Talking Jewish diaspora cooking at the 92nd Street Y.
Persian “matzah ball” soup made with chickpea-flour dumplings. Tender smoked brisket. Gefilte fish “a la Mexicana” in a bright-red, chile-laced sauce. These are just a few examples of the startling diversity of cooking in the Jewish diaspora, the subject of discussion at a lively talk held at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y last night.
At “More Than Matzah Balls: Food and Cooking in Jewish Culture,” Joan Nathan, the cookbook author and Jewish recipe maven, spoke with three chefs from very different walks of life: Pati Jinich, the host of TV show “Pati’s Mexican Table” and a Mexican native; Louisa Shafia, author of the cookbook “The New Persian Kitchen” and the daughter of an Iranian Muslim and a Jew from Philadelphia; and Ari White, a Texan whose Eastern European family has been smoking Texas-style barbecue for three generations.
In the course of an hour-long conversation, each chef introduced herself and talked a little bit about her family history.
“People won’t believe that there is Mexican Jewish cooking,” said Jinich, whose Austrian and Polish grandparents fled European anti-Semitism to settle in Mexico. Growing up, she said, the Mexican-Ashkenazi fusion food cooked in her home seemed natural to her, and she never realized that such cuisine was really a union of two distinct styles. Each Friday night, Jinich’s grandmother prepared two types of gefilte fish for Shabbat dinner: the traditional European white version, as well as the aforementioned Mexican variation, which was served warm in a spicy tomato sauce; gribenes were eaten on griddled corn tortillas.
“That’s a real treat in Mexico,” Jinich said.
Just across the border from Jinich—and around the same time—another exiled Eastern European Jewish family was busy adapting its native recipes to a new locale. Ari White, who has made a successful pop-up kosher food business, The Wandering ‘Que, out of his family’s barbecue recipes, grew up in the border town of El Paso, where his family settled in 1910. White is third in a line of male smokers: his grandfather, accustomed to eating the smoked and cured meats of his homeland, began using Texas-style wood-fired smokers to cook everything from brisket to turkey to lamb, and flavored his dishes with the fiery rubs and sweet sauces used by native Texans. Later, White’s father continued the tradition.
“A holiday was defined by my father standing outside, tending his smoker,” White said.
Over on the east coast, Louisa Shafia grew up in a hybrid household. Her Iranian father, longing for the Persian dishes of his former life, schooled her Philly-born Jewish mother on all the classics: colorful, flavorful legume-heavy stews and pilafs enlivened by fruits such as molasses and fresh herbs such as dill and mint. But on the high holidays, Shafia’s mother whipped up all the Ashkenazi classics. In Shafia’s world, Persian food and Jewish food were totally distinct, and it wasn’t until researching her cookbook that she discovered a rich tradition of Iranian Judaism which relied on staple foods such as the aforementioned “matzah ball” soup.
“I literally didn’t know that there were Iranian Jews when I was growing up,” Shafia recalled.
Naturally, at an event taking place so close to Passover, the conversation eventually turned towards the seder table. After each chef shared her favorite holiday treat, Nathan explained what would be gracing her own table, and her choice echoed the diversity of flavors explored over the course of the evening.
“Five kinds of charoset,” she said. “To represent each corner of the Jewish diaspora.”