Jewish Dishes, Snacks and Deserts

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The most common Israeli fast food items are felafals (deep-fried chick pea balls) and shwarmas (slices of lamb). Both are served in open pieces of pita bread with yoghurt sauce or sesame sauce, hot sauce and chopped salad. You can also get them with french fries, humus, tehina pickles, pickled cabbage. Hummus (a Middle Eastern dip made of pureed chickpeas, tahini, garlic and lemon juice) is popular with Jews and Arabs in the Middle East.

Other common Jewish and Israeli dishes include blintzes (rolled up crepes filled with various ingredients and pan fried), salat Turki (a hot, spicy salad with tomatoes and peppers); knishes (meat turnovers), borekas (dough turnovers filled with potato, cheese or other ingredients), kebabs (often spiced hamburger meat cooked on skewers), shishlik (skewered lamb or turkey), schnitzel (breaded cutlets of chicken or turkey), cholet (a meat-and potato stew so heavy it is sometimes called “the “Jewish atom bomb”), kasha (buckwheat or groats, prepared in a pilaf and often served with bow tie noodles); kishke (a sausage-like dish, traditionally packed inside beef intestine), bread and kazka (a paste made with molasses and cummin seeds) and roasted chicken.

The food eaten by European Israelis tends to be blander and less spicy than the food consumed by Middle Eastern Israelis. Traditional Passover food, which are also eaten on the Sabbath, include beef brisket, gefilte fish, and matzoth, or unleavened bread. On the Sabbath, Yemenites eat a special yeast bread served with brown eggs that are roasted overnight in an oven. Lesser known Jewish foods include “p’tcha” ( jellied calves feet) and “gribenes” (chicken skin fried in chicken fat).

Pastrami, chopped liver and corned beef are fixtures of Jewish delis in New York. “Apetzing” referred to smoked fish-lox, herring and whitefish. All these foods gave high levels of salt. The meat is often very fatty.

Jews have traditionally said grace before meal, a custom that was picked up and continued by Christians. The customs comes from the numerous blessings of “herakoh” which mark different moments of the day.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; ; Jewish Museum London

Jewish Dishes

Eastern European dishes include: borscht (a hot or cold soup containing beets and other vegetables); knish (a savory single-serving-sized Eastern European pie frequently stuffed with potato filling); kreplach (a triangle-shaped dumpling, usually filled with meat and served in chicken soup); kugel (a sweet or savory baked casserole usually made with some type of starch such as noodles or potatoes, eggs and a fat; schav (cold sorrel soup) and schmaltz (rendered chicken or other poultry fat).

whole gefilte fish

Among the Jewish dishes well-known to American Jews are matzah ball (kneidlach, a dumpling made of matzah meal, eggs and oil, usually served in chicken soup); lox and smoked salmon, traditionally served on a bagel with cream cheese; and gefilte fish, traditionally served on Passover. Gefilte fish is ground, deboned fish (usually whitefish, carp, pike and/or mullet), mixed with eggs, matzah meal, and other seasoning, which is then boiled or poached (but can also be baked).

Dishes from North Africa and the Arab Middle East include Bamia (a thick Libyan Jewish soup made with okra); Kubbeh (an Iraqi Jewish dumpling soup); Sabich (an Iraqi Jewish sandwich containing fried eggplant, a hard-boiled egg, hummus and Israeli salad); Shakshuka (North African egg-and-tomato dish); and musakhan (a Palestinian dish made with chicken, onions, sumac and pine nuts layered with fresh bread). Among the Yemenite dishes found in Israel are chamin (soup with beans, meat and herbs), leben (light sour cream), shamenet (heavy sour cream), Yemenite food tends to be spicier than Israeli foods. It is often seasoned with coriander, red chilies, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mint and saffron. Yemenites eat five different kinds of flat, round bread and eat snacks of nuts, raisin and chickpeas.

