How Traditional Ashkenazi Food Became Trendy - and Tasty - Again

Gefilte fish, tongue and other delicacies are being discovered by young Jews on both sides of the Atlantic.

The story begins with a plate of tongue, which may terrify people nowadays but its tenderness and delicate flavor were once favored by children and adults alike. We ate some at Cafe 48 in Tel Aviv after two or three other courses. One of them was a divine sweet cornbread with sour cream and red chili, perfect as a comfort food for a morning hangover. Yet the tongue managed to activate not only the taste buds and pleasure sensors but also the mind. The four slices of meat were thick, not like the thin ones Grandma used to serve, but the texture and flavor brought back childhood memories. Despite the modern look and the addition of green leaves, the course – served with fresh horseradish and cornichon pickles – excelled in delivering a familiar sweetish taste that caused a twinge of nostalgia.

“Two years ago I started to experiment with cooking and pickling tongue,” says Cafe 48 chef Jonathan Borowitz. “Not with the presumption of reviving the old Eastern European Jewish cuisine, but to experiment with cooking and preserving an unfamiliar ingredient. The experiments failed, and I abandoned them.

“A few months ago, Noah Bernamoff, the founder and owner of the Mile End Deli in Brooklyn, came to the restaurant, and at the bar we began a fascinating conversation that lasted for almost four hours. We spoke quite a lot about the pickled and smoked meats that have earned his delicatessens an international reputation. This is a man who never studied cooking formally, and I told myself that if he can devote years of trial and error to deciphering the code of perfect pickling, I can continue to experiment, too.

“The result, inspired actually by a traditional French technique, is tongue that is marinated in salt and spices for at least five days before you cook it – for at least five hours – then cool and peel it. I could have combined a million other flavors with the juicy meat, but for some reason, for me it connected with the classic horseradish, purple onion and mustard.”

Borowitz, a native of Israel, acquired his culinary knowledge in New York, where he lived for seven years. His Tel Aviv restaurant faithfully reflects, more than any other place in Israel, the mood and trends that influence eateries in the American culinary capital. He also hastens to mention additional sources of inspiration, though, such as David Chang’s Asian-Western cuisine in his Momofuku restaurants.

“The concept of Polish Jewish food still arouses a profound sense of disgust in me, even if today I know it’s not justified,” Borowitz admits. “I imagine gray, soulless food after two unsuccessful ‘roots’ tours in the old country, and to memories from home.

“My grandmother, who is 100 years old and still with us, came from Poland, and my childhood memories include tzimmes and cold fruit compote. My father swears by her gefilte fish, and I loved the brown butter cookies I suspect she learned to make in Paris, when my grandfather was a medical student and they lived there.

“And still, amazingly, I find a lot of threads connecting what I’m doing in the kitchen here with vague memories of the past. In the restaurant I pickle and serve herring like my father used to bring home, with purple onions, allspice, vinegar and sugar, and eat it with butter on a slice of challah. The tongue was inspired by that same baggage of mysterious genetic memories, and I season the short ribs in the white roll sandwich exactly like my mother’s cholent recipe, and serve it with pickled cucumbers. The connection to the sources was not created consciously, or in an attempt to recreate lost flavors, but when I tried to return to slow, old-fashioned production processes.”

Reviving gefilte fish

Pickled meats and pickled cucumbers have also played an important role in the present revival of Eastern European cuisine in North America. Mitchell Davis is a food columnist, vice president of the James Beard Foundation and a prominent figure in the New York culinary world. He believes there are also culinary trends at play. “Chefs around the world, and especially in New York, have been experimenting with charcuterie (now on every menu) and fermentation (pretty much a fetish), and these are two aspects of the Jewish food revival that are most prominent,” Davis says. “Pickles, pastrami, etc., happen to have a long tradition that plays into what is interesting chefs now, not just in Jewish restaurants but everywhere.”

