The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - BY VIC­TO­RIA PREVER

Joan Nathan hunts down a world of Jewish food in her lat­est book

THE LAST time I spoke to Joan Nathan, back in 2014, she was deeply in­volved in re­search for King Solomon’s Ta­ble: a culi­nary ex­plo­ration of Jewish cook­ing from around the world, her 11th book, pub­lished ear­lier this month. Nathan is the Grande Dame of US Jewish cook­ing but could be your favourite aun­tie — the one who cooks the best. In com­mon with our high lady of Jewish food, Clau­dia Ro­den, her writ­ing is more food an­thro­pol­ogy than sim­ple recipes; telling sto­ries of the recipe writ­ers and of each dish’s evo­lu­tion. Her mis­sion is to pre­serve an­ces­tors’ recipes by telling their sto­ries while shar­ing their recipes.

This book is a col­lec­tion of more than 170 dishes gath­ered world­wide — from Ye­men to Hun­gary and from In­dia to El Sal­vador. They in­clude tra­di­tional fes­ti­val dishes (haman­taschen and six types of charoset); Ashke­nazi clas­sics, like gefilte fish and man­del­brot, and Sephardi sta­ples which in­clude Libyan Sae­fra — aka King Solomon’s cake — and herbed lab­neh. Her re­search — over six years — brought her to the UK.

“I spoke to so many in­ter­est­ing peo­ple here in Lon­don,” she says. “I had two meals with Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi. He is re­ally in­ter­est­ing and hon­est in what he does. I ate at his NOPI restau­rant where he and Sami Tamimi [co-founder of the Ot­tolenghi chain of restau­rants] came to taste and share at my ta­ble. He then in­vited me to din­ner at his home with his part­ner and baby son. He cooked me the orec­chi­ette with rose­mary oil, chick­peas and broccolini in my book.”

A mea­sure of the re­spect 74-year old Nathan com­mands in the world of Jewish food is how ef­fort­lessly she scored a seat at the ta­ble of a chef most of us would do any­thing to eat with.

Nowhere was too far for recipe re­search. “I went to El Sal­vador to find a recipe for schoko­laden­wurst (choco­late sausage) a re­ally good, no-cook choco­late dessert. I had re­mem­bered mak­ing it in Is­rael where we called it knack­knick, but it was made with cook­ies and choco­late pow­der. It was a recipe orig­i­nally from Europe but went to Brazil with Ashke­nazi Jews and from there made it to El Sal­vador.”

She writes that the recipe (salami di cioc­cao­lato in Italy) was prob­a­bly in­vented be­fore or dur­ing the First World War, when pro­cessed co­coa and choco­late were avail­able and peo­ple wanted to con­serve gas by not cook­ing.

Jewish ge­og­ra­phy played its part in en­abling her to find so many var­ied recipes. “My kids knew a jour­nal­ist in El Sal­vador — Re­becca Lehrer — and it was her grandma’s recipe.”

In Lon­don, for­mer JC editor Gef­frey Paul and wife Rachel served Nathan a “de­li­cious her­ring salad with apples”. She also sought out Iraqi fam­i­lies for their sta­ples.

“I’d been told that some of the best Iraqi cooks were in Lon­don, and I was in­tro­duced to Eileen Dan­goor Kha­lastchy who made me sev­eral dishes, in­clud­ing T’beet (Bagh­dadi spiced chicken stuffed with rice, meat and spices and then cooked in more rice overnight) which is served for Shabbat lunch; and her de­li­cious mac­a­roons.”

The mac­a­roon — a Passover sta­ple for many of us — orig­i­nated in what is now south­ern Iraq and in­cluded rose wa­ter with al­monds, sugar and egg whites. Other flavours were picked up as it trav­elled across con­ti­nents. Nathan’s ver­sion is made with wal­nuts and al­monds with a thumbprint of rasp­berry jam.

Dan­goor Kha­lastchy (in her 80s) had plenty of tales for Nathan: “She told the most amaz­ing sto­ries of her child­hood in Baghdad. I got so many won­der­ful sto­ries from peo­ple talk­ing to me as they cooked and my editor gave me lee­way to write them all. You want peo­ple to keep read­ing the sto­ries — they’re as im­por­tant to me as the recipes. The best part of it is that all over the world Jews may be mak­ing dif­fer­ent dishes but telling the same sto­ries on the same night — like on Seder night.”

She felt some of the recipes she un­cov­ered found her. “It was beshet. I found a blue­berry bun in Toronto called shtrit­zlach. I thought ‘wow where is this from’? When I was test­ing it back home in Wash­ing­ton DC, Sarah Weiner, a young friend of my daugh­ter who came from Illi­nois, came in and said her Grandma made some­thing sim­i­lar.”

It turned out the buns had orig­i­nated in Poland. The Toronto buns (an iconic Jewish favourite) were in­tro­duced by im­mi­grant bak­ery owner, An­nie Ka­plan­sky, who had brought the recipe from Rakow, her home town in south-west Poland. Weiner’s grand­mother, Helen Stark­man Fis­cher, had grown up in a tiny Pol­ish town a 30-minute drive from Rakow. Both would have eaten the buns as a break­fast food on Shabbat and had they not taken the recipe with them, it may well have been lost as so many Jewish in­hab­i­tants of those towns died in the camps.

De­spite trav­el­ling so many miles, Nathan is not yet ready to hand in her pass­port. “Maybe I’ll find some more re­ally good recipes. I’m al­ways look­ing.”

Recipe op­po­site adapted from King Solomon’s Ta­ble by Joan Nathan © 2017 Ran­dom House


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