onto hearty bread, and it is also the secret ingredient of many traditional Jewish dishes, from chopped liver to perfectly crunchy latkes. When I was growing up, my mother — typically a champion of healthy eating — kept a jar of schmaltz around on Passover for making matzo balls. Some things are just worth the transgression.
Gribenes (Poultry skin cracklings)
Where schmaltz doth go, gribenes follow — and that includes off of our plates. Those crispy-fried umami explosions left at the bottom of the schmaltz-rendering pan were once a common Sabbath treat. Today, they are mostly a glorious, greasy memory. I first tried them this year, while dining at the home of my friends Naf and Anna (whose kosher, pastured poultry company, Grow and Behold, sells chicken skin for rendering). Resulting heartburn aside, I was instantly converted.
Schav (Sorrel and sorrel soup)
This tart, leafy plant (a cousin of rhubarb) and the brothy soup of the same name have every reason to be favorites among today’s seasonally minded eaters. While schav was once beloved in Eastern Europe, the bottles of murky liquid that populate supermarket kosher sections today have soured its reputation in America. Homemade schav, however, is delightful, and although sorrel is not as widely available as spinach or kale, it can increasingly be found at farmers markets.
Of all the major delicatessen meats, tongue is the least appreciated — a victim of American Jews’ acculturation and growing privilege to say, “Ick, no thanks.” Yet tongue — whether pickled, boiled or roasted and served with mustard and horseradish, or swimming in a sweet-and-sour raisin sauce — has its devotees. It received a surprising number of nods from readers, who must agree with “Save the Deli” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) author David Sax’s description of pickled tongue as an “edible French kiss.”
Mamaliga (Cornmeal porridge)
American Jews still eat mamaliga — they just call it polenta. The two dishes are nearly identical, both the legacy of Turkish rule and both fiercely beloved in their home countries of Romania and Italy. Romanian Jewish immigrants introduced mamaliga to America, where it flourished for decades before falling out of fashion. So the next time you eat polenta, think of Aaron Lebedeff, who, in the famous Yiddish song “Roumania Roumania,” croons: “To live there is a pleasure, what your heart desires, you can get a mamaliga, a pastrami, a karnatzl, and a glass of wine, aha!”
Russel (Fermented beets)
While not one of the most requested foods on the list, russel, or fermented whole beets, is worth revisiting. According to “The World of Jewish Cooking” (Simon and Schuster, 1999) by Gil Marks, Jews throughout Eastern Europe fermented beets between Purim and Passover to “flavor soups [especially borscht], drinks, preserves, horseradish… and kugels.” Russel (Slavic for “brine”) stands as yet another mouth-puckering testament of the Jewish love affair with sour foods.
Eyerlekh (Unhatched eggs)
Jews adore eggs — chopped into salad, scrambled with onions and boiled in a pot of cholent. But eyerlekh (Yiddish for “little eggs”), the creamy, flavorful unhatched eggs found inside just-slaughtered chickens and typically cooked in soup, fell away with the rise of prepackaged chicken parts. Of all the foods on this list, bringing back what my mom remembers as “golden treasures” is the most aspirational. Doing so would require more backyard chickens and a closer relationship with our butcher. Next year in the chicken coop?
Lox and bagels are still the bedrock of a Jewish brunch. But as old-time New Yorkers will tell you, the delicate smoked Nova lox (called that because it was once imported primarily from Nova Scotia) preferred today tastes nothing like the fatty, salty, wet-brined belly lox of their youth. Belly lox is increasingly hard to find, but not extinct. When in New York, head to Zabar’s or Russ & Daughters for your fix, or order online. We agree with the Forward reader with the handle Plays With Food, who wrote, “What’s with this Nova?” Belly lox is the real deal.
P’tcha (Jellied calf’s foot)
While “p’tcha” may sound more like a sneeze than food, calf’s foot jelly has a small but devoted fan base. Eastern European Jews served it with chopped eggs on Sabbath, and in early 20th-century America, it was a staple forshpayz (appetizer) at weddings and Catskills resorts. Today, most American Jews recoil from the thought of meat jelly — but perhaps they should think twice. P’tcha is as economical as it is rich and savory. As Gil Marks writes in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” (Wiley, 2010): “[It makes] one of the least expensive parts of the animal into an Ashkenazic delicacy.”
Aranygaluska (Pull-apart cake)
Readers were surprisingly quiet on the subject of dessert — perhaps because many Ashkenazi sweets are still a part of our cuisine, especially during holidays. But one dessert worthy of mention is aranygaluska (“golden dumpling”), a Hungarian pull-apart bread-cake made from balls of cinnamon and sugar-coated yeast dough, crowded into a tube pan and allowed to rise before baking. The resulting cake (which I’m told my Grandpa Max ate with gusto) is a fluffy, sticky-sweet mess — and entirely delicious.
Schmaltz and Gribenes Recipe
Recipe from “The 2nd Avenue Deli Cookbook”
By Sharon Lebewohl and Rena Bulkin
4 cups chicken fat and skin, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces or smaller
Pinch of pepper
1 cup onion rings, about 1⁄8-inch thick
- Wash fat and skin well in a colander, and pat dry. Place in a heavy skillet, and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.
