Jewish food traditions an essential guide

Jewish food and Jewish cuisine are not easy to put into a box and label as Jewish. The diaspora suffered by Jews over the centuries has meant that many Jewish people honour the laws of Kashrut (the dietary laws also known as Kosher) and have had to incorporate the ingredients at hand. Other religious requirements for keeping the Sabbath mean there are prohibitions about creating fire on Shabbat and in many ultra-orthodox homes, electricity use is forbidden.

Jewish food also bears the marks of these migratory patterns and a background that includes socio-economic status and access to food goods. Jewish food culture also varies depending on the regions that Jewish people moved to.

Ariel the oldest Jewish restaurant in Krakow - jewish foods

What is traditional Jewish food?

There are 3 main styles of traditional Jewish cuisine and they are that of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi. Other cultural influences on Jewish food include Persian, Yemenite, Indian and Latin-American as well as the influences on Jewish dishes from Central Asia to Ethiopia.

Israeli cuisine is recognized worldwide these days thanks to Chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, Mike Solomonov and Eyal Shani who brought us Israeli foods and introduced us to Middle Eastern dishes and spices like sumac and za’atar. Israel has a strong foodie base and a growing reputation for some amazing culinary creations. Street Food in Jerusalem is a star in the shuk (also known as the souk) which is a Jewish market in the centre of Jerusalem and I can’t wait to learn more about this growing cuisine.

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Jewish Foods the influence of the Torah and Talmud

Within Judaism, the dietary laws are found in the Torah and laid out in far more detail in the Talmud. These dietary laws governed what and how to eat in ancient times and laid out the types of food-related laws that will apply to those related to particular celebrations, festivals and certain occasions. Traditional Jewish food reflects the food culture of this diaspora and shows up all across the world from the Levant to New York.

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Jewish food traditions – keeping Kosher

Keeping kashrut or kosher is a backbone of Jewish food by prescribing and proscribing the allowed foods and how they must be prepared prior to cooking and then produced and processed. The word kashrut translates to “pure” or “proper”.   

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There are three main kosher food categories

Meat (fleishig)

This can be the flesh of any mammal except for pigs, rabbits, squirrels, camels, kangaroos, or horses. With regard to poultry or fowl, it is not allowed to eat or cook predator or scavenger birds, such as eagles, owls, gulls, and hawks. When it comes to beef or other meats you are not allowed to use beef that comes from the hindquarters, such as flank, short loin, sirloin, round, and shank cuts.

After eating meat you must wait up to 6 hours depending on the various Jewish customs before you can eat any dairy product. 

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Dairy (milchig)

You are allowed milk, cheese, butter and yoghurt but they must come from a kosher animal. Dairy products must never be mixed with any meat-based derivatives, such as gelatin or rennet which is used to make a lot of hard cheeses.

They must also be prepared using kosher utensils and equipment that has not previously been used to produce or cook any meat products.

Pareve

Any food that is not meat or dairy, Pareve is considered a neutral category and they do have their own rules but they don’t contain milk or meat and as such can be cooked and eaten along with meat and dairy ingredients.

Rules of Kosher in Jewish food

  • Fish is allowed but it is only deemed kosher if it has scales and fins so this means you can eat tuna, salmon, halibut, or mackerel.
  • Seafood such has shrimp, crab, oysters, shellfish of any kind and lobsters don’t have scales and fins and so cannot be eaten.
  • If your hens or fish are kosher you can use eggs from them (think caviar or fish roe) as long as there is no trace of blood in the eggs.  These can also be eaten with dairy or meat.
  • To be considered Kosher meat must have been slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in accordance with Jewish law and is entirely drained of blood. Before it is cooked, it is soaked in water for half an hour and sprinkled with coarse salt (which draws out the blood) and left to sit for one hour.
  • Once the salt is washed off the meat it can be sold as kosher. These days any meats labelled kosher must have been produced following these rituals.
  • Because the kosher dietary laws state no butter, milk or cream can be used in cooking dishes with meat you will see that non-dairy cream substitutes are used in place of them. You may have heard the word schmaltz before and that is simply a rendered chicken fat.

