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Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous

Searching for Jewish cooking in France

Joan Nathan
October 28, 2010

Who can imagine a better assignment than discovering Paris’ culinary riches, peering into its Jewish kitchens, and writing about its food? There is no city like Paris for romance, for wandering picturesque streets, and for incredible food. No wonder France’s capital has been such a magnet for dreamers, artists, and even for Jews.

Today, France has the third-largest Jewish population in the world, about 600,000, with approximately half that number living in Paris. Despite successive waves of anti-Semitic violence, expulsion, and disfavor throughout history, France has generally been a pays d’accueil, a welcoming country for Jews. While the population has waxed and waned, there has been a continuous presence of Jewish communities in much of what is now France since the 1st century, and possibly before.

Paris has seen an enormous ebb and flow of Jews since the first Jewish community was established in the 6th century just south of what is now the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The Parisian Jewish population surged in the late 19th century, with more than 100,000 Jews coming to France after fleeing pogroms and poverty in Russia, Poland, and Romania. And, in 1870, the Jewish population of Algeria received French citizenship, making it easy for Jews to immigrate. In July 1942, some 13,000 Jews living in Paris were arrested in a mass roundup by the French police and killed at Auschwitz. The Jewish population of France didn’t see growth again until the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Jews of North Africa immigrated in droves to France after countries like Tunisia and Algeria declared independence. This doubled France’s Jewish population almost overnight.

Today, the second generation of North African Jews has given a positive boost to Jewish French life, creating and sometimes resurrecting communities in Paris and other cities from which so many left during World War II. Jews have also moved to new areas of Paris and its suburbs and redefined certain traditional Jewish neighborhoods like the Grands Boulevards, the 9th Arrondissement, and Rue des Rosiers in the Marais. Lubavitchers and other Hasidic sects have also come to France, directing Orthodox schools, kosher restaurants, and grocery stores.

Contemporary Parisian life is very different from the 1960s, when I spent a year there as a student. That was a time when Jews who had been in France for generations were still in the majority, as were their traditions and their palates. In more recent years, as the children of these French Jews intermarried and became more adventurous about trying different recipes, Paris has seen a new and exciting openness in its Jewish population.

Many years ago I discovered Le Monde des Épices (the world of spices), a tiny shop on the rue François-Miron near the Marais, the area where Jews were ordered to live in the 13th century after being expelled from the city limits. As the years pass, this food emporium, first on my list of places to visit, seems to get better and better. Inside, signs written on cracked pieces of pottery label burlap sacks filled with bulgur for taboulleh and barrels overflowing with homemade preserved lemons from Morocco. Olives are marinated with a variety of pungent flavors: orange peel, fresh garlic, kumquats, cranberries, parsley, Indian Tellicherry peppers, and star anise from Asia.

In the postwar years, the shop, originally opened in 1945 by Samuel Izrael, a Polish immigrant, catered to a largely Jewish clientele, mostly Eastern European refugees who came for the homemade pickles. By the time I first discovered the store in 1964, the shop was frequented by recent immigrants from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Spices like cumin and coriander were completely new to me then. Today, most people who walk in don’t have a clue that it is a Jewish store; it caters to all lovers of exotic cuisine. The spices themselves illustrate a colorful history of food in France, a history that stretches back for centuries.

The heart of Jewish Paris is a central square near the Metro St. Paul, often referred to in Yiddish as the pletzel. As holidays approach, Parisian Jews flock here to buy skullcaps, prayer books, challahs, and cakes.

Like the Lower East Side of New York City, the Marais is now filled with chic fashion boutiques and bars, transforming it from a quaint shtetl into a buzzing neighborhood. Many of the old bookshops and restaurants have closed, but the shops that are left in this ancient quarter with its narrow streets still overflow with delicacies from Eastern Europe, France, Israel, and North Africa. Today you’ll find homemade farfel (tiny bits of pasta) and great falafel as well as fijuelas and other Sephardic delicacies.

In the past the pletzel has also served as a meeting place for Jews in less auspicious circumstances. Escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe in 1881, Jews flocked here in large numbers, more than half of them from Poland. During World War II’s police rafles (round-ups) of Jews, many called out to each other as they were separated to meet in the pletzel if they survived.

Whenever I visit the Marais, I stop in at Florence Finkelsztajn’s Traiteur Delicatessen. The quarter has two Finkelsztajn delicatessens, one trimmed in yellow (Florence’s ex husband’s) and one in blue (Florence’s). According to Gilles Pudlowski, a gastronomic critic of Polish Jewish origin who writes the popular Pudlo restaurant guides, Florence’s store is the best place to satisfy a nostalgic craving for Eastern European cooking. In addition to Central European Yiddish specialties like herring, chopped liver, and pastrami, Florence also sells pletzel—a round, flat onion bread; like a bialy, only larger— baked in the back of the shop. Eat the pletzel hot from the oven or as a big pletzlach sandwich stuffed with fillings as varied as the different ethnicities of Jews living in Paris today: Alsatian pickelfleish (corned beef), Romanian pastrami, Russian eggplant caviar, North African roasted peppers, and French tomato and lettuce.

