Polish & Russian-Jewish Cuisine

Ashkenazi food moves east.

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By the middle of the 19th century, Jewish society in Eastern Europe and Russia was transformed. With the growth of capitalism and the modernization of society, a Jewish proletariat and bourgeoisie had emerged in the cities. There were Jews of great wealth in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa, and in Cracow and Warsaw. Some went into the sugar and flour industries, into soda‑water and beer brewing, and into the salted‑and‑pickled‑herring trade, importing their fish from Scotland, England, Norway, and Holland. Jewish dairies produced sour milk and curd cheese. Almost the entire grain trade of the northwestern provinces was in Jewish hands.

The cooking traditions adopted in the different provinces of Poland and Russia were not all that different from each other, because most of the regions shared the same ingredients and predilections, notably a taste for carp and salt herring, sausages and sauer­kraut. They all had heavy dark and rye bread, they all made cucumber pickles, chicken soup, thick bean and lentil soups, pancakes and dumplings, and also sweet noodle puddings. They all used sour cream, dill, caraway, and poppy seed.

The severe winter climate had en­forced a reliance on grains such as barley, millet, and buckwheat, and on root vegetables and cabbage. The abundance of fruits—there were apples, pears, plums, cherries, gooseberries, cur­rants, and raspberries—meant that they were used in everything from soups and sauces to pancakes, compotes, cakes, and pastries, and also as accompaniments to meat and poultry. Pota­toes from the New World, which were rejected at first by the famished peasantry, became the best­ loved staple in the late eighteenth century. In the 19th century, many impoverished commu­nities survived on bread, onions, and potatoes. But each region did have its specialties and its special touches.

In Poland, Jews acquired a taste for sweetish foods. They used sugar with pickled herring and with vegetables such as carrots, turnips, and cab­bage. It was there that they developed some of their most famous dishes, including fish with raisin sauce and the sweet version of gefilte fish with chrain—a red sauce made with grated horseradish and beet juice that counterbalances the sweetness of the fish. The Polish heritage in­cludes cabbage leaves stuffed with rice; bagels, the famous ring breads that are first boiled, then baked; and the bialy, a bread roll covered with onion, which is named after the city of Bia­lystok; slivovitz (plum brandy) and the habit of drinking wine with brandy and honey.

Lithuanian Jews, like their coreligionists in northern Poland, put very little sugar in their food and used a lot of pepper. Sour foods, such as iced beet soup, sorrel soup with lemon and sour cream, and fermented pickled cabbage, were most common in Lithuania, as was meat cooked with prunes. The areas near the Baltic Sea were famous for curing and pickling fish in the Scandinavian style. The Ukraine and Russia generally were strong on beet soups, on grain—especially kasha (buckwheat)—on curd cheese and sour cream. Blini (buckwheat pancakes) and knishes (potato‑and‑buckwheat pies), pirogi, piroshki, and baranki (sour‑cream‑dough cakes with poppy seed) were staples. The grander days of the Jewish elites in Eastern European communities brought the zakuski—spreads of small cold and hot dishes with which Russians and Poles began formal meals.

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Claudia Roden

Claudia Roden is one of England's leading food writers. Her works include the James Beard Award winning The Book of Jewish Food and A Book of Middle Eastern Food.