In many ways, Joan Nathan, the multiple James Beard Award winner, followed in the footsteps of Jewish traders as they circumvented the globe centuries and even millenniums ago.
As they traveled, they brought the food cultures from the lands they’d visited before and adapted new ones to their dietary laws, traditions and homelands.
Nathan, who has written almost a dozen cookbooks, recounts the culinary history and geography of these early travelers in her lush new book, "King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World" (Alfred A. Knopf 2017; $35).
It begins at the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi, Kerala, where Nathan spies an inscription indicating Jewish traders might have crossed the Indian Ocean from Judea to India during the reign of King Solomon. Already a world traveler, Nathan next made her way to Chendamangalam, a hamlet 20 miles north of Kochi surrounded by mano, coconut and cinnamon trees along with pepper and cardamom vines.
“As I walked toward the bank of the nearby Periyar River, which flows into the Arabian Sea, I imagined ancient Hebrew adventurers and traders arriving on the shores and marveling at the lushness of the terrain,” writes Nathan in the introduction of her book.
And so we, too, are seduced by her journey into exotic lands, looking at how foods and ingredients have crisscrossed the globe originating far from where we first might have thought.
We chat about Malai, a Romanian cornmeal ricotta breakfast pudding that she features in her book, and I tell her how I learned to make a polenta-like dish from my Romanian grandmother.
“Oh, mamaliga,” she says, like everyone knows about mamaliga. But then what would you expect from a woman who runs five recipes for haroset, a thick sauce or paste typically made of chopped fruits and nuts. It, like so many recipes, has morphed, bouncing back and forth between countries and continents, each time being tweaked just a little and Nathan includes a version from Brazil, Persia, Ferrara and, of all places, Maine.
Asked what recipes she’d recommend for those just starting using her cookbook, Nathan suggests Yemenite Chicken Soup with Dill, Cilantro and Parsley (“a really old recipe,” she says noting that historic records dating back to 12th century the healing power of chicken broth). She also suggests Malai, the Romania dish, and her cheesecake from the 1st century.
As she traveled to approximately 30 countries over a six-year time span, the scope of her book changed. But it was all part of her culinary journey.