Time is precious, but I decided to do my best and persevere in my writing about my favorite cookbooks at least through the summer. Would love to know which kosher cookbooks you are reading!
This time I am bringing you another masterpiece from Gil Marks. – Olive Trees and Honey, a totally vegetarian book speaking, in Mark’s manner, of all kinds of vegetarian foods from all over the world.
Personally, I prefer this one even to The Encyclopedia. Except for the introduction, which is well worth reading, and a beautiful article about ‘Food traditions of a Mosaic of Jewish communities, it is structured around food courses like any other cookbook would be (Salads, soups, etc.), but it brings a story of every ingredient worth researching.
Take, for example, the eggplant. I remember at least three names for this berry (yes! berry, apparently!) from my home county. Depending on where one lived, one would call them cininkie – синeнькие – ‘blues’, demjyanki – демъянки, and baklazhany – баклажаны – not even sure about the origin and meaning of the last two words.
Gil, of course, is bringing many other names for it – “aubergine, which is derived from the Arabic al-batinjan by way of the Persian word badenjan, which itself comes from the Sanskrit vatin-ganah (“antiflatulence vegetable”)” Apparently, the American name for it – ‘eggplant’ comes from the fact that originally (sometimes we can still see them on sale in some locations) eggplants were all white and elongated a little. “Since the white type bruises easily, the more familiar purple hybrid has become the most widespread”.
Gil even brings the popular “Battle of the vegetables” song from the Middle Ages translated for the book from Ladino, where in the battle of two ‘exotic fruits’ – tomato and eggplant, the eggplant comes out as a winner for its the taste and longevity.
One of the things I didn’t know about eggplant is that it increases in bitterness the longer it is stored, although I never found it too bitter for my taste.
Among many peoples that enjoy the eggplant, Gil, of course, mentions the Georgians, who “incorporate it into a myriad of stews, salads, and relishes”. The one dish that I loved always, and still make now is of Georgian origin, and looks like the little eggplant scrolls filled with all kinds of goodies. In my case, surely, cheese! Add a ton of different herbs, walnuts (another Georgian signature ingredient) and garlic. A bit of work, but so worth it! I would add more pomegranate seeds to them, but didn’t have them on hand this time. Georgians, would obviously have lots of them scattered all over the rolls.
Gil brings six recipes for eggplant. Each with at least 3-4 variations, so if you like this strange berry, you will love to use one of if his recipes.
Fun fact – eggplant, just like tomatoes came to Italy with the Jews, and at first “the Italians perceived eggplant to be poisonous.” I guess people were always suspicious of things (and people) they were not familiar with.
While we are on the subject of the tomato-eggplant battle, Gil informs us that tomato “first arrived in Spain in 1523, in Italy about two decades later” and “most Europeans initially believed tomato to be poisonous, the Italians calling it mala insana (Greek for “unhealthy fruit”)”
The book, of course, has lots of maps tracing the movements of the ingredients though the world as well as multiple little vignettes about special foods of some regions. Timely, we can refer here to the “Varnishkes”.
I hope you enjoy this book as much as I do, and draw from it lots of inspiration for your family’s regular and celebratory meals
Happy reading and happy cooking!