Thursday, 22 March 2012

Top Ten Jewish Foods that May Just Gross You Out


There's this scene in Srugim (S01, E04 - pictured above) where the character Hodaya - a rabbi's daughter drifting from the religious fold - has a dinner date with Avri, a secular Jew. Anyway, Avri has made pasta for dinner, and as he sprinkles the parmigiana, Hodaya looks positively revolted. Pop quiz for those just learning about Judaism: why? Those who keep kosher can probably guess that the pasta has a meat sauce. Even though she is losing faith, shaking the food thing is not so easy.  There's nothing obviously offensive to someone with a Western or Mediterranean diet about a meat-sauce pasta with grated cheese (ask any Italian). Nevertheless, in keeping kosher, diet becomes intertwined with morality. And, through religious dietary restrictions, in this case kashrut, an otherwise morally neutral action, e.g. eating a pasta dish with cheese is perceived as immoral (and can elicit a visceral reaction).  Well, if pork is the least kosher of ingredients, perhaps guilt is the one that is most kosher.

There are of course many cultures that harbor taboos around food. Some are religiously motivated: Jains, Hindus and Rastafaris favor vegan or vegetarian diets to varying degrees. Jews, Mormons and Muslims also abide by a variety of restrictions, etc. There was a Jamie Oliver episode where he visited a North American tribe that refused to eat foods of a certain shape (I think it was round). Other food taboos are not related to religion, but culture (though of course there's overlap). In North America we typically are grossed out by the idea of eating animals that we think of as pets: e.g. dogs, cats, bunnies, and horses.  Also, certain textures turn off the typical Western consumer: slimy, gelatinous, or spongy textures are rare. Few of our foods are very bony  (e.g. as bugs might be). Bugs in and of themselves are taboo for food consumption. Many North Americans find eating offals (organs) off-putting.  There are also taboos around perceived health dangers: e.g. most North Americans eating avoid raw eggs.

Anyway, all this to say, many things that fall into the kosher category could easily gross someone from a different culture. So, just for fun, here are what I think are the "grossest" things we eat. Just to be clear:  I am pretty much an omnivore, and I LOVE food (to eat, not a big fan of cooking it). I am basing grossness on the non-religious categories above. There is very little in terms of food that I would be too grossed out to eat.

OK . . . Top Ten "Gross" Jewish Foods:

1. Beef Tongue:

Photo from Just edible 
My B-IL dubbed this: the food that tastes you back! And Mr. CL lovingly refers to this particular cut of meat as "donkey shlong", so I can understand why some people may find it unappetizing. Although beef tongue is great as a deli meat, Mr. CL's slow-cooker beef tongue is my fave, and our Sunday night dinner staple.  Last year, we hosted Mr. CL's sister & family in our first-ever-at-our-house sukkah. Mr. CL got fresh tortilla shells from a local tortilleria, and made beef tongue tacos. What can I say - a mechaye!!! (Do I get bonus points for appropriate use of new Yiddish vocab?)

2. Gehachte Leibe (Chopped Liver):
Photo from Central Coast Wine Report web-site

I could easily live on this stuff. I'm partial to the kind where you don't see the chopped egg (i.e. my personal preference is a smoother texture - but not too smooth). As an offal, liver is not first pick on many a burger-fries-and -bbq diet. We tell Mini CL that it's like a meat Nutella. Somehow, he's not sold.

When my parents cooked liver, it was usually fried with onions. Other similar offals, chicken hearts and giblets were also popular in stews with potatoes growing up. I'm not sure if that's a Jewish thing, or a European thing. (A popular Israeli Toronto eatery  (Me Va Me) serves these offals fried in their Jerusalem sandwich). I'm not sure whether the chewy fried or pastier chopped texture would be easier to stomach for a newcomer to Ashkenazi cuisine, but either way: Try it, you'll like it!!

Mr. CL's sister told me that another offal they ate was spleen, called "miltz" . . . That's got a Yiddish name - so it's got to be Jewish ;)!

Photo:  Eat Me Daily website

Photo from Slash Food  (grilled chicken hearts)

3. Chicken Claws and Necks:
Not sure if people are more bothered by claws because of their boniness or because they look like little hands. North Americans typically do not like their dead food to look remotely as it did when it was alive. As for the boniness, I personally am a bit of a lazy eater, and prefer food that I don't have to work for (i.e. with parts I need to spit out: sunflower seed, grapes with seeds, fish with bones etc.), and you definitely have to work for both chicken claws and necks (my MIL calls them "gorgelach", very similar to the Russian word for the "gorle"). In any case, after they've been cooked in Friday night soup broth - really yummy, and well worth the effort. *(The best chicken claws I've ever had, though, were not Jewish at all, but Chinese, at one of our favorite Dim Sum places).

Photo from Delicious Coma 

Photo from The Modern Apprentice 

4. Gefilte Fish from a jar:

Photo from Meijer 

Yeah . . something about non-refrigerated fish in a jar just kinda grosses me out. I'd try it, though. I'm not a huge gefilte fish fan to begin with (except the kind my MIL makes - Ungers frozen -  which bears very little semblance in look or taste to any other gefilte fish - or fish in general, for that matter - that I've had). These look like the fish patties that are part of my Baba's gefilte fish . . which has some bony parts, some gelatinous parts . . not really my thing*.  But, gefilte fish in a jar just seems wrong.