Pastrami, corned beef and schmaltz – current objects of obsession for New York chefs – have been around for over 100 years, but the moment their status was highlighted as part of the mosaic of American melting-pot cuisine, they became significant. “Because of the nature of immigration throughout the generations in America, Ashkenazi Jewish food and delicatessens have come to represent New York cuisine to a large extent,” says Davis, “and many of these new businesses draw on the popularity of, and nostalgia for, New York, not just Jewish food (similar to how pizza is now a New York nostalgia food). Bagels were the first crossover Jewish food, but they were transformed into a synecdoche of New York cuisine. I think the Jewish food that has become popular again, mostly delicatessen and pickles, is part of a similar process.”

In 2002, Davis, scion of a family of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, published a cookbook called “The Mensch Chef,” which was about holiday food during his childhood. “When my book came out, there was very little going on. I had to convince my publishers that a hipper, younger, possibly not Jewish audience was out there for the book (and I didn’t really convince them).

“Publishers saw the Jewish cookbook audience as a homogeneous, older, Jewish group,” Davis believes. “Then, just around [that time] or after it came out, He’Brew, the Jewish beer, was released. Zines with young, Jewish themes started appearing. It was a few years still before a whole movement of reclaiming an Ashkenazi Jewish past began, but I think we are in the midst of it, and food is at the center.”

Jeffrey Yoskowitz, founder and partner in The Gefilteria in Brooklyn (a delicatessen whose goal is to bring the professional manufacture of Jewish foods like gefilte fish and horseradish to supermarket shelves, too), mentions the demise of the veteran New York delicatessens and restaurants as one of his generation’s main motivations.

“I think the New York Jewish food world was caught off guard by the closing of the 2nd Ave Deli in 2006. Ratner’s, the old Jewish dairy restaurant, closed a few years earlier. All of the Jewish, Eastern European restaurants were closing, or so it seemed. To be honest, it upset me, but it hadn’t clicked until I met David Sax, who began writing ‘Save the Deli,’ which was published in 2009. When he started the book, it seemed like it was the end of Jewish foods. By the book’s publication, 2nd Ave Deli had reopened. Then a deli in Portland opened. Then, in January 2010, the Mile End Deli opened in Brooklyn. Suddenly my generation seemed to heed the call. If we don’t step up, these foods will be lost.”

Davis speaks about a search for identity via the kitchen and about the desire to belong to a small and clearly delineated community, especially in a modern era of accelerated globalization and worldwide social networks.

“I think the revival here has to do with a search for an authentic past, especially in our increasingly global, fast, social media world. We want to find our own experiences that resonate with our nostalgia. What is American cuisine? New York cuisine? For most people, it’s the food of people from another place. I think there is a generational thing happening among immigrants that is not unique to Jews. Look at David Chang and the Korean renaissance he has inspired. Kimchi is now popular on all sorts of menus. It’s a third- and fourth-generation immigrant moment, when we are finding the value in the traditional foods and flavors of the past, but cooking them up and messing with them in a very modern, maybe postmodern way.

“At one time,” continues Davis, “the parents and grandparents of these people were made fun of for eating this food. Now we have come to embrace it, celebrate it. We have also become more sophisticated in our tastes and our palate now craves bold flavors, authentic foods, with more understanding of their value and worth.”

According to Dr. Nir Avieli of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, “Studies show that the first generation of immigrants opens ethnic restaurants, like the delicatessens of the Lower East Side, which are meant for them and symbolize the longing for home. The second generation, which wants to become integrated into the new environment, is ashamed of their parents’ cuisine, a sign of the old identity, and stops visiting the restaurants and consuming the same food.

“The third generation, which has a sense of belonging to the new country and therefore is confident in its surroundings, stops being ashamed and turns traditional food into a celebration. I’m not familiar with studies dealing with the lives of the fourth and fifth generations, some of whom who are bringing about the present ethnic revival in North America, but we can reasonably assume that there is an intergenerational pendulum movement.

