What’s Jewish about Jewish food?
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What’s Jewish about Jewish food?

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Walk into any New Jersey diner these days and among the fettuccine, burgers, and fried fish on the menu you will likely also find matzoh balls, blintzes, and maybe even a pastrami sandwich.

These foods, which used to be solely the domain of Lower East Side Jewish delis, have gained popularity in non-kosher restaurants and turned Jewish cuisine into its own subset of American dining culture. Jewish food is everywhere now, but if a blintz is listed on the same menu as a shrimp cocktail, is it still Jewish?

What is it that makes these specialty foods Jewish? And are Jews still eating the traditional dishes of their immigrant ancestors or has the Jewish culinary experience transmogrified into something else altogether?

Jewish food through the ages

According to cookbook author Joan Nathan, there is no such thing as traditional Jewish food.

“It’s the dietary laws that make Jewish cooking what it is,” said the author of “Jewish Cooking in America” in an interview with The Jewish Standard. “And even if people don’t follow the dietary laws, they understand what they are. That’s the essential core of Jewish cooking through the ages. Dishes are geographical,” she added.

Rabbi Gil Marks, author of kosher cookbooks “The World of Jewish Cooking” and “Olive Trees and Honey,” agreed.

“Today more Jews probably eat lasagna and hamburgers and pizza than what one would call traditional Jewish food,” he told the Standard. “In one sense, traditional Jewish food is what Jews eat. But in another sense, certain foods are almost sanctified by their usage beyond the norm.”

So if Jewish food is just food that Jews eat, why are there so many restaurants and companies advertising Jewish rye bread, Jewish matzoh ball soup, and Jewish blintzes? Something has tied these foods to the Jewish consciousness through the years and the connection has become a useful marketing tool, as well.

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From pastrami to tandoori, Jewish food is constantly evolving. josh lipowsky

The answer can be found by looking at what’s hot on the American food scene right now.

Foodies point out that the No. 1 condiment in America today is not ketchup, mustard, or mayonnaise, but salsa. As Hispanic immigrants came to America and prospered, the food they brought with them prospered, too. It’s an old story, and Hispanics are only the latest group to travel the culinary wagon train that Jews seemingly perfected throughout history.

“Jews don’t traditionally create a lot of dishes,” Marks said. “The main Jewish role in the past 2,000 years in food has been transporting items from one culture to another.”

A prime example is corned beef. While many will paint themselves green on St. Patrick’s Day, haul out the Irish Harp, and sit down to a traditional Irish dish of corned beef and cabbage, there’s actually nothing Irish about the pickled meat.

Corned beef originated in Germany – adapted from a more jerky-like British version. When large waves of German Jews began immigrating to America in the 1880s, they brought their versions of German cuisine with them, including corned beef.

Jews from Romania brought pastrami, and matzoh ball soup has been around since the Middle Ages. Together, these foods became the basis for the Jewish deli, which gained gastronomic glory during the early 20th century.

Marks noted that the majority of the Jewish immigrants of the late 19th century were single men who left their families behind to find work. When there were women around, they would sell sandwiches from their apartments, and then in stores that later became the first Jewish delis of New York.

Jews weren’t the only immigrants moving to the area, though. Also beginning in the early 20th century, large numbers of Irish immigrants settled in New York. There, they encountered the Jewish deli and its food appealed to the new Americans. Thus the Irish association with corned beef was born.

The advent of artificial refrigeration further popularized the dish, making it easier to store with less salt. Technological advances usually accompany geographic shifts when foods move from one culture to another, Marks said.

The German dishes that eventually became the classic American hot dog and hamburger evolved largely because of the German wave of immigration in the 19th century and the later invention of the electric meat grinder, which lowered the cost of production.

The original Slavic word “kasha” means any cooked cereal. The Yiddish word, however, refers specifically to cooked buckwheat. And since it was Jews who transported the food to America, kasha means buckwheat to Americans.

