When it comes to understanding Jewish cuisine, there are a few things you need to get to grips with. The first thing that makes it distinct is the Kosher Laws- or the rules of dos and don'ts outlined in the Torah of what Jewish people can eat... and it is complicated.
Following on from that, certain religious occasions and holidays have further rules when it comes to food such as not cooking on the Sabbath, and not eating leavened bread during Passover. All these regulations have made Jewish cooks creative in the way they work around them.
The third aspect of Jewish cuisine which makes it unique is that it clearly shows the pattern of migration of the Jewish people. Dishes and foods have been adopted, culturally adapted and brought to new countries.
Influences start in the Middle East but branch out into Eastern Europe, and into the UK and the US today. Jewish food absorbs its surrounding influences and subsequently brings that influence to the other side of the world in a way I find utterly fascinating.
I think I got to grips with all of these particular rules and nuances of Jewish cuisine – hopefully I don’t offend anyone – I sure had to concentrate while doing this!
If I had to pick one thing that Jewish cuisine does best, it would have to be baking. They are masters of baking all kinds of bread which are enjoyed all year round in the religious calendar. A Challah is the celebration loaf which is typically eaten on each Sabbath. It is made with an enriched dough which has added eggs which makes the inside comparable to brioche.
The perfect Challah has a chewy, golden crust with a pillowy middle. The top is sometimes decorated with poppy seeds, but it can also have raisins, or even chocolate chips worked through the dough to make it a sweet dessert-bread. The loaf itself is braided for presentation.
You can get Challah at all Jewish deli’s of which there are many here in Manchester. Honestly, Jewish deli’s are the most fantastic hidden-gems and treasure troves of food and drink. I highly recommend making a trip up to Let’s Fress Deli or Halpern’s Food Store over in Salford.
Most of these are situated up in the North in areas like Prestwich and Whitefield, however, if it is easier for you to stick in the south head to the Bramhall Bakery which does an excellent Challah which I can vouch for ten times over.
While I would allow to non-Jewish Challah to slide, there is one thing I won’t, and that is bagels. If you are going to eat bagels, you are going to have to hop in your car and travel up north because there is nothing quite like them and nothing can compare.
State Fayre Bakery would be my pick – they bake them fresh every day making the dough (by hand) each morning, proving, boiling and cooking to make the most delicious bagel you have ever tasted. You can get a range of traditional toppings from State Fayre too, the most traditional being Cream Cheese and Lox (smoked salmon), Chopped Liver or Whitefish. Bagels served with all the trimmings are most typically served at brunch time on weekends.
Another breakfast dish I’m sure you might know already which is of Israeli-Jewish decent is Shakshuka. In short, it is a rich tomato stew with onions and peppers, chilli, garlic and cumin which had eggs cracked into it before baking. That is the basics of Shakshuka because it will vary from place to place, from family to family.
I like mine with added smoked paprika (the real stuff) and perhaps some crumbled feta or goats cheese on top. They do a cracking one at Leaf on Portland Street which is pimped up with butterbeans for added texture and topped off with pistachio nuts – which is just divine.
Jewish cuisine is quite meat-centric, but it has to conform to all sorts of rules that are outlined in the Torah. Firstly, pork is a great big no-no, but I am sure you already knew that. This goes back to pigs being thought of as dirty or unclean animals that were not fit for human consumption.
Secondly, all meat must be slaughtered in the correct way (shechita) for it to be deemed Kosher. People of the Jewish faith are also not allowed to consume animal blood in any capacity, some kinds of animal fat or the flesh of a living animal… which quite frankly I can get on board with too.
Finally, the religious dietary law states that you cannot have meat and dairy together. That means that you cannot cook the two together (bye bye lasagne), you cannot have the two in your stomach at the same time (bye-bye cheeseburgers), and you cannot even wash the utensils used to cook the two in the same place. Many Jewish families have entirely separate kitchens to deal with this. So, when it comes to cooking meals, this makes things a tad more complicated.
Be that as it may, Jewish cuisine loves meat. The most famous meat dish would probably be Beef Brisket. Historically and even today brisket is a cheap cut of beef which is notoriously tricky to make taste like anything other than an old shoe.
The best way to cook it is low and slow with sugar, herbs and sometimes fruit. Expect nothing less than it to take the entire day if you are making it for yourself – but if you can’t be arsed with that then look no further than Red’s True Barbeque. Granted the barbeque vibes are really authentic, but it is the best brisket in town, hands down.
Another beef dish we know and love is Salt Beef. Deli meat is a favourite lunchtime option for many people of the Jewish faith, and it is typically served on a bagel or rye-bread with mustard and dill pickles. The meat is usually brisket which is boiled in a salt brine which preserves it and gives a distinct pinkish hue. Salt beef is also referred to as corned beef in the US (for its heavy use of ‘corns’ of salt) and when it is seasoned and smoked it becomes pastrami.
There is nothing quite like the real thing from Katz Deli in New York, but the next best thing on this side of the pond would be the salt beef bagel from Koffee Pot – the long-standing Mancunian answer to a hangover. If Pastrami is what you want, look no further than The Bagel Shop – you will never want to eat anything else ever again.
During Passover, the holiday which celebrates the anniversary of the Jew’s emancipation from slavery in Egypt, rising agents products are strictly forbidden during the seven days it runs. So that means no fluffy loaves, no crusty bread and most importantly – no cakes. Unless however, you can cleverly find a way to make a cake rise without any leavening agents. Impossible? I think not.
A life without cake is a life not worth living, even if it is only for a week, so a standard answer to this question would be the Flourless Chocolate Cake. However, not only does it have to be flour-free it has to be dairy free as well if you have it for dessert during Passover. This stuff isn’t complicated at all…
So, what you need at the end of a Jewish Kosher feast is a flourless, dairy-free, vegan chocolate cake- which you can enjoy at Tea Cup Kitchen, or it might just be easier to make one for yourself.
I think the thing that Jewish cuisine is tainted with the most is its love for fried food. That being said, who doesn’t love the comforting, homey taste of something that is fried? No one, that’s who. One of these delicious desserts is called Sufganiyot– which is basically a jam-filled doughnut. What’s not to love?
We have a full round-up of where to get great doughnuts here in Manchester which you can read here, but if I had to pick a single place (one that is known for its jam-filled doughnuts to be specific), I would have to choose The Manchester Doughnut Company. They are just the best, and you can get your sticky paws on them at a market near you on the weekends.
Finally, I am going to talk about Macaroons. If you read my French Food Guide, you might remember me talking about the often confused difference between the French Macaron and the other biscuit the Macaroon. Confused? Definitely. The latter is made from coconut, eggs and sugar and I was surprised to learn that these little treats have roots in Jewish food, or at the very least are a favourite of many Jewish families due to their lack of wheat which makes them very Passover-friendly.
I love the ones my grandmother makes- she is famous for them. The best bit is peeling off the little circle of rice paper on the bottom and letting it dissolve on your tongue before breaking through the crisp outer shell to the softer, fluffier middle.
The best place to get macaroons is at the Christmas markets when they come around, but if you cannot wait until then, head to Barbakan Delicatessen in Chorlton and get your fix.