by Rabbi Jo David
Passover is a time when the majority of the world's Jewish population thinks of potatoes, onions, chicken fat, apples and nuts. That's because approximately two thirds of the world's Jewish population today originated in Western and Eastern Europe and Russia, and Germany, "Ashkenaz" in Hebrew, in particular. The term "Ashkenazi," used to describe Jews from this region comes from the word "Ashkenaz."
The Jewish cuisine that we call "Ashkenazic" today was influenced by the cold climate in which these Jews lived, and in which their culture developed. Root vegetables, hardy tree fruits, fresh water fish, dairy products—and the ability to store them, and nuts formed the easily available ingredients ready to be turned into gastronomic wonders by generations of creative Jewish women.
There were certain hallmarks of Ashkenazic Jewish cooking which endure even today. This type of cuisine generally avoided sauces, except for natural cooking juices augmented by water or a simple meat or vegetable stock. Also, different types of foods were generally segregated, rather than mixed. For example, potted meatballs were rarely mixed in a gravy with vegetables, although sometimes potatoes might be added to extend the dish.
This is still true of Ashkenazic cooking today. A couple of years ago, I had the fascinating experience of living with a Jewish family in Almaty, Khazakstan, while working with a local Reform congregation. Almaty today has only a remnant Jewish population, but at one time, its Jewish inhabitants numbered over 20,000 or more. Part of my arrangement with the family was that the "mother" of the house would cook for me.
It was summer and tomatoes and other vegetables were plentiful. Spaghetti was also easily available. However, pasta was served plain, with a little butter or oil. A simple pasta sauce, made of fresh tomatoes, was unknown in the area and considered eccentric in the extreme. My diet that summer consisted of stewed beef served with fried potatoes, palmeni—small meat-filled dumplings served boiled, without a sauce, and sliced fresh cucumbers. When I bought, at a local market, eggplant, carrots, tomatoes and some fresh herbs and stewed them together, I was considered very strange, indeed, and no one in the household would taste my outlandish culinary offering!
At Passover, the dependence of Ashkenazic Jews on root vegetables and eggs is particularly apparent. When cooking for Passover, I routinely go through 4 or 5 dozen eggs, ten pounds of potatoes and at least five pounds of onions. These ingredients surface in a wide variety of dishes on the first two nights during which the Seder, the ritual discussion of the holiday. These food staples are found in kugel, a popular potato pudding often flavored with chicken fat, in the sponge cake that uses separated eggs as a leavening agent and which is a favorite of mine during this eight day holiday, in the brisket of beef, in the tsimmes—a stew of root vegetables and dried fruits and in a wide variety of other breakfast, luncheon and dinner recipes.
During the eight days of Passover, Ashkenazic Jews refrain from eating any type of food that could be leavened by yeast or that might give the appearance of being leavened. All flour is forbidden, except for flour made from matzoh or from potatoes. Grains, like rice, corn, legumes—peas, beans, and even green beans, which supposedly swell when they come into contact with water, are absolutely forbidden.
My family, which has roots in Germany and the Ukraine, has the custom of eating kasha, which is not a grain, during Passover. Since it swells when cooked, kasha should be forbidden. However, when I asked a very religious rabbinic authority about this, he said that eating kasha was permitted if it was my family's tradition. Who said that Judaism was consistent? However, I wouldn't suggest that Ashkenazic families take up this tradition without consulting their own rabbinic authority.
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
Modified February 2007
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