Archive for September, 2011
On Monday evening September 19, I participated in a special program for the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ). Held in the Baka section of Jerusalem in the home kitchen of one of the IAEJ board members and in front of 60 paying guests and five Ethiopian staff members, I prepared a vegetarian wot (stew) and discussed Ethiopian history, culture, and cookery. In addition, there was injera (Ethiopian pancake breads made from teff grains and with an interesting sour flavor), a lentil stew, and various Ethiopian snacks, such as roasted chickpeas and popcorn. And there was a pot of iab (pronounced ive), an Ethiopian curd cheese that helps moot the chilies common to many Ethiopian dishes (more on this later). A fun time was had by all. I was especially appreciative that the Ethiopians all agreed that my wot was authentic and among the best-tasting they had had. Some commented on how I helped explain the logic of their cookery. I was one small part of a wider effort to bring Ethiopians into the Israeli mainstream and for Israel to finally accept and appreciate as equals their Ethiopian citizens. (Considering that the Euro-centric Israeli Ashkenazic power structure — including the media, academia, courts, and much of the defense establishment – still looks down upon Sephardim and Mizrachim, uplifting the status of Ethiopians is no small task.) I view Klal Yisrael as a mosaic of Jewish cultures from around the world, each as valid and integral as the others.
My friend Chava, who was my first assistant editor when I started Kosher Gourmet magazine, is currently Resource Development Director of IAEJ. (Here’s their English site: http://iaej-english.org/ ) Together with executive director Ziva Mekonen-Degu, we developed my program. After all, what touches a community, both everyday life and periods of celebrations, more than food. Food carries history; food carries culture. By getting a taste of a community’s food, you get a literal and figurative taste of that culture. So food is one way, certainly a most enjoyable way, to learn about and experience the Ethiopian community.
For more than two millennia, the land lying to the west of the Red Sea served as home to a group of black Jews known to the Ethiopians by the derogatory term of Falasha (“wanderers” in Ge’ez), but calling themselves Beta Israel (“House of Israel”). Although several medieval Jewish travelers mentioned black Jews living in eastern Africa, the Western world only confirmed their existence in a 1790 report by the Scottish explorer James Bruce. Most scholars believe that the Beta Israel are descendants of native Agau tribes converted to Judaism by contact with Jews living in Arabia or by Jewish refugees who arrived in the area by way of either Egypt or Arabia following the destruction of the First Temple. The Beta Israel maintained their independence and their own kings and queens until being defeated in the 1620s by Emperor Susenyos. It was the intersession of the Portuguese at that time that finally led to a shift in the balance of power. (Pointedly, this transformation occurred just two decades before the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648 decimated Polish Jewry and transformed it from one of wealth and education to poverty and persecution.) The Beta Israel were then banished to the Gondar region adjacent to the Sudanese border and Lake Tana, the source of the Nile River, and subjected to centuries of persecution and aggressive proselytizing efforts.
Before 1977, Ethiopian culture and cookery was obscure to those outside that country. Then during the following thirteen years, more than 40,000 Beta Israel were relocated to Israel, making their ancient traditions accessible to outsiders. Today, the Beta Israel community in the Holy Land comprises more than 250,000 members and Ethiopian restaurants are found in some cities.
There are numerous misconceptions about Ethiopian cookery in particular and Ethiopian culture in general. During the course of the evening, IAEJ and myself helped to dissuade some of those misconceptions through exposure to the culture and foods.
One of the men present mentioned that he thought of Ethiopian food as bland, like that of nearby Kenya. Nothing could be further from the truth. To be sure, Ethiopian cookery is simple and based on poverty food, but it is anything but bland. Of even like that of any neighboring African countries. And simple is not bad. Indeed any good chef will tell you that overcomplicated food is bad. The key to any good cooking is to let the fresh natural ingredients shine.
