Monday, January 05, 2015

kasha, kishke and kutach

In my last post on Balashon a few years ago, I noted that I was more or less suspending my writing here due to another project I've been working on. Well, the project is still going on, but I think I'd like to return to updating this site as well.

When I originally started Balashon, I would write short pieces, almost daily. But as time went on, my library - both physical and virtual - got much bigger, and I often felt that if I didn't come up with some original insight in my research, it wasn't worth posting anything. While that might have led to some posts I'm rather proud of, it became fairly intimidating to start anything new, particularly if I didn't have the time required to work on something so big.

So now, I think I'd like to return to my original format. I'll try to write frequently, and often I'll just quote one or two sources. I'll be much more willing to return to a topic later if I don't have everything in front of me when I'm writing. So Balashon will be less comprehensive, but hopefully still accurate and interesting. We'll see how it goes.

For today's post, I'd like to quote from a fascinating book -the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks. Gil was a brilliant food writer, who sadly passed away last month. His book is full of interesting information about the history of food - as well as great recipes - and I hope to refer to it frequently in the future. May his memory be a blessing.

In an earlier post, I wrote extensively about the etymologies of both the English word "buckwheat" and the Hebrew kusemet. Many of us know the term for cooked buckwheat by the Slavic or Yiddish form of "kasha". Here's a part of the entry for "kasha" in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food:

Cooked cereals subsumed under the term kasha were once served at all Slavic feasts and important occasions ... By the second century CE, a standard Persian dish was kashk (kutach in the Talmud and later kishk in Arabic), originally denoting a porridge made from cracked grains fermented with whey, then dried. Later, some Middle Easterners began using keshek or kishk to denote any type of cooked cereal. The Persian name eventually travelled to eastern Europe, becoming the Slavic kasha and encompassing all grain porridges - fine and coarse, thick and thin, sweet and savory. Incidentally, when leftover kashk was stuffed into animal intestines, the dish became kishke (stuffed derma). .... The Slavic word for buckwheat became grechka or grecha ... Consequently, buckwheat porridge is grechnevaya kasha.... Among eastern Ashkenazim, who were not prone to making hot cooked cereals, kashe or kasha in Yiddish took on the meaning of "husked and toasted buckwheat groats."
For those who can't imagine kasha without noodles - kasha varniskhes - Marks provides a brief origin of that term as well. He begins by describing a Russian and Ukrainian dish from the 16th century of meat or cheese filled pasta. 
Ukrainians took to calling these filled pasta vareniki (little boiled things), from the Slavic var meaning "to boil" ... Pasta stuffed with this [buckwheat] filling was known as kasha vareniki. Eventually, cooks figured out that it was easier to simply mix the kasha with some cooked noodles than to go through the tedious process of filling the pasta; the resulting dish was called kasha varnishkes.
As I've written frequently in the past, food etymologies are among my favorites. Culinary terms are easily borrowed between cultures and lead to stories that are both fascinating and relatively easy to trace. I had read the word kutach כותח many times in the Talmud but would never have guessed it was related to kasha or kishke.

In his entry for kashk/kutach (now that is a comprehensive dictionary!), Marks defines it as "dried balls of fermented cracked wheat or barley and yogurt whey that are usually simmered with water into a thick soup", and points out that "Kutach ha'Bavli is among the most commonly mentioned foods in the Talmud", and the fact that the "citation of kutach in the Mishnah, at least four centuries before the earliest record of kashk in a non-Jewish source, reveals that it was well established by 200 CE."

While kutach was loved by the Jews in Central Asia, Marks writes that it "merited extreme scorn among the residents of Israel." I've personally never tried it - but it does sound interesting. Kasha, on the other hand, is one of my family's favorite comfort foods.

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