The Jewish People and their Food
Food Rules for Jewish Cuisine
The fact that the Jews have lived scattered throughout the world for twenty centuries explains why their traditions and customs vary from country to country. The ritual changes depending on whether the Jewish community has its base in the Mediterranean basin (Sephardic community) or in central-eastern Europe (Ashkenazi community) or in the East (Eastern community). The method of preparing food changed in the various communities even if the cuisine has an obvious process of assimilation with the dominant society.
Roman Jewish cuisine is that which has remained most faithful to the one created in the ghetto by the women who tried to prepare good food with raw materials at good prices, in observance of rules born from sacred precepts. These rules establish what is “kosher” (meaning controlled), all that is valid, appropriate and good, with reference not only to food but also to man and his actions. On the other hand, all that is not kosher is “treif” (meaning torn, not appropriate). “Cooking kosher” does not mean only maintaining a tradition, safeguarding certain hygienic rules, but it also has to do with the meaning of sanctity (kedushah).
As with all Jewish precepts, which aim to dress each everyday activity in holiness, even kosher cuisine functions as a stimulus to internal searching. It favours a better relationship with other men and respect for animals and nature.
The Torah tells us which species of animals we are permitted to eat and which we are forbidden to eat. Amongst the four-legged animals, those which we can eat must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. Sheep, goats and cows are permitted. Fowl must not be nocturnal or predators and fish must have fins and gills. Insects are prohibited, except for some types of grasshoppers, which are permitted only in some areas. Meat cannot be cooked in milk because the Torah tells us not to eat veal in the milk of its mother. Special rules regulate the butchering and preparation of the pure animals.
The Biblical rule says, “No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourn among you eat blood. For as to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof; therefore I said unto the children of Israel: Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh.” Leviticus XVII, 12-14.
This rule is carried out in the “shechita” or the Jewish ritual slaughter, which consists of killing the animal with one cut of a very sharp knife, and with precise measures, from the trachea to the oesophagus, causing immediate death and the loss of all blood. Other than the shechita, the person who carries out the butchering, that is the Shochet, must carry out the “bedica” or a careful inspection of the slaughtered animal, since any animal which proves to be ill or imperfect is not kosher and therefore cannot be used. The “nikur”, or elimination of the sciatic nerve, follows. The prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve comes from the story in Genesis of the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel and from the fact that Jacob was lamed in the struggle. The next step is the separation of the meat from the fat (chelev). The fat was offered as a sacrifice on the altar and for that reason eating it was prohibited. This is the job of the Shochet. The rest is the duty of the person in charge of the kitchen.
The “mehila” (placing under salt) of the meat is the next step. The well rinsed meat is placed in coarse salt for not less than twenty minutes and not more than one hour. After the salting, the meat is washed in running water two or three times to completely eliminate the blood, or the meat must be roasted on a grill so that the blood drains into a container placed underneath. The liver must always be roasted on a grill because the salting is not sufficient to remove all the blood. The brain and the heart must be salted after being opened and cleaned well. The blood of wild animals and fowl must be covered immediately.
Generally Jews of Ashkenazi origins, if they find a spot of blood when they open an egg, take out the blood while Sephardic Jews will take out the blood if the spot is in the white but throw out the egg if the spot is in the yolk.
Milk and meat may not be eaten together. The Torah repeats the same verse three times: “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” Once about not cooking these things together, once about not eating them and once about not mixing them.
Cheeses have their own rules. Cheeses must be made with rennet from kosher animals or chemical rennet.
Wine is considered suitable when it is supervised from the pressing to the bottling. All wines used for non-Jewish worship are prohibited because the Jewish table symbolises the altar.
These are some of the many rules which govern kosher cuisine. In spite of all the limitations, or perhaps because of them, and the care with which Jewish women treat the food, Jewish cuisine is among the most varied and flavoursome in the world. In each country, within the limits of kashrut, it has been adapted to the products available, maintaining unvaried over time the customs common between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. Historic events and a sense of the religious in food have rendered this population the last custodians of the oldest and most rigid traditions which have changed very little over the course of centuries.