Ashkenazi vs Shepardic

Ashkenaz in Hebrew refers to Germany, and Ashkenazi Jews are those who originated in Eastern Europe. Sephardic Jews, by contrast, are from the areas around the Mediterranean Sea, including Portugal, Spain, the Middle East and Northern Africa.

The food of Ashkenazi Jews, soups, stews and warming foods was based on centuries of living in the cold climates of Europe whereas the lighter cuisine, salads, pasta, and vegetable dishes of Sephardic Jews were affected by life in the Mediterranean region.

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Interesting fact

Fish and chips the “traditional” British food actually come from Sephardic Jewish immigrants who “invented” the dish.

Jewish Sephardic foods

Jewish Sephardic foods originate from the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Red Sea area, North Africa and even India. In ancient times these lands were part of what was considered the Islamic regions.  Jewish people in these areas flourished in the early Middle Ages and the food reflected this economic prosperity.

In 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain many of the Sephardic population found their way to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. It was in these regions that the food became influenced by the available product and products creating a micro-cuisine.

Sephardic favourites

  • salads
  • stuffed vegetables and vine leaves
  • olive oil
  • lentils
  • fresh and dried fruits
  • herbs and nuts
  • chickpeas
  • Meat dishes often make use of lamb or ground beef.
  • Fresh lemon juice is added to many soups and sauces.
  • Pine nuts are used as a garnish.
  • Pomegranate juice is a staple of Persian Jewish cooking
  • Kubbeh, a meat-stuffed burghul dumpling related to the Kibbe of Lebanon
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Ashkenazic Cuisine

The Ashkenazi Jews were a distinctly different group and their food reflects the terrible poverty they lived in. The Ashkenazi community spread from Germany eastward into Russia and Poland. What we refer to these days as Jewish food items like bagels, borscht, knishes and latkes arose from the Ashkenazi traditions.

Jewish food in America is a somewhat richer version of the Ashkenazi food of Eastern Europe. Jewish American food is deeply influenced by the regions and so you will find things like gefilte fish made with salmon and matzoh ball soup served with hot sauces depending on the area of the US you are in.

Potato pancakes, draniki, deruny, potato latkes, latkas, irish cakes, raggmunk or boxties on wood plate. Fried grated vegetable pancakes or potato fritter with onion on rustic background

Ashkenazi favourites

  • Challah bread
  • Matzoh Ball soup
  • Gefilte fish with carrot slices and chrain.
  • Vorschmack/gehakte herring spread on rye bread.
  • Carrot tzimmes.
  • Borscht with sour cream.
  • Teiglach
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©Someben, CC BY-SA 3.0

Mizrahi

According to Wikipedia Mizrahi Jewish cuisine is an assortment of cooking traditions that developed among the Jews of the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, and Arab countries. Mizrahi Jews have also been known as Oriental Jews.

Mizrahi favourites

  • cooked, stuffed and baked vegetables
  • beans, chickpeas
  • lentils and burghul (cracked wheat)
  • Rice takes the place of potatoes
  • Various flatbreads such as pitas, laffa, malawah, and lavash 
  •  Hilbah, a paste made from fenugreek seeds and hot pepper
  • Skhug, a hot pepper sauce
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23 Jewish food favourites

  • Gefilte Fish
  • Bagels
  • Borscht
  • Lokshen
  • Latkes
  • Rugelah
  • Matzo balls
  • Kugel
  • Kreplach
  • Chicken Soup
  • Challah bread
  • Hamentasch cookies
  • Knishes
  • Pierogis
  • Chopped Liver
  • Cabbage Rolls
  • Carrot Tzimmes
  • Potato Boureks
  • Cholent
  • Blintzes
  • Brisket
  • Pastramic/Montreal Smoked

Gefilte Fish

Gefilte fish is traditionally made by taking deboned and skinned fish that is chopped finely and mixing it with minced and then browned onions. Salt and pepper are used to season the fish and chopped boiled eggs are added to the mixture. This is then fried and served at any time although if following the Orthodox laws it is a perfect dish for the Sabbath as there is a prohibition about separating bones from food while eating.

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©Mushki Brichta, CC BY-SA 4.0

Bagel and a schmear

The combination of smoked salmon or whitefish with bagels and cream cheese is a traditional breakfast or brunch in American Jewish cuisine, made famous at New York City delicatessens.

