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The New (Old) Jewish Diet: It's Not What You Think!

The New (Old) Jewish Diet: It's Not What You Think!

The weather is warm, the ground is green, and you long ago shed your heavy coats and sweaters for more fluid and arm-revealing clothing. But if you're still trying to shed a few pounds to fit comfortably into last summer's shorts, I have a suggestion: Why not try "the Jewish diet"?

Ha!, you're saying. Brisket and bagels and kugel aren't going to help me. But wait a minute. Who said that's what constitutes Jewish food? Not me. If I had said "the Mediterranean diet," you would have thought of grilled fish, fresh, firm vegetables, sun-ripened, brilliant-hued fruits, and fruit drinks, right? Well, that is the Jewish diet!

Many of our Jewish ancestors came from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century when the majority of Jews lived in Ashkenaz (the Hebrew word for Germany that became synonymous with all European Jews). However 90% of the world's Jewish population in the 12th century, and probably 70% during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, were Sephardi Jews (Sepharad is Hebrew for Spanish) and more than 300,000 Jews fled Spain in 1492 to settle mostly around the perimeter of the Mediterranean Sea. Our people's culinary history is inextricably connected to what we now associate with the foods of that sunny region.

The widespread migration of Jews in 1492 to the Ottoman Empire (who were invited by the Sultan to settle there) meant that the foods introduced to Spain by the Moors beginning in 711 CE were now being cooked from Bulgaria, around the ocean to Libya (all part of the Ottoman Empire at that time). As a matter of fact, eggplant, one of the region's most ubiquitous vegetables, is a good example of a food's migration mimicking the migration of the Jews.

Jews brought their love of eggplant with them when they left Spain. Jews were the primary consumers of this member of the nightshade family until the end of the 16th century, when the uninitiated cooks no longer feared it being poisonous. As you watch the migration of smoked eggplant recipes around the perimeter of the sea, you see ingredients indigenous to each country being added to the basic ingredients. For example, smoked eggplant purée was mixed with olive oil and garlic in Romania. In Greece, yogurt was added to the dip. In Turkey, tahini was substituted for the yogurt (e.g., baba ghanoush). In Syria, pomegranate molasses was substituted for the tahini but the garlic and oil remained. Each region used what was readily available.

Oranges and citrus fruit are also heavily associated with the Jewish community. The Romans planted orange trees around the perimeter of the Mediterranean, but after the fall of the Roman Empire orange cultivation declined. However, with the Moor's great understanding of irrigation techniques and the Jew's necessity for the cultivation of etrogim for Sukkot, the citrus industry fell to the Jewish cultivator and merchant. It was during the Crusades that Europeans were introduced to the Jaffa orange.

Traveling to the Mediterranean region to protectively transport the required unblemished etrog back to their communities in Europe, Jewish merchants were introduced to other citrus fruits, which encouraged them to sell oranges, lemons, and limes throughout Europe. The Jews were so associated with these fruits, that when the last orange pushcart in London stopped selling, it was owned by a Jewish merchant.

My recipes for Salmon with Pink Peppercorn Citrus Sauce and Syrian Eggplant with Pomegranate Molasses should brighten your summer cooking, and, perhaps get you back into your summer clothes with room to spare.

Eat in good health!

Tina Wasserman is the author of Entrée to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora and Entrée to Judaism for Families and is a visiting lecturer and scholar-in-residence throughout the country. She serves on the boards of ARZA and URJ Camp Newman, and is a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX. Her recipes can be found at Cooking and More and throughout ReformJudaism.org, where she serves as food editor. Tina can be reached for congregational and organizational events through her website.

Tina Wasserman
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