In her huge new cookbook, fittingly called The Jewish Cookbook (Phaidon), Leah Koenig argues that Jewish food is “a true fusion cuisine.” It reflects the diasporic nature of the Jewish people; the succession of expulsions and escapes and re-settlements created the vast sprawl of world Jewry; and, in her words, “a cuisine that is both intensely regional and profoundly global.” She writes: “It is as personal and specific as the spread of dishes found on a single table, and as expansive and varied as the entirety of the Jewish Diaspora.”
Over the course of 400 (!) or so recipes, she presents recipes from everywhere Jews have lived, which means…well, everywhere: the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Every recipe—like a superhero—comes with an origin story. Koenig discusses the ways in which Jews have adapted the foods of their adoptive homes, resulting in the kind of cookbook that’s fun to read even if you store shoes in your oven. She also provides quirky contributions from celebrity chefs…and, in a reflection of how we cook today, little icons indicating if a recipe is dairy-free, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, involves no more than five ingredients, or takes 30 minutes or less to make. Ingredient amounts are listed in grams as well as standard American measurements.
This week, I chatted with Koenig about her new book.
Me: The cover! Gorgeous!
Koenig: I know, right? I like that those circles could be a number of foods, and those speckles could be seeds or oil spatters. I like that it has a timeless look.
Do you feel like [intones sonorously], “All my previous work has led up to this”?
Well, I’ve been writing about Jewish food for a while now, so of course there are latkes and gefilte fish in each book. But I wanted this book to have its own voice. In some ways my books for Chronicle (Modern Jewish Cooking, Little Book of Jewish Appetizers, Little Book of Jewish Feasts, Little Book of Jewish Sweets) are more modernized, while this is more “traditional”—even though that word is iffy—everyone’s grandma makes a traditional recipe a little differently and everyone’s grandma’s version is the best. But part of the point for me is that this book encapsulates the entire world of Jewish cooking. When people ask me “What is Jewish food?” I like to say that aside from Antarctica, Jews have cooked on every continent. The through-line for the book, what ties it all together, is the holidays and kashrut and the reason the food is on the table.
It’s not all the usual suspects.
It was really important to me to not just do Ethiopia, but also Uganda, because there is a Jewish community there.
The foreword (by Julia Turshen) establishes that this is not your Ashkenormative bubbe’s cookbook. It mentions Palestine! And lesbians! It takes a stance. Julia writes: “For those of us who hold Jewish food sacred, this perpetual hunger for home gives us much in common with others who have been forced to leave wherever they call home. There is empathy at the Jewish table for refugees across the world who cook as a way to stay there…it extends to enslaved Africans who wove seeds into their braided hair to keep with them a part of where they were taken, to displaced Palestinians who cook dishes like maqluba and hummus sprinkled with za’atar as a way to continue their culture, and to survivors of national disasters in places like Puerto Rico, who continue to pass on their recipes even when they’ve lost everything. Food reminds us of who we are and where we come from.” Were you actively trying to be provocative there?
Phaidon wanted it a little edgy. They want this book to speak to folks well outside the Jewish community. It’s “our” cuisine…but it’s meant to place Jewish cuisine as something with cultural significance outside our own people. And we’re starting to see that: We’re seeing pastrami-rubbed everything, everything-bagel spice…you’re seeing our cuisine represented outside our communities.
Are there recipes in the book that represent specific times, friends, or family to you? Ones that instantly rocket you back to somewhere special?
The wine-braised stracotto di manzo—the Roman Jewish version of pot roast—comes from a meal on our honeymoon in Rome. We were 26 and wide-eyed. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, we ended up at a Shabbat dinner at this young hip kosher caterer’s. I was a decade-long vegetarian, and it turned out to be all meat dishes. I said to Yoshie, “If the phrase when in Rome ever applied…” and I ate and it was incredible.
Did that catapult you out of vegetarian-ness?
I held on to the vegetarian identity for about another year, but it was effectively over with the stracotto. The emergence of Grow & Behold as a stable source for buying kosher, sustainable meat was the real kicker, though. I still think like a vegetarian, and we eat a lot of vegetarian meals. But some of the things my 5-year-old reliably eats are chicken and ground beef in various forms and salmon, so we have meat for dinner more than we otherwise might. I get it; I was super-picky as a kid. I had a buttered-noodle phase that lasted way too long.
Another recipe I love is aranygaluska, a cinnamon-sugar pull-apart cake from Hungary. It’s essentially monkey bread. Yeasted challah dough rolled into small balls, dipped in melted butter, rolled in cinnamon-sugar, and layered into a Bundt pan. It’s basically heaven. My mom’s grandmother used to make it and my mom has really good memories of it. My mom was too much of an ’80s health nut to make it herself, but it transferred to me. Maybe I’ll make it for her…she’ll probably have just a tiny taste.
Do you have any personal favorites, recipes you go back to over and over?
One that has become part of my repertoire is a tarte flambée or or flammekueche from the Alsace region—the nexus of France and Germany—which is where Ashkenazi cuisine started. It’s wood-fired flatbread covered with white cheese and caramelized onions. It’s traditionally made with pork fat but I did sautéed mushrooms instead of lard. Jews made it with leftover challah dough and served it on Fridays as a quick lunch when everyone was cooking for Shabbat. It is so easy to make and so good. And I make the sweet-and-sour cabbage soup a lot. It’s cabbage and short ribs and tomato sweetened with brown sugar; it has a borscht flavor profile minus the beets. Easy, simple, comforting.
Are there any recipes that just bedeviled you until you finally got them right?
The book has plenty of recipes that are easy, but I struggled with Libyan mafroum, when you slice a slit into a potato and stuff it with ground meat and then batter and fry the parcel and then poach it in tomato sauce.
It sounds like that horrifying internet recipe for BBQ chicken quesadilla pizza.
Except it’s delicious. It takes forever to make but it is mind-blowingly delicious. I’d never made it before, so I had to find someone who knew how to make it do it while I watched. Whenever I did food talks in other communities, I tried to find people to cook with. When I was in Seattle, I found someone to do bourekas with me because there’s a big community from Turkey. In Montreal, I cooked with someone from Morocco. In Brooklyn, there’s a big Syrian community. There’s no such thing as a travel budget for cookbooks anymore.
Any chefs you chased to contribute recipes that you were super-psyched to actually get?
I was super-honored by anyone who said yes. But Yotam Ottolenghi and Michael Solomonov were obviously exciting. Wrangling busy chefs felt Herculean at times.
Anything else particularly difficult?
I still can’t seem to roll my bulema dough as thin as I’d like—and not nearly as thin as the women I made it with in Seattle. It’s still very delicious with the dough a bit thicker, but I think there’s a bit of Gladwellian 10,000 hours of practice that one needs to put in before reaching bulema nirvana.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.