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Salt of the earth: how Jews took food global

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From spices to sugar to pickles, Jews are “the original culinary movers and shakers”, said Jewish food researcher, writer, and lecturer Joel Haber at Limmud Johannesburg last weekend.

“For me, food history isn’t really about the history of food, it’s about understanding the culture via the food,” said Haber, who made aliya from the United States in 2009. “In the world today, between 85% and 90% of the food consumed in any place isn’t being consumed where it’s indigenous.”

We therefore need to ask when these foods reached these destinations, who brought them, and why. “Jews, disproportionate to our numbers, have been involved in the transportation of food around the world,” Haber said. There are three reasons for this, one of which is that we have literally lived in almost every place in the world at some point in history.

Also, with the exception of modern Israel, wherever Jews have lived, we have been the minority, which has facilitated our role as transporters of food. In addition, we have sometimes transported food for religious reasons, for example in the case of the etrog (citron), which we need for Sukkot. Because of this, Jews have always grown etrogim and other citrus fruit around the world.

Jews have been engaged in international trade from ancient times. Starting in Mesopotamia – today’s Iraq – in the sixth century, Jews living in the area were involved in the spice trade. Spices were extremely expensive, but light, non-perishable, and easy to transport, creating a profitable industry.

In the ninth century, the world was essentially split between Christian Europe and a Muslim North Africa and Middle East. As Jews didn’t fit into either of these groups, it allowed us to cross over and facilitate trade and the adoption of cross-cultural dishes.

Jews were also heavily involved in the processing of sugar cane, indigenous to Mesopotamia, into sugar. As sugar was a new industry and the Jews were an outsider population, there were no barriers to entry. The Portuguese later established colonies off the northwest coast of Africa, including Madeira, where there were many Crypto Jews – Jews who pretended to be Catholic as a result of the Spanish Inquisition – working in the sugar cane fields. For safety, they later moved across to South America, where they established plantations and transported sugar to Europe via the Jewish community living in Curaçao.

Even today, about 50% of sugar isn’t made from sugar cane but from sugar beets. These beets were first processed commercially by Jews in Galicia, which today is part of Ukraine, and later throughout Eastern Europe. This has had a lasting impact on Jewish food, specifically in the case of the “gefilte fish line”, which explains why some make gefilte fish sweet – as their ancestors lived where sugar was manufactured and was therefore cheaper – while others prefer a salty or peppery flavour.

“As Sephardic Jews moved around the Mediterranean to Western Europe and the Americas, there are examples of food that we brought with us, some of which affect our cuisine and others that affect the cuisine of the non-Jews around us.” Even chilli con carne, a Mexican or Texan dish cooked overnight using meat and beans, plausibly originates from a Spanish Shabbat stew known as adafina, similar to cholent, said Haber.

In America today, there’s what’s known as “Jewish food” available throughout the country. An example of this is “kosher dill pickles” – pickles that are fermented in salt and water as opposed to soaked in vinegar. This preparation method was common in Eastern Europe, where it wasn’t specifically Jewish, yet it was through Jewish immigrants that Americans discovered the resulting pickles.

Israel today is the greatest example of bringing together food from everywhere, said Haber. At Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda Market, where he runs tours, he said one finds foods from more than 20 different countries of origin, side by side.

“Sometimes those foods blend and create genuine melting pot foods,” he said. This includes the popular Israeli street food sabich, which essentially is thinly sliced fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg, and tehina. Sabich, an Iraqi Jewish food, was originally a breakfast dish. In Israel, where street food is popular, these ingredients were shoved into a pita. The rest is history.

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