“The movement intensifies when you add to the equation the constant tension between the desire for globalization − erasing the differences between people − and the basic need for defining the individual by belonging to a small and intimate group. I was just on a research trip in Spain and Portugal, and the most outstanding characteristic, in light of the collapse of the dream of a united European bloc, is the revival of national and regional cuisines.”

And we have falafel

Davis visited Israel two years ago. “When I was in Israel I began to be almost offended by how everyone seemed to dismiss the gastronomic validity of Ashkenazi Jewish food. I found myself filling with pride to try to keep it part of the relevant conversation of food in a Jewish state. I was sad to see so little of it represented, and so much of it maligned.

“It’s a delicious, fresh, healthy cuisine with great flavors, but it doesn’t resonate here as Jewish food. We see it more as a combination of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food. More attuned, perhaps, to how we want to eat now, but not really drawing on the nostalgia for “Old World” authentic cooking, or New York, or the taste of the past, the way Ashkenazi food is for Jewish Americans.”

Jewish communities outside of Israel still feel a need to separate themselves from their neighbors by means of classic markers of identity such as national/religious food. Anyone living in a Jewish state has less need of that, and yet it seems that third- and fourth-generation Israeli chefs have turned to their ancestors’ traditional cuisine as a source of inspiration, turning Spanish Jewish cuisine and North African Jewish cuisine into an integral part of new Israeli cuisine.

Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine has almost no place in it. The methods of preparation and foods such as brisket, knishes or bialys have almost completely disappeared. Almost nobody tries, in a way similar to the process that has taken place in North America, to apply modern techniques to traditional recipes, or present them in a new, light interpretation.

Chef Yonatan Roshfeld is convinced that Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine has not become part of the new Israeli cuisine because of the familiar argument that it is unsuitable for local conditions. “Climate determines the lack of acclimatization in the kitchen,” he declares firmly. “It’s hot here, it’s humid here. How can you bring freshwater fish, goose or duck fat here?

“The cuisines that traveled well, like Asian or Italian cuisine, are cuisines full of vitality that have raw ingredients that travel well. In a hot climate and under the sunlight, comfort food is spicy and colorful, because cuisine is a sensual language. Even when I cook heavy dishes, it’s easier for me to draw inspiration from the vegetables and wild herbs that are sold next to Damascus Gate than to prepare carp soup. Besides, I enjoy being a citizen of the world in the kitchen, and don’t see any disadvantage in the failure to return to the sources. There are advantages to wandering and you can surf the global universe, adopt ingredients and dishes and make them yours.”

Three years ago chef Omer Miller wrote a book about Israeli cuisine. The book, which tried to define the essence of the new Israeli cuisine, includes almost 200 recipes. Only 12 of them were inspired by Jewish Eastern European cuisine – and a note of apology snuck into some of the introductions. “My mother makes a light-colored and sweetish kugel with raisins and cinnamon, typical of Eastern Europeans, It’s tasty, but for me Jerusalem kugel is the real thing − sweet, but with lots of pepper, caramelized and browned.”

Even if you take into account that the book represents various cuisines and melting-pot communities, and the strong influence of local Palestinian cuisine, this is a relatively low percentage of foods that have penetrated the present discourse.

“Six years ago I was a guest on Israel Aharoni’s cooking show,” says Miller, a third generation Polish-Jewish immigrant. “He asked me on live television what my favorite cuisine is. A few cuisines passed through my mind, but I instinctively blurted out ‘Eastern European Jewish cuisine.’ He told me I was liable to be stoned for such an answer. At a certain point in time, especially when it comes to the local culinary scene, the word ‘Ashkenazi’ became a dirty word. There was a feeling that in the field of gastronomy, Ashkenazi origin is something to be ashamed of, and that if you don’t have a Moroccan grandmother, it’s not certain you have anything to say.”

“Young Israeli chefs don’t look to Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine when they’re looking for directions in which to develop,” says chef and food researcher Shmil Hollander. The third generation of immigrants may not be ashamed any more, but the collective images of Eastern European culture remain in the background.

