Rachel Wilson (center) teaches Jewish recipes to Muslim women. (Photo/Courtesy ING)
Rachel Wilson (center) teaches Jewish recipes to Muslim women. (Photo/Courtesy ING)

Recipe for understanding: Muslims and Jews bond over food

At a Congregation Shir Hadash potluck earlier this month, some familiar Jewish fare was on the table: chopped liver on rye, cholent, blintzes and knishes. But some more exotic dishes, like haleem, were making a special debut at the synagogue. Slow-cooked for seven to eight hours, this cholent-like medley of meat, lentils, grains and spices is traditionally served during Ramadan and is especially popular among Pakistani Muslims.

While haleem and its accompaniments certainly were making a first appearance at the Reform synagogue in Los Gatos, so were some of the guests, as several Muslim women slipped inside the sanctuary to take photos of themselves in a synagogue before everyone started eating.

The potluck was the culmination of two cooking classes attended by Shir Hadash women and local women affiliated with Islamic Networks Group, a San Jose-based nonprofit devoted to educating Americans about Islam. At one class, Jewish women taught traditional recipes, and at the other, Muslim women presented theirs. The potluck enabled the women — and the guests they brought — to share not only their food but also their cultural experience.

“Food is such a good catalyst to bring people together,” said Shaz Imran, a Pakistani Muslim who teaches cooking classes under the name Sisterhood of the Traveling Frying Pans.

An array of traditional Jewish and Muslim dishes fill the tables at Shir Hadash. (Photo/Alix Wall)
An array of traditional Jewish and Muslim dishes fill the tables at Shir Hadash. (Photo/Alix Wall)

Before Maha Elgenaidi, executive director of ING, approached Imran about teaching about traditional foods and cooking to a group of Jewish women, she’d met only one Jewish person in her life.

“It was a lot of fun, and our Jewish friends hadn’t had most of what we taught,” said Imran, who presented her recipes for chicken pulao (a chicken-and-rice dish) and a semolina dessert called savayian, which are traditional during Ramadan among South Asian Muslims like herself.

“I was pleasantly surprised that they could tolerate the spices well; I didn’t have to be stingy with the spices,” she said. “This is the first time I am making Jewish friends, and In’shallah (God willing) we will stay friends.”

Meanwhile, the Jewish women taught their Muslim counterparts how to make challah, matzah ball soup and noodle kugel.

Rachel Wilson, a chef and Shir Hadash congregant, taught the women how to make matzah ball soup while sharing a story about her aunt, known for making the best “floaters” in the family. While Wilson’s matzah balls that day were more “sinkers,” she revealed her aunt’s secret: baking powder, traditionally forbidden during Passover among Ashkenazi Jews.

Shir Hadash Rabbi Melanie Aron presents Maha Elgenaidi, ING’s executive director, with a birthday candle. (Photo/Courtesy ING)
Shir Hadash Rabbi Melanie Aron presents Maha Elgenaidi, ING’s executive director, with a birthday candle. (Photo/Courtesy ING)

Rabbi Melanie Aron said the cooking classes were the latest in a longstanding relationship with ING and a local mosque that dates back over a decade. She and Elgenaidi met a few months ago to discuss the next step in bringing their respective groups together. Aron thought of several chefs and cookbook writers in the congregation, while Elgenaidi knew several in her community who taught cooking classes.

“What’s better than bringing people together over food?” Aron said later. “There’s so much insight into a culture that comes from talking and learning about it.” Plus, she said, partaking of it together is equally important.

“Sitting together at mixed tables and being engaged in face-to-face conversation is better than lectures or formal study, because you don’t just learn ideas, but you really get to know another person.”

This was seconded by another cookbook author who taught Jewish recipes to the group; her contribution was noodle kugel.

“Getting to know Muslim women in my community — even better, women who love food and cooking as much as I do — was a true ray of light during these otherwise dark, divisive times,” said Cheryl Sternman Rule. “We all approached the cooking series, and one another, from a place of curiosity, warmth and sisterhood. I’m so grateful to have had a chance to participate in this joyful initiative. Women in other communities: Take note and follow suit!”

At the potluck, Bahira Metwally, a volunteer speaker with ING, gave an introduction to Islamic views on food, while Aron did the same for Judaism. Not surprisingly, both cultures have much to say about hospitality and feeding the stranger. Metwally spoke about specific foods that are mentioned in the Koran: figs, dates and olives, which Jews recognize among the biblical seven species.

While all of the women said they looked forward to a repeat get-together with different dishes, Aron has greater aspirations: Maybe next year, her congregants would attend the breaking of a Ramadan fast and the Muslims would come to eat in the sukkah.

The cross-cultural appreciation was conveyed by Zeba Siddiqui, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, stood up and shared with the group: “I need to make that challah bread for my kids. They loved it so much, they are begging me to make it for them.”

A kosher caterer has opened a glatt Asian takeout and delivery operation in the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, and also has selections on the menu at the JCC’s Nourish Café. Called Aviya2Go, it’s operating daily Monday through Thursday and features mains like Sesame Salmon and Orange Chicken, salads, noodles and rice dishes and burgers. Aviya (aviya2go.com) also offers sushi in both individual servings and platters.

Aviya is run by Meni Peretz, and is certified by the Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California. The Israeli-born Peretz and his American wife, Margarita, are also the owners of the kosher outfit Yes Catering

And finally, Augie’s Montreal Smoke Meat, operated by Lex Gopnik-Lewinski of Berkeley, announced it has signed a lease at 875 Potter St. in Berkeley. Stay tuned for more, including when it might open.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."