For her new book King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World (Alfred A. Knopf 2017; $35), Joan Nathan, the multiple James Beard award winner, followed in the footsteps of Jewish traders as they circumvented the globe centuries and even millenniums ago. As they traveled, they brought the food cultures from the lands they’d visited before and adapted new ones but keeping close to their dietary laws, traditions and homelands.
Nathan, who has written almost a dozen cookbooks, recounts the culinary history and geography of these early travelers in her sumptuous new book featuring over 170 recipes.
It begins at the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi, Kerala where Nathan spies an inscription indicating Jewish traders might have crossed the Indian Ocean from Judea to India during the reign of King Solomon. Already a world traveler, Nathan next made her way to Chendamangalam, a hamlet 20 miles north of Kochi surrounded by a lush landscape of mango, coconut and cinnamon trees and pepper and cardamom vines.
“As I walked toward the bank of the nearby Periyar River, which flows into the Arabian Sea, I imagined ancient Hebrew adventurers and traders arriving on the shores and marveling at the lushness of the terrain,” writes Nathan in the introduction of her book.
And so we too are seduced by her journey into exotic lands, looking at how foods and ingredients have crisscrossed the globe originating far from where we first might have thought.
We chat about Malai, a Romanian cornmeal ricotta breakfast pudding that she features in her book and I tell her how I learned to make a polenta-like dish from my Romanian grandmother.
“Oh mamaliga,” she says, like everyone knows about mamaliga. But then what would you expect from a woman whose book contains five recipes for haroset, a thick sauce or paste typically made of chopped fruits and nuts. It, like so many recipes, has morphed, bouncing back and forth between countries and continents, each time being tweaked just a little and Nathan includes a version from Brazil, Persia, Ferrara and, of all places, Maine.
Asked what recipes she’d recommend for those just starting using her cookbook, Nathan suggests Yemenite Chicken Soup with Dill, Cilantro and Parsley (“a really old recipe,” she says noting that historic records dating back to 12th century the healing power of chicken broth). She also suggests Malai, the Romania dish and Roman Ricotta Cheese Crostata with Cherries or Chocolate, a cheesecake recipe dating back to Imperial Rome in the 1st century. She also included a recipe from her friend, her friend Injy Farat-Lew, an Egyptian-Jew who grew up in Cairo and Paris, for a flourless chocolate cake and one for hard boiled eggs traditionally served ruing Passover on the Seder plate but can be used as a side for any meal.
“This recipe for long-cooked eggs with spinach came from the island of Corfu, Greece to Ancona, Italy, a seaport on the Adriatic coast,” writes Nathan, who first taste the dish in Rome, in the introduction to this recipe which also exemplifies the convoluted origins of food.
As she traveled (Nathan says her quest took her to approximately 30 countries over a six-year time span), the scope of her book changed. But it was all part of her culinary journey and one she continues to take.
What: Joan Nathan has two book signings
When & Where: Monday, May 1 at 6:00 pm, Bookends & Beginnings, 1712 Sherman Avenue, Alley #, Evanston, IL. 224-999-7722.
Tuesday, May 2 at 11:30 am-2pm, Standard Club Chicago luncheon, 320 S. Plymouth Ct, Chicago IL.