Chicken soup, please: foodies discover a taste for Jewish fare

When Marilyn Monroe first visited Arthur Miller's parents for Friday night supper, her ignorance of Jewish food was all too apparent. "Gee, Arthur, these matzo balls [dumplings] are pretty nice," Monroe declared. "But isn't there any other part of the matzo you can eat?"

Times have changed, and today even Monroe would know that the matzo does not bite. Jewish food, long derided as stodgy fare from Eastern Europe, has suddenly become fashionable. While chicken soup and salt beef were once confined to traditional eateries such as Blooms and Reubens, now one of London's leading new restaurants is serving them.

The Wolseley, in Piccadilly - the sister restaurant to the Ivy, favoured by celebrities - is booked out on a diet that includes chopped liver, chicken soup and salt beef alongside clearly non-Jewish cuisine such as oysters and spit-roast suckling pig. London even boasts the first "fusion" kosher restaurant, which is also the first kosher restaurant in the world to make it into the Michelin guide.

There are two types of Jewish cooking. One is the chopped liver, chopped herring and borscht variety from Eastern Europe favoured by Ashkenazi Jews - most British people's idea of "typical" Jewish food. The other is the cuisine of Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East, which is often regarded as more fashionable. Sephardi food includes an exotic array of tastes, is spicier and more likely to be grilled. The high priestess of this cuisine is the cookery writer Claudia Roden.

But as Jews sit down to their Passover meal tomorrow, which is followed by eight days of eating matzo - the giant "cracker" that represents the unleavened bread eaten by Jews on their biblical flight out of Egypt - there will be some mirth that gentiles are doing the same all year round. For in supermarkets, matzo sells to more non-Jews than Jews andis eaten by four times as many gentiles, according to its manufacturers.

"The number of non-Jewish people who have been converted to matzo has grown over the past 20 years," said Donald MacFarlane, managing director of Rakusen.

Clarissa Hyman, the author of The Jewish Kitchen, said the matzo has crossed over to the mainstream. "Bagels have paved the way and matzos followed," she said. "They've got no fat and no salt. And no taste. Jewish people are always amazed when non-Jewish people say they like matzo - it's like flat cardboard."

Howard Jacobson, the Jewish author and Independent columnist, said: "Jewish food is mystical and magical but it's always a disappointment. Jewish food is designed to promote dissatisfaction and argument. And we like to argue. But there is also an element of mirth in Jewish food that we all like."

Some kosher restaurateurs have welcomed the increase in non-Jewish people experiencing Jewish food. Jay Sinclair, the director of the "kosher fusion" restaurant Six-13 in London, said: "We were the first kosher restaurant in Britain to embrace the non-Jewish market. It used to be very 'ghettofied', just eaten in north London. Everything was family run.

"In a multicultural society people's choice of food has increased, but why hasn't kosher food played a part in that? The more people know about Jewish culture the better things will be."

BACON BAGELS, AND OTHER RARITIES

Simon Round, food writer for The Jewish Chronicle, assesses the crossover appeal of some of the more common Jewish food

Bagel

What is it? Round roll with a hole. Like bread, but nicer.

Where can you get it? Everywhere. Chains such as Bagel Factory and Ixxy's are ubiquitous at train stations. They even sell bacon bagels. Go figure.

Crossover appeal: "It's the influence of New York. Most people don't realise bagels are Jewish in origin. It's a universal thing now. We've lost ownership of that one."

Matzo

What is it? A thin crispy cracker made from wheatflour and water.

Where can you get it?Alongside all other crackers.

Crossover appeal: "They're low fat,and they've been sold as low fat. Why else would anyone buy them?"

Chicken soup

What is it? Chicken stock with onions and carrots, and usually with dumplings.

Where can you get it?

If you're Jewish, at home. Your mother makes it, and makes it better than anyone.

Crossover appeal:

"It's popularright around the world. Chinese chicken noodle soup is similar, basic ingredients are same. Most cultures have a version of it - they just don't realise it's Jewish chicken soup."

Chopped liver

What is it?

Chicken livers chopped and blended with onion, garlic and salt.

Where can you get it?

Home-made, like the soup.

Crossover appeal:

"Similar to chicken liver pâté. Authentic chopped liver has boiled egg on top. It's more stodgy than chicken liver pâté, but still very flavoursome."

Gefilte fish

What is it?

Chopped fish made into balls with some egg, and boiled in stock.

Where can you get it?

From Jewish supermarkets, in bottles. Otherwise, guess what? It's home made.

Crossover appeal:

"Never going to catch on. After cooking it at home, you have to evacuate the premises for at least seven days. It's not sexy. Adding chrain (horseradish) doesn't help either."

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