11 March 2009

Food: Sweet and Sour

Food and Jews go together, and this summer's 29th International Jewish Genealogical Conference will feature several programs on this topic. Philadelphia chef and author of 10 cookbooks Aliza Green will present "Sweet and Sour" at the conference, which will be held August 2-7, in Philadelphia.

Green will also appear at 8pm, Saturday, March 28 for a talk, tasting and book signing at her own synagogue, Or Hadash Reconstructionist Congregation, in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, where she will talk about her next book which she's now researching, Sweet and Sour: How Jewish Traders Changed the Way the World Eats

Here's an interview - "Jews Change the Way the World Eats" - with Green that appeared just before Purim. See her yummy recipes and save them for next year's celebration.

The first chocolate, vanilla, and citrus fruit plantations in the New World were started by Jews? The smoked, pickled, and salted fish business, too, was started by Jews. Jews from the Canary Islands owned the earliest sugar plantations in Brazil. The dried fruit and nut business? Also Jewish.

All of this information, and more, rolls off the tongue of experienced chef and cookbook author Aliza Green like sweet butter off a hot brioche, as you can’t help but catch her infectious excitement about the history of Jewish food.

Green will bring that history alive with a talk and tasting Saturday evening, March 28 at Or Hadash Reconstructionist Congregation, Fort Washington, PA. Because the program will be held immediately following the Havdalah ceremony that marks the close of the Sabbath, with its requisite spices, she’ll begin the program with spices, a Jewish business in India close to 2,000 years ago, and spicy recipes.

Jewish traders, most of them Sephardic, changed the way we eat. Their farflung connections, frequently with distant family branches, enabled this influence and expansion of available ingredients.

In some countries, certain occupations were considered Jewish. Green mentions frigatore, a fried food maker at street stands, during Roman times, and makes connections between the symbolism of certain foods at certain Jewish holidays.

Green’s love of food, especially Jewish food, and the unique history surrounding it, began in childhood, when her father’s work as a theoretical physicist allowed the family to travel and live throughout the world. By age 10, she was cooking for her family and, as an adult, her love of languages, history, literature, and cultural studies, as well as food, led her to make the connections that now fuel her passion.

Green has consulted with restaurants on their menus and developed recipes, wrote food columns for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, co-authored a cookbook with Georges Perrier, and went on to author or co-author 10 more cookbooks.

Her new cookbook is based on a very Jewish method of cooking, combining sweet and sour flavors.

“Eating sweet and sour together is a very Jewish way to cook, and it’s also a recognition of a very Jewish outlook on life,” she says. “Think about breaking the glass at a wedding, or combining sweet charoset and bitter horseradish at Passover, for example.”

She will provide an overview of the history, as well as a taste of the specially prepared foods. The menu will include onion and poppyseed kichel with sour cream and herring; pan levi or biscuits made with mace, a traditional recipe from Curacao, that will be dipped in spiced hot chocolate; and “stuffed monkey,” a Sephardic recipe for pastries made with a filling of dried fruits and cashews, that comes from a Jewish bakery in East London.

The interview included Purim recipes and history of hamantaschen, the traditional Ashkenazi triangle-shaped filled pastries.

These triangular poppy seed–filled cookies hail from the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition and commemorate the Jewish holiday of Purim. In the fifth century BCE, in the reign of King Achashverosh of Persia, Mordechai, a Jew, refused to prostrate himself before Haman, the King’s vizier. Offended, Haman set out “to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Achashverosh” (from the Book of Esther). The Jews were saved from Haman's deadly plan by the intervention of Mordecai’s beautiful cousin, Esther, who had been chosen as queen a few years earlier. The pastries are made in the shape of Haman's tricorn hat. Symbolically, this long-ago enemy of the Jewish people is destroyed by gobbling up the cookies. In Italy, another version of the pastries are called orecchie di Aman (Haman’s ears), and are consumed just as quickly.

The recipes (click here) are for Honey-Poppy Seed Hamantaschen; a Roman Jewish specialty of olive oil-fried and marinated zucchini (Roman Conchia di Zucchine); and a Sephardic (Portugal via the Netherlands) double-layered pastry filled with raisins, candied citrus rind (Stuffed Monkey).

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