Jewish Food: Kishka

Sometimes, when I am bored, I will find old delicatessen menus online and flip through them.

I'm not really the target audience for delicatessens, although I remain a longtime patron. The Jewish deli is a uniquely Jewish American creation, originally a German invention that Ashkenazi Jews seized on and made Ashkenazi.

And they sort of went crazy with meat. As I understand it it, red meat wasn't a common part of the Eastern European Jews's diet, where it was often rare, expensive, and difficult to obtain thanks to kosher slaughtering rules. There was meat, certainly, but the dietary staple of many Eastern European Jews were fish and foul.

But in America there was a superabundance of inexpensive meat. And, since Jews must separate their milk products from their meat products, two traditions evolved: The milkhidiker restaurant, which served dairy, or the deli, which served meat. (For those unfamiliar with Jewish dietary laws, fish and foul are, for these purposes, neutral, and could be served at both establishments.)

And boy did delis serve meat. They still do: massive towers of sandwiches piled high with brisket, pastrami, chopped liver, tongue. 

Now here is where I should point out that I am a vegetarian, and have been since I was 16. When I go to delis, I mostly eat sides and snack on pickles. But my Jewish food is the food of the milkhidiker restaurant: blintzes, borscht, latkes and the like.

But still ... when I flip through the old deli menus, I can't help but wonder. Before I turned 16, I had most of the staples, the triple-decker turkey sandwiches, the pastrami on rye. I know the taste of those foods, even if I don't eat them anymore.

But these older menus have foods on them that I couldn't get in Minnesota. Some you can't really find anywhere anymore, like miltz, a cow's spleen stuffed with garlic and onions, or lungen stew, a cow's lung with garlic and onions; apparently almost any offal can be cooked with garlic and onions and it becomes food.

But there are a few items that still linger on New York deli menus. Despite my vegetarianism, I will make exceptions when it seems like exceptions must be made, and, in this case, my curiosity about these old Jewish foods got the better of me.

So when I was in New York recently, I stopped by the Second Avenue Deli, a New York classic dating back to 1954, and ordered two items I have long wondered about. The first was kishka, the second gribenes, and I will write about the first now and the second later.

I have discussed the word kishkes previously. The word means intestines, and that's, in part, what it is: fat and flour or matzah meal stuffed into an intestinal casing. As I mentioned in my earlier piece, it sometimes goes by the name stuffed derma, which is supposed to be better but sounds frankly disguising to me.

Kishke used to be a staple of Jewish events, but has since sort of fallen off the map; I would guess that this is because the recipe has changed significantly. It used to be made like cholent, the traditional sabbath meal: slow-cooked, sometimes in the cholent, acquiring the flavor. Now it is usually boiled and served rather quickly, often in an inedible artificial casing, which sort of defeats the point.

The kishka I had was a pasty, sweet potato-colored mound with no visible casing and a brown gravy on the side. It had an extremely strong umami flavor, but indistinct -- kishka is frequently made with onion and sometimes carrot or celery. None of those flavors could be distinguished. The Joy of Jewish cooking from 1974 has a recipe in which the kishka is covered with apple cider, but this was not done here. 

I suspect this is a food that could easily be revived by foodies. There are vegetarian versions as well, stuffed with potato or simply using oil to replace the fat in the original recipe. Once expects that, slow-cooked and balancing the ingredients, either the original or the vegetarian version cold be tremendous. The deli version wasn't, and I would not eat it again.

However, there is another meal, almost identical, but the ingredients are stuffed into a chicken neck instead of intestines. This meal is called helzel, and is often made with garlic and black pepper, and I might have to break my vegetarianism to try this if I ever get the chance.