East Central European Cuisine

Ashkenazi cuisine with a cosmopolitan twist.

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The glittering epoch in East Central Europe left a rich culinary heritage with the Jews, especially those of the dual Austro‑Hungarian monarchy. There, a rich and refined cosmopolitan cuisine, which was shared by the two countries, evolved through Viennese, French, Ottoman, and Magyar influences. (Viennese court food was Austro‑French, and Hungary had been ruled by the Ottoman Turks.) A magnificent range of pastries and luscious flourless tortes, which you can see in Jewish patisseries around the world, is part of that grand tradition.

Peasant food was also part of the heritage. It is represented most remarkably by the incredible variety of dumplings, often interchangeably served sweet or savory, that are still part of the peasant diet in all of Central Europe.

The German, Austrian, and Czech legacy includes goose, cured meats, sausages, and salamis, sauerkraut, sweet and savory dumplings, potato salads, and a general passion for the potato. Veal schnitzel and the jam-filled doughnuts that have become the ritual foods of Hanukah are from Vienna. Goulash, the famous paprika stew, and chicken paprikash were adopted in Hungary, as were cherry soups, blintzes (stuffed pancakes), and strudel. The paper-thin strudel dough was a legacy of the Turks, as were Hungarian stuffed peppers and tomatoes, which had never been accepted before in the Ashkenazi world. It seems that Jews had been afraid that tomatoes might not be kosher: The red juice looked like blood, which is forbidden. In Hungary the Jews learned to cook with wine, garlic and onion, and herbs and spices, and to put paprika, the sweetish red pepper powder, in almost everything. The cooking of Romania and the Balkans, which had much more in common with Turkey, brought grilled meats, roasted peppers, and eggplant puree, as well as the cornmeal mush known as mamaliga and the lavish use of yogurt and garlic.

When the Jews left in great waves for America and elsewhere to avoid conscription, escape pogroms, and earn a living, and later to flee Nazism, they took with them the old cooking traditions of their various regions of origin. The foods that recall the old communities have been passed on from one generation of immigrants to another, in every corner of the world. It seems, sometimes, as if martyrdom and nostalgia have invested them with almost holy qualities.

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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.