“Jews did not invent falafel or hummus or any of these things, but Jews helped in the popularization of them outside their native areas,” Marks said.

Even foods that many view as Jewish, such as hummus and falafel, are borrowed from other cultures. Hummus itself is an Arabic word that means chickpeas, although the dish’s origins likely extend back beyond Arab culture.

“The modern form of hummus is an Arabic dish that the Jews picked up early in their move to Israel,” Marks said. “It was inexpensive, it was useful, it was long lasting and now it’s ubiquitous in Israel.”

Arab immigrants are also playing a large part in popularizing Middle Eastern food, but Marks credits Jews for beginning the trend in the 1950s and ’60s.

“If you go to [New York] in the last few years, all of a sudden you see these hummus restaurants popping up,” Marks said. “Most [owners] are Israelis or people who were in Israel a while.”

In Adam Sandler’s summer comedy “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan,” the Jewish comedian played an Israeli commando who moves to New York to become a hair stylist. Throughout his adventures, he’s seen using hummus to brush his teeth, put out fires, and spread on everything.

Probably one of the best-known Jewish foods is the bagel. Now one of the most popular breakfast breads in America, the bagel was almost unknown outside Jewish circles during the 1950s and ’60s. The modern bagel would be unrecognizable in the Europe of its origins, though. Through the past 50 years, the bagel has grown bigger while the hole has gotten smaller. Traditionally bagels were boiled before they’re baked, but now many purveyors just steam them a little – if at all – before baking. And then there are all those flavors such as cinnamon raisin, blueberry, and sun-dried tomato.

“Just as Jews adapted food to the kosher laws, non-Jews adapt it to their own likes and needs,” Marks said. “McDonald’s sells bagels with ham and cheese and that’s almost sacrilegious.”

Is matzoh ball soup still just Jewish penicillin?

Perhaps the most famous example of the marketing of traditionally Jewish food came during the 1960s. Levy’s Rye Bread unveiled an advertising campaign called “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s,” which featured an assortment of ethnic types munching on the bread. Some of these posters still adorn restaurant walls, demonstrating how traditional Jewish foods have crossed culinary and cultural boundaries.

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Sushi has become a new staple of kosher restaurants in recent years. Josh Lipowsky

“You go into a Greek diner, you’re going to find a matzoh ball soup on the menu,” Sandy Levine, founder of New York’s Carnegie Deli, told the Standard. “The main items that are affiliated with Jewish cuisine are in a lot of restaurants.”

Carnegie Deli is one of the best-known non-kosher Jewish-style delis in the country. With Ashkenazi classics such as kreplach, chopped liver, and cholent mixed among ham sandwiches and shrimp, it serves a clientele that is 90 percent non-Jewish and has been successful with that demographic because Jewish food has become an international cuisine, Levine said.

“You go around to diners, coffee shops – pretty much that’s the replacement of the Jewish deli,” he said. “Most of them have the matzoh ball soup, the pastrami, the corned beef, the knishes. It’s just one of the things on their menu [but] not predominant.”

Levine, who grew up in Brooklyn, remembers a time when there were delis practically on every street corner.

“Today it’s non-existent but the food lingers on,” he said.

Delis still attract kosher consumers who won’t patronize the non-kosher competitors, but even there internationalization has taken over. With a wide range of kosher restaurants and cuisines available – Japanese, Mexican, and Indian to name just a few – Yosi Mizrahi, owner of Foster Village Kosher Delicatessen in Bergenfield, doesn’t see people turning to delis they way they used to. But the restaurant still has its niche that other cuisines just can’t fill.

“When it comes to holidays, people want to go back to their roots,” he said. “A holiday sticks with tradition. It’s still matzoh balls and the chicken soup and the chopped liver.”

Traditional delis are still dishing out sandwiches in areas with large Jewish populations such as Bergen County, home to such pastrami-slingers as Ma’adan, Noah’s Ark, and Harold’s.

