Photo by Rose Eichenbaum
Did you know traditional Jewish cooking follows the 3 R’s? They’re just different than those we learned in grammar school: not reading, writing, and arithmetic, but regulation, ritual, and relocation.
Regulation: The laws of kashrut influenced the foods Jews used. When cooking meats, for example, Jews of the Mediterranean used olive oil instead of lard, the region’s preferred cooking fat; and the Jews of northern Europe substituted goose or chicken fat for butter or lard.
Ritual: Jewish folk traditions and customs often took the form of symbolic foods. Chicken soup, for example, was served at Ashkenazic weddings to wish the bride and groom a prosperous life, as the golden drops of chicken fat on the soup’s surface represented gold coins. Zimsterne, star-shaped honey cookies, were served at Havdalah to take the sweetness of Shabbat into the week as the third star was rising in the western sky.
Relocation: Centuries of persecution and expulsion forced our ancestors to migrate around the globe, exposing them to new foods and cooking techniques. Despite these wanderings, regulations and rituals remained constants, and the result was a creative culinary synthesis.
In this and subsequent issues we will explore Jewish foods typical of different Diaspora communities. With the warm summer months ahead, there is no better country to begin our culinary expedition than sunny Greece.
Although there’s speculation that Jews lived in Greece as early as 500 B.C.E., the first known Greek Jew was the slave “Moschos, son of Moschion the Jew,” who resided in a coastal town near Athens around 275 B.C.E.
In the Common Era, Jewish communities grew and thrived in Greece, as evidenced by the large number of synagogues visited by Paul the Apostle. After the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, the Ottoman Empire declared that Iberian Jews would be welcome. That year Greece was deluged by fleeing Jews; over 20,000 Sephardim settled in Thessaloniki alone. Within two centuries, Thessaloniki (Salonika as it was known in the West) became one of the world’s largest Jewish communities, and over the next five centuries the coastal city boasted the world’s largest group of organized Jewish fishermen, who even had their own synagogue.
Greek Jewry was decimated in the Holocaust. In 1939 more than 70,000 Jews lived throughout the country. By 1945 the total Jewish population had been reduced to approximately 10,000, with hardly any Jews remaining in Thessaloniki. Only the Greek Jewish community on the island of Zakynthos survived intact, because its archbishop intervened.
Today about 5,000 Jews live in Greece. Of the nine active synagogues, three hold regular services; most are open only for special holidays.
The Jews of Greece sustained a cooking tradition that reflects their unique historical experience. The Romaniot Jews, who lived in Greece as early as the second Roman Empire, and the Sephardic Jews, who came later at the invitation of the Ottoman Empire after the expulsion, brought their love of yogurt, honey, eggplant, garlic, and onions. Using the basic laws of kashrut as a foundation, they adapted these food preferences to Greek food customs. In their honor, here are some wonderful recipes perfect for a hot summer’s evening.
Eggplant Salad with Pine Nuts Kioupia
About 4 miles into the island of Rhodes, I found a converted farmhouse nestled in the mountains, where I was served this eggplant dish. It is similar to babaganoush, but because the yogurt replaces the sesame-seed paste, it’s lighter—and less caloric! While I don’t know the genesis of this dish, the island of Rhodes had a large Jewish population after the 15th century and the use of eggplant and yogurt is indicative of a Jewish connection.
2 large eggplants (about 2 pounds)
2 Tablespoons extra virgin Greek olive oil
Juice of 1 small lemon
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1⁄4 cup Greek yogurt or Lebni (American yogurts will be too watery)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons pine nuts
- Wash the whole eggplants and pierce with a small, sharp knife in one or two places.
- Place them on a cookie sheet and broil (alternatively, grill on an outdoor hot charcoal grill), turning the eggplants every 10 minutes until they are deflated and their skins are charred.
- Transfer the eggplants to a colander placed in the sink and slit the skins open. Allow the eggplants to drain for at least 10 minutes, until they are cool enough to handle.
- Remove some of the seeds (not all) and discard the stem and skin.
- Scoop the eggplant pulp into a processor workbowl (or a regular workbowl if a processor is not available).
- Add the olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic.
- Pulse the processor on and off 7 times until the mixture is fairly smooth but still a little chunky. Pour the mixture into a bowl. Alternatively, stir briskly with a fork and/or wire whisk.
- Whisk in the Greek yogurt, salt, and pepper. If the mixture appears too dry, add more olive oil or lemon juice. Adjust seasoning to taste.
- Toast the pine nuts on a cookie sheet in a 350°F oven until lightly golden (approximately 5 minutes).
- Just before serving, fold the toasted nuts into the eggplant, reserving a few for garnish. Serve at room temperature or cold. Serves 6 or more as a meze, or appetizer.
