How Jewish tables around the world serve a feast of traditions

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, as we approach the Jewish holiday of Passover, we have a new addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf. It's a celebration of cooking and tradition.

JOAN NATHAN, Author, "King Solomon's Table": When I started the book, I decided I really wanted to go to India, because I knew there was a Jewish community there. And when I got to the synagogue in Cochin, it said that Jews had been coming from the time of King Solomon. And I thought, wow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And with that, celebrated food authority Joan Nathan started her 11th cookbook, "King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking From Around the World," with recipes handed down from generation to generation.

What you have done in this book is, you take us to different parts of the world.

And then you show us these incredible dishes. How in the world did you pull all this together?

JOAN NATHAN: I went to a lot of places in the world, but I could find these immigrants from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan in Brooklyn, or Iranian Jews in L.A.

And then I found pockets like in El Salvador, in Cuba. I found people that told me about stories that I had never heard before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did you decide which foods to choose?

JOAN NATHAN: You know what? I find a really wonderful dish. Then I go with it.

For example, I went to an Ethiopian Jewish dinner in California. It was in San Diego. And I went to a Shabbat dinner. So they had this dabos, which is an Ethiopian Shabbat bread, adapted, of course, from an Ethiopian bread.

It was so delicious, I thought, I have got to put that in the book.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the other thing that we're standing in front of is this flourless chocolate cake, which came out of someone who came from Egypt.

JOAN NATHAN: From Egypt.

And, you know, flourless chocolate cake is part of our seder every year. You can't have wheat, or flour in — unless its specially watched flour, in your desserts. And I always liked having a flourless chocolate cake. And I thought maybe you would help me decorate it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Good. I'm going to do a little of this while you're talking.

JOAN NATHAN: That's right. That looks beautiful.

I have been very lucky through the years that people have opened up to me all over the world. And like, for example, I wanted to get Iraqi recipes, but I couldn't go to Iraq. But I was told that the best Iraqi cooks live in London.

So, I went to London, and I got a wonderful Passover macaroon. And then somebody told me about a recipe called shritzla. And it was a blueberry bun that people in Toronto ate. And I learned that it came from Southwest Poland. And the woman that made it, if she hadn't come over very early, my guess is that that recipe would have been lost.

In Southwest Poland, the religious Jews, when the Nazis came in, they just took them out. So, this recipe, I saved a recipe for other people, because most people we killed. I mean, these are stories that are quite amazing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you have kept them alive.

JOAN NATHAN: Well, I have tried to keep them alive.

And I have often thought, what's the difference between Jewish cooking and other cooking? You know, this could be any immigrant food in many ways. But it's Jewish immigrants for, I think, three reasons.

One is because of the dietary laws. You know, you can't mix milk and meat. You can't eat certain shellfish, so that what happens is, Jewish people think about their food a lot. And they like to eat. They're obsessed about it. And most food is connected to a holiday.

So, that's one point. The second is that Jews have always been merchants, since the time of King Solomon, going out looking for the new. And the third is that Jews have been expelled from so many places, like so many people today.

And they keep — wherever you go, you have to adapt to new food.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they have kept their traditions as they have moved.

JOAN NATHAN: Yes, exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's look at one of those traditions now.

JOAN NATHAN: OK. Let's go into my dining room.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Joan, now we are at a table set for seder.

JOAN NATHAN: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which, of course, is all around the Jewish observance of the Passover.

This is one of those traditions where food is of enormous importance.

JOAN NATHAN: Right.

This is the seder plate. And the first thing is the shankbone. And this is symbolic of the destruction of the First and Second Temple, as is the egg, which is also symbolic of rebirth and general sorrow.

Parsley is the spring, but you dip it in saltwater to remember your enemies, even when you have conquered them, because they have suffered. The other two are the matzah and the bitter herbs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This story, it goes back to Abraham.

JOAN NATHAN: It goes back to Abraham.

But these three symbols, the bitter herbs, lamb, and the matzah, were mentioned in the Bible. Those were — the only thing that was necessary. And it wasn't until after the destruction of the Second Temple that Passover became a home festival around a table, because there was no longer a temple in Jerusalem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have made some sweet jam.

JOAN NATHAN: Right, this is a sweet blend. This is symbolic of the mortar when the Jews were slaves in Egypt. So, it's all slavery to freedom. And the original one was a date jam.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is this.

JOAN NATHAN: The biblical honey. And that was the one in Babylon.

Then there is — this one actually is from Maine, blueberries, very modern. This one is from Persia or Iran. And it has nuts. It's got pistachios. It has pears. It's got dates, all kinds of good things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Judaism, food is an integral part of telling the story.

JOAN NATHAN: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is it so important to remember these stories and to remember, I mean, down to the recipes that you have preserved in this book?

JOAN NATHAN: Well, I think, in the Bible, it says you must relate this story to your children, so they know that they're free men and that they are Jews, and that you don't want to be in slavery, and you don't want to treat people like slaves.

It's just something that we must preserve throughout history. It's the hardest meal for me to prepare. And it's the most wonderful, the most meaningful, because I do think that it's important for families today to take those traditions from their past and cling to them.

And I really get totally moved when I think about the seder, with Jews all over the world at the same time reading this ancient text and enjoying foods from all over the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joan Nathan, food writer, extraordinary cook, author now of your 11th book, thank you very much.

JOAN NATHAN: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can get Joan Nathan's recipe for flourless cake, chocolate cake, on our Web site, pbs.org/newshour. It's delicious.

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