It’s the ability of delis to branch out that has kept them alive, Mizrahi added. Menus now resemble the eclectic hodgepodge typically associated with the diner. They offer a little bit of everything from traditional cold cuts to burgers and steaks to pastas.

The deli hasn’t forgotten its roots, though. Essential Bergen magazine named Foster Village Kosher Deli the home of the best pastrami sandwich in the county earlier this year. His traditional steamed version, Mizrahi said, is unique to Jewish delis. But, he added, he serves an assortment of Israeli salads and will make whatever customers ask for.

“The deli today didn’t just stay what it is,” Mizrahi said. “We go all over the place. If somebody wants Asian stuff, we’ll make Asian stuff. That’s the kosher tradition. We move on to more stuff because you cannot stay with the same thing.”

What are Jews eating now?

So if Jewish food is just culinary creations borrowed from the Jewish travelogue, what are the kosher restaurants serving?

The traditional deli is all but dead, according to Nathan. Falafel has long been a mainstay in kosher cuisine, while more Israelis restaurants are serving up shwarma – a Middle Eastern version of the gyro – as a quick meal on the go. And pizza will forever remain popular with children and families looking for an easy meal. But what’s going to be the next big thing to hit the kosher crowd?

According to Marks, steakhouses are popular now “partially because a lot of Jews still just want a big piece of meat and potatoes.”

International kosher restaurants, Nathan predicted, will begin serving more pan-Asian delicacies, rather than just straight Chinese food.

“Jewish food is following everybody else’s food,” Nathan said. “We’re trying whatever’s new.”

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Shalom Bombay owners Michael Phulwani and Alan Cohnen, and chef Paul Singh, middle, hope that Indian food will be the next big trend in kosher dining. Josh Lipowsky

Restaurateur Alan Cohnen is a partner in Shalom Bombay, a kosher Indian restaurant that opened in Teaneck earlier this week. While there are a slew of kosher vegetarian Indian restaurants in New York, Cohnen said his restaurant is the first kosher meat Indian restaurant in the country.

“It’s something that’s never been done before,” Cohnen said during a tasting at the restaurant a few days before the grand opening. “We felt it’s a niche, and in this economy the only way to be successful is finding niche businesses.”

Indian is one of the fastest growing cuisines in non-kosher markets, according to Cohnen. Meanwhile, consumers are “getting bored” by the lack of variety in kosher ethnic cuisine, he added.

“There’s only really been two: Japanese and Chinese,” he said. “Indian right now is where sushi was seven years ago. We’re at the cutting edge of something that’s about to explode.”

Cohnen isn’t slighting sushi, though. His brother, Kevin Cohnen, owns Eden Wok in New York and he believes sushi is still trendy among the kosher crowd.

“People like it as a healthy alternative to the heavy meat that is so prevalent in restaurants,” Kevin Cohnen said during last week’s Kosherfest showcase at the Meadowlands.

Sushi’s popularity within the Jewish community has burgeoned in recent years, with several kosher Japanese restaurants popping up around the area, as well as non-Japanese restaurants adding sushi bars. In Brooklyn, Jewish weddings seem almost incomplete without a sushi bar, Marks said.

Danny Berlin has been making his living off sushi for more than a decade. One of the owners of Sushi Metsuyan, a franchise with a Teaneck presence, Berlin said that sushi appeals to the health-conscious, which is where many kosher-eaters are heading these days. More than that, kosher restaurants can’t rely on captive audiences and have to produce quality in order to survive.

“Even though you have a committed kosher-eating population, it’s more than just kosher,” he said. “They have to provide fresh high-quality ingredients. The kosher consumer wants value. There’s an ambience that people want.”

Kosher restaurants tend to be a few years behind when it comes to the latest culinary trends, according to Marks. But eventually they do catch up, he said.

“It’s always had a mix of traditional and international,” Kevin Cohnen said of the kosher restaurant scene. “Now sushi seems to be the hotter thing, but it’s already been a few years since sushi has really become more mainstream and they’re always looking for the next hot international cuisine.”

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