Matzah Ball Soup

According to Judaism 101: Matzah balls are more traditionally known as knaydelach (Yiddish for dumplings). Matzah ball soup is generally a very thin chicken broth with two or three ping-pong-ball-sized matzah balls (or sometimes one very large matzah ball) in each serving. Sometimes, a few large pieces of carrot or celery are added. Matzah balls can be very soft and light or firm and heavy. A friend of mine describes the two types as "floaters and sinkers." Matzah ball soup is commonly served at the Passover seder, but is also eaten all year round. [Source: Judaism 101 =]

chicken and matzah ball soup

Ingredients for matzah ball soup: 1/2 cup matzah meal; 2 eggs; 2 tbsp. oil or schmaltz (melted chicken fat); 2 tbsp. water or chicken broth; a little black pepper; 2 quarts thin chicken broth or consommé; A handful of baby carrots or regular carrots cut into large chunks (optional); a few stalks of celery cut into large chunks (optional). =

Directions for cooking: 1) Beat the eggs, oil and water together thoroughly. Add the matzah meal, parsley and black pepper and mix until you achieve an even consistency. Let this sit for a few minutes, so the matzah meal absorbs the other ingredients, and stir again. 2) Bring the broth to a vigorous boil, then reduce the heat until the broth is just barely boiling. Add the vegetables to the broth (if used). Wet your hands and make balls of about 1-2 tbsp. of the batter. Drop the balls gently into the boiling water. They will be cooked enough to eat in about 15 minutes; however, you may want to leave it simmering longer to absorb more of the chicken broth flavor. They are done when they float on top of the broth and look bloated. 3) For lighter matzah balls, use a little less oil, a little more water, and cook at a lower temperature for a longer time. For heavier matzah balls, do the reverse. If you are using this to treat a cold, put extra black pepper into the broth (pepper clears the sinuses). =

Gefilte Fish

A traditional Jewish food associated with Passover, Gefilte fish describes balls made with ground fish, matzo meal and eggs, cooked in fish broth and usually served with horseradish. The store-bought kind comes in a jar, and is sold at supermarkets, especially to accompany Jewish holidays such as Passover or Rosh Hashanan, Fresh gefilte fish, as opposed to the jarred kind, is meant to be eaten cold. It is made with ground, deboned fish (usually white-fleshed freshwater fish, carp, pike and/or mullet), mixed with eggs, matzah meal, and other seasoning, which is then boiled or poached (but can also be baked). It has a smooth, intricate flavor that is perked up nicely with horseradish. The word "gefilte" comes from German and means "stuffed." Some variations on gefilte fish involve stuffing the fish skin with chopped up fish.

According to Judaism 101: “Gefilte fish is a cake or ball of chopped up fish. .. The fish is chopped into small pieces (a food processor is good for this), mixed with onions and some other vegetables (carrot, celery, parsley). The mixture is held together with eggs and matzah meal. It is then boiled in broth for a while. It can be served warm or cold, though it is usually served cold with red horseradish and garnished with carrot shavings. [Source: Judaism 101]

20120505-FoodGefilte_Fish balls.JPG
Gefilte Fish balls
Oliver Sacks wrote in The New Yorker: “Gefilte fish is not an everyday dish; it is to be eaten mainly on the Jewish Sabbath in Orthodox households, when cooking is not allowed. When I was growing up, my mother would take off from her surgical duties early on Friday afternoon and devote her time, before the coming of Shabbat, to preparing gefilte fish and other Sabbath dishes. [Source: Oliver Sacks, The New Yorker, September 14, 2015 =]

“Our gefilte fish was basically carp, to which pike, whitefish, and sometimes perch or mullet would be added. (The fishmonger delivered the fish alive, swimming in a pail of water.) The fish had to be skinned, boned, and fed into a grinder—we had a massive metal grinder attached to the kitchen table, and my mother would sometimes let me turn the handle. She would then mix the ground fish with raw eggs, matzo meal, and pepper and sugar. (Litvak gefilte fish, I was told, used more pepper, which is how she made it—my father was a Litvak, born in Lithuania.) =

