One of the most famous stories of Jews and food goes back to their very origin as a people with the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt. The ragtag tribes wandered for years in the desert, surviving only on the miracle of manna from heaven. Once the Jews left the desert and settled in Canaan, they adopted the typical Mediterranean diet of the time. Wheat, rice and lentils were eaten as porridge or ground and made into simple breads. Onions, leeks and garlic were eaten raw or used to flavor stews. Chickpeas and fava beans were stewed or pounded to form ancient versions of hummus and ful mudammas. Then as now, olives and olive oil were widely used. The consumption of meat and poultry was reserved largely for religious feast days. Beast and fowl were most often roasted on a spit or boiled. A variety of herbs and spices such as parsley, mint and cumin supplemented the diet and flavored food. Dates, figs and pomegranates sweetened the palate.
Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws
Jewish kashrut dietary laws developed during these early times. Food prepared according to these rules is called kosher, or "proper". Jews are prohibited from eating pork, so lamb, mutton and beef are the preferred meats. The consumption of blood is also forbidden, so meats must be "koshered", a process of salting and curing, in order to remove all traces of blood. Meat and dairy are never mixed in the same dish or even, according to some interpretations, in the same meal. Orthodox homes maintain two separate sets of utensils, one for meat and one for dairy. With regard to seafood, it is forbidden to eat anything without scales. That means no shrimp, shellfish, squid or octopus. There are varying degrees of adherence to kashrut laws in modern Israel. While one finds strict fidelity among the Orthodox population, it is not uncommon to see only partial or no observation among secular Jews.
Starting in the 6th century B.C.E., the Jews suffered through a series of conquering overlords. For five hundred years they were ruled in turn by Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. The Jews had a tendency to revolt against their Roman overlords, and by 70 A.D., Rome was fed up with the rabble in Judea. Imperial legions destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and much of the population was enslaved. When the revolts continued, Emperor Septimius Severus expelled the Jews from Jerusalem. In 134 A.D. the Jews scattered to the four winds, and the Diaspora had begun.
Over the next two thousand years, Jews migrated throughout the Mediterranean and into Europe, Iraq, Iran and as far east as India. The Middle Ages were largely a time of poverty, discrimination and ghettos, especially for European Jews. Jews in the Arab world fared somewhat better and generally got along well with their Muslim cousins. During this long period, Jewish populations around the world adopted and adapted to the culinary styles of their new home countries and regions.
Modern Jewish and Israeli Cuisine
By the late 19th century, the new movement of Zionism, urging a return to Israel, began to take hold within the European Jewish community. The idea took on greater urgency with continuing pogroms in Russia, the Dreyfus Affair in France, and finally genocide under the Nazis. The new state of Israel was founded in 1948 in the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust. Jews from all over the world began to return to their ancient homeland.
Most modern Israelis trace their diasporal history either to Northern and Eastern Europe (the Ashkenazim) or to Spain, North Africa and the Middle East (the Sephardim). The Ashkenazim bring a tradition of foods most familiar to American and European Jews. Gefilte fish, cholent, kishke, knaidlach, latkes, matjes herring, borscht, pirogen, and kasha all grace the Ashkenazi table. These dishes, while typically Jewish, are not as as popular in Israel itself. Cold weather dishes tend to weigh one down in the hot Mediterranean sun.
Most Sephardic dishes, on the other hand, are ideally suited to Israel's climate. Couscous and chakchouka are both popular and originated with Jewish populations from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Immigrants from the Balkans, Romania and Greece brought with them ciorba, mititei and moussaka. Turkish influence is seen in the popularity of such sweets as baklava, kadaifi and halvah.
In recent years an ancient population of Jews from Ethiopia emigrated en masse to Israel and brought with them intensely flavored dishes like doro wat . There are small numbers of Jews from India who cook highly spiced curry dishes following kashrut rules. Yemenite Jews are famous for their malawah fried bread and spicy hilbeh sauce.
Non-Jews make up about one quarter of Israel's population, and the largest group of these is Arab Israelis, both Muslim and Christian, This growing population lends its own culinary traditions to the mix that is Israeli cuisine. Falafel, shawarma, hummus, shishlik and tabouleh are all extremely popular with Jew and Arab alike. Zaatar, a spice mix of thyme, sumac and sesame seeds flavors meats, vegetables and fish.