May 14, 2016
In the canon of Jewish humor, the “kreplach joke” stands out as a classic. A mother is worried because her young son has a panic attack whenever he is presented with the Jewish version of dumplings known as kreplach. She consults a psychiatrist who advises that she desensitize her son by having him make kreplach with her, breaking it down to small, tolerable steps. All is well until the final product emerges when, alas, the boy once again runs out of the room screaming. Fortunately, I’m not that kind of kid……
Ever since I was very young I have loved trying new and interesting foods. I like trying out new restaurants and my mom, who is an amazing cook, has exposed me to many different kinds of food. So when it came time to decide what I wanted to write about for my major project the first thing I thought about was Jewish food. I have always enjoyed a lot of traditional Ashkenazi Jewish foods like matzo ball soup and blintzes, as well as Jewish deli foods, such as a bialy with smoked fish. Ashkenazi food comes from the Jews of Eastern Europe and differs quite a bit from Sephardic Jewish dishes such as hummus and falafel which come from the Jews of the Mediterranean and Middle East.
Ashkenazi food seemed like it was too broad of a topic and I had to consolidate my ideas into something focused. So I looked at a lot of different, cross-cultural foods and explored their Jewish versions. One of these was the dumpling.
I really enjoy Chinese dumplings. At first I only ate them at restaurants, but one day we cooked them ourselves at home. I learned that making dumplings takes a lot of time, but the process is interesting. Since it’s a lot of work you tend to do it as a family. There is already a tradition of making pierogis, an Eastern European dumpling, in my family. My grandmother Donna, whose family is from Poland, continues this tradition. I have made pierogies with my grandma and her uncle on a couple of occasions. Even my bisabuela who I recently visited in Argentina makes empanadas, which are not quite dumplings, but the concept – stuffed food – is similar. I was curious if there was a Jewish version of dumplings. With the help of my parents, a few cookbooks, and Rabbi Peter, I found out that there is a Jewish dumpling. It’s called the kreplach. But I had never eaten one.
I decided to make this Jewish dumpling the subject of my research. In this paper you will learn the history of kreplach. Where are they from? How and why are they served? Were there any interesting facts I could find out about them? I decided to explore how they are prepared – and of course how they taste – by trying out kreplach from various restaurants around the city, as well as by making my own.
For those of you who don’t know, a kreplach is a type of Jewish dumpling. It is somewhat similar to the pierogi, in the sense that it has thick dough, and in some instances they can look similar. Kreplach originated from the Jews of Eastern Europe, and were first seen around the close of the thirteenth century. Kreplach were generally made with meat leftovers wrapped inside dough. Some people describe kreplach as “peasant food” and its use of leftovers may reflect the difficult economic conditions for Jews in Eastern Europe at that time. In addition to meat, other varieties of filling can include cheese and fruit. Kreplach were traditionally served on Hoshana Rabbah, which is the seventh night of Soo-kot; on Purim; on Kol Nee-drey, the eve of Yom Kippur; and was also served on other special occasions. But of course, as with most foods, they were also eaten outside of these particular dates.
Kreplach symbolize different things for these holidays. For Yom Kippur and Ho-sha-na Ra-bbah, the dough symbolizes mercy and kindness. And, though I think it is a bit of stretch, some people think that the kreplach dumpling, which often has three points, symbolizes the three patriarchs of Judaism – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – as well as the three parts of the Jewish bible: Torah or “teaching”, Nev-ee-eeim or “prophets”, and Ke-tu-vim or “writings.” In addition to this, one of the more Purim-related symbolic ideas is that the three-pointed kreplach symbolizes Haman’s three-pointed hat.
For me the hardest part of this paper was researching the history of kreplach. There is some debate about various aspects of its background, especially its name. Some historians think the name comes from medieval Latin terms such as crespa or pastry which the French turned into krepish, which is dough baked around meat from a bird, which then became kreplach. Some people think that the name kreplach evolved from the initials of the various celebrations where kreplach was served; with “K” for Kippur as in Yom Kippur, “R” for Rabbah as in Hoshana Rabbah, and “P” for Purim.
There is also some debate about the origin of the kreplach. From my research I found that kreplach started to be served in the Middle Ages. One theory is that the kreplach was created based on the tortelli and other Italian stuffed pastas, and as the Jews moved northeast they adapted these Italian dishes to the area around them, made more meat fillings, and eventually named them kreplach. Another theory from the late 1200s is that kreplach are loosely based on the French krepish. Kreplach in soup didn’t evolve until the early 17th century and was baked or fried beforehand. In this theory, krepish evolved into kreplach in a similar way to how pasta, a noodle dish, was eventually adapted into kugel. Yet another theory has kreplach originating from Asian dumplings brought to Europe by the Tar Tar invaders when they conquered large parts of Eastern Europe (part of the Mongol Empire) in the late 1200s to early 1300s. I think that it is very likely that more than one of these different European and Asian dishes had a role in some part of the creation of the kreplach. It is also worth pointing out that the variety of stories about where kreplach come from and what influenced the dish’s creation also tells us about the diaspora and all the different places that Jews lived.
When searching around New York City for a specific type of food, even if it’s something unusual or ethnic, it usually isn’t that hard to find it. This rule applied for kreplach. I found plenty of places around the city that served them including the Second Avenue Deli and Sarge’s Deli.