Ethiopia, unlike the rest of Africa, was never fully colonized by Europeans (the brief Italian period did not impact the local culture) and, therefore, the area’s cookery evidences none of the European influences. (Try to think of Moroccan or Tunisian cooking without French or Libyan without Italian.) Ethiopians, no matter their social status or class, ate the same foods, although the richer might enjoy more and better quality meat. Ethiopians traditionally ate two major meals each day — breakfast and dinner. In between, they snacked on roasted corn kernels, roasted peas and chickpeas, and seeds. Legumes serve as the base of many dishes. The principal vegetables are the traditional cabbage, carrots, collard, lettuce, and onions and those introduced from America corn, potatoes, squash, and tomatoes. Chilies, garlic and mushrooms help to enhance dishes. Onions are essential, uniquely first cooked without any fat, which helps them to better break down during cooking to thicken and flavor the sauce.
There is not a lot of variety in Ethiopian ingredients, but each item taste quite different even when using the same spices. Ethiopian cooking is both spicy and fiery, the latter produced by chilies and particularly berbere, an essential homemade chili powder used as a condiment. Mixing the powder with a little oil and tej (honey wine) and allowing the mixture to ferment produces a hot sauce called awaze, used as a condiment. Every Ethiopian household maintains a jar of berbere and/or awaze, often homemade from a time-honored recipe. Ethiopian spice mixtures –- typically cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger and turmeric — reflect Arabic and Indian influences, the result of millennia of trade. When most Westerners first taste an Ethiopian dish, it reminds them of the cooking of southern India. Since most Ethiopian meals were vegetarian, clarified butter, and typically plenty of it, was common to many dishes, while iab accompanied and ended most meals. Butter is made from ergo (fermented whole milk).
In Ethiopia, they lived in tukuls (mud-and-straw huts). Typically, diners sat on stools around six to eight inches high or on the floor around a low round wicker table. The two principal Ethiopian dishes, around which all meals revolve, are injera (a thin batter bread made from teff grains) and a thick vegetable or legume-based stew, prepared in spicy/fiery versions made with berbere called wot and milder ones known as alicha. The injera batter, prepared by frying on round terra cotta trays and skillets, was typically made in large batches to be stored for up to a week in woven grass sacks. Several thin, large gray injera are stacked on a communal tray and the wot, cooked salads, and legumes then spooned in sections on top. Each person, using their right hand, pulls off a small piece of injera while scooping up some of the food, then folds it between their fingers to eat. The tart, spongy injera complements with spicy-fiery stew. Coffee, native to Ethiopia, is typically served at the end of the meal. There is no dessert.
In the impoverished Ethiopian communities, meat was generally reserved for special occasions; cooked meat dishes subsumed under the category of tib. Chicken, the predominant meat, was occasionally prepared by roasting over an open flame, a dish usually reserved for the Sabbath. Goats and sheep were raised for meat and wool, while most dairy products were produced from cow’s milk. Livestock was ritually slaughtered by the local kes (priest), then salted and rinsed to make kosher. Fresh-water fish from local streams and lakes were enjoyed when available.
The Sanbat (Sabbath) is a very special part of the Ethiopian Jew’s week. The meals were prepared in advance with everything ready before sundown on Friday and all dishes served at room temperature. At Sabbath meals, the Beta Israel serve honey-wheat bread cut into slices called dabos. Aspecila treat was a salad made from pieces of dabos and iab. Even those who cannot afford it during the week, make a special effort to have a little chicken or meat in their Sabbath wots. Ethiopian Jews lacked wine and, therefore, for Kiddush used tallah, a grain alcohol-based drink similar to beer and fermented by gesho leaves. An amber-colored spirit similar to mead is made from tedj (honey). A unique festival of the Beta Israel is the Sigd, which, thanks to the efforts of IAEJ, is now recognized as an official holiday in Israel.
IAEJ, founded in 1993, is dedicated to advocacy among national and regional decision-makers. IAEJ gives voice to the needs of the Ethiopian-Israeli community to advance wiser, more effective and more efficient policies in the spheres of education, employment, housing and community empowerment.
