Jewish cooking goes way beyond making a fluffy matza ball, a tender brisket, or flaky rugelach.
The varied culinary traditions of Jews from all over the world have flavored the cuisine of their host countries; learning about them opens delicious windows onto a scattered people’s sweeping range of culture, history, and religious practice.
There are factors that these diverse gustatory customs have in common. “Shabbat and the laws of kashrut are the two main things that have affected Jewish cooking,” said author and cooking instructor Tina Wasserman. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re observant of the Sabbath or keep kosher. Those recipes that you find all over the world that are associated with Jewish people meet those criteria.”
Wasserman, the author of Entree to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora, will serve as scholar-in-residence at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick the weekend of March 11-13.
She wrote the book, she told NJJN in a phone interview from her Dallas home, “because most people in the United States, Jewish and non-Jewish, think all Jewish food is Eastern European — bagels and lox — yet no one knows the stories.”
A specialist in Jewish historical cuisine, Wasserman has taught cooking for 41 years and is trained in education and nutrition. Once “Chef Fields” at Marshall Field’s department store in Dallas, she introduced thousands of residents to prominent chefs and restaurateurs at the store’s weekly cooking school.
In 1994, Wasserman was elected to Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international culinary society that honors women in the food and beverage industry.
The stories presented in Entree to Judaism, which touch upon every part of the world in which Jews have lived, are designed, the author said, “to give a connection to either family history or a sense of connection to the Jewish Diaspora.”
‘I believe in tikun olam’
Among the topics Wasserman plans to cover at B’nai Shalom is the influence Jews have had on international cuisine, with an emphasis on the Sephardim, those who trace their roots to the Iberian peninsula.
The dispersion of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, said Wasserman, “had a significant effect on many cuisines.” In her book, she said, “I talk about what the Moors brought to Spain and what the Jews took with them. Many people don’t know there were about 200,000 Jews in Spain.”
Sicily, which was ruled by Spain, had 40,000 Jews who heavily influenced Italian cooking, she said. Although eggplant parmigiana is thought of as a quintessentially Italian dish, it was the Jews who introduced the eggplant to the Italians.
Jews also had a “significant hand” in spreading oranges throughout Europe and in the chocolate trade, since they were the ones who figured out how to process cocoa for shipment.
Some of the book’s recipes — like those in the southeastern Asia section — are not Jewish in their origins, but have a Jewish twist to them. While the Custard Inside Pumpkin is Thai in origin, said Wasserman, the recipe’s lack of any dairy ingredients is a nod to Sephardi tradition.
To make desserts pareve and therefore suitable to serve after a meat meal, she explained, “the Sephardim used coconut milk as their binding agent as opposed to milk or cream.”
All the recipes are accompanied by “Tina’s tidbits,” helpful hints gleaned from her decades of experience.
Wasserman said her teaching is part of her commitment to “repairing the world.”
“I do this because I believe in tikun olam,” she said. By learning about the traditions of the past, “we are able to connect to future generations who will grow up never hearing a Yiddish accent, who have no link to their French ancestry in Morocco.”