Facts That Figure: Fried Food

Facts That Figure: Fried Food

By: C.G. Hoffman

Can you believe that the first documented fried food was probably… a doughnut! While dulce de leche filled doughnuts with burnt maple caramel may be new, doughnuts are most definitely not.

The earliest examples of fried foods have been found in Eretz Yisrael, where possibly even the ancient Canaanites fried their foods. Ancient Babylon (Bavel) was the first place to fry pieces of cake, perhaps our doughnuts original elter-zeidy. The מן that the Yidden ate in the midbar tasted like dough fried with honey; a delicacy then and now. Deep frying food in oil helped preserve food and keep it fresh for a little bit longer, so it was a perfect choice for a workman who had to bring along his lunch to his labors. Ashishim are sweet, fried red lentil pancakes and there’s a recipe for them in the Talmud Yerushalmi.

A medieval Catholic priest mocked the Jews of Spain for their “filthy” habit of frying fish in olive oil, instead of the lard (pig fat) that Christians were accustomed to. The joke was on him, as animal fat that is constantly reused for frying is replete with trans fats, and extremely unhealthy. Sephardic Jews developed a rich cuisine of olive oil fried foods, but the Inquisition used their knowledge of Kashrus to root out Jews who tried to continue eating only kosher foods, and their knowledge of commonly cooked Jewish foods was extensive. One of the recipes that was handed down throughout the generations of Crypto-Jewish families was Chuletas, a kind of fried French toast that was shaped to look like fried pork chops!

The nationally beloved British dish of fish and chips, which is battered and fried cod with a side of fried potatoes, is actually Jewish in origin. The recipe for battered and fried fish was brought to England by Sephardic Jews, who called it “Pescado Frito,” while the Brits then called it “fish cooked in the Jewish manner.” Some enterprising Jews took to hawking fried fish on the streets from trays hung from their necks. The first “Chippy,” or fish and chip shop, in England, was opened by a Jew, Joseph Malin. By 1910 there were 25,000 fish and chip shops in England.

There is a big machlokes around French Fries: Who invented them, the French or the Belgians? Potatoes were unknown before the discovery of the New World, and Europeans took a long time to warm to them, thinking that they were poisonous. During wheat shortages in Louis XVI’s France, his gardeners were instructed to post guards around the potato fields, in order to make the populace think that it was precious, and thus, be more tempted to steal them. “Pomme Frites” are considered a national snack in Belgium, and are sold in shops called Friteries, accompanied by a mayonnaise like topping (never ketchup!).

Falafel, fried chick pea balls, goes back as far as ancient Egypt. Only, the Egyptians made it with fava beans. Yemenite Jews brought their chickpea version to Israel in the 1950’s, and it quickly became one of the most quintessential Israeli dishes. It was a cheap, filling protein, and it helped fill hungry tummies in a fledgling country where meat was an expensive delicacy. 

Before potatoes became common in Europe, latkes were commonly made of cheese for Chanukah, especially in Italy. Before the arrival of the potato, latkes were made from carrots, rice, apples, or whatever was on hand. After a number of crop failures in the 19th century, potatoes were planted in enormous quantities, since they were a cheap and easy to grow crop, and could be stored over the winter. Grating the potatoes and frying them in schmaltz made them into a fancy fried treat, perfect for serving on Chanukah.

The origins of sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts, are another machlokes. Different versions of fried dough treats were popular in Eastern Europe, although they were fried in schmaltz, making them fleishig. The first recorded recipe for a jelly doughnut dates back to 15th century Germany, and was called “Gefullte Krapfen.”  Polish Jews brought their “ponchiks” to Israel, where they melded with Syrian Jewish doughnuts to become the popular sugar dusted sufganiyot. Angel Bakery, the largest bakery in Israel, fries up 25,000 sufganiyot per day during Chanukah.

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