“My mother would fashion the mixture into balls about two inches in diameter—two to three pounds of fish would allow a dozen or more substantial fish balls—and then poach these gently with a few slices of carrot. As the gefilte fish cooled, a jelly of an extraordinarily delicate sort coalesced, and, as a child, I had a passion for the fish balls and their rich jelly, along with the obligatory khreyn (Yiddish for horseradish).” =

Enjoying Gefilte Fish Made By a Baptist African American

Oliver Sacks wrote in The New Yorker: ““I thought I would never taste anything like my mother’s gefilte fish again, but in my forties I found a housekeeper, Helen Jones, with a veritable genius for cooking. Helen improvised everything, nothing was by the book, and, learning my tastes, she decided to try her hand at gefilte fish. When she arrived each Thursday morning, we would set out for the Bronx to do some shopping together, our first stop being a fish shop on Lydig Avenue run by two Sicilian brothers who were as like as twins. The fishmongers were happy to give us carp, whitefish, and pike, but I had no idea how Helen, African-American, a good, churchgoing Christian, would manage with making such a Jewish delicacy. But her powers of improvisation were formidable, and she made magnificent gefilte fish (she called it “filter fish”), which, I had to acknowledge, was as good as my mother’s. [Source: Oliver Sacks, The New Yorker, September 14, 2015 =]

gefilte fish loaf

“Helen refined her filter fish each time she made it, and my friends and neighbors got a taste for it, too. So did Helen’s church friends; I loved to think of her fellow-Baptists gorging on gefilte fish at their church socials. For my fiftieth birthday, in 1983, she made a gigantic bowl of it—enough for the fifty birthday guests. Among them was Bob Silvers, the editor of The New York Review of Books, who was so enamored of Helen’s gefilte fish that he wondered if she could make it for his entire staff. =

“When Helen died, after seventeen years of working for me, I mourned her deeply—and I lost my taste for gefilte fish. Commercially made, bottled gefilte fish, sold in supermarkets, I found detestable compared to Helen’s ambrosia. But now, in what are (barring a miracle) my last weeks of life—so queasy that I am averse to almost every food, with difficulty swallowing anything except liquids or jellylike solids—I have rediscovered the joys of gefilte fish. =

“I cannot eat more than two or three ounces at a time, but an aliquot of gefilte fish every waking hour nourishes me with much needed protein. (Gefilte-fish jelly, like calf’s-foot jelly, was always valued as an invalid’s food.) Deliveries now arrive daily from one shop or another: Murray’s on Broadway, Russ & Daughters, Sable’s, Zabar’s, Barney Greengrass, the 2nd Ave Deli—they all make their own gefilte fish, and I like it all (though none compares to my mother’s or Helen’s). While I have conscious memories of gefilte fish from about the age of four, I suspect that I acquired my taste for it even earlier, for, with its abundant, nutritious jelly, it was often given to infants in Orthodox households as they moved from baby foods to solid food. Gefilte fish will usher me out of this life, as it ushered me into it, eighty-two years ago.” =



A knish is traditional Eastern European snack food food consisting of a filling covered with dough that is either baked, grilled, or deep fried. Usually it is sort of potato and flour dumpling stuffed with various things, baked until browned and a little crisp on the outside. They are commonly filled with mashed potato and onion, chopped liver, kasha (buckwheat), cheese, sweet potatoes, black beans, fruit, broccoli, spinach, even tofu. They are good for a snack, an appetizer or a side dish. You should be able to find them in any deli. The word "knish" is Ukrainian for "dumpling."[Source: Judaism 101, Wikipedia]

