Jewish food tends to get a bad rap. When it comes to fine dining, it’s usually French or Italian food, not Jewish food, that you’re having in a restaurant or cooking at home (unless, of course, it’s made by your bubby). Gefilte fish is perplexing, noodle kugel is a strange paradox of creamy noodles studded with raisins and sweet spices, and matzah is, well…tasteless unleavened cardboard.
Despite all the stereotypes surrounding Jewish cuisine, lately there’s been a rise in Jewish food everywhere: bakeries are popping up showcasing a mix of Jewish and Middle Eastern delicacies, more and more cookbooks are launching with a focus on the cuisine, and specialized Jewish restaurants have become omnipresent in big cities, pivoting from typical Jewish deli fare to smoked eggplant carpaccio and Nutella stuffed chocolate babka. Which is one super long way of saying that Jewish food isn’t its stereotypes—it’s actually really good and underrated.
Read on for an illumination of typical—and not so typical—Jewish dishes, from babka to pastrami.
Babka is a sweet, yeasted, cake-like bread, dense, swirled with chocolate or cinnamon, and often topped with a sugary streusel. While babka was once only found in Jewish or Eastern European bakeries, it’s now everywhere, and for good reason: the irresistible juxtaposition of dry layers of bread and moist swirls of chocolate and cinnamon make it a perfect compliment to coffee or a scoop of ice cream.
Although bagels tend to be the bread star of the morning, bialys are bagels’ lesser known, but just as delicious, cousin. Originating in Bialystok, Poland, the traditional bialy is a flatter version of a bagel (more similar to a roll), just without a hole in the center. Unlike the bagel, which is boiled before being baked, a bialy is simply baked. All bialys boast a small concave depression in the middle, which is traditionally filled with onions and sometimes poppy seeds and garlic. While purists tend to prefer them straight up, try one with cream cheese—you may very well never go back to bagels.
Quite simply, blintzes are the Jewish answer to French crêpes. Blintzes are an evolved form of blini (a flat Russian pancake made of buckwheat flour and served with sour cream), but with both sweet and savory versions. They too are thin pancakes, but made out of wheat flour, which gives them a slightly different texture. Each pancake can be filled with ingredients like jam, fruit, potatoes, farmer’s cheese, cottage cheese, ground meat, chicken, cabbage, and onion. Once it’s filled, the pancake is folded into a rectanglular pouch and sautéed or baked.
Gefilte fish may not look all that appetizing, but it’s actually quite a symbolic food for Jews. The dish is traditionally served on Shabbat to avoid borer (literally selecting or choosing, which is an activity prohibited on Shabbat). Because gefilte fish is a poached mixture of deboned fish—like carp and whitefish—no one needs to worry about picking bones out of the dish, making it an ideal food to serve when exploring the Jewish culinary landscape.
While halvah is eaten across the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa, the Jewish version is a bit different. Served in long, rectangular blocks that are sliced into individual slabs, halvah is a nut butter-based dessert, usually featuring tahini, and studded with a variety of nuts, chocolate, or dried fruit.
A knish is an Eastern European snack food made popular in North America by Eastern European immigrants. Traditionally, a knish is a handheld, small, doughy pastry that’s loaded with fillings like mashed potatoes, meat, sauerkraut, cheese, and onions. While it’s considered an old world food, it most notably underwent a revolution recently, with mom and pop establishments setting up shop in large cities selling innovative takes on the classic dish with a modern twist.
Ah, latkes: the best reason to eat fried potatoes. Latkes are served during Hanukkah, to pay homage to the oil that lasted eight nights. Shredded potatoes and onions are formed into patties, fried in oil, and served dipped in applesauce and sour cream.
Matzah Ball Soup
While anyone can attest that matzah ball soup is guaranteed to cure any illness, it is a bonafide fan favorite amongst everyone. It’s basically chicken noodle soup, and while it doesn’t boast noodles, it does feature densely flavorful matzah balls, made from a combination of matzah meal and eggs. The soup tends to be paired with sliced carrots, celery, and occasionally bits of chicken.
To outsiders, kugel is arguably a bit of a confusing paradox. It’s this delicious mixture of savory and sweet, all in one fat-filled noodle dish. The dish is loaded with cream cheese, sour cream, butter, sugar, and egg noodles, and some recipes call for sweet spices like cinnamon, as well as dried fruit, like raisins. It tends to be served on special events, like holidays or Shabbat.
Pastrami was originally created as a way to preserve meat before refrigeration by Jewish immigrants, who would cure raw meat and season it with a special spice blend. It was smoked and steamed, then paired with a hefty smear of mustard and rye bread. Nowadays, pastrami has become much more mainstream, having first found a home in Jewish delis before migrating into more unconventional settings. It has found its way onto tacos and even into breakfast sandwiches, as an ironic substitute for bacon or sausage.