I know that most people might not immediately associate sauerkraut with Italy – but that’s only because they have never been to the North-Eastern regions! For example, sauerkrauts are actually the main ingredient in Trieste’s signature soup, the Jota (pronounced yota, from the Latin term for soup). Trieste is the largest Italian port city on the Adriatic and was for a long time the trade crossroads between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Western Europe. It also boasts a rich and fascinating Jewish history. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Jews fleeing from German lands settled here to make a living as moneylenders, bankers, and merchants. Even women practiced money-lending in Trieste, an unusual custom at the time. More Jews arrived in the following centuries from Spain and the Ottoman Empire, and finally in the late 18th century from Corfu. Trieste in general, and Jewish Trieste in particular, was cosmopolitan and cultured, and the local dishes give us a little taste of such flair . James Joyce, who lived in Trieste for 16 years and at one point fell in love with his Jewish Triestine student Amalia Popper, would probably agree.
I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it. I had been frying for a couple of weeks already and all my Hanukkah posts were already up. Yet something just felt wrong.
OPS. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t posted anything special for all my readers and friends who are not Jewish and celebrate Christmas. I felt so awful, that I toyed with the idea of attempting a Panettone, the famous Italian Christmas Cake!
However, Panettone is really difficult to make, requiring several phases of exceptionally long rising, and the use of special Italian bread flours that are hard to find. Here is something much quicker, and just as decadent: it’s an ancient Jewish Roman dessert, kind of a cheese pancake, shockingly simple to make, which the Roman Catholic community somehow adopted as the dessert of choice to end their Christmas dinner with (maybe after one too many panettone flops)? .
The Jews of Rome still make it for Shavuot, but of course it would also work for Hanukkah (after all, according to several food historians, the original Hanukkah pancakes were made with cheese). In spite of its minimalism, Cassola is so tasty that Claudia Roden, in her Book of Jewish Food, tells that she enchanted a whole dinner party of food writers with it, at the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery. Cassola is sweet, creamy, and delicate (and naturally low-fat! but you could never tell). May your holiday season be just as delicious!
We have many versions of meatballs. You can use leftover cooked meat instead of raw meat for an even tastier version! Leftover roast beef or brisket are great! You can add 4 tablespoons of very finely chopped olives for a different flavor. You can add leftover cooked spinach, drained well and chopped (in this case decrease the amount of the bread/broth mixture). You can add plumped currants and pine nuts, and end the cooking with some lemon juice, for a sweet-and-sour Sephardic touch. Also try substituting mashed potatoes for the bread/broth mixture.
Try them all!
It was probably Sephardic Jews who transmitted to the rest of the Venetian population their passion for rice, after their arrival in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Venetians are still famous for creamy risottos (we call them “all’onda“, with a wave), to which we add pretty much anything, from chicken livers to fish to… stinging nettles. The usual preparation for risotto, adding hot broth a little at a time, releases so much starch that the rice must be eaten right away or it will clump. The pilaf version, besides reminding us of the Sephardic origins of this dish, can be prepared in advance and reheated for Shabbat. “Risi e Ua” (Rice and Grapes, or Raisins) is THE festive rice dish par excellence among the Jews of Venice, and – like most Jewish venetian recipes – it has also been enjoyed by the general population for a very long time. It’s also great for Hanukkah, in case your stomach cannot survive an all-fried menu and you want to start with something a little more digestible…. About the choice between garlic and onion: there are two schools of thought, and, like Hillel and Shammai, they are both right.
The festival of Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem, which had been looted and desecrated by the soldiers of Syrian-Greek King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century BCE. Mattityahu, a Jewish priest, and his five sons, led a successful rebellion against Antiochus, which resulted in the rededication of the Temple by Mattityahu’s son, Yehudah the Maccabee, in 166 BCE. The Talmud reports that the menorah in the Temple was required to burn every night, but there was only enough oil for one night left: however, the menorah burned for eight days on that little oil, giving the Jews enough time to procure more. The oil used for lighting the menorah was pure, extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive oil, which may explain why Hanukkah resonates so deeply with Italian Jews, inspiring them to create a deluge of mouthwatering recipes
While the miracle of the oil is described in the Talmud, the Book of Maccabees makes no mention of it, stating only that an eight day celebration was proclaimed upon re-dedication of the temple: therefore, a number of historians believe that the reason for the eight day festival was simply that the first Hanukkah was a belated celebration of the harvest holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Azeret, which the Jews had not been able to observe during the war. Obviously, the two explanations are not mutually exclusive, and Hanukkah can very well celebrate the miracle of the oil while also absorbing the previous holiday.
In this spirit, here is a delicious fried treat that incorporates the oil, and the honey (a recurrent symbol that appears on our tables from Rosh haShana to Shemini Azeret): for holiness, and sweetness. And Sambuca… just for fun!
Jewish Italian food has been a tradition for over 2000 years – but it still continues to evolve, even in recent times. The Jewish exodus from Libya in the late 1960es brought about 5000 Libyan Jews to Rome, and their earthy dishes are yet another extraordinary influence on our culinary kaleidoscope. I reached out to my friends at Labna, one of my favorite Italian food blogs, and Jasmine shared these yummy pancakes, a traditional recipe from the Libyan side of her family. Jasmine tells us that in her grandparents’ house the kitchen was usually her grandmother’s realm -she was always the one cooking, and her grandfather only walked in there to obtain coffee. But every year on Hanukkah, Jasmine’s grandfather would wake up early, brave the kitchen and prepare the Sfenz, the traditional water-flour pancakes, like they used to make in Tripoli: a few minutes of easy kneading, a couple of hours of rest, and a dive into the hot oil…. for a most irresistible breakfast. Enjoy Labna‘s special treat!
Pumpkin arrived in Italy after the discovery of the Americas, and Northern Italian Jews liked it so much that in Venice we called it “suca baruca” (holy pumpkin, from the Hebrew “baruch”). When pumpkin made its appearance, Venice in general -and Jewish Venice in particular – was a crossroad of peoples and cultures, in which countless examples of what we would now call “Fusion” cuisine came to life. These fritters, which include spices and candied fruit, are a great example! I also contributed this recipe for a guest post on my friends’ lovely Italian blog Labna, which you should check out (especially if you read Italian!)…. and stay tuned for Labna’s own awesome guest post here, coming tomorrow!!!!!