When we think of Jewish food, many of us think of the delicious dishes we grew up with: matzoh balls, chicken soup, gefilte fish ( don't make a face, it'll freeze that way ), shakshuka , kubbanah , and keftes garaz .
If you have no idea what those last few dishes are, give yourself the gift of King Solomon's Kitchen: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World , written by James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and journalist Joan Nathan, whose love for history, tradition, and recipes are presented in equal measure.
There is literally a world of traditional Jewish recipes throughout the diaspora as varied and creative as Jews themselves, where dishes have been lovingly prepared for Jewish families based on recipes handed down through the generations.
Having written 11 cookbooks, many about Jewish and Israeli food and cooking-as well as numerous articles for The New York Times and other publications-it's hard to imagine that Nathan had more to learn. Lucky for usl, she has more to teach.
But inspiration struck when she was in a synagogue in Kochi, Kerala in India, where she began to imagine the unbelievable journey across the Indian Ocean made by our Jewish ancestors during the reign of King Solomon, who is remembered for his wisdom and exploration of different lands, foods, spices, and cultures.
"It took about five years to write," Nathan said. "I think it takes a lot of research to write a good book that you want to live on."
You'll learn the history of how some familiar foods changed and evolved, like macaroons, cheesecake, and stuffed cabbage. And you may discover some foods that are not familiar at all. Chicken soup may be good for the soul, but harira , a spiced Moroccan vegetable soup, is Nathan's favorite comfort soup. While your fresh-baked challah may conjure of old memories, make new memories with defo dabo , an Ethiopian Sabbath bread. Or instead of buying couscous, what if you tried making your own hand-rolled couscous like they do in Morocco? Not as easy as the boxed kind, but worth the effort.
With over 170 recipes of Jewish dishes from five continents and 15 countries, Nathan found many common and familiar traits among the Jews she met, sharing "What I really learned from this book is the obsession that Jewish people have with food. It started with Joseph, then wine merchants, grain merchants, now chefs and restauranteurs. There are so many Jewish cooks because we're obsessed with food and always adapting to where we live."
Reflecting on her adventures, Nathan found that the foods and recipes she discovered always began with stories and memories shared by those carrying on these traditions. Whether it was an Iraqi woman in London, or women she met in Bagdad, Libya, or El Salvador, "I got really great stories from them, cooked with them, watched them, and learned from them," she said.
Nathan said her interest in Jewish cooking "really started at home, but when I went to Israel, I discovered more than matzoh balls and chicken soup." Amazingly, Nathan doesn't have any formal culinary education, but her passion for food and cooking grew during her time working as a journalist writing about food, which led to her writing one of the first Israeli cookbooks.
"When I first started writing about food, there were no Jewish chefs," she said. "Now there are so many. Everyone teaches each other, and there's always something to learn."
One tip Nathan has is to buy dried garbanzo beans, not the canned ones. "Then just soak them overnight," she said. "I use them in hummus-everyone loves my hummus-and then freeze the rest for another time. There's a big difference in flavor."
She and her husband, Allan Gerson, who met in Israel and have been married for 44 years, have three children and two grandchildren, and while they don't all live in the same city, they enjoy cooking together.
In fact, Nathan has some advice for all of us: "We owe it to the next generation to capture family recipes. It's important during holidays and other times to bring out these recipes and talk about them. These are your legacies, not someone else's. I think it's important to bring it out on the table."
Polly Levinson is a freelance writer living the northern suburbs of Chicago.