“Because it was their custom to eat garlic, the Jews referred to themselves as “garlic eaters.’ ” (Talmud Bavli. Nedarim. 31a)
“Let them [those who died as slaves in Egypte] dream pleasantly of onions, garlic…” (Ha’Kibbutz Ha’Artzi. From Bialik’s “The Last Dead of the Desert,” 1897.)
“Garlic has a lot of real and imagined health benefits. In times like the Corona epidemic, eating lots of garlic is useless against the virus itself but it will effectively distance everyone from you.” (Conventional Wisdom)
If I use the term “garlic people,” does this sound anti-Semitic?
In Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the author notes that “historically, the addition of garlic was among the typical Jewish touches that enhanced local dishes.” It has been suggested that garlic might be the most Jewish ingredient ever, and possibly even the most Jewish of symbols next to the Star of David and the Menorah!
How can garlic be the most Jewish ingredient ever?
Take Germany in the Middle Ages. A whole region was named “kehillos shoom,” or “the garlic communities,” though that also referred to the abbreviation for the communities of Speyer, Worms, and Magenza (Mainz), S/W/M, and in Hebrew “shoom”. Per the image below featuring a stereotypical Jew with his yellow ring, a bag of money, and a bunch of garlic in his hand.
On another note, The President of Central Council of Jews in Germany, Vice President of the European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress, as well as one of the primary leaders of the Jewish community in Munich, is named Charlotte Knobloch. “Knobloch” is also the German word for garlic pronounced the same but spelled slightly differently.
On the website My Jewish Learning, there’s a post titled “Why Garlic is Actually the Most Jewish Ingredient Ever: Garlic signals the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish dishes.”
The post features points from Marks’ Jewish Encyclopedia and John Cooper’s Eat and be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, and suggests that:
“Perhaps therein lies the real reason for Jews’ love of garlic: more than just a flavorful addition to a dish, it is the key clove of Jewish identity.”
Yes, garlic seems to be a significant shibboleth of Jewishness, to the extent that people who love garlic are more likely to be Jewish, and those who don’t probably follow the ways of the Gentiles. (It’s about time we feature a post about garlic…after all, the blog is titled “Schibboleth.com – Jewish Viennese Food“!)
The Viennese name for this post’s dish, Garlic Steak, is “Vanillerostbraten,” which loosely translates to “vanilla steak.”
There is no actual vanilla in this classic Viennese dish. This name comes from its past, when rich people ate real vanilla-scented steaks. Meanwhile, the poor masses who couldn’t afford that luxury decided to use garlic instead.
So even though the name is misleading, it’s still used daily in contemporary Vienna, on restaurant menus for example.
Here the Viennese simply change reality by substituting garlic for vanilla, one thing for another while keeping the name. (If this sounds strange, I remind you that we can liken it to the most famous Viennese, Sigmund Freud, and the way he uses unusual language and dream metaphors in Interpretation of Dreams.)
What’s the association between vanilla and garlic?
For one, vanilla is very haughty, ethereal, and luxurious but a little…boring (read: the opposite of kinky).
And garlic is cheap, plebeian but arousing…and…Jewish too, yes!
As for anti-Semitic clichés, where there are rich people, there are Jews (doctors and bankers, too). There are the rich Jewish spice dealers trading vanilla along the silk road, with the wealthy moneylending Jew eating vanilla on one side, and the poor, contagious, smelly Jew eating garlic on the other.
Though they would appear to be completely opposite types, both of these anti-Semitic conceptions are of course Jews: the fat, rich, vanilla-eating capitalist, and the poor, uncivilized, garlicky socialist or communist.
There’s another well-known stereotype which has to do with garlic: The fight against vampires. Here too, there’s an apparent contradiction between the garlic-eating Jew and the garlic-abhorring Jewish vampire. The anti-Semites visibly can’t decide whether Jews love or hate garlic. The vampire, thus the blood and life-force sucking Jew, even though he loathes garlic, is still Jewish nonetheless. There are famous examples like the vampire in Murnau’s movie Nosferatu. (See my post about Jews and vampires in “Sauerkraut.”)
I don’t want to claim that here too, in this Viennese vanilla-garlic opposition, a Jewish anti-Semitic parallel must be the principal association, but it’s there, especially in a cultural context that associates wealthy with Jews and also garlic with Jewishness.
Bear with me. This doesn’t exclude the possibility that all this really is a Jewish dish.
Jews are in many ways associated with garlic, some of which are indeed classic anti-Semitic tropes. Others dating back to the bible are claimed by the tribe with pride.
