While it can be difficult to define Jewish foods, many foods bear the stamp of the Jews’ unique socioeconomic and migratory patterns, while also reflecting Kashrut requirements. Prohibitions against creating fires, cooking and deboning have resulted in distinctively Jewish dishes which vary according to traditions, culture and geographic locations.
As the Torah forbids lighting a fire and cooking on Shabbat, the Jewish people had to be creative in order to be able to enjoy a warm Shabbat meal without breaking the prohibitions of lighting a fire or cooking. Consequently, cholent was created.
Originating in the Middle East, it spread to North Africa and Spain from which it made its way to Eastern Europe by the 9th Century. Previously, the cholent would be taken to the local bakers before Shabbat who would leave it in their ovens allowing the residual heat to cook it until it was collected the next day after shul for the afternoon meal. With modern ovens and technology, the cholent is cooked on Friday evening prior to sundown and is kept on a blech or hotplate until the following day when it’s served.
Gefilte fish, most commonly associated with the Shabbat meal, is made of the combination of similar types of fish which are deboned and mashed together. It is believed that this dish was born out of necessity as it is prohibited to pick the bones out of fish on Shabbat. The boneless gefilte fish resolves this problem and allows for fish to be served at the Shabbat meal. It also enabled the most impoverished families to enjoy cheap Kosher fish in times when many types of fish were unaffordable for the poor.
Previously, the fish was skinned, deboned and mashed with inexpensive ingredients such as onions and bread and re-stuffed it into the fish skin to cook. This is where the name gefilte, meaning stuffed in Yiddish, originates from. The practice of stuffing was eventually stopped, and it was rolled into balls instead, thereby becoming the gefilte fish that we recognise today.
Chicken soup is the symbol of Jewish cuisine, often dubbed ‘Jewish penicillin’, it is the quintessential comfort food for most Jews. The tradition for chicken soup originates from Northern Europe, where families would use the remaining scraps of meat, chicken and vegetables to make a soup which would provide warmth and sustenance for their families. It has since become an important menu item featured in most Shabbat and holiday meals.
Chopped liver is a traditional Jewish dish which dates back to Medieval Germany, where goose liver was a popular dish among the Jews who often bred and raised geese as their poultry of choice. It is unknown how chopped liver became so connected with Eastern European Jewry, but it has been speculated that because Jews were often so poor, they ate most parts of the animal, including its liver and it eventually became a popular dish, even to this day.