The Mizrahi-Ashkenazi divide: The differences in Jewish cuisine

With a diasporic community spreading from Morocco to Iran, it is no surprise that the cuisine that developed in these countries reflects the food cultures around them.

 DOUGHY JACHNUN (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When one thinks of the differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, one of the first things that comes to mind is kitniyot, the practice of eating grains such as rice on Passover. However, this is only the start of the great gulf in culinary traditions which has helped give rise to Mizrahi cuisine.

With a diasporic community spreading far and wide across the Middle East, from Morocco to Iran, it is no surprise that the cuisine that developed in these countries reflects the food cultures around them.

Days could be started by enjoying a mix of eggs, eggplant, tomatoes, olive oil, peppers and other spices to create the now widespread Israeli staple of shakshuka, which itself originates from the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya – the nations of what was once called the Barbary Coast), alongside Turkish coffee.

Time for lunch? You can’t go wrong with some spicy kebabs, hummus and flatbread.

What’s for dinner? Try mixing together some sautéed herbs, beans, meat and spices to get the beloved Persian stew ghormeh sabzi. Need some dessert or a midday snack? Enjoy the confectionery delight that is knaffe. And on cold winter days, couple it up with a nice warm glass of sahlab.

 HRAIME, MOROCCAN fish. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) HRAIME, MOROCCAN fish. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And that’s just during the week. Come Shabbat, you have delicious and spicy Moroccan fish (hraime) for Shabbat dinner, alongside a spread of dips and salads. In the morning, have some yummy bourekas filled with cheese, potatoes or other vegetables. For lunch, enjoy slow-cooked hamin with doughy jachnun, itself hailing from Yemen, or enjoy a soup with meat-filled dumplings called kubbe.

But Mizrahi food has also taken on new life in Israel as popular street food. Take a walk down some of the many markets (shuks) in the country and be constantly bombarded by a seemingly endless parade of falafel, pita, shawarma, kebabs, hummus, kubbe, knaffe and more.

But what about Ashkenazi Jewish food?

COMPARE THIS to Ashkenazi food. It is no secret that some hold Ashkenazi cuisine in disdain by comparison. They claim the lack of dip offerings and dearth of flavor and spiciness is enough to bring them to tears.

Take a look at some of the foods available at a classic Ashkenazi Shabbat meal. The first dish might be some gefilte fish – something that, to those unaware of its history and preparation process, may resemble some heavily processed spam-like fish dish. This could be followed by matzo ball soup, filled with soggy meat-filled dumplings made out of matzo and flavored with chicken and some herbs. Then the main course may be cholent – a slow-cooked stew that, if not made right, could end up resembling a terrifying concoction from a witch’s cauldron.

There is a reason why they are so different, and it isn’t just because of local produce. Ashkenazi food is often called “the food of poverty,” and for good reason. Many Ashkenazi Jews lived in ghettos or in the Pale of Settlement amid poor economic conditions for centuries. But don’t sell Ashkenazi food short, since it is also reflective of the resourcefulness of Ashkenazi culture. You can tell a lot about a culture by its food, and what Ashkenazi food reflects is the spirit of adapting and making the best of one’s situation to create something unique and defining of their cultural identity. After all, it was situations like this, when Ashkenazi Jews were supposedly not allowed to bake bread in Poland, that led to the development of the bagel – which has now become a staple in Jewish communities worldwide and throughout the US.

Not to mention that the Ashkenazi food of today is not the same as it was in the 19th century. Today, we have the added advantage of more spices, better access to different ingredients and, more importantly, access to the influences of different culinary traditions. Eating a slice of kugel today will be far more enjoyable than it would have been in Germany in the 1800s.

Overall, Ashkenazi food is still a much-cherished part of Jewish food all over the world – and it has more in common with Mizrahi food than one might think. Cholent, at the end of the day, is basically just hamin, and there isn’t much difference between kubbe and matzo balls in theory.

And all of this is important because, just as Ashkenazi and Sephardi culinary traditions sharply diverged throughout the Diaspora, they have now come back together right here in the kitchens of the Jewish state, where cholent and hamin can be cooked alongside each other in a literal melting pot.

It isn’t hard to find meals today serving chraine alongside gefilte fish, or matzo ball soup preempted by pita and hummus.

 CHALLAH, THE great uniter. (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90) CHALLAH, THE great uniter. (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

Admittedly, Mizrahi food may be more suited to street food than Ashkenazi food is. But that doesn’t mean Ashkenazi food isn’t still widespread throughout homes in Israel. Not only that, but the issue of kitniyot does still remain a serious divide between cultures – odd, since the majority of Jews in Israel are Mizrahi, but the kitniyot rule has remained in place nonetheless for Ashkenazi Jews.

But regardless, the food of the Jewish state reflects the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland, where food from all sectors of the Jewish Diaspora has a place to thrive and evolve into one delicious Abrahamic fusion cuisine.

And besides, there are still some common grounds between all Jewish foods: After all, we do all love challah.