The Jewish People and their Food
Speaking about Jewish cuisine, therefore, it is best to refer to the religious holidays for which these rules must be followed, and which sum up the most important dishes of this people.
Chicken with tomatoes and rice – Pilaf
Fish with almonds
Rice – pilaf with sweet tomatoes
Compote of prunes and dried apricots
Hardboiled eggs Sefardic style
Swordfish with tomatoes
Stuffed tomatoes and bell peppers
These are menus the foods of which have been included in many dishes, especially in Roman cuisine, even if it must be clarified that the Jewish customs used in the preparation are very particular, for example in the case of the “cutlets” which are cut thin and pounded well. Roasted on both sides in oil, they are put in a pressure cooker with a small amount of boiling water and cooked, salted and well flavoured with pepper, over low heat for approximately forty-five minutes. This is a poor way of preparing even the hardest and toughest cuts of beef so that they become tender.
The dish called “Hardboiled eggs Sephardic Style” is very special and has the following recipe. “Put the eggs in a pot in which some onion skins have been placed. Cover with water, add the rest of the onion skins, salt, pepper and tea. Cook the above over heat for at least three hours (with a pressure cooker two hours are sufficient). The shells of the eggs take on a beautiful brown colour, the whites become beige and the flavour is very refined.”
Amongst the annual festivities, the New Year’s holiday (Rosh Ha-Shanà) is certainly one of the most important. It is not only the symbolic anniversary of Creation, but it is above all the moment in which each person is invited to prepare and balance his deeds to defend himself before God, against the accusations that Satan, the Accusing Angel, puts against him. Satan, at the moment of Judgement, will present a list to God of all the sins each person is responsible for.
For this reason, purification rites are performed in preparation for this holiday. These rites include the recitation of prayers of penitence. The New Year’s holiday is observed for two consecutive days everywhere in the world.
Upon returning from the synagogue where many functions are carried out starting on the evening before the first day of festivities, there are some rituals performed which relate to food (many of which are performed also on Saturday). One of these is the tradition of eating “small morsels” before the meal, each one with its own special blessing, for example, after the blessing over the bread, a plate of apples dipped in honey is eaten.
The traditional Sephardic menu for the New Year’s meal is made up of “mullet in tomato sauce, roasted chicken with pomegranate, eggplant, and quince compote”. The Italian version is richer since it calls for “ slices of dried meat, risotto with chicken giblets, chicken galantine, mixed boiled vegetables and hazelnut cake” at midday. For the evening meal it calls for “plates of grain and corn, meat ravioli in broth, chicken and celery meatballs, boiled fish with vegetables and mayonnaise, and fresh fruit in season”.
Remember that the “slices of dried meat”, with some variations, became part of Roman cuisine, according to which the meat is not dried in order to remove the blood as is the case in the Jewish version indicated in the following preparation. “Take the slices of meat and dress them well with salt and pepper. Roll them and insert them on a spit. Cover them with a piece of gauze and let them dry in the sun. They are ready after approximately six hours.”
Another holiday very important in cooking is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement on which fasting is obligatory. After the afternoon prayers of the day before Yom Kippur, it is traditional to eat a meal in preparation for the fast. This meal is obligatory and must be eaten with proper solemnity. Alcoholic beverages and spicy foods are to be avoided and it is important to try to end the meal at least one half hour before sunset.
The traditional foods can be listed in three menus:
Macaroni and meat pie
Zucchini with tomato sauce
Grain and dried fruit compote
Bread with oil and salt
Chicken broth with small pasta
Boiled chicken with chips
Brain with verjuice
Zucchini stuffed with meat
Pilaf rice with chicken livers
The dish “grain and dried fruit compote” is a typical and yet little known dish which calls for the following ingredients: wheat, rice, beans, chickpeas, raisins, dried figs cut into pieces, dried apricots, grated orange peel, sugar, potato starch and rose water. It is prepared as follows: “Place the wheat, beans and chick peas separately in tepid water for many hours. Then boil the wheat, the rice and the grated orange peel in a pressure cooker with three cups of water for an hour (in a regular pot more time is necessary). Separately boil the beans and the chickpeas. Allow the figs, raisins and apricots to cook slightly in a small amount of water then mix everything together with the grains including the cooking water. Leave it on low heat for half an hour adding water if necessary. Dissolve the potato starch in a small amount of water and mix it well with the cooking sauce and the rose water. The compote should be semi-liquid and when it cools it should congeal. It can be kept in the refrigerator for many days.”
The Festival of the Booths (Sukkoth) coincides with the harvest season and so in the Torah it is called a Harvest Feast and is celebrated for one week. The name comes from the fact that, throughout all the days of the holiday, one must live in huts made of rushes and branches (Sukkoth). This requirement has been eased over the centuries, however, nowadays it is still necessary to enter the sukkah the first evening in celebration of the holiday.
It is traditional for those who have been called to read from the Torah gather their relatives and friends in their home to celebrate the event with a banquet. The Sephardic menu is made up of stuffed cabbage with rice, meat pie, mixed vegetables with meat, and quince jam while the menu most commonly used in Italy calls for tomatoes with rice, stuffed zucchini, tuna fish balls and “blancmange”. “Blancmange” is a sweet dish made from puff pastry cakes with a filling of almonds flavoured with candied fruit and lemon peel, which are then fried.
Amongst the Jewish religious festivals the one loaded with the happiest memories is Passover (Pesach).
It lasts for eight days, during which it is forbidden to eat leavened bread, in memory of the hurried flight from Egypt, which did not leave the Jews time to wait for their bread to rise and bake normally.
The weeks preceding Pesach see the Jewish houses full of joyous domestic chores, which involve a rigorous cleaning from top to bottom to eliminate any traces of bread or other leavened goods.
The holiday itself lasts for eight days beginning on the 15th of Nissan. During the whole Pesach period, Matzoh, that is unleavened bread, is eaten and no foods are eaten which contain wheat flour or any other flour that can be leavened. Matzoh itself is produced according to precise rules, under the supervision of the religious authorities which oversee the adherence to the rules.
The Passover rituals are many and complex. With regard to the food remember that the Italian menu, in respect to the Sephardic and Ashkenazi one (for historic reasons), has more freedom. This is true both in the Matzoh, which allows for oil, and in the possibility of eating roasted lamb or kid even on the first two nights (while it is permissible to eat them only after the second night in the other traditions). This allowance dates back to the era of Domitian, and is attributed to a scholar of his court and has survived through the centuries.
The menus for the first night call for rice in broth with peas, Jewish style artichokes, hard-boiled eggs, roasted kid, stewed peas and “pizzarelle di azzima” (dumplings made with matzoh). The second night calls for fried eggs and peas in broth, Roman style artichokes, a variety of roast meats with roast potatoes, salad, Passover cakes and fresh fruit in season.
Each dish in Jewish cuisine is very carefully put together, partly due to the observance of religious rules, partly to transform poor foods into tasty dishes and partly due to the solemnity which food has for the Jewish people. For the Jewish people, the altar is considered a place of sacrifice and prayer, just as a certain religiousness is also preserved in the laborious preparation entrusted to the women, who have always spent much time and dedication in the kitchen.