Navigate to Food section

The Jewish Flavor of the Pacific Northwest

Years of cultural mixing and a focus on what’s locally available have made the region’s Jewish cuisine unique

Sonya Sanford
November 14, 2022
Original photo: GD Taber via Flickr
Seattle’s Pike Place Farmers MarketOriginal photo: GD Taber via Flickr
Original photo: GD Taber via Flickr
Seattle’s Pike Place Farmers MarketOriginal photo: GD Taber via Flickr

Jewish culture is defined by where we wander and what we eat. In the Pacific Northwest, you can tell where you are as soon as you look at the offerings on a typical Shabbat table: Hot smoked salmon is deep pink in hue with a firm glossy top. Wild mushrooms in savory blintzes have the earthy perfume of chanterelles, and are wrapped in a lacy delicate crepe. Buttery rugelach are filled with tart, deep purple marionberry preserves. Golden challahs, soft and brown, are made with locally milled heritage grains. A spread of seasonal salads—persimmons with radicchio and hazelnuts, dark leafy kale with seeds, meaty pear slices atop bitter arugula—glisten like jewels.

In the Pacific Northwest, “fresh and local” is more than an empty promise. Over 300 diverse crops are grown in Washington, with over 250 in Oregon, not including an abundance of wild foods like mushrooms, berries, roots, greens, and nuts. Hyperseasonality is embraced at busy farmers markets, in urban gardens, and with enticing specialty stores. Portland-born food writer James Beard once said, “The greatest thing about Northwest eating and cooking is the fact that the raw materials in the Northwest are probably among the greatest you’d find in the country.” Among his many achievements, Beard stewarded the farmers market movement, and is known for his clear directive: “Buy the best produce you can buy, do the least to it, and you will have the best food.” His words echo across Northwest kitchens.

The Pacific Northwest is notably geographically isolated from other Jewish centers. There’s a clear undercurrent that living in the Northwest means to “do your own thing” and the style of food here has an independent streak. Community cookbooks here are a record of the old and the new, the Northwest, Asian, Indigenous, Scandinavian, Sephardic, and Ashkenazi. They include recipes for chopped liver, matzo balls, and tzimmes, but also salmon cooked in tangy tomato sauce, pumpkin bourekas, spelt challah, beet-cured gravlax, zucchini quesados, toasted Oregon hazelnut cookies, and tarts made with early autumn plums. As “Newish Jewish” cuisine evolves across the country, as we move and relocate, as technology continues to bridge geographical gaps with online cooking classes and recipes shared on social media, Jewish cooks are in constant culinary dialogue. The Jewish food of the Pacific Northwest now influences Jewish food everywhere, just as the food of New York, Tokyo, the Coast Salish people, Poland, and Rhodes has shaped and continues to leave its mark on our kitchens here.

At the center of Northwest cuisine, salmon is king—a centuries-old primary food source of Native communities such as the Chinook, Salish, Suquamish, Duwamish, Mollala, and many other tribes, whose culinary expertise defined the diets of the settlers they were violently displaced by. Manifest destiny and the promise of “free” land brought missionaries and pioneers to the West in the 1800s and 1900s, overcoming arduous journeys on the Oregon Trail. As the Northwest became rapidly developed, immigrants from Asia arrived for work opportunities. The late 19th century also brought a wave of Scandinavian immigrants, drawn by the landscape and fishing opportunities.

Adolph Friedman is the first recorded Jewish immigrant to the Pacific Northwest; he came to Washington state from Latvia in 1845. A few years later, German-born immigrants Jacob Goldsmith and Lewis May arrived in the Oregon Territory and opened a general store in Portland. In 1869, Portland swore in a Jewish mayor, and by 1870, Washington had its first Jewish governor. In the late 1800s, Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the Russian Empire found their way to Washington and Oregon, and soon afterward Sephardic immigrants from the island of Rhodes landed in Seattle, followed by Jews from Turkey. The Sephardic immigrants established themselves as fishmongers and produce vendors at Pike Place Market and opened up a lively Turkish restaurant. Seattle grew to have the second-largest Sephardic community in the nation, with a similarly large community in Portland. By 1920, Seattle had four synagogues in the Yesler Way area, where Yiddish and Ladino were actively spoken, the ancient Jewish languages coexisting in their new, urban, West Coast landscape.

As Northwest Jews formed community, they prepared the recipes their grandparents had cooked before them. Old world foods were always part of the Northwest table, but some ingredients were not as easy to find and recipes inevitably evolved. Howard Droker is a historian and co-author of Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State; his mother was born in Seattle in 1918, and his grandmother came from Latvia. For holidays, his family made gefilte fish from salmon, because pike and carp couldn’t be found locally when they first arrived. He shared with me that many Seattle Jews have recipes for salmon gefilte fish, and overwhelmingly prefer it; eating any other variety is almost unthinkable.

In those early years, intermarriage between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews was all but forbidden, and the rituals and foods looked quite different on their respective tables. As norms shifted in the latter half of the 20th century, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews began sending their children to the same school and shuls; marriages followed, and connections grew. The foods of Rhodes and Turkey looked remarkably different from the dishes of Russia and Germany, and recipes were swapped between avid home cooks. Good food is always shared.

