Jewish cuisine is difficult to define as one entity. As a people who've been uprooted time and again, the Jewish diaspora has meant that there are a multitude of regional food styles: from the hearty fare of Eastern Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews to the more subtle, Mediterranean flavours of their Sephardi brothers and sisters – not forgetting their Mizrahi cousins, who have a preference for the spices of Morocco, the Middle East and India.
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4 Feb 2009 - 7:30 PM  UPDATED 31 Mar 2021 - 10:37 AM

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's served.

Another common denominator in all Jewish food is that it's highly symbolic – especially over 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 are served, such as chicken broth (also known as "Jewish Penicillin"), gefilte fish, hallah (or challah, a sweet plaited bread), and roast chicken. 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, symbolising 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, and 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", while still hot and delicious, is possible.

 

When it comes to sweets, there's 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. Many delicious cakes, including the famous orange and almond cake, are the result.

 

View our Jewish recipe collection here.

Jewish Food Safari recipes
Orange and almond cake

A classic Passover dessert that draws on the Sephardic traditions of the Mediterranean, Morocco and the Middle East. In this recipe whole oranges are boiled for two hours and then puréed skin, pips and all. Not only is this cake incredibly moreish and moist, it is also gluten and dairy-free making it the perfect all-rounder. 

Brisket and carrot tzimmes

This braised brisket recipe is an absolute favourite among my family, friends and clients alike. Its origin comes from a very popular South African food author, Sharon Glass, but has had a few amendments to make it what it is today. It’s a great blend of the different palette of Jews of the Diaspora.

Food Safari's chicken soup with matzo balls

This soup is traditionally eaten at Passover, a Jewish holiday commemorating the story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. If you don’t own a 20 litre stockpot, you can simply halve stock ingredients (except carrots) and it will still serve eight.

Food Safari's borscht

This is a family recipe from Ramona Koval's book Jewish Cooking, Jewish Cooks. It can be served either hot in winter or as a refreshing cold soup in summer. It is made with water, although you can use either water or chicken stock to cook the beetroots (to be kosher, if you’re using stock don’t serve the soup with sour cream or yoghurt).

Food Safari's gefilte fish

A popular mainstay in Ashkenazi Jewish cooking, gefilte fish (literally "stuffed fish") is traditionally made by carefully removing the skin of a fish (leaving it intact), mincing the flesh with ingredients such as egg, spices, onion and carrot, stuffing this back into the skin and baking the fish in the oven. This recipe is much easier as it is made from minced fish fillets formed into patties or balls, which are poached to a delicate shade of pale. Salmon or ocean trout give the gefilte fish a lovely rosy hue. It’s delicious served with grated horseradish.

Cholent

Every Jewish community around the world has its own version of cholent. A hearty mix of beef, marrow, beans and barley, this is the perfect slow-cooked meal to prepare before the start of Shabbat on Friday evenings.

Merelyn serves leftover cholent as a base for barbecued lamb chops – heavy but delicious, and you don’t need much!

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