Contrary to what pop culture seems to think, Jewish cuisine is a lot more than pastrami on rye, hummus, and bagels with lox. (That’s only like 90% of it—there’s also latkes.) For real, though, nailing down what Jewish food is can arguably be a much more difficult task than defining, say, French or Italian cuisine. For one, Jewish food isn’t rooted in a specific geographic region or cooking style; and even within the irrefutable dishes, people have argued for generations about the best way to cook brisket, or how much horseradish goes in maror (if it doesn’t play like a Hot Ones challenge, my mother would argue that you didn’t use enough horseradish).
Claudia Roden takes up the issue of defining Jewish food in her monumental, James Beard Award-winning cookbook, The Book of Jewish Food. In it, she discusses attending a gastronomic conference in the early 90s in Jerusalem where a central question was, “Is there such a thing as Jewish food?” When pondering the issue later, over a family dinner, her cousin emphatically declared, “There is no such thing!” (Clearly, he’d never had a Larry David sandwich.) Roden continues on to say that Jewish culture is deeply complex and historical, and that local, regional food can tend to be regarded as Jewish simply when it “travels with Jews to new homelands.” This can be an effective way to approach a category of food that, indeed, involves flavors and techniques from all over the world, which is why Roden’s book covers Jewish food from India and China to Ethiopia and Italy. Anyway, enough with all the philosophy, right? You’re just looking for a new rugelach recipe, so let’s get into it.
The best cookbooks don’t just tell us how to make stuff—if they did, there would only be, like, 20 cookbooks. No, the greatest cookbooks are the ones that also teach us about what a culture or kind of cuisine entails, what it means, and why we should care about it. Because Jewish cuisine is so vast, there’s a ton of space for great literature about it. Here are some Jewish cookbooks worth picking up.
‘The Jewish Cookbook’ and ‘Portico’ by Leah Koenig
From Mexico: The Cookbook and Magnus Nilsson’s The Nordic Cookbook to the eternally popular The Silver Spoon, Phaidon’s cookbooks basically serve as encyclopedias to the kinds of cuisine they cover. The Jewish Cookbook is a massive compendium that comprises original recipes from Koenig as well as contributions from absolute OGs like Jerusalem co-author Yotam Ottolenghi, Taïm owner Einat Admony, and Russ & Daughters proprietors Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper. As always, this Phaidon collection has great photography, making it an equally solid cookbook and coffee table book. FYI: The brisket in here is incredibly good.
Koenig’s newer book, Portico, is an elegant exploration of the Jewish food of Rome, complete with fried artichokes, flatbreads, and pastas galore. We can’t wait to try to garlicky pumpkin spread.
‘King Solomon’s Table’ by Joan Nathan
This book is a lot of things: a treatise on the food of a bygone Israel, an odyssey to understand the culinary cross-pollination of ancient cultures, and, of course, a collection of killer recipes from Joan Nathan, one of the true bosses of Jewish cooking. (Her Jewish Cooking in America is another heavy hitter.) King Solomon’s Table is broken up by meal, and embraces a fun, cosmopolitan approach (hence the Chilaquiles Brei, Arkansas Schnecken with pecans, and Sri Lankan breakfast buns). Nathan’s book shows that, despite your grandma’s insistence, there’s no one way to make anything. That said, there’s literally only one way to dress a kosher hot dog.
‘The Book of Jewish Food’ by Claudia Roden
Roden’s lauded, 800+ recipe tome is one of the ultimate authorities on Jewish cuisine. (I mean, it’s almost like that’s what its title implies.) It might be a little heavy for someone just looking to make a killer chicken soup with matzo balls… though I bought this solely for the kugel recipes and I’m not tired of it yet, so I’d recommend it to anybody.
‘Jerusalem’ by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
I’m not sure that Jerusalem is explicitly a Jewish cookbook, but it’s a touchstone work from co-authors Yotam Ottolenghi (aka the President of Israeli Cooking) and Sami Tamimi, who went on to write the excellent cookbook Falastin. There are a ton of classic recipes here, including one for the greatest hummus of all time. Ottolenghi basically runs a cookbook empire at this point, and all of his books offer something unique. The Ottolenghi book that I use most often is probably the veggie-forward Simple (which has a bunch of—you guessed it—quick and easy bangers), but there’s no denying that Jerusalem is full of top-tier showstoppers.
‘Koshersoul’ by Michael W. Twitty
Michael W. Twitty followed up his 2018 James Beard Award-winning book The Cooking Gene with a totally unique work of cultural fusion called Koshersoul. An African American-Jewish writer and historian, Twitty takes readers to the intersection of two rich heritages, providing around 50 Southern-influenced recipes for dishes like Louisiana-style latkes, collard green kreplach filling, West African-inspired brisket, Sephardic-style black-eyed peas with tomatoes, and matzo-meal fried chicken. Anyway, I’m hungry now.
‘Jew-Ish’ and ‘I Could Nosh’ by Jake Cohen
Noshing is a tremendously important part of Jewish cuisine; it’s not quite a big, formal meal, but it’s often more than a snack. And sometimes—though very rarely—a huge bowl of hummus just isn’t the vibe. Fortunately, Jake Cohen’s I Could Nosh contains recipes for everything from everything bagel panzanella to a bunch of challah recipes. Frankly, though, all we needed to see was the dish on the cover of the book, which appears to be lox on top of a latke. Say less. His first book, Jew-Ish, updates a number of classics for today’s culture (think: cacio e pepe rugelah and pumpkin spice babka).
‘Sababa’ and ‘Shabbat’ by Adeena Sussman
Sababa’s introduction explains, “Sababa is a state of being, where everything is cool as can be. It means, quite simply, ‘everything is awesome.’” Props to Sussman for pitching in to wrest the phrase back from what we’ve unfortunately done to it. Though, how can things not be awesome when you’re making Israeli-style street corn and chewy tahini blondies?
The newer Shabbat is a relaxed look at the vibrant, low-key food you should be making in order to have the most chill (and tasty) Friday night. Come for the challah recipes, stay for the extra-crispy potato kugel.
Jewish food finds balance between history and comfort. Whether it’s the holidays, a Friday night seder, or just a chill nosh with the homies, you’ll become everyone’s favorite mensch when you cook out of these books.
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