Eastern European Cuisine. Shutterstock
Eastern European Cuisine. Shutterstock
Magazine

Eastern European Cuisine

Or by its more common name - Ashkenazi cuisine - full of nuances and regional differences. In Israel, it changed a lot, but remained soul food

If the cuisines of the Jewish diaspora were school children, Eastern European cuisine would be the kid who is constantly picked on. What hasn’t been said about it? Too bland, too sweet, too fatty, too gray – so many insults for this efficient, smart cuisine, which tries, and succeeds, in getting the very most out of every ingredient. A culinary tradition that brought us a rich and creative variety of techniques to preserve food, from pickling and fermenting to drying and smoking.

The Eastern European Jewish community includes Jews from Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, Hungary, and Romania. The first Jews arrived in the area in the first centuries AD, but the demographic jump and the creation of a community took place in the 12th-14th centuries: Ashkenazi Jews (France, Germany and Austria) were expelled from their countries and migrated east, as were the Jews of England, Italy and Portugal. The Eastern European community has become the largest Jewish community in the world.

In contrast to other Jewish communities across Europe, Eastern European Jews did not assimilate into the local population but congregated in their own towns (shtetel, in Yiddish), and often maintained a distinct lifestyle. The language spoken was Yiddish, which is still spoken among some ultra-Orthodox Jews. Over hundreds of years, the Eastern European community has seen various cultural shifts and religious tides, such as the Hasidic and the Haskalah movements, which are considered milestones in the history of the greater Jewish people.

The snowy winters, kosher laws and frequent changes within local governments made it difficult for the Jews to maintain a nutritious and varied cuisine year round. Fresh vegetables were almost never available, and the main menu was based on grains, root vegetables, cabbage and berries. Meat, fish and dairy foods were usually only served for Shabbat and holiday meals. To ensure a ready stock of food throughout the winter months, Jews stored a variety of foods in their basements (or in barrels tied to the river bank): pickled vegetables, fruit jams, dried or smoked meat cuts, and more.

The Eastern European community sustained its position as the largest Jewish community, and at the beginning of the 20th century it numbered more than 6 million Jews. However, in the Holocaust, the community was almost completely destroyed and most of the survivors immigrated to Israel.

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