Growing up, most of my meals fell into two separate categories that are part of my heritage: Italian food and Jewish food. Most of us are already familiar with the ins and outs of Italian food, but have you ever wondered what exactly is Jewish food? After all, when we speak about cuisines, we usually categorize them by geography and ethnicity, not religion. Judaism, however, is more than a religion. It’s also a culture unto itself that happens to have really yummy, comforting food.
Everyone knows how you good you feel after a bowl of chicken soup with matzoh balls or a rich pot roast. But what happens when you switch to a plant-based diet (other than your mother worrying you’re not getting enough protein)? No worries, we can make all the traditional Jewish dishes, including that Matzoh Ball Soup, without meat, dairy, or eggs. Here’s how to cook vegan Jewish food that will have you all faklempt.
1. So, What is Jewish Food?
Jewish food is made up of many different cooking traditions, styles, and centuries of history. The cuisine has been shaped by influences from the Middle East, the Mediterranean, German, Eastern European, and Spanish styles of cooking, as well as by Jewish dietary laws, religious traditions, and the economic and agricultural states of all the places where Jewish people have lived. That’s why we see so many foods that we call Jewish food but are also part of many other global cuisines.
The different styles of Jewish cuisine are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Persian, Yemenite, Indian, and Latin-American. There are also dishes from Jewish communities from Ethiopia to Central Asia. Israeli food is really a type of “fusion cuisine” with influences of all the different people who moved to Israel. One thing is for sure — Jewish food is rich in flavor, tradition, and soul.
2. Is It Kosher?
Jewish dietary laws, known as kashrut or kosher laws, regulate what and how Jewish people may eat. Kosher law tells us what foods may be eaten, how animals are slaughtered, how foods should be prepared, what combinations of foods are allowed or prohibited, and other special rules that occur during holidays such as Passover.
So, what changes when you eat a plant-based diet? Well, finding the right food to eat gets a whole lot easier. Since meat, dairy, and eggs are excluded from a vegan diet, most of the kosher laws become a moot point. Practically all vegan food is kosher, though for a restaurant or food item to be certified “kosher,” it must be hechsured, or supervised and approved by Rabbinic counsel. That means you can order a vegan bacon cheeseburger without worrying about breaking kosher laws. Sounds like a win-win to me! Now that we don’t have to worry about the food being kosher, let’s look at how to veganize popular Jewish cuisine.
Challah, or egg bread, may be one of the best-known Jewish foods. Both Jewish traditional and holiday meals typically involve breaking the special bread that is challah. The loaf is usually braided, though on some holidays it is baked into different shapes, such as round challah on Rosh Hashanah. So, how do you veganize a bread that is usually made from half a dozen eggs? Easy. There are so many ways to replace eggs in cooking, like flax seed, chia seeds, pumpkin purée, vegan mayonnaise, tofu, aquafaba, and commercial egg replacers. Check out How to Cook and Bake without Eggs and Tips for Using Flax and Chia Seeds to Replace Eggs in Baking and Cooking.
If you’ve been missing challah, it’s time to start baking. Try my recipes for Vegan Challah, Vegan and Gluten-Free Challah, and Pumpkin Challah Rolls. Use your challah to make this delicious Challah French Toast. Also try Mayim Bialik’s Purim Recipe: Hot Pretzel Challah Bread. Yum!
4. Matzoh Ball Soup
Matzoh ball soup is lovingly known as Jewish penicillin. When I was kid, all it took was one sneeze out of me and a big pot of soup simmering on the stove would fill the house with delicious smells. Matzoh ball soup is usually chicken soup with carrots, onion, celery, and a few matzoh balls or knaydelach (dumplings), thrown in. The only thing you need to do in order to make vegan matzoh balls is replace the eggs, just like with the challah above.
When it comes to recipes, I have to say that my Matzo Ball Soup tastes a lot like my mother’s. Using seltzer is the trick to making your homemade matzoh balls light and fluffy. Matzoh meal is usually made from wheat but you can make gluten-free matzoh balls by using quinoa flakes, as in this gluten-free Matzoh Ball Vegetable Soup. Then, there are the matzoh balls in this Matzoh Ball Soup, which use mixture of matzoh meal and quinoa flour to replace eggs.
5. Bagels, Lox, and a Shmear
One of the classic Jewish dishes is bagel with cream cheese and lox. I have to admit that I have never tasted lox; it just didn’t appeal to me, but my father loved it. A delicious New York bagel with cream cheese, though? I would take that any day. Most bagels are vegan (just watch out for egg washes), but you can also make your own at home. Really, it’s not that hard. Check out these Everything Bagels From Scratch! (They’re Easier Than You Think!). Make these New York-Style Bagels and choose the flavors and toppings you love most. These Pretzel Roll Bagels combine two favorite flavors while these Old-Fashioned Montreal-Style Bagels are topped with sesame or poppy seeds and these Strawberry Lemon Zest Bagels will satisfy your sweet side.
Once you have your bagels, you need dairy-free cream cheese. While we can purchase premade dairy-free cream cheese from almost any supermarket, there are so many ways that we can make our own. These Cinnamon Raisin Bagels With Maple Cashew Cream Cheese are perfect for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Or try a shmear of this Cashew Coconut Cream Cheese, Maple Cinnamon Cream Cheese, and this Garlic Cashew Cream Cheese.
But how will you veganize lox? Easy! Skip the fish and pick up a few extra carrots and tomatoes at the market. This Not Smoked Salmon Scramble uses thin slices of carrots to stand in for the fish as does this Smoked Carrot Lox. Or you can use boiled and peeled tomatoes to make these Bagels With Tomato Lox and Cashew Cream Cheese.
