A Guide to the Sleeper Hits of the Jewish Deli
So here’s a fun confession: my favorite Thursday night activity is to get high, dress up in my most modest ensemble, and gorge myself on cheap, stodgy Jewish food in Hasidic neighborhoods after dark. The appeal is twofold: it’s infinitely more enjoyable than yet another extortionately priced dive bar where the music is too loud to chat over and too awful to dance to, and it allows me to indulge in what has become my favorite pastime since moving away from my family and entering my late 20s: wallowing in nostalgia.
As a Nice Jewish Girl, I’ve been force-fed my fair share of matzo ball soup and pastrami sandwiches— standard deli fare that has, in America, become synonymous with Jewish food. But I was also raised on an assortment of nose-to-tail shtetl classics that never made it mainstream. Happily, these classics have not totally fallen by the culinary wayside; they, along with other Eastern European Jewish traditions dating back 250 years, have been preserved by the global Hasidic community. It is immensely comforting to know that, when the need for an overflowing bowl of cholent arises, I can pop over to East Williamsburg and, for a short while, feel far closer to my family than the Atlantic Ocean would have us believe. For those seeking a similar dose of sentimental nosh—or simply seeking nourishing, unpretentious eats, allow me to introduce you to the true stand-outs of the Ashkenazi kitchen that your deli probably doesn’t deliver.
This banger of a dish is the star of Thursday night nosh. At its most basic, cholent is a stew made of meat, beans, barley and root vegetables, though the best versions stick a slab of kishke (stuffed intestine, don’t knock it till you try it) on top, and a whole bunch of marrow bones inside.
This rabbi-approved recipe is a good place to start—don’t you dare leave out the MSG-heavy chicken stock powder, an admittedly modern, but crucial, addition. When it comes to spotting a good cholent, the longer it’s been sitting in the pot, the better—you want it ripe. A week-old batch is basically the holy grail, cholent-wise.
Pureed herring is the one dish I could gladly live without, largely owing to childhood memories of my grandparents’ friends breathing all over me after chowing down on this stuff at various occasions. Personal taste aside, vorschmak is such a classic that it deserves a mention. These days it’s typically eaten cold, schmeared onto a cracker, but back in the old country it was often served hot and fried, which sounds infinitely more delicious. My grandmother, whose lunch is always herring in some form or other and a cup of tea, took great offense when I suggested vorschmak is no longer a mainstream Jewish dish, “It certainly is amongst those I know," she retorted, sassily.
While admittedly not very glamorous, the aroma of braised cabbage takes me back to my youth. Specifically, sitting around the kitchen table with three generations of shayna maidelehs (Yiddish for pretty girls), wrapping a mixture of ground meat and rice in cabbage leaves that would later be braised in a sweet and sour tomato sauce. After tasting a variety since, I now know these to be infinitely superior to your average offering, likely because my mom made them and she is a perfect being. The best holishkes are pristinely wrapped cabbage packages in a thick, ruby red sauce that tastes so sweet you know it’s terrible for you. The worst, those surrounded in a watery pool with filling dribbling out—although, according to my father-in-law, that’s nothing a spritz of lemon and sprinkling of sugar won’t fix.
Potato Kugel and Yaptzik
If the only kugel you know involves noodles, you’ve been living a lie. I’d be shocked if anyone has ever been tempted to eat a whole noodle kugel—I’ve certainly never managed more than a couple of meager bites, yet have been known to eat an entire potato kugel without coming up for air on numerous occasions. A good PK is hard to perfect; the most common flaw is a gummy interior due to over-mixing, or a gray tinge due to dawdling during preparation and letting the potatoes sit out too long before baking. When it’s done right it’s like a giant latke, fluffy on the inside with a crispy exterior, oozing oil and thirst-inducingly salty.
Yaptzik is potato kugel’s naughty cousin, offering an even higher cholesterol count and being all the more delicious for it. A layer of flanken is sandwiched between two layers of kugel, then baked low and slow, traditionally overnight, until it develops a good crust and the meat inside is tender.
P’tcha, pronounced venomously, as if you’re a bubbe who’s just been told your grandson’s marrying a Catholic, is meat Jell-O. It’s also uncharacteristically light for the Ashkenazi kitchen and, by happy coincidence, ticks the boxes of 2018’s biggest wellness trend: collagen, purported to aid skin suppleness and reduce the cellulite garnered from too many gribenes (another tragically underrated culinary highlight in the form of crispy rendered poultry fat). Once you get your head around the fact that you’re eating a wobbly broth made of feet, p’tcha ain’t half bad! My grandfather is such a fan that, when he learnt my Lower East Side butcher stocks calves' feet, he—rather unreasonably—demanded that I immediately send some over to him in the UK, via post. All I’m saying is, count yourself #blessed if you’re lucky enough to sample some.