- Cook, uncovered, over low heat (you can turn it up a bit once the fat has begun melting). When the fat starts to melt and gets slightly brown, add onions (and garlic cloves if you like), and continue cooking until onions and cracklings are golden brown and crunchy.
- When partially cooled, strain over a bowl to remove onions and cracklings, and refrigerate them in a covered glass jar. Pour schmaltz into another jar, cover, and refrigerate.
Recipe courtesy of Aaron Kagan
Originally published on The Jew & The Carrot
1 tablespoon olive oil
1⁄8 cup chopped onion
2 cups sorrel, or about 20 leaves, cut into ribbons
Freshly ground black pepper
4 cups water
2 eggs, well beaten
Dollop of yogurt or sour cream, optional
- Heat olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add sorrel, salt and pepper to taste, and stir to coat, 1-2 minutes.
- Add water and let simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the water has taken on the flavor of the sorrel. Remove from heat and transfer soup to a blender or food processor; process until smooth.
- Return liquid to the pot, and slowly whisk in eggs. Remove from heat and refrigerate until chilled. Serve with yogurt or sour cream, if desired, and more black pepper.
Sweet and Sour Tongue
Originally published in “The Hadassah Jewish Holiday Cookbook”
Recipe by Joan Grossman
1 large onion, sliced
3 large tomatoes, sliced
1 fresh beef tongue (3 – 3 1⁄2 lbs)
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons sugar
1 small clove garlic
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons allspice
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf
Dash of cinnamon
3⁄4 cup raisins
- Place onion, tomatoes and tongue in a large, heavy stockpot, and add 3 cups water. Add lemon juice and honey; bring to a boil; reduce heat to low and simmer, partly covered, for 1 hour.
- Add sugar, garlic, salt and spices; continue cooking 2 hours, or until tongue is tender.
- Remove tongue from sauce. When just cool enough to handle, carefully peel off tough skin. Strain sauce, pressing through onion and tomatoes. Rinse raisins and cook in strained sauce until soft. Slice tongue and return to sauce. Heat thoroughly when ready to serve.
Recipe originally published on My Jewish Learning
By Leah Koenig
1 cup medium-grind cornmeal
11⁄2 cups milk
11⁄2 cups water
3 tablespoon butter or margarine
- Whisk cornmeal together with 1 cup of milk in a medium bowl, and set aside.
- Bring remaining milk and water to a boil in a medium pot. Turn heat down to low, add polenta mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and begins to pull away slightly from the sides of the pot, 7–10 minutes.
- Turn off heat; stir in butter and salt to taste. Ladle into bowls and serve hot.
Recipe courtesy of Gil Marks
Originally published in “The World of Jewish Cooking”
5 pounds beets, peeled and cubed
- Place the beets in a sterilized 1-gallon earthenware or glass crock and add enough un-chlorinated water (chlorine inhibits fermentation) to reach 2 inches above the beets.
- Tie a layer of cheesecloth over the top to keep out dust. Cover loosely and leave in a cool, dark place to ferment.
- Once a week for about four weeks, skim the foam from the surface and stir. Make sure that the beets are always covered with water. If the fermentation process is working properly, each week the cloudy liquid will grow a darker shade of pink and, when ready, turn a clear, deep wine red. Store finished russel in the refrigerator.
Recipe courtesy of Gil Marks
Originally published in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food”
2 calf’s feet (2-21⁄2 lbs.), cleaned and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 medium yellow onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice
11⁄2 teaspoons table salt
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
7 cups water
8 cloves garlic, minced
3 hardboiled eggs, thinly sliced
- Place feet in a large pot, cover with cold water and bring to a boil; boil until scum rises to the surface, about 10 minutes. Drain off water, rinse feet.
- Place feet, onions, garlic cloves, vinegar, salt and pepper in a clean large pot. Add fresh water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer until meat falls off the bone, at least 4 hours.
- Remove bones from pot; remove any meat from bones, and chop. Discard bones. Strain the liquid; stir in the meat and minced garlic.**
- Pour mixture into shallow 2-quart pan or 9-by-5 loaf pan. Arrange egg slices over liquid. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 8 hours. Serve chilled and cut into pieces.
Recipe courtesy of Mikki Arnold
Featured on Food Network (“Calling All Cooks”)
2 packages yeast
1 cup warm whole milk
1 teaspoon sugar plus 1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
5 1/2 to 6 cups flour
2 sticks butter, melted
Ground walnuts, optional
- In a small bowl combine the yeast, milk and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Mix well and set aside to proof for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a standing mixer or medium bowl, cream together the butter and remaining 1 cup of sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well.
- Add yeast mixture and mix well on low speed (or by hand) until just incorporated. Then add salt and flour (starting with 5 1⁄2 cups), mixing well to combine. If the dough is really sticky, slowly add additional flour. Refrigerate for four hours.
- Roll out the dough until it is 1⁄2-inch thick. Using a shot glass, punch out circles of dough and roll them in little balls with your hands. Dip each ball in the melted butter, then roll it in the cinnamon sugar, followed by the nuts, if using.
- Tuck balls tightly in a small greased tube pan. Let rise until doubled, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- Bake in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Lower temperature to 350 and bake for an additional 1 hour and 20 minutes, until golden brown. Immediately turn out cake onto a large plate or serving platter. Serve warm.
Leah Koenig writes a monthly column for the Forward on food and culinary trends. Contact her at [email protected]