You don’t have to be Jewish to know that blintzes are sooo good! Blintzes are really just like crêpes: thin pancakes rolled around a delicious filling. The filling is usually either sweet, such as sweetened ricotta or cottage cheese, or savory with onions and mashed potatoes. These are served with sour cream or applesauce on the side. Blintzes can also be made for dessert with fruity fillings and toppings. Blintzes are often served on holidays such as Chanukah and Shavuot, but they can be enjoyed year-round.
My favorite blintzes are the potato variety. My Potato Blintzes are like my mother’s but instead of using traditional all-purpose flour, I make my crêpes with a gluten-free all-purpose flour blend. Inside the crêpes are caramelized onions and potatoes. The filling is so good, I always make extra so I can sneak a few spoonfuls! After pan-frying the blintzes, I serve them with vegan sour cream and applesauce. Of course, blintzes filled with vegan ricotta and topped with fruit compotes are also delicious. My family loves my Strawberry Cheese Blintzes With Strawberry Basil Compote. If you prefer blueberry, you’ll love these Blueberry Blintzes and these Fresh Blueberry Blintzes.
7. Classic Dishes
There are many dishes that are considered Jewish food or at least associated with Jewish life in some way. Meaty dishes like brisket, pot roast, and roast beef are common dishes. Well, we can enjoy vegan versions of those dishes. What’s a Jewish family dinner without a hearty pot roast? Try this Seitan Pot Roast, this Cauliflower Pot Roast, and my Seitan Pot Roast and you’ll never miss the meat. My mom always made short ribs, so I make these Braised Seitan Short Ribs in Spicy Chili Sauce that are soft, tender, and mouthwatering. Get out the carving knives so you can slice into this Stuffed Seitan Roast and this Unturkey Roast. Stuffed cabbage is another classic Jewish dish where cabbage leaves are stuffed with ground meat and cooked in a tomato sauce. My Holishkes are just like the ones I grew up with, but vegan. Also, try these Cabbage Rolls and these Polish Golabki.
8. Side Dishes
Nothing goes as well with the “meaty” entrées as side dishes filled with potatoes and onions. Latkes are a Jewish favorite and though they are traditional on Hanukkah, they can be enjoyed all year long. Latkes are similar to fritters — just shred potatoes and onions, add seasoning, and shape into flat patties that you can fry or bake. Then, serve them with applesauce and/or sour cream. In addition to potatoes, you can also make latkes with sweet potatoes, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, carrots, and pretty much, any veggie you like. I had a lot of fun one year when I created 5 Vegan Latkes with global flavors: Italian, Indian, Chinese, Spanish, and Greek. Get ready to shred with these Latkes, Harvest Latkes, Sweet Potato and Apple Latkes, Potato and Kale Latkes, and these Latkes With Fennel and Avocado Tartare.
There’s a broad range of Jewish desserts, including ones that are specific for holidays. Most desserts in Jewish baking do not have dairy in them since dairy and meat cannot be eaten at the same meal. That means many Jewish desserts are pareve – neither meat nor dairy). Of course, vegan baking means no dairy or eggs. Check out our Vegan Baking Guide for all the tips and substitutions you could ever need. Babka is a spongy, brioche-like yeast cake. This Chocolate Babka is vegan, gluten-free, ligh,t and chocolatey. This Chocolate Cinnamon Babka is amazing as is this Spelt Chocolate and Cinnamon Babka. Apple cakes are popular Jewish desserts. This Apple Loaf Cake is moist and filled with apple-y goodness while this Festive Apple Cake and Cinnamon Apple Chunk Cake are perfect for any holiday table.
On holidays, rugelach are a traditional dessert. My Chocolate Hazelnut Rugelach are crunchy, tender, and delicious with an amazing filling. Macaroons are little coconut treats that are traditional on Hanukkah and Passover. Learn 11 Different Ways to Make Macaroons and see which ones are your favorites. Passover also gives us lots of desserts made with matzoh. Try this Matzoh Toffee and my Chocolate-Covered Matzoh. On Purim, we get to eat fun triangular cookies called Hamantaschen, which are filled with fruity preserves. My Vegan Hamantaschen are also gluten-free.
Jewish holidays are always filled with foods that are both delicious and symbolic. Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year, is one of the holiest days in the Jewish religion. It marks the beginning of ten days of repentance for the sins we committed the past year, and we vow to do better in the coming year. Read How to Have a Happy and Healthy Vegan Jewish New Year and Happy Rosh Hashanah! Celebrate the New Year With These 18 Meatless and Dairy-Free Recipes.
Hanukkah is the holiday that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It is a holiday of miracles when a tiny quantity of oil that should have only lasted one day burned for eight days straight. Hanukkah brings everything that is fried and indulgent, like latkes and jelly doughnuts. That’s why you need to read 8 Tips for Having a Healthier Hanukkah and Celebrate the Festival of Lights With These 18 Vegan Hanukkah Recipes.
Purim is the Jewish holiday that celebrates the survival of the Jews in ancient Persia. It is tradition to have a Purim feast called a seudah on Purim day. Learn How to Celebrate Purim Vegan-Style and make yummy foods like Hamantaschen.
Some holidays, like Passover, have food restrictions that are followed along with a host of rituals. Read How to Hold a Vegan Passover Seder and enjoy these 12 Festive Recipes for Your Passover Celebration.
Jewish food is rich in history, tradition, and flavor. It’s no wonder this cuisine is so popular. Try these amazing vegan Jewish recipes because you should eat and call your mother.
Lead image source: Seitan Pot Roast