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What is British Jewish food, really?
The story of Jewish food in Britain. Words by Dan Hancox
This article is a part of Vittles British Jewish Food Week. To read the rest of the essays and guides in the project, please subscribe below:
What is British Jewish food, really?, by Dan Hancox
The story of Jewish food in Britain.
We talk surprisingly little about Jewish food in this country. This is surprising only because it has long been right here, hiding on shelves, in cookery shows and on menus of non-kosher restaurants and cafes, constantly adapting and assimilating, ducking from the low murmur of antisemitism and a historic distrust of foreign food. It has long been right here, and yet it never really gets noticed. American–Jewish food is a vernacular cuisine and a source of proud civic identity in New York, bursting out from its many world-famous kosher and Jewish-style delis, while in the UK we have matzo ball soup wearing a disguise and hoping to go undetected on the menu at The Wolseley (‘Chicken Soup with Dumplings – £10.95’).
There are Jewish culinary presences in the mainstream of British life that you could be forgiven for overlooking: mediocre, shelf-stable bagels in grab bags called something like ‘All-American Hollywood Empire State Bagel’; chicken noodle soup as a homely curative; gleaming orange belts of smoked salmon in the supermarket; stout jars of gherkins in vinegar; a slab of baked cheesecake or apple strudel lurking behind the more flamboyant pastries in a cafe; the unexpected salt-beef-and-parsley pie I bought from a food van at a lower-league football match.
The most famous of these – which has become a common piece of ‘Did You Know?’ pub trivia – is the notion that ‘fish and chips is actually Jewish’. Which it is, sort of, mostly. The deep-frying of some kind of white fish, tossed in a flour batter, can probably be linked to Portuguese Sephardic Jewish refugees who came to Britain as far back as the sixteenth century. In Oliver Twist (1838), Charles Dickens situates Fagin, ‘The Jew’, in a rank-smelling ‘commercial colony’ of Farringdon shops, which includes a ‘fried-fish warehouse’. For many years fried fish was sold by street hawkers, independently of another continental (gentile) import: chipped and fried potatoes ‘in the French style’. The received wisdom contends that the first person to bring the two together was probably Joseph Malin, who opened Malin’s in East London in 1860. By 1910 there were an estimated 25,000 fish and chip shops in Britain (there are now less than half that number).
There are key British–Jewish figures right across the world of food, behind the scenes and in its centre. Tesco – beginning as a market stall selling groceries – was founded in 1919 by Jack Cohen, the son of a Polish–Jewish migrant tailor in Whitechapel. Michael Marks, of Marks & Spencer, was another Polish–Jewish migrant and market trader, who arrived in Britain in 1882 and created the company two years later. The list of influential names continues: it includes Richard Caring, owner of The Ivy and Le Caprice; Gail Mejia, after whom the 100-strong chain of Gail’s Bakeries is named; cookbook icons Claudia Roden, Evelyn Rose and unofficial monarch of British home cooking Nigella Lawson; molecular maestro Heston Blumenthal; food journalist and adopted Brit Paul Levy, who coined the word ‘foodie’ (don’t hold that against him) and restaurant reviewers Giles Coren (don’t hold that against us) and Jay Rayner. There are centuries-old British–Jewish food businesses still thriving today, which I confess I had never thought much about until compelled to look up their histories: Rakusen’s of Yorkshire, making matzos and other biscuits since 1900, or Goldstein Salmon, which began when Wolfe Goldstein started a smoked-salmon business in London in 1911. Once you begin to tell the story of British-Jewish food, you are telling a substantive part of the story of British food in general.
There have been Jews living in Britain for a good while. We have been both refugees to Britain, escaping persecution, and refugees from Britain, escaping persecution. After centuries of expulsions, racist laws and other forms of marginalisation, by the 1800s Britain’s Jews had, for the first time, attained a degree of social and economic stability. Many Jews had assimilated, or arrived by choice, as secular middle-class migrants from continental Europe, carried by the gathering winds of global trade and industry. And as the nineteenth century progressed, Britain’s small Jewish community progressed, too – street hawkers became shopkeepers, boys were apprenticed into trades, and second and third generations began to establish themselves.
In 1846, as part of this familiar trend of migrant community self-betterment, the first Jewish cookbook was published in Britain: the snappily titled The Jewish Manual; or Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery with a Collection of Valuable Recipes & Hints Relating to the Toilette, ‘Edited by A Lady’. It is a fascinating historical document, a cookbook and domestic-etiquette guide – similar to Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, but published a full fifteen years earlier. In its recipes there are calves’ heads, knuckles of veal, force-meat and other such Victorian gore, and not much reference to kosher or Jewish festival food – but there is a ‘matso soup’ in there, along with kugel, salt beef brisket, sauerkraut and fried fish. The book’s Jewishness is, like that of my secular, mixed-background family (my dad’s side of the family are Methodists from Birmingham), far from ostentatious, but still there; semi-occluded (‘Palestine salad’), mingled in with Britishness (‘muligatawny’), Europeanness (‘stewed fish in the Dutch fashion’), and the food trends of the time (‘petits vol-au-vents’, ‘casserole au riz’ and other French classics ‘now in general use at all refined modern tables’).
The story of modern British–Jewish food begins not with a bowl of soup, but with a pogrom. Approximately 150,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Britain between 1880 and 1914, following antisemitic riots, violence and increasingly brutal and repressive laws in Tsarist Russia. It is for this reason that most of the twentieth century’s British–Jewish food has been Ashkenazi – the part of the Jewish diaspora whose roots lie in central and eastern Europe. It is the food of the shtetls (small Jewish villages), based in the ‘Pale of Settlement’ – the parts of the Russian Empire within which Jews were restricted to living, an area which overlaps with modern-day Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine, Poland, Latvia and Romania.
This cohort of Ashkenazi migrants to Britain were generally much poorer and generally more religious than some of their more assimilated, middle-class predecessors, speaking Yiddish rather than German. The migrants often arrived via the North Sea ports of Hull, Newcastle and Grimsby. Some stuck around, while others congregated in major industrial centres like Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool; the majority, famously, settled into squalid conditions in the overcrowded East End of London. The banner of the London Jewish Bakers’ Union (1925) is a beautifully illustrated testament to that moment in time, when the militancy and solidarity of local working-class Jews helped see off Mosley’s fascists at Cable Street. ‘Buy bread with the union label,’ the LJBU banner urges us, the statement framed by a solid white tin-loaf and plaited challah. It is easy to romanticise the food of our ancestors, to assume that hearty, healthy, unprocessed fare was the norm – just good, heimish (homey) cooking, and nary a Lunchable in sight. In truth, people complained about crap and inauthentic food then, just as they do now. A 1911 Jewish Chronicle article on Jewish restaurants in the East End lamented that ‘ninety per cent of these establishments are unworthy of the name of restaurant or, indeed, of kosher’.
There are many places (in London in particular) that swirl with happier memories of Jewish dining. Places like The Cosmo on Finchley Road, which was open from 1937 until 1998, a favourite of Sigmund Freud and a ‘sanctuary’ for refugees and Holocaust survivors. This was a white-tablecloth restaurant, serving the kind of food that would ‘make you want to float slowly down the Danube after lunch’, as Will Self once put it. For a time in the mid-twentieth century, it was common to hear Austrian-accented German in Finchley, and bus conductors passing through would call out ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Vienna’ or ‘Finchleystrasse’. The JS, the oldest kosher restaurant in Manchester, also dates back to this period – it opened in 1956, and still sells salt beef, chicken soup and schnitzel today (now in the guise of JS on the Corner).
For a long time, this kind of substantial Mitteleuropean fare was British–Jewish food. It is the same food that evokes the Czech–Jewish side of my ancestry: goulash, stewed red cabbage, chicken schnitzels, pickled herring, potato salads and chicken noodle soup, along with apple strudel, and heavy Austrian breads and cakes like strietzel (a dense plaited raisin bread), pflaumenkuchen (a crumble-topped plum cake) and marillenknödel (apricot dumplings swimming in melted butter and sugar). When I think of meals at my Nana’s house, the flavours high in the mix are paprika, caraway seeds and dill; allspice, honey and cinnamon.
My grandparents were born in what was then still the Austro–Hungarian empire; raised in Czechoslovakia and then forced to flee the Nazi invasion in 1939; and lived the rest of their lives in Britain, while their homeland became first the Czech Republic and now Czechia. Like all migrants trying to recreate ‘home’ in a new kitchen with unfamiliar ingredients, they were always adapting. When my mum was growing up in Bradford in the 1950s and 60s, my German-speaking Nana and Pop would go to a Polish shop, run by Ukrainians, to buy food that reminded them of the old country, which was Czechoslovakia. They would buy what they called ‘continental bread’ (usually a rye as dense and heavy as a ship’s anchor, packed with caraway seeds), proper imported frankfurters and good vinegary gherkins. Jewish cuisine and national cuisines do not comfortably overlap, because Jews and borders do not have the greatest of histories.
When Claudia Roden arrived in Britain from Cairo as a teenager in 1954, Jewish food here was dominated by the Ashkenazi palate: strudels and goulash, bagels, salmon and pickled everything – and a profusion of salt beef sandwich bars in the heart of Soho. ‘I remember going to a Jewish exhibition, and a stranger asking me “You’re not from Soho, are you? So which Jewish community are you from?”’, Roden told me over the phone from her London home. ‘Of course I had come from Egypt, but there was no food from the Middle East around then. They couldn’t make sense of it.’
When Roden presented dishes like baba ganoush from her Egyptian, Sephardic Jewish tradition (which is really a thousand different traditions, encompassing more than half the globe), she was met with bewilderment by Ashkenazi Jewish Brits. ‘They looked incredulous and asked, “Are you sure you’re Jewish?” It would have been hard to imagine then that Sephardi food would eventually become so fashionable in Britain.’
Recent years have seen a small but growing mingling of the culinary templates of eastern and central Europe with the myriad Sephardic traditions; many kosher restaurants now list shawarma on their menus alongside schnitzel, sabich alongside sauerkraut. Perhaps this can partly be traced to the formation of the state of Israel, the mingling of cultures there, and then the latter-day migration of Israeli-born chefs to Britain and beyond. The writer and poet Atar Hadari has documented the evolution of the Prestwich Orthodox community’s interests of the last two decades, as it moves towards tagines, shakshuka and laffa bread (not to mention kosher sushi). For Helen Graham, Executive Chef at acclaimed vegetarian Middle Eastern restaurant Bubala (now with two outlets in London), it has been a case of journeying from one tradition to another.
‘I grew up eating a lot of schnitzel and oven chips,’ she recalled over coffee. ‘Or we ate things like vorsht [a highly processed beef sausage], sometimes fried in chicken fat, or salt beef slices and super-processed turkey – quite a beige palate. It was really as Ashkenazi as it gets.’ Graham grew up in north-west London with working-class Eastern European Jewish heritage. There were, she told me, almost no spices in her kitchen cupboards growing up: just white pepper for kneidlach and cinnamon for eggy bread.
The food coming out of the Bubala kitchen, on the other hand – the labneh and za’atar, the homemade laffa, but also the miso and tamari – feels very of the moment. ‘I really have tried to write Ashkenazi menus in the past,’ Graham said, ‘and it’s something I really struggled with. I would like more of my heritage on the menu, but it’s a challenge. It feels like there’s such a finite list of options.’ Trying to write a vegetarian menu in this tradition would be particularly tricky. ‘Ashkenazi food without schmaltz – what is it? When I was growing up my mum had a huge tub of schmaltz and would literally just cook everything in it. Everything tastes better cooked in chicken fat, but it’s heavy food. It’s so much harder to bring the Ashkenazi element of yourself along.’
Is this Ashkenazi culinary heritage under threat in Britain? Graham thinks so – she cites Bloom’s, London’s legendary kosher Jewish deli restaurant, which closed in 2010 after ninety years in business. ‘The death of Bloom’s was one of the worst things to happen! I had a relative who only ate at Bloom’s. He was there every single day – he looks like a salt beef sandwich.’ There have been other high-profile closures. Titanics, the longest-running kosher deli in Manchester – so-called because its founder Joseph Hyman survived the sinking of the actual RMS Titanic – went under in 2016 after 103 years in business. Similarly, Browdy’s delicatessen in Birmingham shut in 2009 after 96 years. Gaby’s Deli in London’s West End shut in 2018 after 53 years. More recently, Monty’s Deli opened in 2010 and seemed to promise a modish, street-food-market revival of salt beef on rye, pickles and soup, but did not survive the pandemic: they closed their Hoxton restaurant in 2021.
These closures are reflected in a wider trend: there is a decline narrative to the tradition of twentieth-century British–Jewish food that is unavoidable. A letter from a Tony Zendle to the Jewish Chronicle in July 2022 reflected that, since UNESCO had placed borscht onto its ‘endangered heritage’ list, maybe the same protection was needed for ‘schmaltz herring, kneidlach, gribenes, fissnogge and eingermacht’ – as ‘British Jewish cuisine is becoming increasingly Ottolenghified… with a friendly invasion of Israeli chefs’. The notion of this Ashkenazi ‘cucina povera’ being muscled out by coreligionists brandishing tubs of tahini and sprigs of mint stuck in my head, especially as I looped around London in search of gefilte fish, kreplach and kishke. I wound up at Deli 98 in Stamford Hill – one of surprisingly few in the area, given that it contains Europe’s largest Hasidic community, but then a lot of the dining is done in community spaces and private homes, as is often the case in poorer migrant communities.
Deli 98 is a plain but not unfriendly cafe and deli which opened in 2014 with an interestingly broad spread of options, covering many parts of the diaspora – both the fashionable and the less fashionable. On my visit I picked up a tub of the sweet and smoky red pepper dip matbucha, the Moroccan Sephardi base of the increasingly ubiquitous brunch option shakshuka. There were other ‘Ottolenghi Effect’ options – several iterations of aubergine and tahini – plus Chinese crispy beef, sweet and sour chicken, and even a sriracha aubergine dish. There were numerous varieties of lokshen kugel, the baked noodle dish sweetened with egg and cream that is actually heavier by weight than gold; the ‘Yerushalmi’ (Jerusalem) variety, its sugar caramelised into a dense dark brown crust, was delicious. There were also several variations of pickled herring, pickled cucumber and substantial tubs of chicken soup and matzo balls, but no chopped liver, gefilte fish, gribenes (chicken skins and onions, fried in schmaltz), eingemacht (a preserved beetroot condiment), fisnogge (a garlic-heavy calves’ foot jelly) or tsimmes (a stew of carrots and dried fruit) – though doubtless many of these were being prepared in homes nearby.
It also seems odd to speak of a food culture in decline at a point when a semi-coded version of food eaten and produced by Jews – Israeli food, Middle Eastern food, Levantine food (it is rarely explicitly called ‘Jewish food’) – is thriving in Britain, and you can’t move for halloumi, hummus and falafel on pub menus, sumac, zhoug and za’atar on TV cooking shows, a jars of preserved lemons in the supermarket. And even if we are now in the slightly humiliating place where both Sainsbury’s and Tesco are selling ‘New York-style salt beef’ like we’ve never heard of the stuff before, at least it’s there. Outside the capital, passionate advocates like the Cholent Connoisseur are doing their utmost to make the most old-school and untrendy of Ashkenazi dishes cool again.
I returned home to one of my mum’s well-loved, kitchen-stained cookbooks, still stuffed with newspaper clippings and theatre tickets from the 1990s. Evelyn Rose’s Complete International Jewish Cookbook (1976) is a good tonic for pessimism about the dearth of decent bagels in Britain, deli and restaurant closures, and the unsuitability of a mulch of grey chopped liver for rambunctious Instagram reels of bougie street-food markets. It’s a comforting reminder to step back, zoom out and not worry too much about short-term trends: most of these foodstuffs and traditions have survived centuries – millennia, even. Rose reflects on the origin of the bagel – should it be dated to the defeat of the Turks at Vienna in 1683? Does it originate with Galician Jews? Or in fifteenth-century French bakeries? Maybe don’t fret and just enjoy your breakfast, she concludes.
But it doesn’t stop there. The Jewish passion for soups? You could say it goes back to Jacob tempting Esau with a mess of pottage in Genesis. Fried fish in Britain? Traceable to Cromwell’s agreement to the resettlement of Jews in England in 1657. Baking loaves of challah scattered with poppy seeds? The same method is described in the third century by Athenaeus. It may fall in and out of fashion again, and you may not even realise what you are eating is Jewish, but it’s been around for a minute; it’s not going anywhere.
Dan Hancox is a writer from south London covering grassroots politics, cities, gentrification, history and memory for The Guardian and Observer, VICE, LRB, Prospect and NY Times. His articles on subjects like Spanish ghost towns, binmen memes, capitalism’s war on sleep and rap’s relationship with riots can be found here. His most recent book is Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime. He co-hosts Cursed Objects, a podcast about material history and tat. His next book will be out in 2024, hopefully. Twitter: @danhancox. Instagram: @danhancox.
Vittles British Jewish Food Week is edited by Molly Pepper Steemson, with additional editing from Jonathan Nunn and Adam Coghlan, and subediting by Sophie Whitehead and Liz Tray.
All illustrations are by Georgia Turner, a freelance illustrator and neuroscience PhD student from London.