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How Traditional Jewish Food has Influenced Eating Habits around the World

Jewish Diaspora began in the 6th century B.C.E. and again in 70 C.E., after the sacking of Jerusalem, the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman world and beyond. The settling in different lands made it difficult to keep the foods exactly the same.

Jewish cuisine maintained its basic structures that kept with the kosher laws. The recipes had to be dependent upon the climate and availability of food.

The wine, challah for Kiddush and matzo for Passover were the same in all regions. Other food ingredients seem “foreign” to each region. The Eastern European gefilte fish, cholent – (a Sabbath dish made from vegetables and meat, prepared on Friday and cooked overnight), and kugel –( a savory pudding made originally of noodles and potatoes in most recent times) was different from North African Jewish foods. In North Africa, the food uses the traditions of kosher cooking, but the regional ingredients make a difference in taste. For example, North African Jews eat couscous (semolina made of durum wheat), meatballs and peas, and tajine – (a North African stew made of spiced meat and vegetables, slowly cooked in an earthenware conical pot with a lid).

The Jews used the local food, but it was different because food preparation was different from their non-Jewish neighbors. The recipes had to conform to the laws of Kashruth (suitability of food).

Kashruth, based upon rabbinic tradition, place restrictions on culinary preparations. Proscribed foods were pigs, animals that did not chew their cud and have split hooves, shellfish and any fish that did not have fins and scales (catfish, shark). Animals have to be slaughtered according to ritual.

In Eastern Europe, there are two foods that are staples for Saturday lunch, cholent and kugel. To explain regional differences, the following basic recipe for cholent in Eastern Europe:

Ingredients: 6 small potatoes; 1 lb. meat cut into cubes; 1 onion; ½ cup kidney beans; ½ cup lima beans; ½ cup navy beans; water, salt, pepper, garlic powder.

Preparation: Peel potatoes, (larger potatoes should be cut in half. Rinse meat and beans, peel the onion and add all to a large pot. Add water and spices, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer. Add water as needed until the beans expand. Place on back burner on a blech so that it does not have direct flame. Cook overnight on a low flame.

Hungarian Jews, when they make the same dish, do not use potatoes. In Bohemia-Moravia, the dish consists of goose, rice and peas. In Germany and neighboring parts of Western Europe, the dish is a variant of cholent called schalet. It is a casserole (more like a meat pie) instead of a stew.

The tradition is the requirement that the dish is cooked overnight over a low flame. The kosher preparation is the same all over the world. The exceptions are the following: Some Middle Eastern Jews ate locust, which most European Jews would find offensive. Ashkenazic Jews would not allow eating beans or rice on Passover. Middle Eastern Jews would accept beans and rice as a part of the Passover meal.

Although traditional Jewish culture share meaning and structure to their cuisine, the regional cooking ingredients change the flavor of the food.