What would Paris be without outdoor markets? You can see so many all over the city. But for me, “little Tunis,” the multicultural and bustling Belleville market, populated with French farmers and merchants from North Africa, is a must. In the restaurants and stores bordering the market, you feel as if you are actually in North Africa as Tunisians and others congregate at kosher and halal restaurants, bars, and bakeries. You also feel the influence of the Italian tenure in Tunisia: Italian bread, beignets shaped like the Italian manicotti, and canned tuna in olive oil.

In 1966 when Alexandre Zbirou came to France from Tunisia to study marketing, few good kosher restaurants existed in Paris. In 1976, he opened a French restaurant called Au Rendez Vous, La Maison du Couscous in the 8th Arrondissement near the Champs Élysées. Four years later, he turned it into a kosher Tunisian restaurant, the only one of its kind in the quarter. Today, there are more than 38 kosher restaurants in the 8th Arrondissement alone. “I saw Jews arriving in the quarter,” he told me over lunch at his restaurant. “They came and I was waiting for them. It was home cooking for Tunisians and Ashkenazim. After all, there are lots of mixed marriages here in France.”

Despite the kosher menu, his restaurant does not close on Friday night or Saturday. “I feel that we are rendering a service to kosher clientele, to give them a kosher meal for the Sabbath,” he said. Other restaurants, under the supervision of the Parisian Rabbinical Authority called the Beth Din, are either closed for the Sabbath or are open only to customers who pay in advance.

Sitting down at Zbirou’s restaurant, we were first served an array of kemia, similar to the ubiquitous mezze at Arab restaurants. We began with flaky brik, filled with potatoes, parsley, and hard-boiled eggs. At least a dozen salads followed, served on tiny plates, all brimming with bold colors and flavors. Some of my favorites were raw artichoke slivers with harissa, oil, and onions and turnips with bitter orange.

Recently, a second generation of North African Jews has opened a number of stylish kosher restaurants in Paris. One is the super chic l’Osmose, which calls itself a fusion and health-food restaurant. The evening that I dined there, the space was packed with well-dressed young French couples who could clearly afford the steep prices. The food, prepared by the Tunisian-born Jewish chef Yoni Saada and his family, is delicious and sophisticated. Our meal began with a long narrow plate filled with cumin-roasted almonds, fava beans, and tiny olives, and a tasty carrot-and-mango soup served in a champagne glass. The first course was a tomato cappuccino and a salmon tartare with avocado. The second was a sizable entrecôte steak with tiny roasted potatoes and a confit of onions. And for dessert: an extravagant plate of the now-classic molten chocolate cake topped with little marshmallow lollipops. The restaurant’s menu could have fit in anywhere, but only in Paris could it be both chic and kosher. Yoni confessed to me his great ambition: to be the first kosher Michelin-star rated chef in France.

What was most fun for me in Paris was to peek into the kitchens of home cooks. On a fall Saturday afternoon, I was invited for lunch at the home of my cousin David, an investment banker, and his wife, a divorce lawyer. As I walked to their apartment building on the outskirts of Paris, I passed by the Edmond de Rothschild Park and the Albert Kahn Museum and Gardens, both reminding me of the Jewish presence in this lovely suburb. David, his wife, and their three adorable children in a top-floor duplex strewn with the happy clutter of children’s playthings.

David’s wife comes from very humble Jewish origins in Algeria, where her grandmother was a cleaning lady for rich French colonists, but her food is not humble at all. David, whose family is of southern German and French Jewish background, loves her North African dishes. At this Sabbath lunch, she prepared many salads for the first course: fennel, avocado with lemon and cilantro, sautéed eggplant, eggplant caviar, sautéed mushrooms, and tchoukchouha (grilled peppers and tomatoes slowly cooked to a jam-like consistency).

The entrée was adafina, a Moroccan Sabbath dish, cooked overnight. Adafina varies according to the cook. Algerians who live near Tunisia, for example, might add white beans while some Tunisians add spinach. For dessert we had strawberries and raspberries topped with meringue. Afterward we sipped our coffee on the rooftop, where we could hear the sounds of children playing outside and enjoy a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower. It was a beautiful and relaxing Shabbat lunch in Paris.

This column and its recipes are excerpted in part from Joan Nathan’s new book, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, which has just been released.

The Recipes




Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.