Chopped liver, matbucha and everything in between

Israeli writer Janna Gur talks about her newest cookbook celebrating global Jewish food, and the growing international popularity of Israeli cuisine

Janna Gur (photo credit: DAN PERETZ)
Janna Gur
(photo credit: DAN PERETZ)
What do you imagine when you think of Jewish food? For many years, especially in North America, the answer has been gefilte fish, chicken soup and chopped liver. Tasty though they may be, Israeli food editor and cookbook author Janna Gur wanted the world to know about the varied and vibrant world of Jewish cuisine.
So she penned her newest cookbook, Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh, More Than 100 Unforgettable Dishes Updated for Today’s Kitchen, which celebrates the cuisine of Jews from Turkey, Libya, Ukraine, Iran, Bulgaria and everywhere in between.
“We are looking now at dozens of fascinating cuisines that are on the verge of extinction,” Gur told The Jerusalem Post from her home in Tel Aviv. “And because they are so present on the Israeli scene today, we do not realize that we or maybe our children will be the last generation able to enjoy all these foods from first-generation immigrants.”
The large tome could practically double as a coffee table book, with almost – but not every – recipe illustrated with a beautiful color photo. It is divided intuitively, by course, though those wishing to search by country of origin can do so in the index. While many of the dishes will be familiar to those living in Israel – shakshuka, burekas, kubbe, Moroccan carrot salad and the Persian rice dish tahdig – others are likely to be new. From the Bukharan community comes ushpalau, a beef and rice pilaf with chickpeas, carrots and spices; Syrian Jews contributed kebab gerez, meatballs with sour cherries; and the Russian Jewish community has its traditional selyodka podshuboy, a layered beet and herring salad.
After Gur wrote her first book, 2008’s The Book of New Israeli Food , it “quite unexpectedly opened up a whole field of activity for me as kind of a spokeswoman – an unofficial ambassador of Israeli food,” she said. “The premise of this book,” her second written in English, “was to introduce to an international audience to this world of Jewish cuisine.”
While Ashkenazi food is “having a moment” in New York, and Iraqi and Moroccan cuisines are popular in Israel, many of the recipes “represent communities that do not exist anymore,” she said. “We are currently the only place on the earth where all of these cuisines still exist. And so, I could take advantage of the fact that there is this natural selection process among Israeli chefs who have picked out the standouts – the most interesting and delicious dishes.
“These dishes: they’re relevant, they’re delicious, they’re wonderful and when you cook them, you will be doing something important in preserving Jewish food culture.”
Even among the cuisines that are still popular today, there are dishes that are slowly slipping out of existence, Gur says. Though most non-Iraqi Israelis know kubbe soup and sabich, “I’m not sure everyone knows plau b’jeej [chicken with almonds and raisins] or salona [sweet-and-sour fish casserole] or ingriyi [beef and eggplant casserole].”
The book takes a mostly traditional route – faithfully recreating kubaneh, Yemenite bread; khachapuri, the savory Georgian pastry; mafroum, Libyan meat and potato sandwiches; and sabzi polo, herbed Persian rice – but a few recipes blend the an - cient with the modern and blur the lines between cuisines. “Exiles cholent” tweaks the Ashkenazi classic with dates, silan, cumin and baharat spice mix, and gondalach crosses the traditional kneidlach with the Persian dumpling gondi.
“Most of it is traditional, but there are some modern take-offs where I just couldn’t help myself because they are so cool,” Gur said, like the chopped liver of Israeli chef Erez Komarovsky, made with leeks, peppercorns and cumin. “Even among the very traditional recipes that I chose, I deliberately selected ones I thought would work in the modern kitchen.”
She also tweaked some recipes to bring them into the 21st century, cutting down on the oil in some and simplifying la - bor-intensive steps in others. The recipe for kubbe, she says, is “kubbe with a cheat,” where the ground beef centers are rolled into balls first, then the dough is formed around them.
Even “traditional” is a term that can be quite flexible. “This is the beauty of home cooking – in every kitchen, all cooks adjust it a little bit to his or her family taste,” she said. This is true “especially in Israel, when there are so many mixed marriages between people from different communities.”
One recipe in the book, for Algerian chicken soup, “is a family story,” Gur said.
“The person who made it is an Ashkenazi married to an Algerian Jew, so she learned how to make chicken soup from her mother-in-law but... she decided to use with it the famous matza balls of her mother.
Here is Israeli cuisine in a nutshell!” In fact, Gur recounted, the challenge when putting together the book was not to hunt down recipes, but “to decide what to leave out.”
“I had to make the decisions as to which recipes will be more relevant, which will be more interesting, and how to create some kind of balance between different levels of difficulty, of flavor, of representing different communities,” she explained.
And the time for this book is ripe, Gur noted, with Ashkenazi Jewish food the new darling of the New York food world, and Israeli food in general experiencing a spike in global popularity.
“Jewish Ashkenazi food as we know it today was actually redefined in North America, because there are so many dishes like bagels and brisket, which are Jewish food born on American soil,” she said. “And they become blended with other old-world Ashkenazi dishes like gefilte fish or chopped liver.”
Gur gives Ashkenazi food its due in the book, from gefilte to fish to matza balls, sweet and sour tongue, chocolate cinnamon babka and even homemade versions of pickled herring and schmaltz with gribenes.
Despite its old-world roots, “Ashkenazi food is having a very good moment in New York,” which ripples outward across the US and the world’s culinary scenes. From the Gefilteria artisanal gefilte-fish producer in the Big Apple to the Mile End Deli eateries in Manhattan and Brooklyn – and even a New York Times article last week on the resurgence of schmaltz (rendered chicken fat, for those not in the know) among the young generation – the once-mocked food is back in fashion.
Gur, admits, however, that “in Israel it doesn’t enjoy such a high status, to put in mildly.” But she sees even that as fluid, and says Israeli chefs certainly follow the trends out of the Empire State. “For example, suddenly chopped liver became popular, especially in bars because it goes well with the alcohol; the same thing with herring.”
On a more global level, Gur said, Israeli food is reaching new levels of favor, despite the country’s often controversial world reputation.
“On the one hand, Israel is not exactly enjoying huge popularity in the world, that’s an understatement,” said Gur, “but I think Israeli cuisine has never been more popular. Not just in the US but also in London, which is not exactly very pro-Israel.”
Gur pointed to the acclaim surrounding the cookbooks and restaurants of Yotam Ottolenghi as well as The Palomar, an offering from the group behind Jerusalem’s Machneyuda, which opened earlier this year, and Honey and Co., a small cafe opened last year by an Israeli husband-and-wife team – all in London.
“It’s interesting that these two kinds of phenomena exist at the same time,” said Gur. “No doubt Israel arouses a lot of curiosity, and this is part of that.”