Trend Spotlight: Ashkenazi Food Trend in London

14 March, 2015

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Jago’s modern East End update on goulash: slow-cooked veal cheek served with orzo and sour cream

In the family of Jewish cuisine, Ashkenazi is the cold climate cousin of the sun-drenched Sephardic. But while Sepharidic food has been basking in the spotlight, Ashkenazi has been overlooked.

In the UK, it’s a food that’s kept quietly behind closed doors, in the kitchens of Jewish families whose ancestors emigrated from Central and Eastern Europe. Reflecting these broad lands and culinary traditions, it’s truly a product of a mixture of cultures and communities.

In London, the Ashkenazi food trend is equally heterogeneous – Baltic mackerel, Ukrainian borsht, Eastern European schmaltz, Hungarian goulash, Russian pickled herring, Polish matzo balls, seasoned and served with aromatic herbs and vegetables like dill, beetroot, cucumber and cabbage.

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The Ashkenazi food trend in London is evidence of the Jewish food revival, hot on the heels of the Sephardic food movement

Trends can be capricious but equally instinctive, and the taste for Ashkenazi in London has a natural progression.

Its methods and ingredients owe much to fashionable Scandinavian fare but also to the less-fashionable foods of Poland, Russia and Central Europe, while its spiritual-regional opposite the Sephardic cuisine of the Levant (Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria), has been popularised by restaurants like Honey & Co as well as the far-reaching Ottolenghi empire.

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An old favourite of the Ashkenazi food trend in London: a lox and cream-cheese beigel served with lemon rind at Jago

The first signals of the Ashkenazi food trend in London were the spate of saltbeef bars that begun opening in the past few years. The salting process is a venerable skill – a deli in New York can be judged on the tenderness of its beef; how the threads of flesh pull, how finely judged the dosing of salt is.

In London, they’re concentrated around the West End and West: B&K Salt Beef Bar has locations in Edgware and Harrow, Mishkins on Catherine Street, Delancey & Co on Goodge Street, while my favourite remains Brass Rail, the salt-beef bar at Selfridges. Look for dark rye piled high with zinging slaw and the main-event meat, served with a pickled gherkin on the side.

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The offal trend in evidence of the Ashkenazi food trend in London: chicken livers served with baby turnips on sourdough at Jago

For evidence of the high-end kosher Ashkenazi food trend in London you will have to travel to predominantly Jewish areas of London’s leafy North West. One of the best is Zest on Finchley Road, who give the strong flavoured hearty comfort food of the Ashkenazi a refined and delicate finish.

Approaching Ashkenazi fare from the fine dining rooms of Central Europe are Corbin and King’s stately The Delaunay on the Strand and their old world Vienna-style cafe Fischer’s in Marylebone. Both champion Ashkenazi dishes that are entwined in the food cultures of the region: chopped liver, herrings, pickles and goulash.

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Spitalfields newcomer Jago takes the Ashkenazi food trend in London back to its East End roots

The first home of London’s émigré Jewish community was the East End – an area whose ethnic complexion has evolved through French Huguenots, to the Irish, Jews and most recently Bangladeshis. The area is steeped in the history of its former trades and communities.

New opening, Jago on Hanbury Street off Brick Lane nods to the area’s history and to the heritage of head chef Louis Solley, a Jewish boy from the East End. Louis’s great grandparents on his father’s side met in London at customs checkpoint, having escaped the pogroms of Russia and Romania.

But the menu at Jago equally reflects the background of its co-founder Hugo Thurston, formerly general manager at Moro of Exmouth Market (a culinary dialogue between North Africa and Southern Spain), as well as Louis’s alma mater Ottolenghi in Notting Hill.

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A delicate coupling of Scandic and Slavic influences in evidence on the menu at Jago: exemplary of the Ashkenazi food trend in London

Like many modern Ashkenazi people in London, Ashkenazi food, at least in our restaurants, doesn’t follow dogma. While some critics would feel protective over their home cooking, Jago’s menu is modern and carefree, denoting an instinctive coupling of varying ingredients and methods from countries, regions, and cuisines that are rarely as distinct as our tendency towards taxonomies like to make out. 

A meeting of Sephardic and Ashkenazi, Jago blends Mediterranean with Central European, meaning roast cauliflower comes with Persian pomegranate, and the veal-cheek goulash is served with Israeli orzo and green harissa.

Head chef Louis is at pains to identify process as Jago’s guiding Ashkenazi legacy: pickling, fermenting, curing and salting. Its dishes are a combination of bright zinging flavours and colours, both intense and subtle, with contrasting textures.

The menu changes every 2-3 weeks, and when we visited, the salt-beef and chrain (a horseradish relish) were taking a break, but the confit mackerel with grilled and pickled celery had taken its place and was supremely rich and unctuous, while the chicken livers and baby turnips served with greens on sourdough toast was a trendy update on the traditional. Their menu’s star though is the unchanging veal-cheek goulash, with orzo & sour cream.

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The Ashkenazi food trend in London has deep roots: Jewish bakery Rinkoff’s has been baking challah in the East End since 1911

Rinkoff Bakery down the road in Stepney Green has been doing its own updating. The familyrun bakery has been in the East End since 1911 and moved from its original premises to a Brutalist council block in the ‘70s. But inside it’s anything but cold concrete and granite – a warm, inviting stop that resolutely serves the diverse local community.

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Danish pastries at Rinkoff’s, demonstrating the geographic reach of the Ashkenazi food trend in London

Jennifer Rinkoff, the general manager, is great-grand daughter of the founders and now in charge of new recipes. Traditional Danish pastries, plaited loaves of sweet challah and boiled beigels are fresh and plentiful, and served beside new additions like voguish cro-doughs – popular with sweet-toothed students living in the area.

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The family-run Rinkoff’s bakery takes the Ashkenazi food trend in London out of the home

Hugo Thurston, general manager of Jago makes a thoughtful point on London’s role as a seed-bed for new food trends, ‘I’m aware that there’s an absence of a culinary tradition here, which is not as strong or as identifiable as in France, Spain or Italy. In Rome all your see are pizzerias and pasta joints, but in London you can get anything.’

I suspect this is just the tip of the Ashkenazi food trend, which, like its migratory peoples, will pick up influences, along with ingredients and flavours, as it continues its evolution.

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The chefs at Rinkoff’s bakery in Stepney Green bringing the Ashkenazi food trend in London up to date

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