Jewish food doesn’t have to be kosher to be delicious, and you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it. In Hackney we can get the best of all possible worlds, from the austere purity of the supermarkets of Stamford Hill to the rough and tumble of Brick Lane, where authentic bagels with lox and cream cheese or salt beef are consumed by suits, Sikhs, white-van men and bemused tourists.
But to do this we need to try to understand kashrut, the basic ideals and dietary laws of Jewish religion. The laws were given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai and is enshrined in sacred writings and commentaries upon them.
It says what foods are forbidden, and what foods can be eaten and how and when they should be prepared, cooked and served. Meat must be slaughtered to exclude blood and sinews and certain kinds of fat, and never allowed to be in contact with milk and dairy products.
Kashrut resonates on different levels, from common-sense food hygiene in a hot climate to ideals of purity and holiness, for many forbidden items were once destined for holy sacrifices, not profane use. Strict observance creates and reinforces the separateness and otherness of Jewish communities, whilst nurturing the warmth and generosity of family meals and ritual feasts.
We can understand this by reading Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, an entrancing overview of Jewish food from all over the world, with family reminiscences and recipes, and a wealth of affectionate detail, from Cairo to New York, Baghdad to Bombay.
The food of Ashkenasi Jews reflects that of Eastern Europe, while Sephardi communities, settled all over the world, enjoy a wide range of more exotic dishes from where they now live or used to live. Algerian Jews, many now in exile in France, remain devoted to a cuisine and its rituals based on centuries of life in North Africa.
Special rituals for the celebration of holy days – such as the Jewish New Year, which this year falls on 14–15 September – shape family life, and meals and recipes play an important part in this. The Jewish Museum in Camden Town displays a lot of material showing this aspect of life in London over the centuries.
The Jewish presence in East London goes back a long way, from the Middle Ages when Jews were exploited and persecuted, and eventually expelled, to their acceptance by Oliver Cromwell in the sixteenth century, and an eventual approach to integration in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Successful and cultivated Jewish families moved in posh circles, while extending generous charity to the less fortunate in the East End, establishing schools, hospitals and synagogues. This delicate balance was swept dramatically away in the 1880s by the influx of refugees from Eastern Europe fleeing from persecution. While trying to avoid that weasel word ‘swarm’ I find the restrained voice of Dr Jerry Black, author of Jewish London, an Illustrated History who uses ‘avalanche’ to describe the situation.
Just now we are all too familiar with the unsettling mixture of hostility and compassion towards immigrants; to our shame more was done then than now to help and support the 150,000 refugees (from a total of over two million) who fled to London. When the crowded and familiar East End was bursting at the seams, many Jewish people moved northwards towards Stamford Hill, an almost rural area.
A poster advertising flats to be let by the Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company in Stoke Newington in the 1890s perhaps explains the arrival of the by now legendary Egg Stores, still flourishing opposite the entrance to Abney Park Cemetery. This used to be a cavernous, pungent store with seething vats of pickles and gherkins and barrels of herrings, freshly baked bread and many items essential to orthodox Jewish gastronomy.
After a fire a few years ago it reinvented itself and is now a smart ultra kosher supermarket, with every imaginable ingredient sourced, produced and packaged in approved conditions, to meet the need of the local orthodox communities, with tins and packs of most internationally known cuisines. But the Egg Store’s greatest glory is still its herrings, probably the best in town, and its meltingly soft, salty-sweet schmaltz herrings, a treat worth crossing London for.
In Hackney the essentials of Jewish food coexist with related cuisines: a few doors down from the Egg Stores is a fine Polish deli, a Turkish snack bar with Middle Eastern flat bread and salt beef bagels, and the Palestinian Tatreez café with a huge white bulbous bread oven and a small but delicious vegetarian menu. On Stoke Newington Church Street a new café called The Good Egg is due to open on 29 Sept, where Montreal, Tel Aviv and California will add deliciousness to an innovative all-day brunch menu, which includes the ubiquitous Jerusalem Breakfast.
Another unorthodox take on Jewish Middle Eastern food awaits the Hackney citizen who ventures to Spitalfields and finds their way to Artillery Lane, where Yotam Ottolenghi offers a kaleidoscopic menu inspired by Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food. His book Jerusalem is a fusion of Palestinian and Israeli cuisine, speaking of harmony and goodwill in a troubled land. Yotam Ottolenghi could be said to be the Daniel Barenboim of gastronomy; his sensitive use of a huge range of spices and flavourings brings balance and harmony to recipes that are like complex musical scores, performed by a large multi-racial band. Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra does not arrogantly call for peace (a big ask) but suggests ways of listening and understanding that could bring it closer. Enjoying food together, like making music, is a good step forward. We are fortunate that this can be done on so many levels in Hackney.
Some Jewish specialities are universal favourites: potato pancakes and fish balls (gefilte fish) are enjoyed all over the world, both of them ways of making something special and delicious out of frugal ingredients.
The proportions are usually one egg to about a pound of potatoes. Seasonings can be grated onion, garlic, chopped parsley, nutmeg, pepper. Grate the peeled potatoes and onion and put them in a sieve or colander and squeeze out the excess moisture. Put in a bowl and add the beaten egg and seasonings and mix well. Have some fat or oil in a heavy frying pan and put spoonfuls of the mixture in, flattening them slightly. Cook until golden then turn over and cook the other side. Eat hot.
Artichokes and Broad Beans
This simple but delicious dish is one of Claudia Roden’s family favourites. Preparing fresh artichoke hearts is one of life’s less agreeable chores, but you can buy them frozen from many Turkish or Middle Eastern stores. The one at the bottom of Ridley Road market usually has them.
1 lb each of artichoke hearts and shelled broad beans
salt and pepper
chopped fresh mint
Put everything in a pan and just cover with water. Simmer gently until done (anything from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the age of the vegetables), topping up with water if necessary, but ending up with a thick sauce. More fresh mint can be added as a garnish.