The cuisine of the Ashkenazi Jews who lived in Central and Eastern Europe before 1939 drew inspiration from culinary traditions of other nations (much like the cuisine of other Jewish ethnic divisions).
If local dishes fitted in with kosher principles, they were adapted to to the form of Jewish cuisine. That is why, “in each particular country, Jews would assimilate a variety of local dishes, while giving them a particular character. Besides that, they use a bounty of scents and spices – a remnant of the East and lots of onion in rather unexpected combinations”, as one pre-war journalist wrote in Bluszcz, an illustrated women’s weekly.
After reading Rebeka Wolff’s 19th century book Polska kuchnia koszerna (Kosher Polish Cuisine), the emerging image of Polish Jews’ cookery is one of crude and yet refined and tasty food. The book, which was highly popular and enjoyed numerous reprints, is now also available in digital libraries. It provides recipes for completely unknown dishes, with examples of foods that used to be typical of old Polish cuisine (such as półgęski, which have recently been rediscovered by Poles).
In the 1920s, a prominent French gastronome of Polish origin, Professor Edward Pożerski de Pomiane, conducted research on the foods of Polish Jews. He found them to be rich in nutmeg, vanilla and orange rind. His Cuisine juive, ghettos modernes was published in France and it comprised a collection of recipes from Polish Jews which he had collected in different cities across Poland. Apart from the significant quantities of spice, the recipes also included sweet and sour flavours, thanks to the addition of vinegar and lemon, sugar, and onion – a flavour that was in fact a favourite tang in the Polish cookery of the Baroque period. R. Wolff thus pointed to various “principles of taste”:
When more dishes are served, they have to be varied. Thus, before a sour fish, for example, a sour and savoury soup would be out of place, but prior to a fish cooked on butter, such a soup is very appropriate. After a sour vegetable, soured meat is not a match…
Some dishes were only served during holidays or the Shabbat, since, as can easily be guessed, Jewish cuisine is filled with symbolic references and most holiday dishes posses a hidden significance. Putting it in very simplified terms, kosher cooking was meant to protect from the unhygienic and sinful.
The fact that a few million Jews lived on the historic territory of Poland must have also influenced Polish cuisine. It would not be an exaggeration to say that both culinary cultures are intertwined. Dishes as popular in the everyday as gołąbki and even potato pancakes probably have Jewish origins.
In Poland – in Warsaw and Kraków in particular – several restaurants specialise in dishes of the Polish Jewish tradition, but almost none of these restaurants are kosher.
Not only gefilte fish
Gefilte fish was traditionally served on New Years (Rosh Hashanah). Balls made of minced fish (carp, pike, and other species), were blended with seasoning and matza. In Galicia, the balls were often prepared in a sweet-flavoured manner, with onion, raisins and almonds. In the north, they were flavoured with spicy seasoning. The border between regions where the fish was served sweet and where it was spicy bore the moniker of the gefilte fish border. In spite of the lack of a prevailing recipe, all of the cooking directions share the indication of serving the fish cold, in jelly. Before 1939, in regions with a high Jewish population, various roadside inns and small provincial restaurants were famous for their excellent “Jewish fish” recipes. Many visitors from surrounding areas would travel in order to taste the dish. An iconic recipe of the Polish Christmas table, “Jewish carp” is a cousin of the gefilte fish (this dish originates from Galicia and instead of fishballs, it is usually made with a slice of the fish meat).
In the past, the carp used to be very popular in Jewish cuisine. It was prepared with all kinds of sweet and sour sauces and seasoning. It was cooked with onion, vinegar, beer, sugar, spices, or pepper. Similar seasoning was also used to prepare pike, bass and tench. There were also numerous recipes to prepare little fish. Smelt were cooked in beer and vinegar, with the addition of butter, salt, sugar, and spices. And one cannot fail to mention the herring – a crucial item of merchandise. Before the war, it was one of the cheapest snacks available in inns. But it was also abundantly served in Jewish homes. There, it was often soaked, and added to sweet and sour salads, marinated or fried. There were even herring dumplings.