Knishes (rhymes with "dishes"; the k and the n are both pronounced) can be purchased from street vendors in urban areas with a large Jewish population, sometimes at a hot dog stand or from a butcher shop. It was made popular in North America by Eastern European immigrants from the Pale of Settlement (mainly from present-day Belarus, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine). In most Eastern European traditional versions, the filling is made entirely of mashed potato, ground meat, sauerkraut, onions, kasha (buckwheat groats), or cheese. Knishes may be round, rectangular, or square. They may be entirely covered in dough or some of the filling may peek out of the top. Sizes range from those that can be eaten in a single bite hors d'oeuvre to sandwich-sized. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Eastern European immigrants who arrived sometime around 1900 brought knishes to North America. Knish is a Yiddish word that was derived from the Ukrainian knysh and Polish knysz. [ The first knish bakery in America was founded in New York in 1910. Knishes are generally recognized as a food made popular in New York by immigrants in the early 1900s. In the 2000s knish specialty establishments such as the Knish Shop in Baltimore, Bergen in Washington, DC, or My Mother's Knish in Westlake Village, California opened up. +

Stuffed Cabbage (Holishkes)


According to Judaism 101: Holishkes are cabbage leaves stuffed with meatballs in a tomato-based sweet-and-sour sauce. They are known by many different names (galuptzi, praakes, stuffed cabbage), and are made in many different ways, depending on where your grandmother came from. It is traditionally served during the holiday of Sukkot, [Source: Judaism 101 =]

Ingredients: 8-10 leaves of cabbage; Filling:; 1 lb. ground beef; 1/2 cup matzah meal; 1 large grated onion; 2 grated carrots; 1/2 tsp. garlic powder; a handful of minced parsley; 2 eggs; Sauce:; 16 oz. can of tomato sauce; 1/4 cup of lemon juice; 1/2 cup of brown sugar;

Directions for cooking: 1) Gently remove the cabbage leaves from the head. You want them to be intact. It may help to steam the head briefly before attempting this. Boil the leaves for a minute or two to make them soft enough to roll. 2) Combine the sauce ingredients in a saucepan and simmer, stirring, until the sugar dissolves (it will dissolve faster if you pour the lemon juice over it). Pour about 1/4 of the sauce into the bottom of a casserole dish or lasagna pan. 3) Combine all of the filling ingredients in a bowl. Make a ball out of a handful of the filling and roll it up in a cabbage leaf, rolling from the soft end to the spiny end. Put the resulting roll into the casserole dish with the sauce. Do this until you use up all of the filling, making 8-10 cabbage rolls. Then pour the remaining sauce over the top. 4) Bake approximately 30 minutes at 350 degrees.


According to Judaism 101: “Tzimmes is any kind of sweet stew. It usually is orange in color, and includes carrots, sweet potatoes and/or prunes. A wide variety of dishes fall under the heading "tzimmes." On Passover, I commonly make a tzimmes of carrots and pineapple chunks boiled in pineapple juice. On Thanksgiving, I serve a tzimmes of sweet potatoes, white potatoes, carrots, and stewing beef. Tzimmes is commonly eaten on Rosh Hashanah, because it is sweet and symbolizes our hopes for a sweet new year. The word "tzimmes" is often used in Yiddish to mean making a big fuss about something. [Source: Judaism 101 =]


“This is the tzimmes recipe I use for Passover: Ingredients: 1 can of pineapple tidbits in pineapple juice; 3 large carrots, peeled and cut into large slices; Additional pineapple juice or water if needed. Put the carrot slices and the pineapple with its juice in a large saucepan and bring it to a very low simmer. Let it simmer for half an hour or longer, until the carrot slices have absorbed most of the pineapple juice and are soft. If the juice level gets too low before this is done, add a bit more pineapple juice or, if none is available, some water. =

“This is the tzimmes recipe I use for Thanksgiving:: Ingredients: 1 lb. stewing beef, cut into small chunks; 1/2 cup of sugar; 1 cup of water; 3 sweet potatoes; 3 white potatoes; 5 carrots. Brown the stewing beef lightly in a little oil in a 2 quart saucepan. Add the water and sugar and bring to a boil, then reduce to a very low simmer. Peel and dice the potatoes and carrots and add to the pot. Let it stew covered at very low heat for at least an hour, adding water periodically if necessary. There should be water, but it should not be soggy. Once the potatoes are soft, take the cover off and let most of the water boil off. Mash the whole mixture until the potato part is the consistency of mashed potatoes. Put the mash into a casserole dish and bake for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees.” =