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There is an ongoing argument in N. America as to who has the best bagels, New York or Montreal. There are differences between the two. Authentic Montreal bagels are boiled in water with honey, and as a result, are sweeter than New York bagels. But the bigger difference is that they are cooked in wood-fired ovens, which gives them a crunchier crust and a deeper, richer crust flavour.

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While the Jewish people both came to New York and Montreal from Poland for the most part. The methods of producing and cooking bagels came about as a result of the different areas in Poland in which they lived originally.

Borscht with sour cream

A number of soups are characteristically Ashkenazi, one of the most common of which is a chicken soup traditionally served on Shabbat, holidays and special occasions. The soup may be served with noodles and is obviously the far superior chicken noodle soup that we all know and love.  

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Lokshen

These are egg noodles cut into long strips, but they can also be cut into squares and these are called farfel. You can hear some Italian in that. These are usually boiled first and then added to a soup.  

Latkes

Potato pancakes that are fried and served either with sour cream and spring onions or sweet with applesauce.  Virtually every country has a potato dish like Latkes. Simply put they are grated or mashed potatoes mixed with flour, eggs, a little milk, flour or matzo meal and baking powder. Potato pancakes turn up in most European cultures, from Polish placki to Irish boxty.  

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Rugelach

A sweet cream cheese pastry filled with nuts, poppy seeds, chocolate or jam. 

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Matzoh Balls

Matzo balls are also known as kneidlach (or floaters and sinkers) are a kind of dumpling. They are made from a mixture of matzah meal, beaten eggs, water, and traditionally schmaltz or chicken fat. These days most are made with oil so they can be vegetarian as well as vegan.

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Matzah meal is a type of unleavened cracker-like bread that is traditionally eaten at Passover. It is made with flour and water, and it is the flour-containing product that is deemed to be Kosher for Passover. Matzo meal is made by grinding the crackers into crumbs.

Kugels

Ah, kugels these are a favourite sometimes sweet in a baked noodle (or potato) casserole with spices and raisins, and sometimes savoury with carrots, mixed veggies and potatoes.  The name of the dish comes from the Middle High German kugel meaning round or ball.  Kugel is an Ashkenazi dish but kugel, and at its best, it is a soft-baked noodle or potato dish with various additions.

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Kreplach

Kreplach is kind of like ravioli a stuffed dough filled with finely chopped meats or cheese and seasoned with salt and pepper.  They are folded into triangles and then dropped into a soup to cook. They can also be fried. They are particularly popular at holiday times like Purim and Hosha’na Rabbah.

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Chicken Soup

Or as it is otherwise known Jewish Penicillin. A golden bowl full of pure chicken broth with schmaltz floating on the top. A Jewish mother’s cure for everything, specifically the common cold.

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Challah bread

A kosher bread means it is not made with butter, but it does use eggs. This loaf is immensely symbolic in Judaism. It is said to symbolize the two portions of manna that were distributed on Fridays to the Children of Israel during the exodus for Egypt.

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Hamentash

Hamentash is those little triangular cookies with the edges folded over and a filling of honey, fruit or poppyseed paste in the centre. It is traditional to eat hamentash on Purim which is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the people being saved from the villain Haman. This comes from the Purim story in the Biblical Book of Esther in the Christian bible and in the Hebrew Bible the Tanakh.

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Knishes

Knishes are another favourite of mine. They are handheld pie that contains filings such as meat, potatoes, kasha, sauerkraut, onions, or cheese and these days they are getting gourmet with all kinds of interesting fillings. The Knish is either baked or deep-fried. They first came to New York back in the early 20th century from Poland where they began in the 17th century.  

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Pierogis

I ate pierogis to my heart’s content when in Krakow Poland these are another dumpling-like dish that is filled with minced beef or combinations of mashed potatoes and cheese, sauerkraut and other fillings are also popular. Served either boiled or fried with a topping of sauteed sweet onions and sour cream it’s a dish that can’t be beaten in my opinion.  In the season in Poland, they make sweet pierogis with fresh berries.

