In her last book, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, Joan Nathan discovered the breadth of international influences on the cooking of one ethnic group in one country. Now, she has expanded her range to include the entire world.
In King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, she searches out dishes that have been cooked by members of the Diaspora for hundreds (even thousands) of years, many using ingredients that could have been brought to ancient Israel by the bevy of wives that famous monarch married to cement alliances – by some counts, seven hundred wives and three hundred mistresses!
Not only did the spices come in by marriage, but the king fed his other appetites by sending traders to the ends of the known world, bringing materials to build his great Temple and enriching the lives of his subjects with the imported products.
And, centuries later, after the Babylonian exile and return, when the Romans forced the Jews to disperse, they took those foodways with them. Across the miles and years, the exiles adapted their food to local ingredients, always constrained by the rules of kashrut: one may eat only cloven-hoofed animals that chew their cud; no shellfish allowed; and cooks must separate milk-based dishes from meat.
Before we reach the wide-ranging treasury of recipes, there is a fascinating history of the Jews and their food, beginning with Babylonian cuneiform tablets from 1700 BCE, the earliest known recorded recipes. Alas, Joan does not transcribe any of these for us, but she does include a reference in the book’s extensive bibliography.
And those recipes, how cookable are they? Very, for she has adapted them for modern methods, and includes suggestions for substitutions. Each one includes a story about its source and a description of how she has changed it, if necessary. As they are grouped by conventional categories (Morning, Starters, Salads, Soups, etc.), the temporal and geographic threads of history are obscured, and dishes from various continents and centuries are bunched up together. Still, each sounds tastier than the next. It was hard to decide what to try, but my method devolved to the following: I went with what I happened to have on hand.
I had a little sample bottle of argan oil, and the recipe for “Green Salad with Baby Lettuce, Flowers, and an Argan Oil Dressing with Shallots” was just the thing. I discovered that argan oil has a delicious, nutty taste that come through in the dressing, even mixed with olive oil, rice vinegar, and garlic; and, bonus, it emulsifies immediately and doesn’t separate (at least for the short while between mixing and dressing).
“Tunisian Carrot Salad with Cumin, Coriander, and Caraway” was delicious up until the addition of the harissa, which made it hot, hot, hot! So, caveat eater.
No such warning need be given for the “Couscous con le Sarde: Sardines with Fennel, Onions, Currents and Pine Nuts over Couscous,” which I made with flounder, following Joan’s suggestion to substitute whitefish for the sardines. I found this made the dish a little bland, but adding more lemon juice and salt perked it up.
The best dish I tried was the “Indian Chicken with Cardamom, Cumin, and Cilantro.” I was delighted to discover that I had all of the 14 herbs and spices called for in my pantry, refrigerator or garden, and here’s a picture of some of them:
It was delicious, and well worth the trouble to get them all together.
And now for the quibble: the book weights 3 1/2 pounds. You need a cookbook holder to prop it up, and some of the recipes suffer from DOT (Dreaded Overleaf Transgression), which would make it No Fun to try to cook them while flipping the pages.
But this is a small price to pay for the stories, recipes and vision of a people surviving, deliciously, for thousands of years.
King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, by Joan Nathan, Knopf, New York, 2017.