On the Jewish food scene: Sauces, salad dressings and condiments

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

At the risk of seeming opinionated, I have an important declaration to make: food exists for the sauces, dressings and condiments we put on them. Now, I know some of you won’t agree, but you’re wrong. Take salad: I love salads with all kinds of veggies – from lettuce to carrots to roasted Brussels sprouts – but the real star of the dish is the salad dressing. I don’t get the dressing on the side and dip the veggies in it. Mopping up the leftover dressing on the plate with a slice of good bread is half the fun.

Now think of noodles – whether Italian or Asian. It’s the sauces that make the dishes. And something similar is true for hot dogs and burgers (whether meat or meatless): they need ketchup and mustard, if not a load of other things. It’s only the rare very, very good french fry that does not need ketchup.

Since this is a Jewish food column, you might be wondering where I’m going with this. Well, my extensive research (OK, a few Google searches) reveals that there aren’t any specific Jewish sauces, salad dressings and condiments. Before you start sending me e-mails, yes, Israel claims a variety of different sauces as its own, but the truth of that is debatable. Other Middle Eastern cultures say that they had them first and Israel adapted its cuisine from them. (By the way, if you want to see a real food fight, check out the arguments about the origin of hummus and falafel.) 

Look up sauces on Jewish websites and you’ll find that most are not specific to Jews. For example, the Jewish Virtual Library offers recipes for three sauces under its Jewish sauce label: Avgolemono Sauce, Harissa Sauce and Tabil Spice Mixture. (The recipes can be found at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-foods-sauces.) However, Avgolemono is a Greek sauce, and Harissa and Tabil Spice are Tunisian. An article on the Orthodox Union website about sauces (www.ou.org/life/food/recipes/sauces/) talks about five different types of sauces, but notes they are really French sauces. Another so-called Jewish sauce, Tahini, has been used in a variety of cultures, so I doubt we can claim that either.

Italian Jews might try to claim tomato sauce (also known in many Italian families as gravy) belongs to them. That history is actually complicated. Some historians believe that many Italian staples are actually based on food brought to Italy by Sephardic Jews after they were exiled from Spain. As someone who adores good tomato sauce (and most Italian food), I don’t mind us taking credit for that, but I’m sure most non-Jewish Italians would disagree. 

Jews over the centuries were very good at adapting and adopting the foods of the culture in which they lived to fit Jewish dietary restriction. There would be no mixing of meat and milk, and pork (the basis of many recipes) could not be used. The same is true of shellfish. Jews from many different cultures moved to Israel and brought their food and spices with them. While those foods may seem exotic to us, they are everyday meals in the those parts of the world. What is good, though, is that many of those dishes are now making their way to the U.S. And thinking about this is making me hungry so you’ll excuse me while I make my own Jewish food (AKA whatever I choose to eat for dinner tonight).