Flavour Guy: Confessions of a half-baked ethnic

Food love image by Bukephalos.

Have you tried to get a decent kishke recently? Even an indecent one is hard to find. Maybe kishke isn’t at the top of your grocery list this week.

I’m talking about the real stuff made with flour, matzo meal, grated onions and carrots, and lots of schmaltz (chicken fat) packed into a sheep or beef intestine (think Polish haggis). How about helzel, which is a similar sort of sausage stuffed into that long loop of skin from the neck of a chicken? Maybe a bialy, which I may heretically assert is a crunchier, tastier version of a bagel, with a mess of finely chopped and fried onions covering the top, or a pletzel, a giant flat bialy, warm from the oven, slathered with butter. Sounds great, eh? I haven’t had a decent bialy in years. Mimi Sheraton, in her book The Bialy Eaters, couldn’t even find one in Bialystok.

What happens to us as we lose our food roots? Do we become rootless, more assimilated? I no longer speak Yiddish or Russian or Hungarian, which my grandfathers spoke. I can no longer find many of the foods or even restaurants that I loved as a kid. Schneider’s steak house is gone, where Celina and I ate family style with whichever family was also seated at the table. Balkan’s Restaurant is gone, the Brown Derby, Benny’s, and Ben Ash too. Chenoys now features Italian style poutine. Schwartz’s hasn’t had a Schwartz in decades. The famed family run Montreal Jewish delis are down to maybe two — Lester’s and Snowdon.

I consider myself a Jewish Montrealer but apart from my religion, what tethers me to my ethnicity? Am I a half-baked ethnic as my language, food and customs gradually get incorporated into a larger, more inclusive society?

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It is a sign of the success of my ethnicity that in just a few generations we moved from what I once heard called St. Urbain CD (corner Duluth) to the suburbs, but why can’t we have it all: emancipation and bialys?

While I complain about what I may be losing, my gut response is that I am very pleased that Montreal continues to attract exiles and immigrants. In the 1940s Yiddish was the most common language in Montreal after French and English. Today the third most common language is Arabic and our city is filled with wonderful small restaurants selling shawarma and falafel, with Iranian supermarkets, and Lebanese, Turkish and Syrian bakeries dishing out decadently delicious Middle Eastern pastries. Mashallah!

We are also seeing a growing Latin American community (Spanish is Montreal’s 4th most common language) and, as anyone knows who has travelled a few blocks west of Guy on Ste Catherine Street, we have an almost endless number of restorative and tasty Asian bbq, noodle, and dumpling spots. So while still looking for that kishke, I can ease my hunger pangs with an empanada or two, maybe with a side of kimchi, just to get by.

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Hummus, a Middle Eastern dish, is increasingly common in shops and supermarkets as a packaged dip or spread. I make my own in a food processor. Using the water from a can of chickpeas makes the hummus very creamy.

This recipe uses a standard can (540 ml / 19 oz.) of chickpeas and makes a little more than 2 cups. If that is too much, cut everything in half.

• Drain the chickpeas and keep the liquid.

• Put the chickpeas in a blender with a half cup of tahini, two large cloves of chopped garlic, the juice from one lemon, and a half cup of the bean water. Add a tablespoon of cumin seeds that you have toasted in a pan until they start to brown and then finely ground (or use a half-tablespoon of ground cumin) and a half-teaspoon of salt.

• Blend this for several minutes, adding bean water as necessary so that the hummus is smooth. Taste and adjust as needed with salt, lemon juice, tahini, or cumin.


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