In the age of free online content, which books are worth buying? This year, I recommend Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Rabbi Gil Marks. Gil Marks has combined his passions of Rabbinics, Jewish history, and food into one masterpiece. This James Beard Award winning book is an essential element of any foodie’s library.
More after the jump.
Rabbi Marks has mined rabbinic literature for recipes and traditions as they have evolved around the world. I was surprised that he would find some of his information in sources such as an old Siddur. Gil Marks explained, “Because of dietary laws and holidays, food of both the lower and upper classes was mentioned.” This was to guide people as to what was permitted in order to comply with the laws of kashrut. Gil Marks illustrated this with an example of the Mahzor Vitri, used by the students of Rashi. It describes a Shavuot specialty called fluden, a type of cake in which layers of pastry are filled with honey-sweetened cheese. This big cheese fluden was called Har Sinai in the mahzor when it was prepared for Shavuot. If you would like to prepare it yourself, the recipe is on page 204.
Gil Mark’s passion for Jewish history is evident in every page of his encyclopedia. “I have been gathering recipes and information for the past twenty five years,” he told me. One of the most fascinating discussions in this book occurs on page 346. Gil Marks describes the lagman, or traditional soup, of the Bukharan community of Uzbekistan. Jews have lived in Bukhara since the time of King David. The name of their signature soup, lagman, originates from the Chinese liang mian, which means “cold noodle.” Noodles were invented in China, and travelled along the Silk Road to Bukhara. The Bukharan Jews incorporated these homemade, hand-pulled noodles into their soups. According to Gil Marks, Bukharan Jews will not use store bought noodles in their traditional soup to this day.
Mr. Marks’ love of food is evident throughout the book. He shares recipes from around the world. “Did you travel widely to research how to cook all these diverse dishes?” I asked him. “There was no need to,” he responded. “The Jewish communities of many countries have relocated to the United States and Israel. I found the grandmothers who are the guardians of these recipes and traditions in New York, Los Angeles, and Israel.” Fortunately for us, he has recorded them all in his encyclopedia, before they are lost forever.
“The cuisine of the 2,000 years of the Jewish diaspora reflects the world,” Gil Marks tells me. Both Jewish and non-Jewish readers derive inspiration from Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. There is something new for everyone here. I learned about some beautiful traditions of an experience that I never knew belonged in the same sentence with food: going to the mikveh. On page 570, Gil Marks describes the Sephardic traditions surrounding the immersion of a bride. It is customary for all the females in the family to celebrate with treats made from almonds, which symbolize fertility. A special almond drink called sharbat el loz is served. The mother-in-law to be has an opportunity to express her good wishes with a gift of kaak ib loz, an almond cookie wreath. Whether exploring your family’s heritage, or a beautiful tradition that you wish to adopt, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food has it all, from Adafina to Zwetschgenkuchen.
Sharbat El Loz
- 1 cup blanched, peeled almonds
- 1-teaspoon rose water
- ½ cup water
- Grate the almonds in a food processor with one teaspoon of water.
- Place the grated almonds in a blender with ½ cup water and 1 teaspoon of rose water.
- Blend all the ingredients together until you get a creamy mixture.
- Refrigerate this almond syrup until you are ready to mix your drink.
- To prepare the sharbat, mix one cup of almond syrup with two cups of water.
- Serve with ice cubes.
Kaak Ib Loz
- 2 ½ pounds ground almonds
- 1 pound powdered sugar
- 1 egg white
- Orange blossom water
- Whole blanched almonds
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Whip the egg white until it is firm.
- Add the ground almonds and powdered sugar to the egg white.
- Add orange blossom water as needed while you knead the mixture into a paste.
- Roll the paste into a rope.
- Join the ends of your pastry rope into a bracelet.
- Decorate your bracelet with whole almonds.
- Place on a cookie tray covered with parchment paper.
- Bake for about 10 minutes.
- Allow the bracelet to cool completely before removing it from the cookie sheet.
- Present to the bride on a silver tray, surrounded by flowers.