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Stuffed with cream cheese – and love

The allure of Jewish food.

Chopped liver, boiled fish balls, beetroot soup – to the uninitiated, a kosher restaurant menu reads like printed proof of that famous Jewish sense of humour. Even Ruth Joseph, the author of a new book of classic Jewish recipes, Warm Bagels & Apple Strudel (Kyle, £25), concedes that many of them can sound “a bit weird” to those of us who have never basked in the warm embrace of a bubbe’s borscht.

Yet this once frumpy food is suddenly some of the hottest in London – frigid fish balls and all. Gone are the days when kosher institutions such as Bloom’s were known more for their extraordinarily rude service than their food. (“I don’t want to name names,” Ruth tells me, “but we’ve been to Jewish restaurants where the fellow’s got grease all down the front of him, his thumb is in your soup and then he argues with you for complaining.”)

First, Deli West One popped up in chi-chi Marylebone last November, swiftly followed by a modish pop-up called Kosher Roast, and Mishkin’s, a “kind-of Jewish deli” from the capital’s restaurateur de jour, Russell Norman. And when Norman gets involved, that officially makes it a trend.

What’s striking is that none of these places is subverting stodgy stereotypes by embracing the fabulous kaleidoscope of kosher cooking around the world. They’re not introducing us to the aromatic rice and vegetable dishes of Claudia Roden’s Egyptian childhood, or the delicate curries of the Indian Jewish community, but instead celebrating eastern European Ashkenazi cuisine in its schmaltz-laden, rib-sticking glory.

At Deli West One, packed with kippah-clad men lunching on soup and matza balls, I eat a magnificent salt beef on rye; at Mishkin’s, it’s all about the chicken knishes and lox bagels. There are blintzes and latkes, pickles and pastrami, all in authentically generous portions: as Ruth proudly tells me, “we don’t do any of these little dishes with a drizzle of oil round them. Oh no, we want to feed you!”

There’s no disputing the comfort factor of it all – whether you grew up on ham or herring. She smiles at the intense nostalgia such tastes can spark: “A single spoonful and you’re back – it’s instant. Jewish food is like music.”

Indeed, slow-simmered Shabbat stews, starchy dumplings and creamy cakes and puddings are the kind of food we can all take succour from when we’re feeling in need of a big hug. As Ruth observes, “you don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy Jewish food”.

And while few truly Jewish joints will be adopting Mishkin’s cheeseburgers, there’s a definite smell of change in a world where old recipes are often cherished as rare links to a vanished past. Kosher culinary culture values tradition – the joke about bubbe’s brisket springs to mind – but Deli West One serves up latkes with salt beef chilli, and Kosher Roast offers turkey scotch eggs and organic chicken liver mousse, alongside its rabbinically approved Sunday roasts.

Lokshen key

Ruth believes that health-conscious home cooks are increasingly willing to update the classics to suit modern tastes. “I know when I was a kid, if you had a piece of lokshen pudding, you were confined to a seat for an hour afterwards. That’s not the way to live now.” Her “almost fat-free” version of this much beloved noodle bake replaces the traditionally lavish quantities of butter and cream cheese with soya milk – but she’s included the old-fashioned recipe in the book, too.

After all, the most important ingredient in any Jewish mother’s kitchen might be love – but as the Yiddish proverb has it, “Love is grand, but love with lokshen is even better”. I think we can all say amen to that.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?