While flavours of the Jewish palate are influenced by geography, the constant for Jews all over the world are the Kashrut (Kosher) laws. Many of the basic laws of kashrut are derived from the Torah's Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. ‘Kosher’ means ‘proper’ and these laws relate to what is to be eaten, how it is to be prepared and what it is to be combined with and finally, how it is served.
Another common denominator in all Jewish food (wherever you are in the world) is that food is highly symbolic – especially on Festivals and Holy Days. The Sabbath (Shabbat) is the weekly festival (from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday). Celebrations begin with the Shabbat meal on Friday evening. There is a specific order of events at the Shabbat table designed to bring families together for prayer and reflection. In Ashkenazi households, traditional foods like; chicken broth (also known as ‘Jewish Penicillin’), gefillte fish, hallah (or challah) – a sweet plaited bread, and roast chicken are served and everyone is encouraged to eat and drink by candlelight.
At Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), the symbolism of food comes into its own.
While this is a day of soul-searching and repentance, it’s also a happy day – and the holiday's food customs reflect this. Honey features prominently, symbolizing a wish for a sweet year ahead full of good health and wealth. Fish are a symbol of fertility – and the head of the fish is included in meals at Rosh Hashana (the head of the year).
Kosher laws also dictate timing of food preparation. On Saturday, turning on electricity or gas is prohibited so, over the years, clever Jewish housewives (who turn out vast quantities of good food for big families after Temple) have served either hearty, slow cooked dishes (like Brisket or Cholent) or dishes that can be served cold (like Gefilte Fish). In recent times a ‘shabbat’ mode on ovens has meant that ‘keeping it kosher’ and hot and delicious is possible.
When it comes to sweets, there is also much symbolism. The Torah states only unleavened bread may be eaten during the week of Passover hence nuts are used instead of flour in cakes during this time. Many delicious cakes including the famous orange and almond cake - are the result.