Sweet vs. Spicy: The Great Gefilte Debate

Libi Astaire September 28, 2017

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Do you like your gefilte fish sweet or peppery? Do you add a little paprika to just about everything you cook? Not so long ago, the spices a Jew used didn’t just add flavor—they announced where he or she was from.

“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” wrote French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. While he probably didn’t have gefilte fish in mind when he penned those words a few hundred years ago, it was this Shabbat favorite that once proudly announced an Ashkenazic family’s roots. If you liked it sugary sweet, you were from Poland or Russia. If you poured on the pepper you were from Lita, or Lithuania.

What caused this divergence in taste?  Sometimes it was the price of the spice—and sometimes it reflected an outlook on life.

On the Sugar Trail

Food historians like to point out that behind any traditional dish lies one important thing: the availability of the ingredients required to make it. For example, even though our ancestors have been eating some kind of latkes for thousands of years, potato latkes only gained popularity in the 1800s when potatoes were brought to Eastern Europe. Fish was plentiful in many parts of Europe, thanks to the many rivers flowing through the continent and the surrounding seas. But what was added to the fish pot to give the fish flavor depended upon what was available locally.

While it’s tempting to think the sweet gefilte fish enjoyed by Polish Jews goes back to when Jews first arrived there in the 10th century, adding sugar only came about when sugar became widely available in the early 19th century. Before that, sugar was a luxury item that only the rich could afford.

What brought about the change? In the beginning, the world’s sugar came from sugarcane, which was first cultivated in South Asia (i.e., India) and Southeast Asia. While the Ancient World knew about sugar, it was mainly used for medicinal purposes and not to flavor food. During the Medieval period, the “sweet salt” was imported to Europe, along with other exotic spices, such as nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and pepper, but it remained expensive. Prices only fell with the discovery that sugarcane could be successfully planted in New World territories such as Brazil and the Caribbean islands. This greater availability led to greater affordability, which led in turn to 18th-century Western Europe’s sugar craze, where sugar was added to beverages such as tea, coffee, and coco, as well as jams and cakes.

While the British continued to enjoy an abundance of sugar, by the early 1800s the French were experiencing a sugar shortage. The cause was the Napoleonic Wars, which pitted France against Britain. In what can only be described as a bitter blow to the French, the British blocked Caribbean exports to France, including sugar. Napoleon, never one to give up without a fight, responded to the British blockade by banning sugar imports in 1813. But he knew better than to tell the French people, “Let them eat sugarless cake!” Instead, he encouraged the development of a new manufacturing process: refining sugar beet roots to make sugar.

Rooting for Beets

While both France and Germany became major producers of sugar made from sugar beets during the 1800s, Eastern Europeans weren’t entirely left out in the cold. The world’s first sugar beet factory opened in 1801 in Silesia, which was then part of Prussia and shared a border with Poland. A few decades later, in 1838 to be exact, Poland opened its very first factory, a beet sugar refinery established by Herman Epstein.

Epstein’s factory was small—he was a banker who only “dabbled” in owning factories—but from that small beginning came an industry that remained almost exclusively Jewish until the First World War, when much of Poland’s industrial infrastructure was damaged. The sugar industry was primarily in Jewish hands in Ukraine as well, where the Brodsky family alone controlled 25 percent of overall Russian sugar output until World War I. Jews were also heavily involved in Belorussia’s sugar industry.

With sugar readily available, and with sugar refining being primarily a Jewish business, it must have seemed like a no-brainer to add sugar to just about everything. Sweet challah? Why not? Sweet noodle kugels? Of course! Sweet and sour stuffed cabbage? How did we ever eat cabbage before!

As for sweet gefilte fish, the question became not whether to add sugar, but how much sugar to add. The fish became so sweet that people needed something to counterbalance all that sugar. Thus, chrain—made from grated horseradish and beet juice—became a frequent accompaniment to the Friday night meal’s first course.

Pass the Pepper, Please

While Galician, Romanian, and Hungarian Jews also developed a sweet tooth, there was one Jewish stronghold that remained impervious to sugar’s charms: Lithuania. Lithuanian Jews preferred their food savory, rather than sweet, and they became known for their peppery gefilte fish and kugels. Although pepper, like many other spices, had been an expensive delicacy in the Ancient and Medieval worlds, in the 18th century, the monopoly on importing pepper crumbled, and the spice became affordable even to people of just average means.