- If you can, roast your eggplant outdoors—it imparts a unique flavor to the eggplant. Otherwise, indoor broiling works fine.
Greek Avgolemono Soup
Using eggs instead of butter or cream as a binding agent in sauces was a hallmark of Jewish cooks in Greece. While many Greeks thickened and enhanced the flavor of their meat dishes with a thick béchamel or cream sauce, Greek Jews who observed kashrut often substituted an avgolemono sauce—a mixture of eggs and lemon—instead. Avgolemono is also used as the base for more complex sauces and custard toppings, or incorporated into soups as a flavoring/ thickening agent.
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (preferably Greek oil)
1 large onion, cut into 1⁄4 inch dice
8 cups chicken broth
1⁄2 cup raw long grain rice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 eggs, separated
2–3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh dill Sprig of dill for garnish (optional)
Zest of 1 lemon cut into long, fine strips for garnish (optional)
- Heat the oil in a 3-quart saucepan. Sauté the onions over moderate heat until they’re soft and very lightly golden.
- Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Pour in the rice.
- Simmer the soup, covered, for 20 minutes or until the rice is tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Begin the lemon-egg mixture by whisking the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Set aside.
- In a medium-sized bowl, whisk the egg yolks until they’re lemon colored. Add the lemon juice and combine. Fold the egg whites into the mixture.
- Whisking constantly, add 1⁄2 cup of the hot soup to the egg mixture to gently raise its temperature (so it won’t “seize” and curdle when combined with the remaining hot soup).
- With the soup on the lowest flame (if the soup is too hot the eggs will curdle), slowly add the lemon mixture into the pot. Whisk constantly until the mixture is thoroughly incorporated.
- Add the chopped dill. Refrigerate if serving cold.
- Garnish with thin strips of lemon zest and a sprig of dill. Serves 4–6.
- Never allow raw egg yolks to “sit” with an acidic food for more than a few minutes. The acid will “cook” the yolk and make it grainy.
- Never use bottled lemon juice. The flavor bears no resemblance to “real” lemon!
Until World War II, the largest Jewish fishing fleet in the world was based in Thessaloniki. With more than 250 varieties of kosher fish swimming in the Mediterranean, Jewish cooks were only constrained by the size of the fish as to which cooking technique to employ. Small fish such as sardines and anchovies tended to be deep-fried whole; medium-sized fish such as sea bass and red porgy were baked, sautéed, and grilled; and Mediterranean swordfish and tuna were baked or grilled.
In this recipe, thicker fish such as branzino (Mediterranean sea bass), tuna, or Mediterranean swordfish are recommended so that they can withstand the searing and flaming without drying out. Sole, sea bream, mullet, and orata indigenous to the Mediterranean may also be used, if they are not too thin.
1 pound branzino or other fillets (about 2 fish)
Juice of 1⁄2 lemon
4 Tablespoons extra virgin Greek olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half
28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
1⁄2 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1–2 Tablespoons ouzo or other licorice liqueur (or to taste)
2 Tablespoons Metaxa or other brandy
1 cup crumbled Greek cow or sheep’s milk feta cheese
- Place the fish fillets in a 7"x11" glass dish. Add the lemon juice and turn the fish in the dish to lightly coat with the juice (which will help remove any strong fishy taste). Set aside.
- Heat 2 Tablespoons of oil in a 3-quart saucepan. Add the onion and garlic. Cook until lightly golden.
- Mix in the crushed tomatoes, sugar, and oregano. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook, uncovered, over moderate heat until the sauce is thickened (approximately 20 minutes). Remove the garlic.
- Drain the fish. Season lightly with salt and pepper and place on a clean plate.
- Heat a cast-iron skillet or heavy, uncoated sauté pan for 15 seconds. Add 2 Tablespoons of olive oil and continue to heat for another 15 seconds. Place the fish smooth-side down in the hot skillet. Cook over moderately high heat until the fish is lightly golden on one side (approximately 2 minutes).
- Turn the fish over. Add the ouzo and the brandy. Heat for 10 seconds and then ignite the liquids with a long match or butane lighter. When the flames die out, place the fish in a 2-quart oven-proof serving dish.
- Cover the fish with the warm tomato sauce and top with feta cheese.
- Place the dish in a preheated 400°F oven and bake for approximately 5 minutes until the feta is softened and slightly melted but not browned. Serves 4.
- When cooking fish, a rule of thumb is to cook 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Thin fillets will cook in fewer than 3 minutes, so be careful!
- Mediterranean cooks add a little bit of sugar to tomato sauce to counteract any bitterness in the seeds.
Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, teaches at her own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet, and serves as a culinary scholar-in-residence throughout the U.S.