With entries from Asabia (a Middle Eastern dish of phyllo pastry dough filled with nuts, meat and potatoes) to Zaban (a Moroccan nougat), Gil Marks’ just-released “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” (Wiley) leaves little uncovered. With over 650 entries and 300 recipes, from the well-known delicacies like falafel, hamantaschen and bagels (which are noted in the book for being described as “a doughnut with rigor mortis” by The New York Times in 1956) to the more obscure lahmajin (a flatbread topped with ground beef), csipetke (Hungarian pinched noodles) and yoyo (an orange doughnut of Tunisian origin), the book provides great insight into what many say is at the heart (or at least stomach) of Jewish culture: food. A rabbi, chef and author of the James Beard Award-winning cookbook, “Olive Trees and Honey,” Marks shared some highlights of his 25-years-in-the-making project.
Q: How long have you been thinking about creating this book?
A: For the last 25 years I’ve been collecting information, collecting every recipe that I hadn’t heard of before and trying it out. And about three years ago my editor said, “You’re a walking encyclopedia anyway, why don’t you do an encyclopedia of Jewish food?” There’s a lot of bubbemeises [old wives’ tales] out there when it comes to food and you have to check them out. … I spent a good deal of time in Israel, because New York and Israel are the primary areas where you have representatives from all of these vast Jewish communities around the world.
Where do all the recipes in the book come from?
They come from many different sources, but I’m always looking to find a housewife who could share the information. When I meet a new person who says, “I’m an Egyptian Jew,” I go, “Wow, I’d really like to meet your mother.” Some of these bubbes they don’t really measure the way we do — a pinch of this and a handful of that, I’d have to sit there and watch. Once I had a starting recipe I would look at variations of a dish… see how the dish might have evolved differently in Greece or Turkey. I got a recipe for malawah [a Yemenite flaky bread] and I didn’t like the result. … There was a period of two of three weeks when I was making malawah every day. I had it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Was it more difficult to compile information about Ashkenazic or Sephardic foods?
Certainly not Ashkenazi. I was brought up on that; the background is easier to find in America and it’s in so many areas. Sephardi is not that much harder, but some of the Mizrachi foods, non-Sephardic or Ashkenazic foods, like from the Ethiopian community, the three different Indian Jewish communities were difficult. The more obscure communities — it’s harder to find things from Bukharian [communities], Uzbekistan, Afghanistan.
Did you come across shocking or strange foods that modern Jews wouldn’t think of eating?
Oh, sure, all rodents and insects are forbidden in the Torah except for some species of grasshopper. I’ve never had them but Yemenites and Moroccans they still ate grasshoppers, they knew which ones were kosher and they fried them up.
Do you think Jewish food will one day be something that is read about in encyclopedias instead of cooked in kitchens?
Jewish food as you see is constantly changing — both in America and Israel you have this synthesis of different culinary forces coming together and creating this new cuisine. … One of the things I have found in my research is that the Jewish role in cuisine is not so much innovation, as transformation and transmission. … The connectedness of Jewish communities through trade and marriage and constant movement meant Jews adapted recipes to their own needs. When meatballs show up in Italy, the Italians would put Parmesan in it, but Jews can’t do that, so Jews would substitute breadcrumbs and you have a different dish.