Kasha Varnishkes (Buckwheat Groats with Bow Tie Noodles)

According to Judaism 101: Kasha varnishkes is commonly thought of as a holiday dish today, but it comes from very humble beginnings: a poor man's fare from our Eastern European heritage, made from simple, hearty grain and noodles. The word "kasha" is Russian for porridge, though it refers primarily to buckwheat porridge, the most common and inexpensive grain available. The origin of the word "varnishkes" is a bit more puzzling: it apparently comes from a Ukrainian word meaning "stuffed," and refers to the fact that the original Ukrainian dish was made by stuffing kasha into a shell, more like a knish or a pierogi. The Jewish version is made by tossing the kasha (buckwheat groats) with bow tie shaped egg noodles. [Source: Judaism 101 =]

Kasha comes in various textures: whole, coarse, medium or fine. I like to work with medium, which sticks well to the noodles, but many swear by whole grain. Fine definitely gets too mushy. As for the noodles: both Manischewitz and Streits make suitable noodles (marketed as Bows or Egg Bows). If you can't find these, don't substitute regular egg noodles -- they don't have the texture needed to hold the kasha! Instead, substitute farfalle (bow tie-shaped pasta) or even rotini/rotelli (corkscrew pasta), which don't taste the same but hold the kasha well.

kasha varnishkas

Ingredients: 1 tbsp. cooking oil; 1 cup onions; 2 cups water or chicken broth; 2 to 3 tbsp minced garlic; 1/2 to 1 tsp ground black pepper; 1 to 2 tsp salt; 2 tbsp butter or margarine; 1 egg; 1 cup kasha; 12 oz. bag of bow tie egg noodles (or, if not available, bow tie or corkscrew pasta). =

Directions for cooking: 1) In the pot, saute onions in cooking oil until they are carmelized (browned and crispy but not burnt). Add the water or broth (carefully so it doesn't splatter), garlic, pepper, salt and butter or margarine and bring to a low boil. Turn it down to a simmer if it boils before you are ready for it. 2) While the water is heating, beat the egg in the mixing bowl and mix in the kasha, stirring well until the egg is absorbed into and coating the kasha. Pour the mixture into the skillet at medium-low heat and stir constantly, breaking up any clumps that may form in the kasha. The objective is to cook the egg as a coating on the kasha, keeping each groat separate. Do not use any grease (oil, butter, etc.)! That will make the kasha mushy. 3) Pour the water and onions mixture over the kasha and stir until it is evenly distributed. Turn off the heat and cover the kasha skillet tightly. Let it sit and absorb the water for about 15 minutes. 4) While the kasha is absorbing the water, cook the bow tie noodles according to package directions. You can use the pot previously used for the onions (don't even need to clean it first). Drain the noodles well. 5) Check the kasha. The liquid should be absorbed. If it is not, turn up the heat a bit to boil off any excess. Mix the kasha and the noodles. This is commonly served with mushroom sauce or brown gravy, or just with butter. =

Jewish and Israeli Snacks and Street Food

Items you can buy on the streets of Israel include roasted sweet corn, falafels, shwarmas, humus, tchina, ice cream, bread, kebabs, charcoal-grilled fish, pastries, dried fruit, dried seeds, bread topped with cheese and vegetables, and tasteless pretzel-like rings.

Bagels as we know them today are for the most part an American Jewish invention. They are delicious boiled-then-baked rolls with a hole, traditionally topped with cream cheese and lox. Bialy is a bagel-like roll, but with a matted finish, no hole and almost always stuffed with cooked onions. Boureka is a savory serving-sized Middle Eastern pastry wrapped in fillo dough. See Below.

