On the Jewish food scene: Thoughts on noodles and potatoes

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When I was a child, noodle kugel was the ultimate comfort food. In fact, I didn’t realize there was any other kind of kugel until I was far into my adult years. Certainly no other kugel ever appeared on our dinner table. In fact, it’s still difficult for me to think of a potato kugel as a real kugel; it seems to be a completely different dish that should have a completely different name. The kugel I loved was sweet, although I don’t believe it had raisins, just noodles, cottage cheese and cinnamon. (There may have been other ingredients, but, since we haven’t made it in decades due to dietary restrictions, I don’t remember.) There was definitely not pineapple. Although I like pineapple, in my mind, it just doesn’t belong in kugel.

It’s odd that I didn’t mind that the kugel contained the cottage cheese since I’ve never been a fan. I remember that, in college, my friends and I were trying to eat healthy and that meant having cottage cheese for breakfast. Some days, the one person who liked cottage cheese would mention how particular good it was. That always drew a blank stare from me. Raw cottage cheese was never good any day. Cooked cottage cheese is a different story. I love it in kugel and used to enjoy what was called a weight-watcher Danish: bread with a thin layer of jam, which was then covered with cottage cheese and topped with lots of cinnamon. I haven’t had one of those in decades, but I remember liking them. Of course, the cinnamon helped: it’s one of my favorite spices.

The reason noodle kugel struck me as a comfort food is most likely due to the noodles. There is something wonderful about noodles and pasta-like foods – whether they are served Italian or Asian style. Yes, I think of both of them as the same type of food, even though the sauces are very different. I grew up in Endicott/Endwell and Italian food was king. I have a friend who moved to Alabama after finishing nursing school and always stopped in this area on her way to visit relatives in Canada so she could have what she still calls “real Italian food.” I also love noodles in Asian sauces, particularly when they feature a large number of vegetables. 

By the way, it’s not that I don’t like potatoes. It’s just I think there are better ways to eat potatoes than potato kugel, for example, mashed potatoes (another comfort food) or any type of fried potato. (Think french fries, hash browns, etc.) When my stomach is upset, I love a plain boiled potato, although now I throw a bag of potatoes in the microwave rather than cooking them on the stove. They come out soft and warm, and are great either plain or with butter. I’ve even come to like potato salad, something I never ate when I was a kid. Come to think of it, I never ate macaroni salad then either. I’m not sure why: maybe a problem with mayonnaise? However, tastes change: I now use a lot of mayo and mustard when making tuna salad, potato salad and macaroni salad. (That latter salad has to have mayo in it. If you use an oil and vinegar based dressing, it’s pasta salad.) When I was a kid, the only time I used mustard was on New York City-style deli sandwiches. Otherwise, my condiment of choice – for hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries or sandwiches – was ketchup.

Going back to kugel for a moment (yes, I know the last couple of paragraphs have gone far off topic), books on the history of Jewish food note the great debates in Europe over whether a kugel should be savory or sweet. Pepper or sugar: that was the question asked. The choice made was usually based on the part of Europe in which the family lived. It’s likely these discussions continued in our country when someone preferring savory kugel married someone who preferred sweet. Imagine the arguments they might have about whuch to serve for Shabbat or a holiday. While I’m usually pretty opinionated about food, I’ll take a pass on making a decision between the two this time because I’ll eat either type of kugel – noodle or potato – that is, if someone else makes it for me.