7 Questions for Janna Gur, Author of Jewish Soul Food

published Dec 9, 2014
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(Image credit: Daniel Lailah)

With Hanukkah around the corner and Christmas coming soon, holiday cookbook season is in full swing. Among the piles of recently published, glossy tomes, the book I’m most excited about is Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh by Janna Gur.

Gur is the longtime editor of Al Hashulchan, a popular food publication in Israel. Through her work, she has been exposed to hundreds of recipes for what she calls “grandma cooking” — dishes brought with immigrants to Israel from countries, as her title suggests, as far flung as Algeria and Yemen to Poland and Russia. Jewish Soul Food is her love poem to these foods, as well as her attempt to make them “sexy and relevant” to today’s cooks.

“Wherever Jews settled in the Diaspora, they created cuisines. They had to,” writes Gur in the cookbook’s introduction. These dishes were influenced by the countries where they lived, but altered — often significantly — to accommodate for the kosher laws and Jewish holiday observances. When those communities settled in Israel, their foods — herbed fish balls from Morocco, say, or plum dumplings from Hungary — melded into one remarkably diverse, overlapping cuisine.

A native of Riga, Latvia, who immigrated to Israel in 1974 at the age of 15, Gur is both a part of this story and also a curator of it for the cookbook. Recently, I caught up with Gur to find out what makes these dishes so special, and which dishes would be perfect for the Hanukkah table.

7 Questions for Janna Gur

What was your inspiration for the cookbook?

What I wanted to do was give the North American audience a taste of what Jewish foods could be — how diverse and wonderful they are, and how possible it is to make them a part of our modern cooking.

Many of the cuisines being cooked in Israel today are on the verge of extinction because they no longer exist in their original provenance. At the moment, Israel still has first-generation immigrants who are making them. It is a melting pot, but also a living museum. I thought of myself less as a recipe developer and more as a curator. I wanted to take these dishes and present them in a way that felt useful and vibrant.

How did you find the recipes?

I’ve been editing a food magazine, Al Hashulchan, in Israel for the last 15 years, and we also publish a lot of cookbooks. One of the cookbooks is dedicated to what we call “the food of ethnicities” — it describes all of the diverse cuisines found in Israel. So I went through a lot of those recipes and tried to find the top 100. I changed my mind a lot!

What are your favorite recipes?

One of my favorite recipes is plau b’jeej — an Iraqi dish of chicken with rice, almonds, and raisins. It’s a very clever recipe because you cook the chicken in a flavorful combination of water, tomato paste, and spices. Then you use the broth you simmered the chicken in to cook the rice. It is a good example of grandmother cooking, where nothing gets wasted.

The book seems intentionally not focused on Jewish holidays. Was that by design?

Yes, I didn’t want it to be just another Jewish holiday cookbook. So I broke it up into more unusual categories like “starters, salads, and noshes,” or “meatballs, fish balls, and stuffed vegetables,” and “savory pastries.” But there are certainly lots of recipes that people eat on the holidays.

Hanukkah is coming up. Any Hanukkah-specific recipes?

The very last recipe in the book is for bimuelos, Sephardic doughnuts that are eaten on Hanukkah. Then there are a couple others that aren’t officially associated with the holiday, but would work because they are fried. One is for ijeh b’lahmeh, Syrian herb and meat latkes. They are made from ground beef or lamb with lots of parsley, cilantro, and mint, and are formed into patties and fried. They don’t have the traditional latke texture because they are not crispy, but they are delicious.

How did your family celebrate Hanukkah?

In Riga, where I was born, we didn’t celebrate. We were a typical Soviet Jewish family at the time — we felt very Jewish but knew nothing about Judaism. When we moved to Israel, it took us years to connect with the holidays and start to celebrate. Today, in Israel, Hanukkah celebrations are not complete without sufganiyot, or fried jelly doughnuts, which can be found in every bakery around the holiday.

Have you found that readers connect very strongly to recipes in the book?

Yes, absolutely. I wasn’t thinking about people making connections to the specific recipes as I chose them, but people have definitely told me how much it meant to them to see a particular recipe in the book. It is so touching to see that people connect to their families and memories through them. I joke that every dish in this book is somebody’s soul food. For everyone else, it is just great food worth trying.

Find the book at your local library, independent bookstore, or Amazon: Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh, More Than 100 Unforgettable Dishes Updated for Today’s Kitchen by Janna Gur