While rich and vibrant, Pacific Northwest Jewish populations have historically been relatively small by comparison to larger coastal and Midwestern cities. Even now, there are roughly the same number of Jews in all of Washington state as there are on the Upper West Side alone. In the 1920s and ’30s, Jewish butcher shops, bakeries, and delis began to open across the Northwest, but they have always remained limited in number. “There are no good Jewish delis” is a common complaint among both locally born Northwest Jews as well as transplants from other cities. To be fair, this isn’t because no one is able to make good pastrami. There has always been delicious traditional Jewish food to be found, but demand impacts supply, and the population size does not support the volume of what’s possible for a deli in New York City.

Cindy Masin is a third-generation Seattleite, and one of the editors of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society’s cookbook Yesterday’s Mavens, Today’s Foodies: Traditions in Northwest Jewish Kitchens. Masin is clear about the impact of both the limited amounts of ready-made Jewish food, as well as the influences of the diverse community that live here: “In the Northwest, we don’t get the Jewish food like they have in Los Angeles or New York,” she told me. “We don’t have the big delis that they have there. But what we have is a huge Sephardic community. Sephardic friends teach us these delicacies, and it’s almost Greek-like and more Mediterranean in style. We have a lot of pho, teriyaki, Japanese food, and sushi. You might see more of that here [in our homes] than the traditional deli food. What you have is what you use.”

My own family immigrated to Seattle in the late 1970s from Soviet Ukraine, and while our home was filled with Soviet-style dishes, living in the Northwest knowingly and unknowingly affected what my family cooked and ate. Every Passover, my grandmother started making her charoset with the inclusion of dates, a decidedly Sephardic addition, inspired from a recipe she clipped out of a local Jewish magazine.

Living in the Northwest affected a lot of our Jewish recipes. Every Friday night my mother would make the same Shabbat dinner: chicken soup, followed by a roast chicken slathered in teriyaki sauce served alongside rice or potatoes, and a big green salad. It never occured to me to ask: Why are we eating teriyaki chicken every week? My mother was not alone in being influenced by the local teriyaki trend. In 1976, Toshihiro Kasahara opened Toshi’s Teriyaki Restaurant, and it soon became a wildly successful lunch spot. Kasahara inspired a wave of teriyaki establishments across Seattle and the region, making the dish iconic in the Pacific Northwest. In Yesterday’s Maven’s, Today’s Foodies, you’ll find a recipe for Mildred Rosenbaum’s Chicken Teriyaki. Rosenbaum and her husband moved to Seattle in the ’50s from New York. He opened a dental practice across from the University of Washington, and they began hosting students from all over the world. Rosenbaum was particularly inspired by the young women from Taiwan and Japan who shared new ingredients and recipes with her. Teriyaki chicken became a staple dish in their home. This addition to their Jewish table and mine isn’t random. A dialogue between neighbors emerges on the table. What you have is what you use, and what’s near you becomes part of you.

In all of my conversations with longtime Jewish community members, and throughout my own culinary experiences as a chef and food writer, I’ve witnessed a Northwest Jewish food pattern emerging. Conversations around “healthier” dishes, minimizing fat and carbohydrates, were the norm long before it was in vogue. Vegetarian and vegan options are far from an afterthought, carrot lox and tofurkeys grace festive tables, and Portland boasts one of the first fully plant-based Jewish delis in the nation. Tables across denominations and immigrant backgrounds are full of seasonal salads and Mediterranean-influenced spreads and sides. Whether out of necessity or spirit, there is a strong affinity for foods made from scratch. Judy Margles, director of the Oregon Jewish Museum, observes that many home cooks prepare their own ritual breads and baked goods, often with heritage local grains. “Every Jew I know pickles here,” she added. “Is that normal?” In the Pacific Northwest, the old world is often the new world. Modern conveniences are replaced with traditional food preparations. Why buy pickles when you can make your own?

At a recent holiday gathering, I served my own Pacific Northwest Jewish meal: Local, hot-smoked fish from an Irish Jewish vendor at the Portland farmers market. Chicken roasted with autumn grapes and shallots, brisket braised until tender in wine and aromatics—decidedly savory, not sweet. Sides included local roasted root vegetables with Yemenite z’hug, crispy potato kugel made with Nicola potatoes, and for dessert a tahini caramel tart. My friend Joanna Gryfe, an Ashkenazi Jew from Toronto, was at my table, and after the meal she said, “I am always mentally and emotionally prepared to feel sick after eating a holiday meal; but I don’t feel ill at all here—it nourishes just as deep as my bubbe’s cooking, but lighter, approachable, and easier to digest.” That is never the explicit goal when I’m hosting, but I am starting to recognize how it has become an implicit outcome of the influence of the Northwest cooks that came before me and live all around me.

Sonya Sanford is a writer, culinary educator, and chef. Follow her on Instagram @sonyamichellesanford.