The Well-Traveled Chicken
As Jews have wandered, their chicken dishes have evolved and flourished giving us a rich vein of culinary creativity on which to draw for holiday menus.
By Jayne Cohen
When New Yorker Fiona Hallegua plans her Seder menu, her choice for main course will be repeated in countless homes throughout the Diaspora. Simmered with aromatics and the warm spices of her native Cochin, India, it will be a luscious chicken.
Brisket gets better press at holidays and expensive cuts like standing ribs of beef elicit the oohs and aahs. But chicken recipes tell a richer story: of former lands and new homes, wandering, discovering, assimilating. And let's not forget the modern tale of New World Jews that is mirrored in today's creative recipe riffs, tweaking the traditional chicken dishes of their forebears.
Sticky Chicken with Apricots, Tamarind and Chipotle, for example, is a Mexican-Jewish story that began in Syria where Flora Cohen was born. But after immigrating to Mexico, as Pati Jinich, author of Pati's Mexican Table recalls, "Flora's Syrian meals took a joy ride with Mexican ingredients." For her tangy Sephardic chicken dish, Flora exchanged Middle Eastern tamarind paste for the sweeter Latin-style tamarind syrup of her new home. Jinich learned the recipe in Mexico City as a young bride at Cohen's cooking classes for "clueless-in-the-kitchen brides-to-be." Then she added her own touch: rich, smoky notes from chipotles in adobo sauce. Her version is such a Jinich family favorite, "I've watched all of my kids lick their plates clean." She loves it for Passover because "with its mixture of sour and sweet, we remember the bitterness of where we once were and the joy of where we are today."
Jinich's recipe bears testimony to that abiding Jewish taste—in culture and cuisine—for the blend of sweet and sour. Poring through international Jewish recipes, I was astonished at the number of dishes that combine chicken with tangy-sweet prunes. In the Cookbook of the Jews of Greece, Nicholas Stavroulakis takes us to Salonika for a bird simmered with sweet-sour prunes and tomato, fragrant with cinnamon and cayenne. On to Vilna by way of Buenos Aires for Lily Margules's chicken tsimmes with melt-in-your mouth prunes, recounted by June Hersh in Recipes Remembered... Jewish Alsace for roast chicken enriched with wine-soaked prunes...then Morocco, for classic Jewish tagines of slow-cooked chicken with prunes and almonds. And to finish, we're back in North America where a scrumptious, if improbable, jumble of marinade ingredients—prunes, olives, capers, and brown sugar—has made Chicken Marbella a mainstay at Seders ever since Sheila Lukin's recipe exploded on the culinary scene with the publication of The Silver Palate Cookbook, co-written with Julee Rosso in 1982.
Suzy David, who wrote about her family's Bulgarian cuisine in The Sephardic Kosher Kitchen, describes the variety of their chicken dishes as "endless." That's because good chicken is not tasteless or even bland, but, as Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawlor explain in their Smithsonian Magazine article in June 2012, “How Chicken Conquered the World,” its mild taste provides "a blank canvas for the flavor palette of almost every cuisine."
That goes for chopped chicken as well. That legendary Sephardi love for meatballs takes many forms: from David's Bulgarian chicken breast albondigas heady with garlic and dill; to aruq, tender fried Iraqi chicken-potato patties; and chicken koofta curry from India, to name just a few.
None of these Jewish chicken dishes include cheese—now. But at one time, they might have. Remember Rabbi Jose the Galilean from the Haggadah—the one whose name we always mispronounce? He and fellow Galileans often ate chicken with milk, contending that the biblical injunction to separate meat from milk (proscribed because a kid should not be seethed in its mother's milk) did not apply, since female birds do not produce milk. His contemporary sage, Akiva, won out, however, arguing that people would be confused because they considered fowl to be meat. And if you could consume one meat with milk, you might think it was permissible to eat any meat with milk. Bottom line? No chicken with melted cheese—even in Galilee.
In the Beginning
The chicken's likely progenitor was the jungle fowl of Southeast Asia. Not surprisingly, the bird—which could barely fly, would eat nearly everything and could survive in a variety of climates—was easy to domesticate. But it was probably still unknown in Israel during biblical times, as it is not mentioned in the Old Testament, unlike pigeons, turtledoves and quails.
By the second century BCE, though, we know that chicken was enjoyed by those who could afford it. And later, in the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan declares in Bava Metzi'a, "the choicest fowl is a chicken."
Chicken farming declined in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, but eventually there was a resurgence and chicken once again became an important food animal source, especially for many Jews. Birds are easier to ritually slaughter than mammals and, unlike mammals, all parts are kosher to eat. As Alessandra Rovati, who blogs about Italian-Jewish dishes like chicken braised with fennel, tomato and white wine at DinnerinVenice.com, pointed out: "Even when Jews in Italy and elsewhere were not permitted to own land, often they could still raise a few chickens."
In America, where they could own property, Jewish chicken ranching, jump-started by Jewish philanthropists including Baron de Hirsch and the heirs to the Levi Strauss denim fortune, once thrived in areas like upstate New York, Connecticut and Petaluma, California during the last century. The sculptor George Segal was raised on his family’s New Jersey chicken farm; for much of his professional career, he worked inside the farm’s former chicken coop.
Twenty years ago, noted chef Anne Rosenzweig, best known as an early champion of fresh American cooking, also pioneered elegant riffs on Jewish foods, including Smoked Salmon and Dill Matzoh Brei and Kasha Varnishkes with Asparagus and Pine Nuts. Rosenzweig says that her “method for cooking chicken these days comes from trying to make simple but delicious family meals in my restaurants in the past.” The mouth-watering recipe she shared with us is her history on a plate—a quintessential New York chef's story. In the Pan-Roasted Chicken with Spring Vegetables and Toasted Orange Aioli that she serves with Swiss chard matzoh pancakes, we taste it all, from the Russian grandmother who cooked at a Catskills hotel, to the inventive creativity of her restaurants, Arcadia and the Lobster Club, and beyond.
Click on the accompanying links to find Rosenzweig’s dish and other fine chicken recipes.
While perusing the recipes, please recognize that a few ingredients, while acceptable to most Sephardi or Middle Eastern Jews, may be classified as kitniyot and considered unacceptable for Passover by some Ashkenazi rabbis. And what is considered kitniyot is often subject to debate: for example, in its Passover Guide for 2013, the Orthodox Union (OU) certifying authority does not classify coriander as kitniyot, though it may have in the past. Whenever possible, I have suggested an alternative, in case a kosher-for-Passover version is not available. If you adhere to Orthodox Ashkenazi guidelines, check with your own rabbi if you are unsure.
Jayne Cohen writes and lectures extensively on Jewish cuisine and culture. Her most recent book, Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations (John Wiley), was named a 2009 finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award.
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