In February 2011, IAEJ advocacy led to a unanimous Israeli Knesset decision to extend the affirmative action policy in national civil service posts (achieved in 2007) to regional government offices and state-owned companies.
In February 2011, IAEJ advocacy led to the repeal of a discriminatory housing policy which limited Ethiopian-Israelis to utilizing mortgage grants only at designated addresses, often in unsuitable high-risk neighborhoods. IAEJ was subsequently invited to participate in revising more constructive guidelines for mortgage grants.
In May 2011, a study commissioned by IAEJ revealed steep gaps in educational achievements between Ethiopian-Israelis and the general Jewish population. The data commissioned by IAEJ led the Ministry of Education to decide to evaluate the effectiveness of educational programs under its auspices. The Ministry will also increase the number of educational hours allocated to Ethiopian immigrants (during the first six years they are residing in Israel).
In June 2011, IAEJ-together with young Ethiopian-Israeli activists (“Mateh Hamaavak LeShivion Hevrati LeYotzei Ethiopia”)—won a precedent setting decision made by Israel’s High Court. The Court found that that key provisions of the Israeli government’s 2008 “Five Year Plan” to advance Ethiopian-Israelis were not implemented-including allocations in the amount of NIS 100 million. IAEJ took on a two year legal struggle (supported by volunteer attorneys) and made the case to Israel’s High Court that the funding be restored. In its June 2011 decision, the High Court ruled that the NIS 100 million allocation be disbursed in keeping with the original plan. The High Court ruling also requires the government to extend the Five Year Plan through 2014 and to reserve 1,000 mortgage grants to young Ethiopian-Israelis to be utilized through 2015. IAEJ will monitor the implementation of this ruling-as part of its broader aim to assure that programs and funding intended to advance Ethiopian-Israelis are properly implemented.
Oh, here is the stew I prepared that evening. To turn it into a wot, add 2 to 4 tablespoons (30 to 60 ml) ground dried red chilies:
Ethiopian Vegetable Stew (Tikil Gomen Alicha)
(5 to 6 servings)
2 medium onions, chopped
3 tablespoons (45 ml) vegetable oil
1 pound carrots, cut into ¼ inch slices (3 large/455 grams)
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
About 1 cup (240 ml) water
1 pound small potatoes, cut into ¼ inch slices or quartered (about 6/454 grams)
1 to 2 small green chilies, seeded and sliced (optional)
About 1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
About ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) ground black pepper
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) ground cinnamon or coriander
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon (.625 ml) ground cloves
1 tablespoon (15 ml) tomato paste (optional)
1 pound (455 grams) green cabbage, sliced, 1 bunch chard, sliced, or 1 pound green beans
1. In a dry large skillet, cook the onions, stirring constantly, over medium heat until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes.
2. Add the oil. When the oil begins to sputter, add the carrots and garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add ½ cup water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and, for a more fiery stew, chilies, cover, and simmer for 2 minutes.
3. Stir in the salt, pepper, spices, and, if using, tomato paste. Add the cabbage and remaining ½ cup water. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender-crisp, about 20 minutes. If the cooking liquid reduces too much, add a little more water and continue cooking. Serve warm or at room temperature with injera or various flat breads and, if desired, yogurt or lab (Ethiopian cheese spread).
Ethiopian Gingered Vegetable Stew (Yataklete Alicha): Omit the turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, ground ginger, and cloves and add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) minced fresh ginger with the garlic.
On my recent flight from NYC to Israel, the breakfast was nearly inedible. The omelet felt like leather and tasted worse and the bagel was so soft and sweet it was simply a roll with a hole in the middle. But what particularly irked me was the small container of yogurt. (Or maybe it was that dreadful excuse for a bagel.) I fondly remember when Dannon first appeared in the American mainstream back in the 1970s. To be sure, some whey would separate from the yogurt and it would sometimes be a bit lumpy when stirred, but it was essentially pure milk with, for flavored, types, some sugar. No longer.