Jewish cookery holds duck meat in high esteem. The so-called gęsi pipek, a dish made of the stuffed and baked skin of a duck’s neck, is still often served by restaurants that specialise in Jewish cuisine. The neck was stuffed with potatoes and onion, or, alternately, with kosher beef. It is worth noting that in Galicia, the name gęsi pipek also indicated a food made of cooked duck stomachs.
The duck was baked in its entirety and stuffed with apples, soured cabbage (known to the English speaker under its German name, Sauerkraut), or chestnuts, much like in the case of Old Polish recipes (with the additional tip in the recipe indicating that “bread rind makes the sauce more tasty and gives is a dark brown colour”). The duck offal was used either for making broth or for a garlic gravy, and the livers fried with apple and sugar. Duck lard was indispensible in the kitchen, because the Talmud didn’t allow for a preparation of meat with butter, in accordance with the commandment that “thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk”. Beef and veal tallow was forbidden as it came from the animals’ rear parts. Duck fat was used to make delicious rind scratchings, and it was also the most popular kind used for the preparation of meat. Halves and quarters of the bird were smoked to make półgęsek, a delicacy known also in Old Polish cuisine. This dish is slowly being restored to the culinary memory of Poles – a pierced salted duck is kept in a barrel for a couple of days, and then rubbed in bran and ready to cook after a total of 8 days. Sour duck, on the other hand, is a type of spread made with the addition of veal limbs, vinegar, and seasonings.
This dish would not exists without czulent, a traditional Shabbat dish. In the past, a dish with all ingredients of this one-pot food would be taken to a nearby baker on Friday afternoon. He would water the mixture and put it into the oven overnight. The oven was built especially to make czulent, which would stay inside until noon on Saturday, when it would be ready (and very hot). As it is known, lighting fire was not allowed on Shabbat. Cholent frequently included beans, kosher beef, as well as onion and spices, with the occasional addition of groats and potatoes.
Bread and pastries
The challah (or chałka, as it is known across Poland) – a yeast pastry in the shape of a braid – was one of the basic Jewish pastries on Polish territory. It was usually baked for the Shabbat, but not exclusively so. During certain other holidays, it would also take on a different shape. For Rosh Hashannah, for example, it was baked in a round shape. Braided pastries are widely available in Polish bakeries, especially during Christmas. Matza, a yeastless and unleavened flat bread made from special flour, was usually eaten during Pesach (Passover). It was also used in the preparation of various other dishes. For example, it was soaked in and fried with eggs.
The bagel is also a pastry which is associated with Jewish cuisine. A kin of the Krakówian obwarzanek (which is also cooked before baking), the bagel was most likely invented in Kraków, although some sources indicate Białystok as its source. The first mentions of the bagel date to the 17th century. At the threshold of the 20th century, Jewish emigrants “transported” the bagel to New York.
Another pastry very popular in the south-eastern area of Poland around Lublin is the so-called cebularz (“cebula” is onion in Polish). It is a wheat bun with onion which can still be bought in nearly every bakery of the region. It’s worth noting that it made its home in Polish cuisine thanks to the Jews who lived in the Old Town of Lublin. As the name itself indicated, the savoury bun is baked with onion, with the addition of poppy seeds. The first records of recipes that would be passed down through generations are dated to the 19th century. By the time of the early 20th century, and right before the war, cebularz had grown to become a delicious speciality of the whole Lubelszczyzna region.
Knishes, kugel, holishkes, latkes
Knishes (of Ukrainian origin) are a type of flour or potato dumplings, stuffed with all kinds of different flavours. These dumpling were baked in the oven until the skin became crunchy and brown. Most frequently, they were stuffed with onion, chopped liver, or cheese. Ashkenazi Jews used to eat holishkes (also known as gołąbki) – cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat, served in a sweet and sour tomato gravy.
