Since the release of her first book, The Flavor of Jerusalem, in 1975, Joan Nathan has guided American Jews on a kitchen journey, re-introducing them to their own heritage and encouraging exploration of cooking from around the Jewish diaspora. She and her books have won awards across the culinary and Jewish worlds. But perhaps her greatest achievement is the ubiquity of her books in the homes of so many American Jews.
Jewish in Seattle: Why do you think it’s important to cook — or even know about — the Passover traditions of other parts of the world?
Joan Nathan: I think we’re obsessed — and all the Jewish communities from around the world throughout history have been obsessed — with food. On the one hand, it shows the sameness of all of us. On the other hand, it shows the individuality. We have a charoset; everybody has a charoset. But it shows the different kinds of charoset that are developed because of regionality.
What kind of research do you do to learn about Passover traditions?
Because I have a big Passover at home, I think people would be disappointed if I traveled then. I’ve always done just the first night of Passover. People in my family didn’t want to have a second night. So I would go to different communities, and I would learn about different traditions. I learned about Iraqi traditions and Moroccan traditions and Persian traditions, and they were in a movie I did that was on PBS [Passover: Traditions of Freedom]. I read, and I ask people, and I just learn.
Do you have a favorite tradition that you’ve uncovered in your research?
I really love the Moroccan tradition where you take a seder plate and you pass it over the head of each person at the seder table. And the person is supposed to feel that he, personally, went out of Egypt. The other one I like is an Iranian tradition where you take a scallion and you hit each other — to know what it feels like to be flayed.
As you research around the world, how do you think the perception of what is or isn’t “Jewish food” has changed?
I think the perception has definitely changed a great deal, because now there are all these “Israeli” restaurants that have Middle Eastern food, but they’re upscale. When I was in El Salvador, I met the Argentinean ambassador, and there’s a restaurant called Mishiguene in Argentina that’s very, very popular. I was shocked when she told me that it’s the most popular restaurant in Argentina right now. She said to me (she’s not Jewish), “We’re learning about this new cuisine because what was once at-home food is now everybody’s food.”
What do you think is next for Jewish food?
Rediscovering old recipes before it’s too late and updating them. In my [forthcoming] book, I have Jewish foods that are Azerbaijani, Greek, Turkish, and El Salvadoran, with stories attached to them. I would be willing to bet that we’re just going to see more borrowing from around the world. The most important thing is not only to talk to your grandparents, but to watch them — to watch for the little techniques that are going to be lost. That’s what keeps me going. Everyone always says, “Ugh, such a hassle.” But I really believe from the bottom of my heart that if we want traditions to continue, you have to repeat the traditions so the children have memories, and that’s what Passover’s all about. Telling the story for your children. If you don’t do this repetition, then they won’t have traditions. They won’t have memories and everything that we do will be lost. It’s important — and fun — to carry on the traditions and to do it in ways that don’t seem too hard.