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Chopped Liver

 A phrase often heard on the TV is “what am I chopped liver?” This sort of indicates the fact that chopped liver is an often ignored side dish. However, it’s a pretty tasty one, sort of pate of chicken livers, fried sweet onions and decorated with hard-boiled eggs it’s eaten on crackers or challah bread.  

Cabbage Rolls or Holishkes

A dish that dates back centuries and was invented out of necessity stuffed cabbage or cabbage rolls was a way to extend minced beef the farthest it could go by adding fillers such as barley, rice, vegetables or breadcrumbs.

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Cabbage rolls are served with a tasty tomato sauce and these days come in all kinds of vegan, vegetarian and gourmet versions.

Carrot tzimmes

Tzimmes can be made of other vegetables instead of carrots but traditionally it is a sweetened mash of carrots with raisins or prunes and is flavoured with honey and cinnamon.  If there is leftover brisket that often goes into a tzimmes.  It is eaten year-round but considered a special delicacy on Rosh Hashanah when sweet foods dominate to herald the coming of a sweet new year.

Potato bourekas

Originally found in the Middle East and popular in Sephardic food the bourek is another fabulous handheld pie. It uses vegetables that were difficult to get in Europe such as artichokes, pine nuts, squash and spinach.  The dough is thin and crispy and stuffed with a selection of minced meats, spinach and cheese and other interesting ingredients.

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Chamin/Cholent

 Cholent or Chamin is a slow-cooked meat stew that is prepared before the Sabbath so that it doesn’t require the use of a stove or electricity for observant Jews. Cholent is an ancient term that may have been French as in Chaud-lent which means to warm slowly. Cholent is the meal eaten after Shul on Saturday. 

Blintzes

Similar to a crepe a blintz is a thin type of pancake that is filled with a cream cheese mixture and served with sour cream and a fruit sauce or topping.

However, unlike the crepe or pancake blintzes are only cooked on one side and then filled. The filling is usually comprised of cottage cheese or ricotta mixed with cream cheese, vanilla and sugar to add sweetness.

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Brisket

Who doesn’t know brisket? A traditional cut that is usually served on special occasions and holidays. Brisket is cut from the front part of the cow and tends to be a tougher cut of meat so needs long braising to be tender. It used to be budget meat but these days some have turned it into a gourmet delicacy. It is the perfect dish for cooking the day before Shabbat.

Pastrami or Montreal Smoked Meat

Another ongoing debate between Montreal and New York which is better Pastrami or Montreal Smoked? Pastrami was essentially created by Jewish people of Romanian origin. It is usually made from beef brisket, and sometimes from lamb, or turkey. The raw meat is brined, partially dried, seasoned with herbs and spices, then smoked and steamed.

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Montreal Smoked meat, on the other hand, is made from the navel or plate cut of beef. It is also dry-cured like Pastrami but it is then soaked to remove the salt and smoked to imbue the cut with flavour.

Food served at Jewish Celebrations

Traditional Jewish food for Rosh Hashanah

Simanim which means “signs” or “good omens” are the dishes served on Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year. Some simanim include leeks, pomegranate, squash, dates, black-eyed peas or green beans, beets, apples, leeks, honey, spinach, carrots and fish heads.

A beautiful creamy but kosher soup like Carrot and Ginger is the perfect dish as carrots are considered siman and in Yiddish, the word for carrots means many so this soup will bring many blessings. It can also be made ahead of time to observe the Sabbath laws.

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©Yuzu Bakes

On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, there is a ceremony held for the blessing and easting of these symbolic foods. A short prayer is said before the food is eaten.

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Rosh Hashanah – Simanim Foods and their meanings

  • Apple dipped in honey (that we should have a good and sweet year – honey in general)
  • Fenugreek or carrots (that we should increase our merits)
  • Leeks or cabbage (that our enemies be decimated)
  • Beets (that our adversaries be removed)
  • Dates (that our enemies be consumed)
  • Gourd (that the decree of our sentence should be torn asunder, and our merits be proclaimed to G-d)
  • Carrots so that our blessings are merren (many)
  • Pomegranate (that our merits increase, as the seeds of the pomegranate)
  • Fish (that we should be fruitful and multiply)
  • Head of a fish or a sheep’s head (that we should be as a head and not a tail)

From The Orthodox Union

Yom Kippur Jewish foods

Yom Kippur follows Rosh Hashanah and is also known as the Jewish Day of Atonement. It is the holiest of days in the Jewish world. Yom Kippur is a fasting day where each individual is asked to reflect on their sins with fasting and prayer. Yom Kippur signals the end of the 10 days of repentance that begin after Rosh Hashanah.

