The little-known Jewish connections to a few of the world's favorite foods
Fish and chips — the classic English street food combo of deep-fried, breaded fish fillets and crispy chips (French fries to Americans).
Chili con carne — that spicy, meaty, slow cooked stew that is so well-known from the American Southwest.
Foie gras — fatty goose or duck liver, often utilized in any number of French haute cuisine dishes.
What do they all have in common? While widely eaten and strongly associated with their regions of origin, each have little known connections to the Jewish people, and their history.
Fish and Chips
The strongest (and best known) of the connections applies to fish and chips. Invented in the immigrant-heavy East End of London, this dish combines two elements that share one production method — deep frying.
Frying battered fish fillets (for this dish, plaice, cod or haddock are most common) was typical to Sephardic Jewish cooking. The Oxford Companion to Food notes:
“As Claudia Roden (1996) observes, there was a strong Jewish tradition of frying fish in batter and eating it cold. And it was ‘fried fish in the Jewish fashion’ which Thomas Jefferson discovered when he came to London and which was included in the first Jewish cookbook in English (1846).”
The Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and it wasn’t until the 17th century that Jews were allowed to openly settle and practice their religion in the country. The new Jewish communities were largely from Holland and of Spanish-Portuguese descent. Many settled in London’s East End, and, in fact, the oldest continuously used synagogue in the United Kingdom is the Sephardic Bevis Marks Synagogue in that area.
By the 19th century, there were also a number of Irish immigrants in the same part of the city, and their chips shops stood alongside those of Jewish fishmongers. Jewish immigrant Joseph Malin has been recognized as the first to look at these two deep-fried foods and put them together into one delicious combo, apparently some time in the early 1860s.
On a side note, the Sephardim typically covered their fried fish in “agristada” — a thick lemon-egg sauce that is still common today. As they moved in a different direction from Spain following the Expulsion, some arrived in Greece. There, according to historian Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, they left their mark on the local cuisine, and Greeks have a soup that incorporates this sauce, known as “avgolemono” (literally “egg-lemon”).
Chili con Carne
That same Expulsion edict that sent Jews east towards Greece (as well as Italy, Turkey and other places) and north to Holland and later to England, also sent Jews in other directions.
Some found their way to the New World, starting early communities in places such as Suriname, Curacao, Brazil and Mexico. Though some of these immigrants were openly Jewish, there were also large contingents of so-called “Crypto-Jews” — those who outwardly converted to Christianity (known as “Conversos” or “New Christians”), yet secretly maintained some connection to their Jewish heritage, due to the authority of the Inquisition even in the New World.
Though Mexicans had already been making stews that included chili peppers, Marks and others have suggested that it may have been these same “Crypto-Jews” who first added meat and beans to the dish.
Chili con carne has similar ingredients — and a similar slow-cooking method — as hamin, the traditional Shabbat stew, which took a big culinary leap forward during the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, when new ingredients were added and the dish became notably more sophisticated.
Interestingly, there is even evidence from Inquisition records of New Christians in Brazil making Sabbath stews of beef and chili peppers. While this is unlikely to be a direct antecedent to chili con carne, due to the geographic distance, it does show a similar predilection and perhaps even a connection to a shared culinary precursor.
The Jewish connection to foie gras is more certain than to chili con carne, though somewhat less significant than to fish and chips. People have engaged in the process of purposefully fattening geese since ancient times, both in Egypt and Rome. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, it may have been Italian Jews who preserved this tradition and transported it to Western Europe, though others believe that the Romans themselves may have originally brought the technique to France.
Either way it became a very Jewish endeavor, such that by the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Jews specialized in the process of creating foie gras and were recognized as the masters of it.
Interestingly, the foie gras itself was not the primary goal of these Jewish goose farmers.
Rather, it was a by-product of the desire to create enough schmaltz — rendered poultry fat — for cooking through the year. Since the laws of kashrut forbid any mixing of milk and meat, butter could not be used as a cooking medium for any meat product, and since pork is also forbidden, lard (rendered pig fat) could also not be used.
While Jews living around the Mediterranean Basin and across the Middle East had access to olive oil, this was inaccessible to the Jews living in more northern climes, so they would render the fat of geese, ducks and chickens, and use that schmaltz for much of their cooking. For similar reasons, agristada’s popularity among Sephardic Jews is also largely due to the fact that it could be used as a thickener for meat soups and stews in place of butter.
Jews were also amongst the first to mash the foie gras into a paste, and mix in things such as egg and onions. This not only developed into the French pâté de foie gras but also into another traditional Ashkenazic favorite, chopped liver.
Many people today have issues with foie gras, due to their perception of the pain inflicted on the geese during force-feeding. Some have presented evidence of Jewish ethical opposition to the practice going back at least until the 12th century, however Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky has convincingly argued that these sources have been misinterpreted. According to Zivotofsky, there has been significant opposition to the practice based in Jewish law over the centuries and into the modern period, though it stemmed from concerns about dietary restrictions (kashrut), as opposed to being driven by ethical objections.
Nonetheless, in more recent history many Jewish voices have spoken out against the practice and over the past two decades, Israel has been one of the world’s leaders in legislation prohibiting the production and sale of foie gras.
Dozens of dishes from around the world include the word “Jewish” in their names, but on a deeper level, there have been many examples over the centuries – like fish and chips, chili con carne, foie gras and avgolemono to name just a few – when the Jewish influence was more subtle, remaining largely under the radar.
Jews have spread all over the world throughout history, and have integrated (to greater or lesser degrees) into the cultures that surrounded them.
The foods they ate have often – if not always – been influenced by what non-Jewish neighbors ate, many times altered in order to meet the requirements of kashrut. Yet, the influence in the other direction, of Jewish cooking on other culinary traditions, is too often overlooked and is more significant than many of us may have ever realized.
A version of this article first appeared on The Taste of Jewish Culture. It has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.
Sources and Related Reading
The Jewish Kitchen: Recipes and Stories from Around the World, Clarissa Hyman
Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks
“Foie Gras ‘Fake News’: A Fictitious Rashi and a Strangely Translated Ethical Will”, Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky