- Food & Drink
Around the world in Jewish food
I often have cravings for what I hazily think of as Middle Eastern food, a term I use to cover a culinary and geographic area stretching from Turkey through Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and nibbling into North Africa and the ‘Stans at either end. It’s a vague definition that covers a part of the world I’ve never been to but have Orientalist longings for. Longings that are prosaically transformed into kebabs, flatbreads and houmous in London.
When the urge to get all One Thousand and One Nights in the kitchen hits me, the first words I put into google are Claudia Roden. So when Bellerina told me she was speaking at The Jewish Museum and that there’d also be a buffet, I was booked, confirmed and high fiving Bellerina before she had time to ask: “Do you want to go?”
We arrived at Cooking From The Heart just before 7.30pm and joined the polite scrum for drinks (note to all event organisers: always put the drinks at the front of the room, never the back). Fresh lemonade in hand, we just had time to whip round the light wood and spotlight refurbed museum before a man whispered that the event was about to start.
Obviously, we panicked and ran back to the drinks tray to grab some wine (woman cannot socialise by lemonade alone) and then went into the little conference room where almost all the chairs were taken. Like a terrier, Bellerina darted around the room, searching out seats, finally spotting 2 right at the front. She sat down on one and gripped hold of it while I trotted towards the second seat. I reached for it at the same time as a woman who, if not elderly, was definitely my elder.
Cursing inwardly, I knew I had to relinquish the seat and politely backed away, gesturing for the lady to take the chair. I grimaced at Bellerina, who didn’t grimace back. She’d recognised the woman. So while I grumpily and ostentatiously went off to fetch a chair, Bellerina got chatting to Claudia Roden.
And it’s lucky that Bellerina is a good conversationalist, because she kept Claudia occupied when I came back with a chair and swung it around, nearly braining her twice. It’s also lucky that Claudia is a gracious woman, who maintains her manners even when dealing with someone who has just tried to hit her in the face.
Having not been killed by me, Claudia got up to give a short speech that celebrated the museum’s refurbishment and the meal we were about to share. People had bought a long a vegetarian dish typical of their region and they’d been laid out on a long table that we’d scanned with hungry, hawkish eyes. All sections of the diaspora were represented: India, Brazil, Russia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Cornwall. The dinner bell was rung and we were out of the traps.
But we were slow out of the traps. Once again, we found ourselves at the back of the crowd and by the time we reached the table many of the dishes had been scrapped clean. However, by ignoring the rules and running to the other end of the table, plus some judicious use of elbows, we managed to put together a couple of plates worth carrying back.
Highlights included chana puri filled with chickpeas and sharp coriander sauce that I ate at the buffet table under the watchful eye of the woman who’d made them, urging me to “eat it now! Eat it now!” Jewish potato salad was practically a mash salad. The potatoes had been cooked until they were almost falling apart and then bound with mayo and spring onions – amazing.
A meatless feijoda was dark and sturdy, while tabbouleh and rice salads were fresh with herbs. There was grilled haloumi in tomato dressing, gently curried lentils and potatoes, a cheesy, nutmeg spiced spinach tart, creamy cashew nut curry, soft dolmades and houmous. Really, a lot of houmous.
More wine and music from Yalla, an all woman Jewish Muslin hip hop Klezmer band (no, really), followed and then it was back to the table for pudding. We were faster on our feet this time and managed to snag two plates with plenty of sugary treats.
Cornish Heavy Cake lived up to it’s name, like an eccles cake on steroids, and the Simnel cake, while not a patch on mine of course, was Bellerina’s first taste of this Easter bake. The New York cheesecake was destructively heavy and rich, it actually weighed the plate down. Bellerina approved: if it doesn’t bend your fork, then it’s not a cheescake.
The cinnamon balls were controversial. Bellerina thought they didn’t look like cinnamon balls, but was willing to concede that they did smell like cinnamon balls. Not knowing any better, I thought they were cinnamony, ball shaped and delicious.
Killer dessert of the night was the lokshen kugel. Like an apple bread and butter pudding but with noodles, it was a rib sticker. You just know it would get served after a massive meal and would be the digestive blow that had everyone retreating from the table for the comfort of the sofa.
If the event proved anything, it showed that home cooking is alive and well in North London. The museum looks fantastic and I’m keen to go back, not least because the cafe opens today.