In the Zionist ethos, Western Ashkenazi culture was presented as inferior, as something in need of improvement. The label affixed to it was “galut” (exilic).

The East was seen as primitive, but there are two aspects to being primitive − backwardness and authenticity. When an Israeli culture had to be established ex nihilo, they preferred to look at what was perceived as authentic and deeply rooted. Anyone who ate falafel or spicy foods was seen as “cool.” Anyone who wore a suit according to the European dress code was considered uncool, and when there was a need to establish a local style, they turned to Yemenite embroidery and jewelry.

Creating a counterculture

They didn’t want to absorb Eastern European Judaism; on the contrary, they wanted to uproot it, to create a counterculture. In the United States, that baggage doesn’t exist. Eastern European Jewish food and culture may have had an old-fashioned image, but not a negative one. Here people still spit in contempt and say “yuk” when herring or calf’s foot jelly are mentioned.

“When you try to understand why there is an Eastern European Jewish renaissance in New York of all places, rather than Tel Aviv,” says Holland, “you have to understand that the identification of Diaspora Jews with Israel is gradually waning. When they’re looking for a connection to Jewish identity, or to an alternative Jewish identity, they no longer travel to Israel, but visit the countries of Eastern Europe to seek the ‘old homeland.’ The revival of Yiddish, like the revival of Eastern European Jewish cuisine, reflects this phenomenon. We have no such need. We strut like peacocks around the new Israeli cuisine and don’t feel a need to seek identity in the old homeland.”

“The common perception is that there is no authenticity in modern life,” says Avieli. “Modern man eats bread he didn’t sow, harvest, grind and bake with his own hands, and in order to mend the rift, he returns to tradition. The Ashkenazim in Israel called the Moroccans ‘Mizrahim’ without any relation to geography, because it turned them into Westerners and modern people in their own eyes, but also deprived them of authenticity. A young Israeli chef of Ashkenazi background will prefer to seek authenticity in Italian or Moroccan cuisine rather than in Eastern European cuisine.

“In North America it’s a different story because of the different contexts of the concepts ‘Ashkenazi’ and ‘Jewish.’ There, because of the vast majority of Ashkenazi communities, a Jew equals an Ashkenazi, and Jewish food is a synonym for Ashkenazi food. In Israel, the story is totally different and touches on the sensitive subject of interethnic tension. In the army, the hospital, the university and government institutions, the food is still mainly Ashkenazi. They serve chicken, potatoes and salad, and if they serve spicy fish they call it ‘Mizrahi’ fish.

“Even in the area of food, there is still Ashkenazi hegemony that is transparent to those who belong to it. For those who don’t, there’s a greater urge to offer an alternative and to repair the injustice.”

Holland and Miller both agree that in the past two or three years they sense a slight change, even if not yet on a large scale. Miller regularly serves chopped liver and kreplach in his restaurants Hadar Haochel (The Dining Room) and Hashulchan (The Table). Chef Meir Adoni recently spoke about the desire to recreate dishes such as calf’s foot jelly and chicken soup in the modern kitchen of Catit. And in places such as Habasta or Cafe Dalia they serve boutique Ashkenazi Jewish dishes made from high-quality ingredients, and wax nostalgic about the culture of the Eastern European pub.

“I was once a strange bird who was the only one interested in this cuisine,” says Holland. “Today you can enter a bar and get herring and pickles – until recently an almost inconceivable sight. The late [restaurateur] Shaul Evron was seriously interested in this cuisine, and young men who admired him imitate him.

“Sherry Ansky brought about a revolution when it comes to herring and salted fish with her stall in the farmers’ market. I have a feeling that we’ve gotten over the major antagonism and no longer stone anyone who declares his affection for this cuisine. The Russian aliyah contributed quite a bit to the new mood, especially when it comes to forgotten ingredients that today are available in delicatessens and supermarkets.”

Dan Peretz
Dan Peretz
Dan Peretz