Jewish Food 101

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Ashkenazic Cuisine

In contrast to Sephardic Jewry, most Ashkenazic Jews--those from Europe and Russia--were very poor, and their food reflects this. Ashkenazic food also reflects the migration of a community first based in Germany that ultimately spread eastward to Russia and Poland. What Americans usually refer to as “Jewish food”--bagels, knishes, borscht--are the foods of Ashkenazic Jewry, and indeed, in many cases were foods eaten by the non-Jews of Eastern Europe as well.

American Cuisine

The “Jewish style” food of America is an enriched version of Ashkenazic cuisine. However, Jews existed in the U.S. long before the major wave of Eastern European immigration in the beginning of the 20th century. Though early Jewish life was located primarily in the major cities on the East Coast, Jews traveled and lived throughout the United States, and their foods were influenced by local custom and availability. Matzah balls with hot pepper in Louisiana and gefilte fish made from salmon in the Far West are examples of America’s influence on Jewish cuisine. The recent interest in health food has also affected Jewish eating. Derma (stomach casings) and schmaltz (chicken fat), once staples of Jewish cooking, are rarely used today.

Israeli Cuisine

Most of Israel’s culinary experts believe that Israel has yet to develop its own national cuisine. The foods most commonly referred to as Israeli--foods like hummus, falafel, and Israeli salad--are actually common to much of the Mediterranean and Arabic world. Nonetheless, because of its international citizenry, certain government-sponsored kashrut laws, and the recent surge in American fast food--which produced a kosher McDonald’s--eating in Israel is a unique experience.

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