Why Jewish Food With a Twist Is Having a Moment

·Food Editor
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‘Modern Jewish Cooking’ author Leah Koenig.

"Jewish cooking has had a tendency to focus on the past,” writes Leah Koenig in the introduction to her Modern Jewish Cooking, but, she says, “we are in the midst of an exciting sea change.” Koenig’s book shares 175 recipes for vegetable-forward Jewish cooking, lacing Jewish classics with global flavors. And her approach is reflective of what’s happening on a larger scale: young Jewish people are putting their own creative twists on their heritage foods.

“[Jewish] food, as wonderful as it is, is not going to survive if we don’t change and adapt it to our seasonal lifestyle and obsession with global flavor,” Koenig told Yahoo Food. “People are rediscovering things that their parents’ generations were ashamed of or didn’t want to deal with. We’re mining our traditions for inspiration; there’s so much there.”

Koenig thinks the change is being sparked by a generational shift. Continuity, tradition, a focus on the past—these things are inherent to Jewish culture and, thus, the food, said Koenig. “Not to get too negative, but Jews have historically faced a lot of persecution. So there’s this tendency to cling to something and try to keep it going.” That’s why, she said, there is a strong sense of passing down recipes in Jewish families: Mom’s hamentashen, Grandmother’s latkes, Auntie’s brisket, and so on. But when you hold on too tightly, “things tend to get fixed in stone a little too much.”

At the same time, when it came to everyday foods, many Jews in America didn’t want to stand out. “I don’t think a lot of people in my mom’s generation were as excited about deli as we are,” said Koenig. Referring to the cured and smoked meats called “deli” in Jewish cuisine, she continued: “They thought, ‘Oh, deli, that’s the food my grandparents ate.’ They thought it was weirdly ethnic and wanted to eat whatever other Americans were eating.”

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Koenig’s matzo granola. Photo: Sang An

Now, though, people are reclaiming that food and taking more risks.

“Our generation feels much freer,” said Koenig. “We’re confident in the fact that we’re Americans and we’re also Jewish. We have the freedom to say, ‘What do we add to the larger conversation in America?’”

One thing they’re sure they want to add to that conversation, says Koenig: classic Jewish dishes, but better classic Jewish dishes, using artisanal ingredients. Restaurants across the U.S. are “simply making their classic food really good.”

At Mile End in Brooklyn, New York, for example, owner Noah Bernamoff has partnered with Hot Bread Kitchen to make a bialy sandwich. In other words, he’s ensuring that the bialy he serves is the best bialy. 

The chefs at Kenny and Zuke’s in Portland, Oregon, tested many pastrami recipes before settling on their now-famous one. “They’re looking to the past, but using the freshest artisanal ingredients,” Koenig said of the smoked beef, which has earned rave reviews.

Then there’s pastrami salmon, a mashup of two Jewish food traditions: “appetizing,” which includes cured and smoked fish, and “deli,” which encompasses meaty dishes such as pastrami and corned beef. Shelsky’s in New York City has sold pastrami salmon since the store’s opening three years ago, but owner Peter Shelsky told Yahoo Food in April 2014 that the stuff’s popularity skyrocketed the year before. Since then, Shelsky’s sells up to 60 pounds of pastrami salmon a week, double the amount sold in 2012.

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Koenig’s sorrel soup with harissa. Photo: San An

Some young Jewish chefs are incorporating flavors outside of the Jewish repertoire. Sara Kramer, who used to work at Glasserie in Brooklyn, moved to Los Angeles last May to open two Middle Eastern-inspired Jewish restaurants. At Toronto’s Fat Pasha, chef Anthony Rose serves Schmaltz fried rice with lentils, pistachios, and rice noodles. Rose also just opened a more classic appetizing shop called Schmaltz Appetizing.

And it’s not just Jewish chefs opening up their own restaurants—these flavors are making their ways to other kitchens. At Daniel, arguably one of the fanciest restaurants in New York City “and certainly not Jewish by any stretch of the imagination,” says Koenig, French chef Daniel Boulud is serving hamachi with harissa made by NY Shuk (shuk means “market” in Hebrew).

As for Koenig, she won’t be serving the typical hearty brisket or kugels for Passover, she said. “Passover is spring and seasonal and fresh and newness! You don’t want a chunk of beef on the table; that’s like winter fare.” She’ll likely make a roast chicken with fennel and orange. “It’s got all the gravitas of a Seder centerpiece, but it’s lighter, and fennel is springy feeling vegetable.” And that will be just as Jewish as anything else she could think of. “We’re not in any way saying goodbye to tradition,” she told us. “We’re embracing it, but we’re asking, ‘How can we do so in more relevant way?’”

More on Jewish cuisine:

Learn more about Koenig’s book, Modern Jewish Cooking

Koenig’s matzo granola recipe

What is Jewish Southern food?