Food & Drink

Book Review: ‘The New Mediterranean Jewish Table,’ by Joyce Goldstein — Old World Recipes for the Modern Home

My earliest culinary culture shock happened in a restaurant in Israel in 1973. I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich, commonly served in the US on sliced white or rye bread. What came on my plate was something that looked like a tan Frisbee oozing with cheese. “This is a grilled cheese sandwich?” I asked. This grilled cheese on pita bread was my introduction to Middle Eastern food, a cuisine that was as foreign to me then as I probably was to the waiter when I asked him what I was eating.

Since then, Middle Eastern restaurants have become among my best-loved places to eat. In fact, when we visit my son in Las Vegas, he takes us to one of our now favorite places that specializes in dishes from the Mediterranean rim, which includes Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, etc. (21 countries in all). These countries’ dishes display a diversity that is not part of what is known as “traditional” Jewish food in the US, that is, food from Eastern Europe (Poland, Germany, Romania, etc.) and Russia. Jews from these countries are known as Ashkenazi Jews.

As Joyce Goldstein explains in her excellent Introduction to The New Mediterranean Jewish Table, recently released by University of California Press, that “Because Mediterranean Jews did not immigrate to the United States in large numbers, their delicious and varied cuisines have been nearly unknown here until recently.” With more than 400 recipes, including many variations on traditional dishes, this book is a culinary encyclopedia of Middle Eastern foods to delight the palate and introduce flavors that will be new and exciting. The author separates the cuisines between Sephardic and Mediterranean Jews by dividing them into Sephardic, Maghrebi, and Mizrachi kitchens and doing the research to identify their traditional spices and ingredients, “to create the signature profile of each group.” Goldstein calls these traditional flavor combinations “spice medleys” that appear over and over again in a particular country.

The book does not tell us how to make a variety of cream cheese flavors to smear on bagels. It offers no recipes for kugel (noodle and potato puddings), matzoh ball soup, chopped liver, gefilte fish, knishes or other “traditional” dishes you can find in a Jewish delicatessen and restaurant. Instead, Goldstein treats us  to delicious recipes using spices that might taste exotic to an American palette, such as harissa and za’atar, but are considered traditional to Middle Eastern fare.

What I especially like about the recipes is that for each one the author gives a mini-history of the dish, so that we are not only gathering recipes, but also taking a culinary journey through countries that have the vast Mediterranean Sea as their backyards.  The introduction does an excellent job of explaining the different cuisines and how they have been adapted for the kosher/diaspora palates. As Goldstein explains, kosher dietary laws exclude combining meat and dairy together, the use of fish without scales, and certain cuts of meat. (Vegetables are thus a large part of the cookbook to be served with meat, poultry, or fish, but not pork or shellfish.)

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. September 14, 2016 at 12:30 am

    Thanks for this excellent book review.
    I love that the author gives us stories snd history with the recipes.

  • Roz Warren September 13, 2016 at 4:15 pm