Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

About Israeli Cuisine

Chopstick Cinema

This Week's Film: The Band’s Visit
Cuisine: Israeli

I recently made my first foray into Israeli cuisine when I featured the film Ushpizin in celebration of the Sukkot festival. Toward that end, I did lots of research. Here is what I discovered:

As a Jewish state, Israel is largely populated with members of the Jewish faith, and Jewish food is as much about religious traditions and rituals as it is about the food itself. Each Jewish holiday celebration includes a menu of traditional dishes, and the foundation of Jewish cuisine is a set of dietary codes called the Laws of Kashrus.

According to the Laws of Kashrus, which are based upon the Torah scriptures and Rabbinical decrees, permissible foods are called kosher, which means proper or fitting. The basic laws are:

Only the meat and milk of cud-chewing animals with split hooves may be used for human consumption, namely cows and sheep. There are other animals that fit this category, including deer and buffalo, but their use in Jewish cuisine is not common.

Because the scriptures regarding birds are somewhat antiquated and therefore difficult to interpret, acceptable poultry has been decided according to established convention, and includes mainly chicken, duck, and turkey.

Seafood is limited to fish with scales and fins. Shellfish and crustaceans are forbidden, as are insects of any kind.

Kosher meats and poultry must be slaughtered and butchered according to specific rituals by a trained professional.

Meat and milk products must not be consumed together, and the utensils used to prepare meat must not be used to prepare dairy products and vice versa. A separate set of utensils are required for each one.

All commercially prepared foods must be manufactured according to the Laws of Kashrus, and marked kosher by a special symbol on the label.

But even with all these strict rules, Jewish cuisine includes a rich variety of ingredients and ways of preparing them. The Jewish faith is also divided into numerous regional groups, each with its own traditions and dishes.

Jewish cuisine is as varied and unique as the cooks who prepare it and the families who enjoy it. However, there are a few standard dishes that rise from the milieu as universally recognized Jewish favorites. Although these are by no means the only ones, among the most familiar are:

Matzo - Jewish flatbread crackers made with flour and water. Matzo may also be crushed into a fine meal to be used in various recipes for soup, pasta, stuffing, and baked goods. Matzo may also be flavored with various sweet or savory ingredients. And plain matzo is an important element of the Passover celebration, when only unleavened breads are eaten.

Bagels - Doughnut-shaped rolls made from a leavened dough, which are boiled, then baked.

Challah - A Jewish bread dough that is often shaped into braided or twisted loaves, or into symbolic shapes for holiday celebrations.

Kneidlach (Matza Balls) - Poached matzo meal dumplings often served in chicken broth.

Gefilte Fish - Finely minced fish, mixed with seasonings and a binding agent such as eggs or matzo meal, then shaped into quenelles or stuffed into the skin of the fish, and poached.

Lox - Salt-cured or brine-cured,cold-smoked salmon filets, thinly sliced and often served with bagels and cream cheese.

Latke - Golden potato pancakes made by finely shredding potatoes, and mixing with chopped onions and a binding agent such as eggs, and flour or matzo meal.

Kugel - A baked noodle pudding, which may be either savory or sweet.

Knishes - Savory Jewish pastries filled with a variety of ingredients, including mashed potatoes, ground meat, or cheese.

Kreplach - Meat or cheese filled pasta dumplings usually served in soup.

Schnitzel - A breaded, pan-fried meat cutlet, usually made with veal. Jewish cuisine includes many fresh and commercially prepared ingredients that may be purchased at most any supermarket. The most important consideration is whether or not a food item is kosher, prepared according to the Laws of Kashrus. The labels of these products will be marked with a special kosher symbol to indicate that all contents have been properly processed at a kosher manufacturing facility, under the supervision of a professional who has been specially trained in the Laws of Kashrus.

Specialty items to keep on hand in your pantry or refrigerator for the preparation of Jewish cuisine include kosher salt, matza meal and/or matzo crackers, and kosher wine. For your convenience, some markets carry a variety of packaged foods, including lox, gefilte fish, matza ball mix, chicken broth or soups, and pre-made foods such as challah, knishes, kugel, kreplach, latkes and schnitzel.

But whatever you buy, when selecting foods for your Jewish meal, just remember to look for the kosher symbol on the label. And if you look closely at the labels on the foods in your kitchen, you will probably discover that you already have lots of kosher products.

And to go with your Jewish meal, how about a nice kosher wine? Although the old stand-by brand name of Manischewitz may spring to mind, a new breed of kosher wine has been growing in popularity, some of which is being produced right here in the Napa Valley.

An Internet keyword search for "kosher wine" will yield all kinds of results, including:

Kosher Wine Guy

And if your local wine merchant doesn't carry kosher wines, you can always shop online at L'chaim!

My Israeli recipe will be posted at the end of the week along with The Band’s Visit film review.

For questions or comments send e-mail to cheiter at thingsasian dot com