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Kosher? It’s all around you

Does it seem as if Jewish cuisine has made no mark on Britain? Think again

As bread is to gravy, so is this island of ours to strangers, sopping up people and their native food since before the Romans arrived. Jewish cooking, however, has barely rippled across the national consciousness.

Why? We are one of the longest-standing immigrant communities in England; we came over with William the Conqueror (then got thrown out in 1290 and weren’t allowed back for 350 years, but never mind that just now). Yet I defy you to find ten Gentiles who have sampled gefilte fish (stuffed fishballs) or krep­lach (dumplings). Hence my brackets.

Admittedly, Jewish food is hard to classify. It isn’t a country’s cuisine; we have mainly turned up on Britain’s doorstep as a persecuted minority without even the advantage of an exotic homeland to give us a romantic sheen. In fact, rather than using food as a sensory route out of exile, we eat the bitter bread of banishment – literally so, consuming bitter herbs and unleavened bread during Passover to remind us of our slavery in Egypt. If we wanted the world to fall for our food, we might have come up with better advertising.

Nonetheless, in her latest book, The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden points out that Sephardic (Spanish) Jews were probably responsible for sofrito, the oniony tomato base for so many dishes. Jews were said to smell of onions and garlic, one of very few anti-Semitic insults I’m happy to own. Yet perhaps the oddest influence Jews had on Spanish cooking was the introduction of pork with everything. The Inquisition forced Jews to convert or leave. Conversos, suspected of undercover Judaism, developed the habit of putting visibly treyfe (non-kosher) ingredients in their dishes. As did Gentiles, in case they were mistaken for Jews.

Britain had no Inquisition: the closest it came was Cromwell, who actually let the Jews back in. And yet, 350 years later, while you can gorge on kosher food on Golders Green Road or its provincial equivalents, you won’t find many Gentiles rustling up salt herrings on black bread. This may be to do with the complicated history of Jewish immigration and assimilation in Britain. Eliza Acton included a chapter on “Foreign and Jewish Cookery” in her 1845 cookbook, Modern Cookery for Private Families, but most Jews were adopting English habits rather than the other way round. The first Jewish cookbook in English, The Jewish Manual: or Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery, probably written by Lady Judith Montefiore, simply takes dishes that any upper-class Englishwoman would have been ordering from her cook and purges them of treyfe elements such as lard, pork and shellfish.

The Jews who poured in to England at the end of the 19th century fleeing the Russian pogroms were another matter from Lady M. They cooked the heavy dishes of a chilly region’s perennial poor, hardly an enticing prospect for the gastronomically adventurous. So we have the differing cuisines of the upper- and working-class Jew, and the even more various dishes of the Ashkenazim (eastern Europeans) and the Sephardim – not to mention the additions and alterations of what amounts to a 2,000-year gastronomic world tour. No wonder Jewish cuisine hasn’t had a huge impact on Britain. We can’t even agree on what it is (this is a Jewish problem that also relates to things other than food). Michael Daniel, owner of the Gate vegetarian restaurants in Hammersmith and Islington and the British-born child of Sephardic Jews from Iraq and India, goes further.

“There’s no such thing as Jewish food,” he maintains. “Kreplach, bagels – those are Polish. In my family, on the Sabbath we ate hameen, an Indian dish of rice and chicken, cooked gently overnight.” Moroccan Jews have a chickpea version; Ashkenazim have cholent (same cooking process, usually beef, no rice). No Gentile needs to borrow this dish. It might not be simmered for 12 hours by those who aren’t prohibited from cooking on Saturdays, but most cultures have a version. It’s called stew.

Sugar and almonds

Perhaps Jewish cuisine has assimilated so well that its influence is hard to spot. Eliza Acton writes of Jews’ pounded almonds and rich sugar syrups; these have certainly entered the culinary lexicon. Marzipan, probably from Toledo, may also be a Jewish invention; we pounded a lot of almonds, especially in the lead-up to Passover, as a substitute for leavened flour. I might have to take credit for potatoes roasted in goose fat, too.

It is odd that Jews – a people so obsessed with feeding that they stuff everything, from fish to family – seem barely to have marked British cuisine; still, until recently, there wasn’t much of a cuisine to mark. That has changed beyond recognition, so perhaps our status within it will, too. Mishkin’s, the Jew-ish (that is to say, not remotely kosher) deli set up by Russell Norman of Polpo on Catherine Street in London, is a promising indication. After all, wandering the world, eating as well as one’s purse allows, is what all foodies aspire to do, and Jews have been at it for two millennia. We must have something to contribute to the menu.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food