A pre-fast meal called seuda hamafseket is served before sundown and it consists of dishes that are lightly spiced and salted (to prevent thirst and dehydration) and are digested slowly to get you through the fasting time.  These dishes are light and served in the afternoon before the fast begins.

After the seuda hamafseket meal fasting begins and lasts for 26 hours. No food or water of any kind is allowed. It is also forbidden to wash, apply lotions or creams and wear leather. Most of the day is spent in the synagogue.

Sukkot

After Yom Kippur comes the Sukkot which is a week-long Jewish holiday held 5 days after Yom Kippur. Sukkot celebrates the gathering of the harvest and the time when God protected the children of Israel after leaving Egypt.

Sukkot is celebrated in Jewish custom by living in a greenery covered booth or a special kind of tent and by taking the “four kinds” which are four special species of vegetation.

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The first two days of the holiday are known as Yom Tov when work is forbidden, candles are lit in the evening, and festive meals are preceded by Kiddush and include challah dipped in honey. The Kiddush is a  ceremony of prayer and blessing over wine, performed by the head of a Jewish household at the meal that brings in the Sabbath on a Friday night.

To represent their freedom from Egypt during the sukkot families must live in the Sukkah and take their meals there.  The most orthodox follow this rule strictly the less orthodox take at least their meals in the Sukkah. On the first two nights of the holiday, an olive-sized piece of bread must be eaten and it is a common practice known as Chabad to not eat or drink outside the Sukkah.

What are the Four Kinds of symbols for Sukkot?

The four kinds are symbols that represent the community of Israel. These are not eaten but a blessing is recited over them and then the items are waved in all six directions up, down, backwards, forwards, right and left

  • etrog (citron)
  • a lulav (palm frond)
  • three hadassim (myrtle twigs)
  • two aravot (willow twigs)

Jewish food for Hanukkah

Is also known as the Festival of Lights and is celebrated near the Christian Christmas time. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt. Where a day’s supply of oil to keep the candles lit lasted 8 days.

Food served on Hanukkah is traditionally fried in oil to represent the oil supply that kept the candles lit. These include latkes in particular plus rugelach, sufganiyot which are strawberry jam doughnuts, fried apple fritters, and cheese blintzes.  

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Traditional Jewish food for Passover

Passover or Pesach is considered one of the major Jewish holidays and celebrates the Jews being led out of Egypt.  Passover is the time in history when the Jewish people left Egypt so quickly it was said the bread had no time to rise. 

To commemorate Passover matza is eaten and bread, cakes and other foods made with yeast or leavens are abstained from.

Other traditional Jewish foods served on Passover include Matzo Ball soup, fried fish coated with matza meal before cooking.  Any sweet items are made from eggs or egg whites such as coconut macaroons. Passover dishes.

Wine is also an important element in the Passover seder which says that four cups of wine (or grape juice) are to be drunk along with the seder meal.

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These are just a few of the Jewish holiday celebrations that include specific Jewish foods. If you are interested in learning more about Jewish foods and customs take a look at Chabad which has a great recipe archive for Jewish and Kosher foods.

Jewish foods for Purim

Purim is a Jewish holiday celebrated by reading the Book of Esther, exchanging food and drink and partaking in a celebratory meal known as a se’udat Purim. For Ashkenazi Jews, perhaps the most widely held food tradition on Purim is eating triangular-shaped foods such as kreplach and hamantashen pastries.

Bean dishes are also eaten at Purim these dishes include chickpeas and white beans simply seasoned with salt and pepper. This is done to remind the Jews of Esther who would not eat anything at the court of King Ahashuerus that was not kosher

A special Purim challah, known as keylitsh is also made. This is a very complex braided Challah and it is said to remind people of the ropes used to hang Haman. In the Sephardic Jewish culture, they wrap a hard-boiled egg in pastry to create a Purim animal or character.

What other Jewish food traditions do you know about? Please share them in the comments.

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