Having just enjoyed the bounty of all those holiday meals, it's a good time to think about the vast and varied food history of the Jewish people.
Borrowing from the many countries that have hosted our communities in the Diaspora, Jewish cooking can be more Mediterranean, Arabic or Eastern European depending on where your ancestors originated.
But the true roots to the cuisine of our people came from areas of the Near East, in what is now Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Israel.
Both biblical and culinary researchers have much to reveal about the cuisine of our ancestors. Of course, what was eaten was what was available according to the foodstuffs that could be cultivated or gathered locally from the wild. The major crops listed in Deuteronomy 8:8 are wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and honey, but also available were lentils, chickpeas, millet and flax.
The growing season in ancient Israel was from November to April. The barley and wheat harvests took place before the "Festival of Unleavened Bread," known today as Passover. Wheat and barley were the major sources of calories, and a main food staple usually consumed in the form of bread, or roasted and served as a cereal called a pulse.
The grape harvest took place in the summer; the olive harvest occurred in late fall. The final two harvest festivals were particularly associated with rejoicing, as the grapes were turned into wine and the oil from the olives was used to make cakes, both reasons to celebrate.
Students of ancient civilizations tell us that in biblical Israel bread was eaten with every meal, and making the bread was a daily ritual. This bread was not like the spongy loaves we buy from the grocery store; it was just flour or barley, mixed with water, that was kneaded and shaped into a round thin pancake and baked on a hot stone. It was probably most like a pocketless pita or tortilla.
The main meal of our ancestors was eaten in the evening, and consisted of lentil stew seasoned with wild herbs like cumin and coriander, goat cheese, eggs, olives, green onions, and, of course, bread.
Fruits would have included fresh figs and melon, as well as dried pomegranates and dates. Wine, thin plain yogurt and water would have accompanied the meal. Meats such as sheep or goat would only have been eaten on special occasions.
In the Torah are numerous stories where food items take a leading role. For instance, did Eve really bite into an apple that she plucked off the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden? No specific name is given to the fruit she tasted from that tree, though apples are mentioned later in the Bible. Some historians believe Eve's fruit of temptation might have been a pomegranate, possibly even a quince.
Of course, the most famous bowl of soup in history is the one Esau bought for his birthright (either hunting worked up an extreme hunger, or Jacob made the world's best lentil soup).
As we know, challah is the name of the special bread served on Shabbat. It's also the name of the primary grain sacrifice of the Temple, and it was the portion of dough set aside and given to the priests.
Today, when we bake challah, we remember this priestly offering by taking a walnut-sized piece of dough and throwing it into the oven to burn. Although the ancient Shabbat bread was made with special white flour, the challah of the Bible was not the eggy, sweet, braided loaf we eat today. Sabbath bread was much more like our present-day pita.
Of course, the most famous biblical bread we still eat today is matzah. As it turned out, the ancient Egyptians discovered that yeast could make bread rise. They became fantastic bread-bakers, and actually used bread as a commodity for trading. The Jews of ancient Egypt only knew yeast bread, so leaving Egypt in such a hurry that bread couldn't rise was truly a hardship – one we still endure at Passover 4,000 years later!
Below are recipes that, when consumed, can make you feel like you're eating with the patriarchs and matriarchs. Do try making them with adult supervision.
A Taste of Paradise Apple Strudel
2 cooking apples
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
rind of one lemon
4 sheets of filo dough
1/2 cup melted butter
1/4 cup dry breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Peel, core and slice the apples. Then combine the apples with the sugar, raisins, cinnamon and lemon rind.
Take one sheet of filo and spread out on parchment paper.
Brush with the melted butter and sprinkle with breadcrumbs.
Place a second filo sheet on top, brush with butter and sprinkle with more breadcrumbs.
Place half the apple mixture at one end of the filo sheets, leaving a 1-inch border. Starting with that end, carefully roll (like a jelly roll) all the filo, ending with the seam side on the bottom.
Brush the top with more butter and place on a parchment-lined pan. Repeat with remaining filling and filo.
Bake for 35 minutes, till golden. Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar when cool.
1/3 cup chopped dates
3/4 cup milk
1 cup vanilla ice-cream or frozen yogurt
dash of nutmeg or cinnamon
Place all the ingredients in a blender, and process until dates are completely blended with the other ingredients.
Pour into a tall, chilled glass and serve immediately.
Esau's Lentil Stew
This recipe is fairly authentic, except for the tomato paste.
1 onion, chopped
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red lentils
3 cups vegetable stock
1 cup water
salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbsps. tomato paste
1 box (10 oz.) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
3 Tbsps. chopped fresh cilantro
In a large pot, sauté chopped onion in the olive oil with cumin and coriander. Add garlic at the last moment and brown.
Add lentils, stock and water. Stir well and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat. Simmer 25 minutes until lentils are tender.
Add tomato paste and cook for 10 more minutes.
Add chopped spinach and cilantro; cook until heated through. If the mixture seems too thick, thin with more water and taste to adjust seasonings.
1 package of fresh pita
1 stick of pareve margarine
oregano, garlic powder
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Split the pitas in half; spread soft margarine lightly on each.
Then sprinkle lightly with salt, oregano and garlic powder.
Cut into eighths and place on a baking sheet.
Bake about 5 minutes, until crisp.