Shul food

Not many people think of going to Shabbat services as a gastronomic experience. Yet after diligently praying for heavenly goodwill, many appreciate temporal rewards in the form of Jewish soul food.

noodle kugle 88 (photo credit: )
noodle kugle 88
(photo credit: )
Not many people think of going to Shabbat services as a gastronomic experience. Yet after diligently praying for heavenly goodwill, many appreciate temporal rewards in the form of Jewish soul food. The occasion for the indulgence is the kiddush, which technically means a blessing over wine, but has been extended to refer to a light meal served at the ceremony. Chabad Web sites advertise this bonus on the Saturday schedule: "morning prayers, followed by kiddush with hot cholent." For those who are not computer literate, I've often heard the rabbi finish his recitation of upcoming services and classes with the announcement: "and we have the best cholent in town." The tasty, well-seasoned cholent at our local Chabad synagogue contains little cubes of beef, potato chunks, sweet vegetarian kishke, barley and beans. Those who want something lighter than cholent usually find tuna salad, gefilte fish with horseradish, egg salad, coleslaw, crackers, cookies and marble cake. Occasionally there might be potato kugel, smoked whitefish salad and even Chinese chicken salad with a sweet ginger dressing and fried chow mein noodles. And for "l'chayim," a shot of vodka. But there's much more to shul food; it varies by location and by congregation. When I was growing up, kiddush at our shul was composed of typical American-Jewish brunch food - bagels with lox and cream cheese, mini gefilte fish balls, marinated herring, jello molds and iced white and chocolate sheet cakes. Several years ago, my mother and I visited Honolulu and found the Shabbat experience at Chabad of Hawaii completely different from any we'd had before. First of all, the shul was in a hotel. The kiddush was a full lunch, for the benefit of tourists searching for a kosher Shabbat meal. On our visit, the Israeli-Moroccan buffet included spicy fish and cooked pepper salad, as well as the islands' sweet pineapple in a fruit salad, and the local soft, block-shaped Hawaiian sweet rolls. When there's a bar mitzvah, shul spreads can become elaborate or even downright fancy, especially if the family brings a caterer into the picture. A shul in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I grew up, offers kiddush dishes that I never heard of as a child, like balsamic four bean salad, sesame cabbage salad, crisp apple rice salad and cumin-flavored corn and bean salad. A Rhode Island kosher caterer suggests French style quiches for a kiddush menu: one of mushrooms and caramelized onions and another of eggplant, roasted peppers and goat cheese. In Melbourne, Australia, the kiddush food of Passionate Kosher Catering is eclectic. In addition to the usual Ashkenazi-Jewish items, you can have Indian and Japanese vegetables, Moroccan couscous, Persian brown rice and a sabra cake made of orange and chocolate cake layers, chocolate mousse and chocolate ganache. With such offerings, going to the synagogue is practically like visiting a gourmet restaurant. Small shuls have their own selections of tempting kiddush treats. At a neighbor's bar mitzva kiddush, the shul's caterer happened to be Persian. His menu featured three types of cholent. The one I liked best was a vegetarian one, consisting mainly of deeply browned rice, carrots, tomatoes and sauteed onions. The most memorable shul food I've had to date was in the humblest of surroundings - Yemenite Shabbat services in the converted garage of a Los Angeles house, the rest of which serves as a Moroccan synagogue. There the meal was potluck. Some people brought typical Israeli items like potato burekas, spicy carrots, humous, tehina, pickles and pita. For me, the highlight was the wonderful Yemenite Shabbat cake called kubaneh, made of a rich, slightly sweet yeast dough. The woman who baked it overnight kept it warm at shul by covering the pot with a blanket. A favorite shul food of mine is Jerusalem kugel (kugel Yerushalmi), which is not known to many American Jews. I often wish it would appear on the kiddush tables at American synagogues to evoke the flavors of Jerusalem. JERUSALEM KUGEL This caramel-flavored kugel is dense and rich and has an intriguing peppery yet slightly sweet taste. It bakes all night in a very low oven and turns deep brown throughout. Don't worry if the caramel forms pieces when you mix it with the other ingredients; they will melt during the baking. To cook the kugel faster, you can bake it uncovered at 175C for 1 hour. It will still taste good but its color will not be as brown. You can reheat any leftover kugel slices by wrapping them in foil and heating them in a oven at 175C, or microwaving slices uncovered on a plate. 350 grams fine egg noodles 3 large eggs 1⁄3 cup sugar 1⁄2 cup vegetable oil 1 tsp. salt 1 tsp. ground pepper Generously grease a round, 2-liter casserole. Cook noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water about 5 minutes or until barely tender. Drain, return to pot, and toss briefly with 3 tablespoons of the oil. Keep on stove so noodles remain warm; do not cover. Pour remaining oil into a heavy saucepan, then add sugar. Heat over low heat, shaking pan gently from time to time; do not stir. Cook 15 to 20 minutes or until sugar turns deep brown. Gradually add mixture to noodles, mixing well with tongs. Beat eggs with salt and pepper. Add to noodles and mix well. Transfer to greased casserole. Cover with foil and with a lid. Refrigerate kugel if not ready to bake it. Put kugel in oven set at 82-95C. Bake kugel overnight, or for about 14 hours. Run a knife around edge and turn out onto a round platter. Serve hot, in slices. Makes 8 to 10 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).