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05.02.2015

Laurina Todesaite: What do Jews eat? Sushi and macaroni.

The founder of the “CookJewishBeJewish” project popularizes Jewish cuisine not only in her native Lithuania, but in Ukraine too

What made you create the “CookJewishBeJewish” project?

The project began when I tried to understand what made me happy. I realized that for me, happiness meant travelling and preparing food, because I like to feed people. All my friends advised me to open my own restaurant, but I prefer to travel to various countries and keep working as a guide around Jewish Vilnius.

In Vilnius there was the great Gaon, who everyone knows about. But tourists who come to Vilnius do not see and learn about the Jewish component of the city’s history. We have several guides working in this field, but only some of them know Hebrew.

Local residents are not interested in Jewish history, and tourists don’t find about much about it, so the Jewish spirit of the city is lost.

Food is a big weakness of mine. Once on Rosh Hashanah, I wanted to make teigelekh in honey, but I couldn’t find anyone who could tell me the recipe, who could teach me how to make it. Our grandmothers are passing away, and our mothers don’t always know how to prepare Jewish dishes.

Italians still eat their macaroni, and the Japanese eat sushi. What do Jews eat? Sushi and macaroni.
The aim of the “CookJewishBeJewish” project is to return the Jewish spirit to Jewish homes with the help of food. We can make humus and feel the taste of Israel, and serve farshmak instead of sausage to go with vodka. Then we can cook challah for Shabbat, prepare a festive dish and say a prayer – things like this are the essence of the project.
People who feel themselves to be Jewish but are not religious can be distinguished by the food in their homes. If we talking about geflite fish and farshmak and we understand each other, then we have something in common.

What countries does the “CookJewishBeJewish” project work in?

The project has two founders: me in Lithuania and Mikhail Aerov in Odessa. There’s one more person who helps us. We’re currently planning a series of master classes in Odessa and Vilnius, where we’ll teach people to prepare various dishes, tell them about their history and explain why and when it is customary to eat them.

Let’s move to culinary issues. What can help to give the flavor of food a fuller taste?
At the moment we’re in the Carpathians (the interview took place at the Winter-U event in Bukovel – editor’s note). At one supper we were served meat, fish and broth of some kind. There was cottage cheese next to this broth. I had no idea how these dishes were supposed to be combined, because there was no sign next to them with an explanation of name of the dishes.

It wasn’t until later that someone told me that broth and cottage cheese is in fact banosh with feta, which I fell in love with a year ago. A simple explanation and instructions about how to eat the dish properly adds flavor to it! I feel that I’m in the Carpathians, that I’m eating a Galician-Hungarian dish in the place where it originally comes from.
It all works the same way with Jewish dishes. They’re more delicious when you know their history and where they originated.

What dish of Jewish cuisine would you advise Jews to prepare if they know absolutely nothing about our culinary tradition?

Try to start with matzah on Pesach. This is the simplest thing you can prepare. In my home we always had matzah on Pesach, even in Soviet times.

You can teach things by using food. It’s easier to tell children about Pesach if you give them matzah to try. You can even serve it with nutella, then it will be even easier to explain things to them.
Again, I always brought matzah to every office where I used to work, and explained what it was. I served cheese and chocolate paste with it. The lesson was usually a big success.

How can Jewish cuisine be popularized in a non-Jewish environment?

When I introduce our non-Jewish friends to our cuisine, I always start with Israeli dishes. The “safest” dish is humus, people always ask me to bring it back from Israel. It’s not hard to make at home, and friends and guests are always glad to try it. You can prepare various salted dishes, and eggplants with mayonnaise.

What would you call the most Jewish dish of all?

Gefilte fish! This dish is the true height of mastery of the Jewish housewife, it’s very hard to make. I haven’t learnt how to remove the skin yet, but I can make nice pieces. Even though I love cooking, I can only bring myself to make stuffed fish twice a year. I make gefilte fish on Rosh Hashanah and Pesach.

Please share one of your culinary secrets with our readers.

Once I received a group of Israeli officers in Lithuania. I tried to prepare dishes for them that were typical for Jews from our latitudes, adding the schnitzel that is familiar for Israelis. As the food was kosher, I couldn’t add cream to the mashed potatoes, which make it most delicious. I thought for a long time about what to add.
In the end, I added a little chicken broth to the potatoes. Then I removed the skin from the chicken, chopped it very finely and fried it with onions. Then I added a little soy milk and mixed everything into the mashed potatoes. It was very delicious indeed.

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