What You Need to Know about Jewish Cuisine in Italy

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Geese are a dominant source of protein for Jews in the olden times. It is this fascination for fowl that has brought Jewish cuisine into other parts of the world, including Italy; in fact, records show that this famed bird is one of the favorites in the papal kitchen in Rome.

Just a quick review on our history, the Jews is a religious group, and more importantly, they are also a national group. Israel is the nation with the biggest population of Jews. It is home to 43% of the huge 14.3 million Jewish population all over the world.

What is special about Jewish cuisine?

Do you know the bagel with cream cheese and lox is strongly associated to American- Jewish cuisine?

Jewish cuisine is an interesting mix of diversity influenced by their religion’s dietary restrictions, their festivals and their Sabbath traditions. And with the migration of Jewish people to other parts of the world, their cuisines have also been inspired by other culinary traditions and the economics of their locality.

Kashrut is the Jewish laws restricting their diet. Ordinarily, the word “kosher” appears on food items that pass Kashrut laws. The word “kosher” means “proper” referring to the process involved in the preparation of the food which is in accordance with Jewish laws.

Jews may not consume pork or shellfish. When preparing or eating food, meat and dairy are to be kept away from each other. In the preparation of meat items, there is a ritual to be followed in the slaughter, and it is to be salted to totally remove traces of blood.

The traditional Jewish meal starts with pickled food used as appetizers. There is then a main meal which ends with dessert.  Titbits (parperet) is eaten before and after the meal. Wine or beer is very important to a meal. They have a saying, “eating without drinking means suicide.”

Jewish cuisine in Italy

If you are in Rome, you have to stop by the Jewish Ghetto. It is a community of Jews, intended to keep them confined in their area, but their culture and their food had influenced all other communities around it.

Their menu is what is referred to as ‘cucina povera’, which literally means ‘poor cuisine’. In the earlier days, the gates of the Jewish Ghetto were closed at sundown. There was little resources to work with so dishes were made using meat scraps. They used mozzarella, zucchini and small finger fishes from the river. These were fried, but are not greasy and are actually light and crispy.

In the more recent times, these classics may still be found in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, but already updated to include Mediterranean food like hummus, falafel and couscous. Tourists and locals alike enjoy the good food and ambience of this distinct community.

Basics of Jewish cuisine

Here are some basic information you can use:

  1. Fish is not considered meat so it is more common than other foods. Try their Gefilte fish (fish steaks from cod, carp or other large fish) or lox (salmon);
  2. Chicken soup is usually served on holidays and special occasions. It is served with noodles or rice;
  3. Soup may be served with dumplings or matzo balls;
  4. Sour soups are also common, like kraut or cabbage borscht. It naturally uses cabbage. Beet borsht uses beets. Sour salt or citric acid is used for flavoring;
  5. Breads and cakes usually are shaped with symbolic meanings like rings and coins during Rosh Hashanah, or shaped as keys for Hosha’na Rabbah;
  6. Meat recipes like roasted meat, chopped meat and vinegar meat are favorites;
  7. Compote is a staple dessert item. It is fruit in sugar syrup and can be served either warm or cold. This is a favorite dessert because fruit is abundant and the recipe does not use dairy product;
  8. Mehren tzimes is the most popular vegetable side dish, which is sliced carrots. Instead of carrots, you may also use turnips or pears or plums.

Modern cuisine: must-try items

Modern Jewish food influenced by the basics of Jewish cuisine and the artistry of Italian cooking is now very famous all over the world. Jewish-Italian cooking, as it is referred to, has found a niche of its own. Here are some must-try items:

  1. Carciofi alla Giudia. These are artichokes that are fried and drenched in garlic and herbs;
  2. Crostada with apples and apricots. The fruits may be replaced with seasonal figs instead;
  3. Goose or duck prosciutto. The meat is sliced thin, and served with melon, cheese, figs, fried egg, with bruschetta;
  4. Bacalao which is salt cod. It is eaten with a meal or as a snack;
  5. Bottarga, referred to as the Mediterranean caviar. It is made from dried and pressed mullet roe;
  6. Spinaci con Pinoli e Passerine is spinach with raisins and pine nuts;
  7. Pasta casserole dish called Tagliolini colla Crocia or Ruota di Faraone. It answers to both names. It is fettuccine pasta boiled then mixed with beef salami or pickled tongue and raisins, and then baked;
  8. Concia is Roman zucchini fried and marinated in white wine vinegar and fresh mint leaves;
  9. Suppli is best enjoyed with beer or wine. It is egg-shaped, and made from rice, tomato sauce, mozzarella and raw egg, rolled in bread crumbs, and of course, fried;
  10. For dessert, try the pizza Ebraica, which is not pizza, but is a sweet bread with candied almonds, pine nuts and fruits inside.

The heart of Jewish cuisine in Italy or in any other place in the world is the simple ingredients it uses. It speaks of the struggles of this religious group, and their nation in general. It also speaks of their committed adherence to diet restrictions according to their laws. But do not be fooled by the simplicity, because it takes twice as much creativity, and the results are gastronomically amazing.

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