Kugel was also one of the traditional Shabbat or holiday dishes. It was served either as the main course, as a side dish, or as dessert. It is baked with potatoes, eggs, and onion, at times also seasoned with groats, rice, or cabbage. The sweet version used pasta and fruit, such as raisins. A similar dish is also known in Polish cuisine, especially in the east of Poland – although there it is called a potato babka (babka ziemniaczana). It’s difficult to state where potato pancakes first emerged. One of the theories claims that they appeared in Polish cooking thanks to the Jewish tradition of the latkes, which are traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. The cuisine of the Ashkenazi Jews also knows numerous flour dishes which are very much similar to the Polish pierogi and paszteciki.
Tzimmes, Jewish caviar
Tzimmes is a name given to sweet Jewish dishes, most often served as dessert, though not exclusively so. The name has entered Polish language as a designation for something delicious and rare. This meaning is accounted for in the lyrics of a song of the same name, performed by Marta Bizoń to the accompaniment of Leopold Kozłowski.
Tzimmes is associated with the Shabbat and other festive occasions, although only those which are joyful in their character. In a book entitled Kuchnia żydowska (Jewish Cuisine), Katarzyna Pospieszyńska stated that: “this sweet and juicy dish is often simmered or baked for a long time until it gains a golden colour and magnificent taste – a symbol of a happy year.” There are a variety of tzimmes served as the main course (which include meat), and others made only with fruit and vegetables which are served as dessert. In the south and east of Poland, the sweet kind was made with carrot, sugar, cinnamon and dried fruit and nuts. But tzimmes can also contain tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, apples, pineapple, prunes and boiled beef.
A popular snack is the so-called Jewish caviar: chopped chicken livers fried with onion and served with hard-boiled egg and cumin. The dish is served in restaurants offering the food of the Ashkenazi Jews, which also often includes egg salad with onion.
Numerous other dishes which are more or less close to foods of old Polish cuisine were also popular in Jewish cooking. Various meats were baked in sour flavoured marinate (also used for the preparation of fish), bird meat and veal and beef offal were also popular in the both traditions. Meatballs were made with chopped beef and either fried or baked. There were meat and fish pates. Vegetables were served with a sweet and sour flavour, and fruit was served with the addition of onion and spices. Ashkenazi Jews also ate pickles – cucumbers and cabbage, as well as vegetables and fruit marinated in vinegar. The latter were a popular ingredient accompanying fish salads.
Both Jewish and Polish cuisine was known for serving different kinds of broths, which were sometimes even called “Jewish penicillin for colds”. Broth from kneidlach (matza balls) was made for the Pesach as well as other occasions. Jewish cuisine was also familiar with broths with the so-called lane kluseczki (literally poured-in noodles, made by pouring the pastry directly into a hot soup), or with the addition of groats (oat, buckwheat or millet) or vegetables – such as cauliflower, asparagus and other seasonal ingredients. The broth was also served with the kreplach dumplings (stuffed with meat or with vegetables, depending on the occasion). Edward Pożerski de Pomiane wrote about kreplach with potato, onion and mushroom.
At Pesach, Jews also cooked red borscht made with beetroot acid – a dish which was very popular among Poles as well. Rebeka Wolff proposes a version seasoned with sugar, lemon rind, cinnamon, and thickened with matza, “this borscht tastes like a savoury wine soup”. Other vegetable and meat soups were also certainly popular, and they were prepared in accordance with kosher principles. Recipes for lemon and fruit soups which were cooked by Jews can also be found in historic books devoted to old Polish cuisine.
Apart from ordinary strucla, butter and sugar strucla was also frequently baked. There were also yeast cakes with crushed almonds, butter cakes and babkas stuffed with raisins, poppy seeds, almonds, araq liquor, and cinnamon. Naturally, there were also cakes with seasonal fruit (such as apples, cherries, and gooseberries). Makagiki is also a dish which is derived from Jewish cuisine. It is made of poppy seeds and nuts fried in honey or syrup, and it was usually made for the Purim. There are many sweet dishes which are very familiar to any Pole – such as rice with apples and pasta with sugar and cinnamon, or sweet cheese dumplings – which were also very well-known in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Much like pascha – a cottage cheese, cream and dried fruit dessert which can now be encountered in Polish, Russian and Jewish cuisine.
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, January 2015