On the ledge of a felafel stand in the heart of Ashkelon, pale rose-colored half-moons floated in bright pink liquid in a slightly grimy jar. The felafel man pointed and asked if I wanted some: “At rotzah?” I didn’t know exactly what I was ordering, but I said yes. Those half-moons were tasty though not particularly memorable on their own, but on my felafel sandwich, they brought a sour crunch that sparkled. I was curious and asked what they were, but the language barrier was too extreme; each time I pointed at the jar and asked “Mah zeh?” the felafel man muttered something, cigarette dangling, and shook his head.
Several years later, somewhere near 7th Avenue in Manhattan, the windows of a crowded felafel joint were lined with glistening jars containing similar specimens: pink batons floating in what might have been ruby formaldehyde. Entranced, I stopped—were these the same things I ate in Ashkelon? I asked the Israeli guy behind the counter what they were. “Torshi left,” he said.
I got an Israeli friend to translate the Hebrew for me: torshi was pickle, and left was perhaps the most forgettable of vegetables—the turnip. These turnips had been fermented in brine made from vinegar and salt, spices, and a beet or two, producing a gorgeous fuchsia pickle enticing enough to attract a root-vegetable hater. I was surprised when I learned what they were: Turnips? They had seemed so exotic.
Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami make up the taste universe, and most of us, especially children, are inclined toward sweet. However, my preference has always been salty-sour (think lox, pickles, sourdough rye), a taste I consider the quintessential Jewish flavor profile. This has led me to try fermented foods of every persuasion.
There are a few important types of fermentation used in Jewish food preparation through the ages. Grains are fermented to make bread or liquor. Grapes, to make wine and vinegar. Milk, to make yogurt, cheese, and sour cream. And lacto-fermentation—a process where salt is the key to preserving food—is used to make everything from pickled vegetables and fruit (such as lemons and olives), to pickled fish and salami.
Applying salt to food changes its chemical structure, biological properties, and taste. A complex process takes place if lacto-fermentation is done right. Harmful bacteria are destroyed, while beneficial bacteria, which are essentially homegrown probiotics, develop; they are good for the digestion and overall health, which is why foods containing friendly bacteria have traditionally been served at every meal. Even the Talmud mentions pickles. According to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, leaften—which means pickle or relish—is derived from lefet, the Hebrew for turnip. The Talmud enjoins all diners to have salt or leaften at their place-setting before eating bread, in part because the bread at the time was coarse and perhaps not so appealing.
It was only very recently, in the last 60 years or so, that various types of fermentation fell out of favor with Jewish cooks. As manufacturers began to use ever more streamlined techniques, as more women entered the workforce, and as the concept of “instant” food became more desirable, Jews, like most people, abandoned traditional, labor-intensive, and time-consuming food preparation techniques. Still, fermentation has undergone a revival in the past decade, as more cooks have turned to traditional recipes.
Uri Laio, fermenting mentor of Brassica and Brine, points out that in Europe many vegetables were typically eaten fermented, especially cabbage, beets, and gourds. In particular, Ashkenazi Jews in Europe ate dill pickles and pickled green tomatoes, as well as olives, which are fermented or cured in brine. In the old country (and in more traditional communities today) there were numerous variations of sauerkraut and other salty-sour vegetables, as well as soured or cultured cream, sourdough rye bread, pickled fish (especially herring and salmon), and more. Hasidim in Brooklyn today still make beet russel (also called sour borsch without a “t”), which is drunk at Passover time, and prepare fermented cabbage leaves for the stuffed cabbage they serve during Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
Fermentation was essential to Sephardi and Mizrahi cooking, as well, from the salt-cultured lemons of Morocco to pickled Persian cucumbers, eggplant, cauliflower, and carrots. Cured olives, fermented yogurt, and flatbreads made with sourdough starter were also part of the traditional cuisine.
And of course, there’s torshi left, the ubiquitous treat served with Israeli felafel.
Torshi (also spelled turshi) can refer to a variety of Middle Eastern pickle combinations, but turnips are used frequently, alone or in mixtures. According to Marks, variations are made in the Balkans, Iran, throughout the Mediterranean, and across the Middle East. In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden tells us that torshi left is very popular with Jews from Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. Roden’s father used to eat it as an accompaniment to a cocktail in the evening. Still, the best-known way to have it is with felafel, in a pita, with tahini (and hot sauce if you like). The pickle has the ability to cut the greasiness of the felafel.
Most torshi left recipes call for vinegar and salt together, rather than the salt-only lacto-fermentation so popular with the Ashkenazim in Europe. Salt-fermented pickles taste better if fermented in a slightly cooler environment than the blazing deserts and tropical heat of the Maghreb and Egypt would have offered, which might be why the use of vinegar was prevalent in the Middle East.
Arabs in post-sixth century Muslim lands most likely made torshi left with vinegar made from pomegranates, dates, apples, or grains. But Jews had no alcohol restrictions, so wine vinegar was often used. Although some of the benefits of simple lacto-fermentation wouldn’t be present, raw (unpasteurized) vinegar has its own healthful qualities and contains beneficial enzymes. It aids digestion. It increases calcium absorption, which is important because many North African Jews and other Sephardim are lactose intolerant—and their primary sources of calcium in their homelands were often limited to yogurt (fermented and therefore more-digestible dairy) and tahini made from sesame seeds. Turnip greens are very high in calcium, and turnips themselves have a respectable amount of calcium, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. And fermentation, even in vinegar, makes these nutrients more bio-available.
Torshi left isn’t hard to make at home (see the attached recipe), but most of us would sooner buy it ready-made. I found the best store-bought torshi left in New York City, not at a felafel stand but at the Pickle Guys. Sliced into bars, beautifully brined in food-grade plastic (no leaching), the Pickle Guys’ turnips are a shocking fuchsia, still a bit crisp, and pungent. Alan Kaufman, the owner who’s been making pickles for over 30 years (he explains his love of pickles here), said, “They’re one of our biggest sellers—we go through 15 gallons a week!”
At the Pickle Guys’ Flatbush, Brooklyn, location (the original location on the Lower East Side is still going strong, too) both Sephardim and Ashkenazim load up on torshi left on Friday afternoons, Kaufman told me, along with several other varieties of totally addictive pickles: spicy pickled okra, pickled and spiced pineapple, horseradish half-sour pickles, pickled garlic, olives, and more. Although Kaufman won’t give out his exact recipe, he did tell me it includes peeled, uncooked turnips, beets for color, garlic, celery, and a brine made with water, vinegar, and salt.
I don’t know how many pounds of torshi left I schlepped home, but I know it’s worth risking sky-high blood pressure for.
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