Americans tend to take things to extremes. We miniaturize foods and gianticize (ok, I just coined this term) them. Look at bagels. The typical nineteenth century European bagel weighed one and a half ounces. When Lender’s entered the frozen bagel business, the size had grown to 2 ounces, and today 3 ounces is the norm for frozen, while fresh bagels tend to weigh 4 to 4.5 ounces. On the other hand, Lender’s also produces a line of miniature bagels for quick bites or hors d’oeuvres. Today, the original bagel cutters of the 1970s, developed to prevent neophytes from cutting their hand and geared to a 3-inch bagel, no long fit the massive 5- to 6-inch versions. I don’t mind the size difference, but the flavor and texture of contemporary bagels is another thing. I was recently in Montreal, a city appropriately proud of its bagel heritage, and it was gratifying to taste some real boiled bagels for a change. Steaming instead of boiling bagels results in a softer, less chewy inside and less crusty exterior. Some manufactures don’t even bother to even steam them. Many add prodigious amounts of sugar and fat, resulting in nauseatingly cloying and fluffy bread. Ok, they don’t have to be hockey pucks, but fluffy crosses the line.
And don’t get me started about the lack of flavor and texture in the produce sold in American stores, all of it selected for shipping and storage. Last week, my parents’ Israeli CSA (community supported agriculture) – Chubeza. (http://www.chubeza.com/english.html), an organic farm consisting of two acres on Moshav Kfar Ben-Nun situated between Latrun and Ramla – included corn on the cob in the weekly delivery. Let me tell, you that was the most flavorful, succulent corn I ever tasted. I ate three cobs for Shabbat dinner. You can also taste the difference in the other CSA items, none of them grown for shipping and storage. If you are fortunate enough to live near a CSA, and by now most of you are, then I strongly suggest you give it a try. Yes, you will be delivered some items that will appear foreign to many. But chard and fresh beets and tomatoes that don’t taste like the packaging they come in will enrich your palate and health. (And chard and beet greens, the Talmudic silka, are also traditional Rosh Hashanah foods.)
American business has a way of taking healthy or relatively healthy items and transforming them into standardized dreck. Look at most breakfast cereals, which are so filled of sugar and sprayed with various vitamins that basically pass through the human body. We might as well be feeding our kids cookies for breakfast. (Some of these monstrosities are actually cookies.) And look what they’ve done to yogurt.
Yogurt has been a part of the Middle Eastern diet for 6,000 years. Originally created when milk was accidentally fermented, thereby resulting in curdling, yogurt has a pleasantly tart flavor. The direct ancestor of today’s yogurt was probably created by accident when two equal amounts of benign bacteria, now the characterizing bacterial culture, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, came in contact with and coagulated a batch of milk in a particular animal skin bag. In the Middle East yogurt is also made from sheep’s milk, which produces a thicker yogurt than cow’s milk.
Fresh yogurt contains billions of live cells per milliliter, preventing the growth of harmful bacteria, thereby keeping the milk safe for several days. Cultured milk products are based on the microbial conversion of the milk-sugar lactose into lactic acid in a warm environment, which produces the characteristic ‘sourness’ or ‘tanginess’ of these products as well as inhibits the growth of food-poisoning bacteria. Besides lactic acid, other by-products of bacterial fermentation are acetic acid, acetaldehyde, and dacetyl, each contributing to yogurt’s taste and texture. The growth of lactic acid reduces the pH of the milk, destabilizing the micellar casein, resulting in the coagulation of the milk. When the desired pH (4.1 to 4.6) has been reached, the product is cooled to slow the fermentation.
From a few simple ingredients, the label on the airline yogurt container read: “Cultured pasteurized Grade A nonfat milk, modified cornstarch, whey, potassium sorbate (for freshness), gellan gum, tricalcacium phosphate, Vitamin D3.” But a thicker, whey- and lump-free yogurt was not worth the artificial flavor that left a harshness on the back of my palate. And there are actually worse violators of yogurt out there. Some contain gelatin and numerous preservatives. Too many brands lack any active yogurt cultures.
