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Around the Jewish World South African Cookbook to Tell Story of Country’s Jews

June 24, 2005
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Mock crayfish and a history lesson. You’ll get a little of both in a forthcoming South African Jewish cookbook, being billed not only as a great recipe source, but also as a social history of South African Jewry.

The cookbook, a fund raiser for the Cape Jewish Seniors Association, is due out late next year. The publishers of the book hope to draw in funds and shed light on a cuisine unique to this part of the world.

Included will be traditional recipes as well as updates and short-cuts that incorporate health trends and local flavor — accompanied by relevant anecdotes.

The book’s editor is Oded Schwartz, a former Israeli and a renowned chef who spent 36 years in the London food industry.

During the course of interviews he is conducting for the book with professional cooks, as well as with others, he has discovered that domestic workers often have unwittingly become repositories for information on Jewish life here.

“Because they have an outside eye and were responsible for the mechanism of the home, they have very vivid and insightful recollections of what happened in the Jewish community, for example, in the ’50s,” Schwartz says.

One such worker, who has worked for the same family for 50 years, remembers buying chickens on a Friday, along with the other domestic workers, and taking them to the Gardens Synagogue to be slaughtered.

“Although she couldn’t supply me with quantities, her description of how she makes her gefilte fish is absolutely fantastic,” Schwartz says.

It is tidbits such as these that the book’s planners hope will elevate it into a collector’s item.

“We really need food memories and we would like the cooperation of the Jewish community throughout the country as well as former South Africans living overseas,” he says.

The Jewish community here has strongly Lithuanian roots.

Schwartz says he has identified a “special Jewish cookery style” in South Africa that is not present anywhere else. “The Jews come from a rather narrow ethnic background.

The fact that the community lives in the Southern Hemisphere also contributes to the unique food culture.

“So the traditional Rosh Hashanah fruit is served on Pesach because that is when they are in season. The wine for Pesach is made from fresh grapes instead of the traditional raisins used in the rest of the Diaspora. The classic “mock crayfish” is a South African invention, as is the word “kitke” for challah.

“Also, the way that you serve meals — this luscious South African table with a choice of seven starters and desserts and about 15 main courses — is because of the particular circumstances of having servants in the home, allowing the housewife to be as extravagant as that.”

Also being unearthed for inclusion are menus of women’s Zionist balls of days gone by — events that were the highlight of the social calendar in the small country towns, Schwartz says.

“The Afrikaners went there not for the music and dancing, but to be fed well,” he laughs.

Irene Friedland, a project researcher, says a “huge” number of local recipe books from the 1950s onwards were produced, particularly from these rural communities.

“What for us is like gold, is what women who arrived here in the 1880s brought with them,” she says. “Many of them were illiterate and what they brought with them was in their heads — it wasn’t written down.”

“Testings and Tastings” are being held in an effort to elicit community involvement and contributions to the project. (Individuals who have recipes to contribute to the book can e-mail them to

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