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The importance of sticking to the recipe

The 'Jewish' foods of our parents and grandparents often show us who we are and where we came from
Stuffed grape leaves. (iStock)
Stuffed grape leaves. (iStock)

As a passionate home cook, I often look for recipes that I want to try. I will inevitably change them as I go along, using ingredients I already have instead of buying what the recipe calls for, or reducing the amount of oil/sugar to make the recipe “healthier.” I know that many of us cook this way too. But from my conversations with various Jewish grandmothers on my podcast, I’ve come to realize that there is immense importance in sticking to a recipe.

This year, I started a podcast called “Kol HaSaftot.” In each episode, I interview a different Jewish grandmother who tells her story, shares her life advice, and also gives the listeners a recipe. Some of these recipes were “invented” by the grandmothers themselves, while others date back to their mothers and grandmothers. I have come to realize how much food is a vessel for memory, much like the Passover Haggadah or Megillat Esther. Food tells a story that lives on through generations, and memories of food are particularly transient.

Unlike today, where food and recipes are about indulgence, flavor, and experience, the Jewish food of our parents and grandparents often tells a story of hardship or necessity. Think for example of gefilte fish, traditionally made out of carp, which was affordable and readily available, Ashkenazi Jews decided to make a Shabbat-friendly dish out of it. The act of, borrer, selecting, is forbidden on Shabbat, and they wanted to avoid having to pick bones out of the fish. Therefore, they created a loaf-like dish so people could eat the fish without worrying about desecrating Shabbat. By binding the fish together, there was no risk of picking out bones, which would have been forbidden.

Or think of Iraqi tbeet, a chicken and rice dish that was traditionally baked in the communal baker’s ovens in Iraq. Tbeet referred to the Arabic word for overnight, which was how the dish was prepared. Each family would schlep their pot over to the baker and put it in the tanoor (oven) on Friday, and come retrieve it on Shabbat morning. Before the invention of Shabbat timers or hot plates, it was the only way to have hot food on Shabbat day.

Both gefilte fish and tbeet tell a story of necessity and rules. But more than that, they tell the story of our people. In a time where our heritage and lineage are under constant scrutiny, the historic foods that we have written down on paper, or in our minds, or on our plates serve as proof of who we are and where we come from. And that is why we have a commitment to continue preparing these foods as closely as possible to the way our ancestors prepared them.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no claim against getting creative in the kitchen, and merging cuisines. Make Italian pasta with Moroccan fish, or fill your kreplach with ginger and lemongrass. Make Lebanese lahm ba’agine with pizza dough and stuff your courgettes with quinoa instead of rice. The modern day interpretations on traditional dishes allow us to revive old dishes, making them easier, tastier, or healthier, and there is value in that. But don’t sleep on reviving a recipe just as it was made by our ancestors.

In my conversations with grandmothers, I have come to realize the importance of passing a recipe down from one generation to the next. When a granddaughter makes the cake her grandmother made in Poland before the war, the cake lives on, creating memories for all those at the table. Each year, we spend a week eating matzah to remember the affliction our nation faced thousands of years ago. It is not enough for us to tell a story, we need to experience it too. Halacha understood that when the sages directed us to eat matzah and not just read about them. We seem to be in the golden era of Jewish foodiness, and it is so exciting to see the myriad of talented cooks and writers share their takes on traditional Jewish food. But we mustn’t let the older recipes often born out of adversity be forgotten.

So when you’re planning your menu for Shabbat or this upcoming Pesach, by all means try out new recipes with shortcuts and hacks and substitutes, but save space on your table for a recipe that tells the story of your ancestors, the story of our people. Stick to the recipe as much as you can and try and think of where and when this recipe was born and why it was made just the way it was.

About the Author
Sabrina made Aliya from the UK as a teenager. She loves trying out different Jewish traditional foods in her kitchen and talks about it with different Jewish grandmothers on her podcast Kol Hasaftot. She lives in Herzliya with her husband Itai and kids, and is a passionate foodie and storyteller.
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