5. Kishke:
Photo: MyMakolet 
This was not part of my diet growing up, but Mr. CL's family has introduced me to "the Jewish haggis". It's pretty good, but using a food-waste organ - intestines -  as casing is bound to make some people squeamish. Kishke did make it into our household via reprimands, though. As in my dad telling me "Ne nado vkishe lazit!"  . . "Don't climb into my intestines" (i.e. stop bugging me). It's not the same in English! 

6. Gogol Mogol:
Photo: Tasting Poland 
I have very fond memories of this treat that my father used to make for us. Gogol mogol is beaten raw egg yolk with sugar (like egg nog without the dairy). My dad's came in two flavors: he'd add cocoa for chocolate flavor, and squeeze in lemon juice for lemon flavor. Sometimes we'd have chocolemon too. As I mentioned in another post, germaphobia rules these days, and so my kids have not tasted this egg deliciousness.

7. Eyerlach (Unhatched eggs):
Photo from Israeli Kitchen 

Eyerlach are eggs found inside the chicken. I've never eaten them, but Mr. CL's sister tells me that when his mom made them they were delicious. I love eggs, so I'm sure they are. Incidentally, while buying meat at the kosher butcher today, someone had asked for them. She was told that Eyerlach are no longer considered kosher. Does anyone know if this is true?

8. P'tcha:
Photo: Helen's cooking 
In our family we called this dish "kholodetz".  It was always on the table when guests** came over or on special occcasions. It is jellied calf's foot with carrots and boiled eggs. It was something you couldn't make me touch with a ten foot pole as a kid, and that I only tried once as an adult. That was enough. It's still for me an example of a product that could only have emerged from a place where people were desperate and starving. Yes, I know I said not much grosses me out, but this dish is an exception.

9. Shmaltz and Grieven
Photo: Three Points Kitchen website
Never had this, but judging from how amazingly unhealthy this sounds, I'm sure it's delicious! Shmaltz is rendered chicken fat and grieven are pieces of chicken skin that are fried in it. Farmer/writer Robyn Braverman describes it as the Jewish version of bacon - great at brunch or instead of bacon bits on salad . . . I just may have to try to make this one. Cholesterol, here I come!

10. Sheep's Head 

Photo: Daily Cocaine  
One of my B-IL's is from Morocco, and on Pesach his family traditionally serves sheep head.  He tells me his dad especially enjoys eating the eyes. (When sheep head isn't available,  fish head is used instead). So, while my Ashkenazi  BIL enjoys food that tastes you back, my Sephardi BIL, doesn't mind the one that looks right back atcha!  

Honorable Mention: Mr. CL's family's Passover Egg Soup

Mr. CL's  family's  "egg soup" has three ingredients: hard boiled eggs, warm water, and a pile of salt. I really like it because I love hard boiled eggs and salty stuff, but calling it soup is a bit of a stretch, and reminds me of the scene in Arrested Development where Lindsay Bleuth (who loves cooking as much as I do) serves raw chicken to her family which she presents as "Chicken in a chicken water". 

Anyway, was there anything I missed? B'tai avon!*** 


Through writing this I am reminded of how much I enjoyed grocery shopping in Neve Yaakov with Baba One, where she bought live fish that swam in her bathtub for a while.
** Eventually my parents learned to serve it only to Russian guests. 
***(Hebrew for Bon appetite!) How do you say that in Yiddish?

A big thank you to Mr. CL and my sisters in-law for their suggestions!!


  1. LOL. I gagged a couple of times reading that, though I also caught myself thinking a few times, "huh? what in the world is gross about that?"

    BTW according to the Talmud the proper way is not to develop a grossed-out-ness to non-kosher food. It says that with things which are understandably bad for the world one should allow oneself to develop an aversion for them (such as killing and stealing), but with things like non-kosher food, one should say, "I would probably really enjoy that, but I won't do it because God said so." That's what they taught me in school as a kid, and I never developed an aversion to cheese-sprinkled pasta with meat sauce (sounds yum).

    But to chicken claws and p'tcha, I did.

    1. Because of lifelong conditioning, I have very little desire to eat nonkosher food. I live on the edge by eating unchecked strawberries from a regular salad bar. :)

    2. The non-kosher food is not so much about living on the edge for me, as it is a way to travel vicariously. I didn't travel in my 20's as much as I would have liked. Mr. CL and I were busy getting our ducks in a row (finishing our educations, buying a house etc.) and exploring other cultures' foods was our way of "getting out" . . and now we're hooked, and kicking ourselves for not travelling further before we had kids!

    3. (My travel bug bit more forcefully than his, so I'm kicking myself more.)

  2. Im a fan of 1,2,4 and 5. But than again, I have eaten some really crazy stuff from around the world

  3. I've had haggis a number of times (the wife is Scottish) - ick.

  4. > Talmud the proper way is not to develop a grossed-out-ness to non-kosher food.

    Yeah, but that Talmud sure is sneaky! You've been following my blog, so you know my background . .I can eat just about anything, but I have a mild aversion to cheese burgers . . . cheese burgers of all things!! That is definitely a remnant (an unwelcome one at that!) of Jewish Day School :).

    Ami - I'd love to hear some of your adventures in food! We should swap notes . . . though mine are mostly via local restaurants - Toronto is awesome for that :). When the kids get older hopefully we can taste some of the foods we love in their lands of origin . . .

    Andy - I've never had it . . . ick or not, it's on my list! :)

    1. You should have gone to my (haredi) school... lol :)

    2. Sure! In the girl's division of the school - three blocks away :)

  5. >Nevertheless, in keeping kosher, diet becomes intertwined with morality

    It does?

    1. Do you think you would feel guilty if you ate pork?


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