Snacks associated with holidays and the sabbath include blintzes (thin, crepe-like pancake usually rolled up around fruit or sweet cheese, traditionally served on Shavuot); challah: a braided bread traditionally served on Shabbat); matzah (unleavened bread traditionally eaten on Passover); and latke (potato pancakes, traditionally served on Hanukkah)

Jewish Desserts

Israeli pastries

According to Judaism 101: “Jewish deserts generally do not have any dairy products in them, because of the constraints of kashrut. Under the kosher laws, dairy products cannot be eaten at the same meal as meat, thus Jewish deserts are usually pareve (neither meat nor dairy), so they can be served after a meat or dairy meal. An example of this kind of cooking is the Jewish apple cake, which I see in many grocery stores. I do not know if this kind of cake is actually a traditional Jewish dish; I cannot find any recipes for it in any of my Jewish cookbooks. However, the style of it is very much in accord with Jewish cooking styles. Jewish apple cake is a light, almost spongy cake with chunks of apples in it. It has no dairy products; the liquid portion that would usually be milk is replace with apple juice, making a very sweet cake. [Source: Judaism 101]

Among the delicious desserts, sweet breads and pastries are babka (a dense bread swirled with chocolate or cinnamon and often topped with cinnamon-sugar streusel); egg cream (a sweet drink made with seltzer, chocolate syrup and milk); halvah (a Middle Eastern candy made from tahini, sesame paste), konafa or kanafe (an Arab pastry made soft goat cheese, wheat flakes and honey or syrup invented in Nablus), Hamantaschen (triangle-shaped filled cookies traditionally served on Purim); kichels (bow tie pastries that are fried and often sprinkled with sugar; mandelbrot or mandel bread (biscotti-like cookies); rugelach (cookie usually made with a cream-cheese dough and twisted with cinnamon or chocolate) and labne (thick yogurt-based cheese, often served with breakfast in Israel and sometimes eaten with ice cream).

In Israel, you can also find flaky baklava-like pastries, honey cake, dried fruit strudel, famous Jaffa oranges, dried and fresh figs, pomegranates, fruits, dried apricots, nuts (pistachios and almonds are the only two nuts mentioned in the Bible) and different kinds of pudding such as orange pudding, vanilla pudding, carrot pudding and rice pudding.


According to Judaism 101: Kugel is another dish that encompasses several different things, and the relationship between them is hard to define. The word "kugel" is generally translated as "pudding," although it does not mean pudding in the Jell-O brand dairy dessert sense; more in the sense of bread pudding. The word "kugel" is pronounced "koogel" (usually with the "oo" in "book"; sometimes to rhyme with "Google") or "kigel" (rhymes with giggle) depending on where your grandmother comes from. [Source: Judaism 101 =]

kugel made with egg noodles

Kugel can be either a side dish or a dessert. As a side dish, it is a casserole of potatoes, eggs and onions. As a desert, it is usually made with noodles and various fruits and nuts in an egg-based pudding. Kugel made with noodles is called lokshen kugel. Below is my recipe for a noodle kugel. Ingredients: 3 eggs; 1/4 cup melted margarine or butter; 1/4 cup sugar; 1/2 tsp. cinnamon; 1/2 lb. wide noodles; 1/4 cup raisins; 1/4 cup almonds; 1/2 cup chopped apples. =

Directions for cooking: 1) Beat the eggs thoroughly in a large mixing bowl. Add the butter, sugar and cinnamon beat until thoroughly blended. Cook the noodles and rinse them in cold water. Do not drain them too thoroughly. Put the noodles into the egg mixture and stir until the noodles are coated with the mixture. Let them sit in the refrigerator for about 15-30 minutes, so the noodles absorb some of the egg mixture. Stir again. 2) Put about half of the egg-noodle mixture into a casserole dish. Put the raisins, almonds and apples on top. Put the remaining egg-noodle mixture on top of that. Bake for about 30-45 minutes at 350 degrees, until the egg part is firm and the noodles on top are crispy. Can be served warm or cold. =

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine,, London, Library of Congress, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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