Two thousand years of Jewish Diaspora has resulted in a wide variety of Jewish recipes, a marvelous blend of religious and regional traditions.
The hearty cuisine of Ashkenazi Jews, for example, arose from the chilly climate of central and Eastern Europe, whereas the Sephardi Jews of the Balkan countries and Turkey developed their own rich cooking style, lighter and frequently in keeping with their past in the Iberian Peninsula. Jewish communities of Northern Africa have a tremendously rich culinary tradition, often based around couscous and tagine. There are unique Jewish cuisines native to the Middle East, notably in Iran and in Yemen; in the Netherlands, the Jews
often specialize in pickles, herring, butter cakes and jam rolls. Israel may act as a literal melting pot for these various regional cuisines, and is known for innovation in the kitchen, both public and private. Modern health and diet concerns have resulted in ‘New Jewish’ cooking, styles which are in keeping with the ‘nouveau’ cooking of most cultures—lighter far with less fats, sugars and salt.
Holiday spreads among Jewish families exemplify this blend of ritual, practicality and symbol but none better than the Passover Seder feast, which contains certain requisite items including Maror bitter herbs (horseradish or Romaine lettuce leaves); Beitzah (hard-boiled or roasted egg); Karpas (often celery, parsley, or lettuce); Z'roa (lamb shank bone or roast chicken wing);
Charoset (a mixture of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon is traditional among Ashkenazi families while Sephardi Charoset contains dates and nuts) and
Hazeret. Each of the items has special significance to the retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, which is the focus of the Seder meal.
Discussion of Jewish cuisine must begin and end the laws of kashrut, of course, also known as ‘keeping kosher’. It is a way to elevate the act of eating from the mundane to the holy; it allows practitioners to follow the Torah, lead a traditional Jewish lifestyle, identify with history and pass on Jewish traditions to the next generation.
Certain foods, notably pork and shellfish, are forbidden; meat and dairy are not combined, and meat must be ritually slaughtered with all traces of blood removed. To achieve this, having been slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in accordance with Jewish law the meat must be entirely drained of blood and before it is cooked, it must be soaked in water for half an hour. Then it is placed on a perforated board, sprinkled with coarse salt, which draws out any remaining blood, then left to sit for one hour. At the end of this time, the salt is washed off and the meat is kosher.
Since meat and poultry may not be combined with dairy products, it necessitates the use of two sets of utensils. Orthodox Jews divide their kitchens into two sections, one for meat and one for dairy, sometimes even relying on two completely separate kitchens.
Butter, milk or cream cannot be used in preparing dishes made with meat or served together with meat. Oils, margarine, rendered chicken fat or non-dairy cream substitutes are used instead.
At first pass, some kosher laws are difficult to understand: A practical examination of most kosher laws shows a hygienic basis: blood is an ideal medium for the growth of bacteria; milk and meat digest at an unequal rate and are difficult for the body to process; shellfish, mollusks and lobsters have in the past spread typhoid. Ritual slaughtering is humane, keeping the animal from the least amount of suffering. The slightest nick in the knife of the shochet renders it unusable.
But a true adherent to kashrut will assure you that the reasons for keeping kosher are more spiritual than corporeal, that the motivations for the sacrifices involved are simple and essential expressions of faith: God gave the Torah to the Jewish people and they have a covenant with Him to keep the commandments described within.