Yet, on the other hand, there is another major trend in yogurt today – Greek yogurt. It is made by straining the whey from regular yogurt, which results in a thicker, creamier product. (Without adding starches, gums, and other thickeners and stabilizers.) Avoid “Greek-style” yogurts, which contain the nefarious thickening agents. Greek yogurt has twice the protein (about 20 grams per ¾ cup/175 grams) of regular yogurt and only 10 to 20 more calories. So far, Greek yogurts all contain active cultures and, since it is more concentrated, more probiotics than regular yogurt. The price, alas, is double or more that of regular yogurt, although that has started to fall as the competition heats up.
This type, not native or exclusive to Greece (strained yogurt would be more accurate, if less prosaic), emerged from Chobani (an American company founded by a Turk who launched his Greek yogurt in 2007) and Fage (a Greek company, which established a facility in Johnstown, NY in 2005) and has exploded of late. The major yogurt manufacturers were so intent on producing creamier products by adding junk, they missed this healthier and tastier trend, and only very recently began to jump on the bandwagon.
Another antithetical trend has also emerged in yogurt, purer and organic brands, including Stonyfield Farm, Brown Cow Farm, and Horizon. Since they contain no artificial thickeners, the fruit must be stirred up from the bottom. The lack of added ingredients translates into better.
Back in the 70s, when yogurt spread through America, many homes, including my parents, had a yogurt maker. These devices may not be as popular today, but homemade yogurt is less expensive than commercial brands, and you control what goes into it. And refuse to eat the culture-less yogurts.
(1 quart/950 ml)
Once you have made your own yogurt, save several tablespoons for making the next batch. If the effectiveness of the yogurt starter begins to wane, purchase fresh yogurt and start again.
1 quart (950 ml) milk
2 tablespoons (30 ml) plain yogurt with active cultures
1. In a medium saucepan, bring the milk to a low boil over medium heat. (Scalding destroys any bacteria in the milk that can inhibit the yogurt culture.) Let cool to lukewarm (115 degrees).
2. Remove ½ cup (120 ml) warm milk and stir into the yogurt. Stir the yogurt into the saucepan. Pour into warm jars or a Thermos.
3. Cover with wax paper and wrap with a towel. Place in a warm place, such as an oven with a pilot light, and let stand undisturbed until thickened (3 to 8 hours). (The thickening time will depend on the yogurt culture used, the temperature of the milk and the temperature of the environment during the incubating period. The longer the yogurt takes to incubate, the more tart the taste.) (Yogurt thickens further when refrigerated.)
4. For Greek yogurt, line a colander or strainer with a coffee filter or a double layer of fine cheesecloth. Place over a bowl to catch the whey. (Use the whey in baking and soups.) Pour the yogurt into the prepared colander/strainer, cover with plastic wrap, place in the refrigerator, and let drain until thick, but not too firm (8 to 12); at more than 12 hours, it becomes labni, yogurt cheese.
4. Chill. Store in the refrigerator up to 1 week.
I’ve traveled to many parts of Long Island over the years to give talks and presentations, but I’ve never been to Stony Brook University. It’s about a two hour trip by train from the Upper West Side to the next to the last stop on the Port Jefferson line of the Long Island Railroad. But on Labor Day Sunday, I was the featured guest for Stony Brook Hillel’s “Festival of Bites.” The program was aimed for the entire Jewish community of Suffolk and not just college students.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was actually pleasantly surprised by both the extent of the exhibitors and the size of the crowd. I was suspect of attracting people on a holiday weekend, but I guess for food Jews will turn out (which is fortunate in my line of work), and the large campus ballroom was filled with noshers (my type of crowd) who paid $15 for a ticket. A number of local kosher businesses manned tables offering free samples of everything from deli sandwiches to knishes to rugelach to chocolate-dipped fruit. People also contributed non-perishable items for a food drive. And raffles raised a lot of money.