The first place I tried kreplach was at the Second Avenue Deli located in Murray Hill. The menu offers everything, from towering triple-decker sandwiches to pastrami salmon; I found kreplach under the category of “Traditional Favorites,” and to my surprise, under “Soups.” Since most of my expectations about kreplach were based on pierogis, which I have had many times, I did not expect them to ever be served in soup. This intrigued me, so I ordered them that way instead of just getting them fried. When the soup came another surprise about the kreplach was their size. I found them to be about as large as pierogi (which is pretty big for a dumpling). I expected them to be slightly smaller. But when I tasted my first kreplach, I was glad that it was so large, because it was delicious. I enjoyed the texture of the meat filling, which was very smooth and not even a little bit chunky. There was also an interesting spiced flavor. The dough was very good as well: it was dense, but not too chewy, with an interesting taste almost like buckwheat flour.
The other kreplach I sampled was at Sarge’s Deli in midtown. Sarge’s was a similar experience to Second Avenue Deli, serving very large portions of food and including a side of coleslaw and pickles with everything. Here I found the same options as at the Second Avenue Deli: fried with onions or boiled in soup. This time I decided to try fried kreplach and when they came, their size was enormous, almost the size of small blintz, and they were covered in fried onions. These weren’t as rich or as flavorful as kreplach in soup. The texture was similar, but it was slightly more dry. The dough was much thicker than Second Avenue Deli’s, and it didn’t have the buckwheat flour taste. But it still tasted just as good.
After trying kreplach at these two different places I moved on to my favorite part of this project, which was making my own. I had already paged through many of my mom’s cookbooks looking for interesting Jewish foods even before I chose kreplach as the focus of my project. Once I’d decided on kreplach, I went with my mom to the library to check out even more books for research. After looking through many recipes and consulting with my parents and grandmother, I chose to use a recipe from The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home as my starting point. Of course I decided to make my kreplach with soup. Luckily for me I wasn’t going into this without any experience, as I had made both pierogi and Chinese dumplings many times. I knew about making dough, as well as how to put in the filling and fold up a dumpling, which can be tricky. I also knew a good deal about making meat fillings from making Chinese dumplings. Conveniently for me, my grandmother was also coming to visit from Massachusetts, and she could give me some tips based on her years of experience making pierogis.
Since we were making kreplach after school, my grandmother insisted on making them over the course of two days. We would make the meat filling the night before, and then make the dough and cook the kreplach the following night. I thought we would have enough time to do it all at once, but I decided to go with my grandmother’s idea to be safe. And I was quite thankful for that, because it took a long time to make the filling.
As I said before, kreplach were originally made with leftover meat, so I wasn’t surprised to find that when making the kreplach, I first had to slow cook the meat – a brisket – and then turn it into filling. We cut the brisket into chunks and cooked it in a Dutch oven with the spices including garlic, thyme, parsley, pepper, and a little bit of finely chopped carrot. The meat was supposed to soften so that it could be pulled apart to be made into the filling. But unluckily, after three hours of cooking, the brisket wasn’t falling apart as the recipe said it would. In the end, by around 7:00 p.m., we decided to simply put the meat into the food processor, even though I feared it would chop the meat to the point where it would become mush. To my surprise, the chopped result looked just like the fillings at Sarge’s and the Second Avenue Deli.
Then it was time to make the dough. That part was fairly simple, though we were even more unprepared for the dough than we were for the filling. The ingredients for the dough were pretty basic: two eggs, some water, salt, and flour. Surprisingly nothing else was needed. My grandmother pointed out that this dough was very different than the dough for pierogi, which is softer than that for kreplach, due to pierogi dough including butter. After we mixed the ingredients, we let the dough sit for twenty minutes under plastic and then started making it into the wrappers. We looked at the recipe and found out that the dough needed to be put through a pasta-making machine to flatten it due to how tough it was to flatten by hand. If it wasn’t for my mom’s heavy marble rolling pin and a tall stool providing additional leverage by pressing from above, I wouldn’t have been able to flatten it down to the required thinness. Even with those adaptations it still took a long time to roll out the dough. After that, it was a matter of cutting out wrappers into squares to fold up into triangles (which was fairly easy), measuring the kreplach meat, and using flour and water and a lot of pinching of the dough to keep the meat in the wrapper without it breaking apart. In the meantime we prepared a chicken soup and boiled the uncooked kreplach in the soup.
Finally making the kreplach was complete. Everyone enjoyed the kreplach, especially my dad who ate a lot and kept repeating that they were “so good.” I myself enjoyed them. They tasted very similar to the ones at Second Avenue Deli. The kreplach definitely tasted different than the pieorgi I had made a few times with my grandmother as both the dough and the fillings are quite different.
Between discovering, researching, tasting, and making kreplach I learned just how much one simple food could mean both historically and culturally. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that kreplach are better or worse than other dumplings, like pierogi or even wontons, which I like having with vinegary dipping sauce. Different cultures have their own cooking traditions and through this project I was able to learn more about mine.
In the future, I think that kreplach will be a good new way to use up leftover roasts in our house, though I think we will also end up just making them on their own. As I mentioned before we have made dumplings together many times before in my family and through this project I learned about how to do it in a new way that ties me to Jewish culture.