Dishes of diversity in Jewish culinary world
Author, educator to serve up history through cuisine
Tina Wasserman is one of the few women in the country to specialize in Jewish historical cuisine.
February 28, 2011
Jewish cooking goes way beyond making a fluffy matza ball, a tender brisket, or flaky rugelach.
The varied culinary traditions of Jews from all over the world have flavored the cuisine of their host countries; learning about them opens delicious windows onto a scattered people’s sweeping range of culture, history, and religious practice.
There are factors that these diverse gustatory customs have in common. “Shabbat and the laws of kashrut are the two main things that have affected Jewish cooking,” said author and cooking instructor Tina Wasserman. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re observant of the Sabbath or keep kosher. Those recipes that you find all over the world that are associated with Jewish people meet those criteria.”
Wasserman, the author of Entree to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora, will serve as scholar-in-residence at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick the weekend of March 11-13.
She wrote the book, she told NJJN in a phone interview from her Dallas home, “because most people in the United States, Jewish and non-Jewish, think all Jewish food is Eastern European — bagels and lox — yet no one knows the stories.”
A specialist in Jewish historical cuisine, Wasserman has taught cooking for 41 years and is trained in education and nutrition. Once “Chef Fields” at Marshall Field’s department store in Dallas, she introduced thousands of residents to prominent chefs and restaurateurs at the store’s weekly cooking school.
In 1994, Wasserman was elected to Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international culinary society that honors women in the food and beverage industry.
The stories presented in Entree to Judaism, which touch upon every part of the world in which Jews have lived, are designed, the author said, “to give a connection to either family history or a sense of connection to the Jewish Diaspora.”
‘I believe in tikun olam’
Among the topics Wasserman plans to cover at B’nai Shalom is the influence Jews have had on international cuisine, with an emphasis on the Sephardim, those who trace their roots to the Iberian peninsula.
The dispersion of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, said Wasserman, “had a significant effect on many cuisines.” In her book, she said, “I talk about what the Moors brought to Spain and what the Jews took with them. Many people don’t know there were about 200,000 Jews in Spain.”
Sicily, which was ruled by Spain, had 40,000 Jews who heavily influenced Italian cooking, she said. Although eggplant parmigiana is thought of as a quintessentially Italian dish, it was the Jews who introduced the eggplant to the Italians.
Jews also had a “significant hand” in spreading oranges throughout Europe and in the chocolate trade, since they were the ones who figured out how to process cocoa for shipment.
Some of the book’s recipes — like those in the southeastern Asia section — are not Jewish in their origins, but have a Jewish twist to them. While the Custard Inside Pumpkin is Thai in origin, said Wasserman, the recipe’s lack of any dairy ingredients is a nod to Sephardi tradition.
To make desserts pareve and therefore suitable to serve after a meat meal, she explained, “the Sephardim used coconut milk as their binding agent as opposed to milk or cream.”
All the recipes are accompanied by “Tina’s tidbits,” helpful hints gleaned from her decades of experience.
Wasserman said her teaching is part of her commitment to “repairing the world.”
“I do this because I believe in tikun olam,” she said. By learning about the traditions of the past, “we are able to connect to future generations who will grow up never hearing a Yiddish accent, who have no link to their French ancestry in Morocco.”
If you go
Who: Cookbook author and teacher Tina Wasserman
What: Scholar-in-residence weekend
Where: Temple B’nai Shalom, East Brunswick
When: Friday-Sunday, March 11-13
Friday: 8 p.m., Shabbat services, “What Makes Food Jewish?”
Saturday: 12:30-2:30 p.m., lunch and learn, “Beyond Brisket and Bagels: A Culinary Exploration of the Diaspora after 1492” with lunch based on recipes from Entree to Judaism; 6- 9 p.m., “Cooking and More,” class featuring Jewish food from around the world
Sunday: 9-11 a.m., hallah workshop for religious-school students and parents
Cost: Lunch and learn, $25; Saturday evening cooking class, $36; both, $50.
Contact: Call 732-251-4300 or visit bnaishalom.com
The author will be available to sign Entree to Judaism; books may be ordered in advance through the synagogue for $40, $36 each for two or more copies.
Free baby-sitting will be available for children age four and up with lunch and games during Shabbat morning services, and with pizza, games, and a movie on Saturday evening.
Iraqi Chicken with Rice, Chickpeas, and Raisins
According to Rivka Goldman, the author of Mama Nazima’s Jewish-Iraqi Cuisine, Iraqi cooks typically combine garbanzo beans and raisins with meat or chicken for a sweet-savory flavor component. The following recipe is adapted from one of her family recipes.
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
10 grindings of black pepper
1/2 tsp. pimenton de la Vera (Spanish smoked paprika) or sweet paprika
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
2 chicken breasts
2 chicken thighs
2 chicken legs
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)
1 cup basmati rice
1 8-oz. can tomato sauce
1 1/3 cups water
2 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup dark raisins
1 15-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1. Combine the first seven ingredients in a small glass bowl; you should have about 4 teaspoons of mixture.
2. Place 2 teaspoons of the spice mixture in a gallon ziploc plastic bag.
3. Wash the chicken pieces, pull off and discard the skin, and pat dry. Cut chicken breasts and thighs in half horizontally. You may use all breasts or thighs or legs if you wish, but cut large pieces in half.
4. Place chicken pieces in the bag with the spices. Seal bag and shake to coat the chicken. Set aside for at least 30 minutes. If longer, place bag in the refrigerator.
5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
6. Heat a large, ovenproof saute pan (or decorative casserole that can be used on a cooktop) for 20 seconds. Add the oil and heat for another 15 seconds.
7. Add 4 or 5 pieces of chicken to the hot pan, skin side down, and cook 4-5 minutes or until lightly gold. Remove cooked chicken to a plate and repeat with the remaining chicken pieces. Remove from pan and set aside.
8. Add chopped onions to the used saute pan and fry for 3 minutes or until lightly golden brown.
9. Add the rice and stir to completely coat with oil. Deglaze the pan by adding the tomato sauce, water, and lemon juice and scraping any particles of the chicken from the bottom. Add remaining ingredients plus the reserved spice mixture and mix.
10. Place the chicken pieces meat side up in the rice mixture. Cover and bake 30-45 minutes or until the chicken is tender and the rice has absorbed all of the liquid.
Yield: 4-6 servings