Lithuanian Jews also liked sour foods such as iced beet soup with lemon, onions, and sour cream, sorrel soup with lemon and sour cream, and fermented pickled cabbage. This great divide in culinary tastes became the stuff of folklore. To the sugar-loving Polisher Yid or Galician, the peppery Litvak lacked true Yiddisher ta’am, or authentic Jewish flavor. To the analytical, unemotional Litvak, a love of sweet foods was as suspect as the new sect that had taken root in Poland and Ukraine: Chassidus, or Hassidism. Later, scholars of Eastern European Jewry would dub this dispute “the gefilte fish line,” an imaginary line that represented no national border, but accurately reflected the differences between Litvaks and many other Eastern European Jews.

Paint the Food Red

Just as Polish Jews had to wait until the arrival of sugar beet refineries to discover they had a sweet tooth, so too did Hungarian Jews have to wait for the arrival of red bell peppers and chili peppers from the New World to discover that a generous sprinkling of paprika makes just about everything taste better. In the words of Gyula Vegh, director of the Szeged Paprika Museum, in southern Hungary, “We believe Columbus’s mission was a success because he came back to Europe with a marvelous spice. He discovered America on the way.”

At first the exotic pepper plants were used mainly for ornamental purposes by wealthy noblemen who cultivated them in their gardens. Later, the spice produced from their pods was used as a cure for fever; In the 1930s, Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi discovered that paprika is loaded with vitamin C.

It was the Turks who introduced pepper plants to Ottoman Hungary, which they ruled from 1541 to 1699. According to Gil Marks, author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, after the Turks left, they left behind the many red pepper plants they had cultivated. Since it was much cheaper to use the paprika from locally-grown red pepper plants than to import peppercorns and make black pepper, paprika became the spice of choice.

Paprika—which is the diminutive form of the Slavic word for pepper, papar—was made from either bell peppers, chili peppers, or a combination of the two. Originally, all paprika was hot and spicy. But in the 1920s a planter living in Szeged—the capital of Hungarian paprika—found one plant that produced a sweeter fruit. He grafted it onto other plants and sweet paprika was born.

Ironically, because paprika was so widely available, at first upper-class Hungarians refused to use it. The spice used to season the hearty goulash that the peasants ate was much too plebian for supposedly refined tastes. Eventually, though, they couldn’t resist those paprika-seasoned goulashes, and paprika became the national spice. Hungary’s Jews also embraced the spice, and chicken paprikash became a Shabbat favorite.

Easy Does It

While it was Germany, or Ashkenaz, that gave Eastern European Jews their name, when most people think of “authentic” Ashkenazic cuisine, it’s usually not German-Jewish food that comes to mind. With the exception of a dollop of spicy mustard on a frankfurter, German food is rarely overly sweet or spicy. Instead, the seasonings of choice are the more gentle parsley, thyme, chives, nutmeg, and caraway. When black pepper was used, it was used in small amounts.

But while German-Jewish food may be more subtly spiced, its dishes do find a prominent place on the Jewish table. Take gefilte fish, for instance. Although the great debate about how to season the fish took place in Lithuania and Poland, there wouldn’t have been a debate if Franco-German cooks hadn’t invented the dish in the late 14th century. Then there are comfort foods such as schnitzel and knödel (dumplings). Finally, the German-Jewish predilection for pickling vegetables and preserving meats—sauerkraut on that kosher hot dog, anyone? Or a corned beef sandwich on rye?—helped kosher deli food find an honored place on the American culinary map.

Indeed, it was in the United States that Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian, and German cuisine jumped into the melting pot and emerged as something called “Jewish cooking.” It’s therefore not unusual today to plan Shabbat meals that include sweet gefilte fish followed by chicken paprikash for dinner, with cholent accompanied by schnitzel and a peppery kugel for lunch.

As for a nosh, there was never a disagreement about that! No matter what dialect of Yiddish was spoken, a glass of tea or cup of coffee and a tempting piece of cake was always a welcome treat!