I gave an hour and a half cooking class on Rosh Hashanah foods from around the world, including samples at the end. I was busy with a book signing for Encyclopedia of Jewish Food and missed the samples, which all vanished by the time I finished the signing. It was standing room only and most of the attendees remained for the entire cooking session, although a few did occasionally return to the tables for additional noshing. Many of the adults were fascinated by the chard, with which most were unfamiliar. (Chard is so closely related and linked to the beet, both subspecies of the same plant, that they share the same name in ancient Aramaic, silka. Unlike the beet, chard never developed a large edible root, thus its culinary usage remains its leaves. The Talmud recommends chard and beet greens as a Rosh Hashanah food, as their name silka is similar to the Aramaic word “to remove/disappear,” as in sheyistalek oyvenu (may our enemies be removed) or yistaklu oyvekha (may your enemies be removed).) The students particularly liked the Sephardic pumpkin pancakes, and some took extra to enjoy back in the dorms. (Pumpkin, a large, orange fruit, has been widely cultivated throughout the Americas for about 6,000 years and was among the first New World foods introduced to Europeans by native Americans. In the beginning of the 16th century, Sephardim and Italian Jews began selling pumpkins and adopted them into their pantry earlier, and more vigorously than their neighbors. Therefore, the presence of pumpkin in many early Mediterranean dishes is a sign of Sephardic influence. Sephardim and Italians use it to make soups, stews, puddings, jams, cakes, pancakes, and fill pastries. This autumn vegetable is used for various traditional Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Hanukkah dishes.)
Kudos to Rabbi Joseph Topek (who had been at Stony Brook for nearly 30 years, but was previously at VCU in Richmond, although I did not meet him back then) and the staff (including Jill Zucker and Joy Gluzman) and board of directors of Stony Brook Hillel for taking a chance on this new program and putting in a lot of time and effort. I think the old cliché “a good time was had by all” amply applies.
Here are recipes for braised chard and pumpkin pancakes. You can find more traditional dishes and information on them in Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Olive Trees and Honey, and The World of Jewish Cooking (and they make great holiday gifts too):
Sephardic Braised Chard (Silka) P
(6 to 8 servings)
2 pounds (about 3 bunches) chard or beet greens, soaked in a large bowl of cold water several times and drained
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
About 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
About ¼ teaspoon table salt or ½ teaspoon kosher salt
1. Separate the chard leaves from the stems. Cut the stems into ½-inch-wide pieces and the leaves into 1-inch pieces. There will be about 2 quarts, but the greens cook down.
2. In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the chard stems, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 3 minutes.
3. Add the leaves and sauté until well coated and the greens begin to wilt. Cover and simmer until tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and salt. Serve warm or at room temperature as a side dish or salad.
Moroccan Chard Salad (Shlata Silka): With the stems, add 2 teaspoons paprika, 1 to 1½ teaspoons ground cumin, and, for a little heat, a pinch of cayenne.
Syrian Swiss Chard with Black-Eyed Beans (Silka bi Lubiya): This combines two Rosh Hashanah symbols in one dish. With the chard leaves, add 1½ to 2 cups cooked black-eyed peas and ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric.
Syrian Chard with Chickpeas (Silka bi Hummus): This also combines two Rosh Hashanah symbols in one dish. With the chard leaves, add 1½ to 2 cups cooked chickpeas.
Greek Pumpkin Patties (Bimuelos de Calabaza/Fritadas de Calabaza)
(About 12 patties)
1 cup all-purpose flour or whole-wheat
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg or ¼ teaspoon ground coriander or allspice
Pinch of ground ginger
About ½ teaspoon table salt, or 1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1¾ cups mashed cooked pumpkin (about 2½ pounds raw), or 15 ounces pure-pack canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)
½ cup light brown sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Vegetable oil for frying
1. Combine the flour, spices, and salt. Lightly beat the eggs. Blend in the pumpkin, sugar, and vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture just to combine. It should be pourable and a little thicker than standard pancake batter; if too thin, add a little more flour.
2. Heat a thin layer of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. In batches, drop the batter by tablespoonfuls and fry, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Serve warm or at room temperature.