In Jay Geller’s On Freud’s Jewish Body: Mitigating Circumcision, we learn that the association of the Jews with the primitive sense of smell entails an association with sexuality. Think smell, nose—not just Freud’s nose—, thus penis, hence sexuality.
Already in Talmudic times, garlic was considered an aphrodisiac. Jewish sages like Rashi consider garlic an essential food in honor of Shabbos. Why? Because the sages further tell you to eat garlic on Friday night’s Shabbos dinner to stimulate procreation.
Eating garlic on Shabbos is indeed a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Imagine the typical Jewish shtetl aroma, and you will have the taste and smell of caramelized onions and garlic all over you. Indeed, in the shtetls, people flavored their bland, monotonous fare with onion and pungent garlic.
What the anti-Semites think of as an insult—the use, love, and smell of garlic—is, for Jews, a symbol of culinary knowledge, a badge of honor. Beyond any prejudices, it symbolizes openness to the new. Throughout history, Jews have continually been importing and appropriating food from their neighbors, and liberally adapting and disseminating these appropriated foods and ways of cooking all over.
Jewish poet Hayim Bialik once wrote a story about the onion knight and the garlic knight. What the story reveals is the strong and intimate relationship, a quasi-genetic one in fact, that has tied garlic and Jews together since biblical times.
This relationship thus far certainly transcends Vienna and its cuisine. Toum, a Mediterranean raw garlic sauce, comes to mind, as do Italian Aliagta, Provencal Aioli, and many more. Unfortunately, these elegant cuisines, like the Viennese, won’t tolerate the taste of raw garlic. (The taste of roasted garlic is something absolutely worth your while, especially when served with roasted and grilled meat. But fear not, I won’t become a so-called self-hating Jew, trying to assimilate and hide the stench of raw garlic.)
About the general dislike of garlic, have a look at the white supremacist Wikipedia imitation called Metapedia—actually, it’s better you don’t look, just believe me—to know how the anti-Semites associate garlic stench, the odious odor, the offensive (garlic) stink with the Jews, to the point that this “Jewish foul smell,” has a latin name, Fetor Judaicus.
According to this anti-Semitic compendium, these smelly Jews have “forced” Garlic onto the sweet-breathed, odorless and well-perfumed, hordes of Germanic (read “civilized”) people.
My point: I’m comforted in my suspicions towards anyone who does not like garlic!
Though I don’t know if Freud loved garlic, if I were to deduce his attitude towards this most Jewish of all ingredients, I would presume that he stood by his garlic-eating families’ tastes for garlic. After all, he was a “staunch Jew,”—staunch literally referring to a strong smell. At least, his Yiddish-speaking mother must have smelled of garlic till the day she died.
Garlic was an obstacle to assimilation, an identity marker. We know that Freud loved onions, especially caramelized on top of a steak, and that one of his all-time favorite foods is known in Vienna as “Zwiebelrostbraten,” or “Onion Steak.”
In terms of Bialik’s story, Freud, in a typical move—maybe unconscious, maybe deliberate—, chose to be the more assimilated, successful onion knight. That is just another, though the more acceptable, side of the same shtetl cuisine.
This is not to say that Vienna’s Garlic Steak is officially Jewish food—though it very well might be. Nor does it originate in shtetl cuisine. But the dish must have had a special place at any self-respected more or less assimilated Jewish Viennese home of the 1900s. (See my article about beef and meat in relation to Freud and Jewish assimilation in my post about “Tafelspitz.”)
The more assimilated, the less garlic is to be found in the cuisine. The more in the east of the Austra-Hungarian empire, the more garlic is present in the kitchen.
But it would be no surprise if we found out that this dish, too, was a typical Jewish adaptation of a local recipe.
RECIPE: Vienna “Vanilla” Steak with Roasted-Garlic Gravy and Fried Potatoes
Wild Garlic or Chive Sauce Variation
Springtime in Vienna is garlic season, where wild garlic (also known as ramson, ramps, buckram, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek or bear’s garlic) is added to almost everything. Thus, this dish, in particular, lends itself to a substitution of chives or ramson in place of regular garlic.
Chives or wild garlic can be blended straight away as directed in step 5 to form the sauce. Use plain water instead of stock or bouillon. If you prefer, wild garlic can be quickly blanched beforehand.
Olive Oil vs Butter
Admittedly, the classic Viennese way is to use butter for the steak, but the Jewish Viennese way makes use of vegetable oil. I choose to use the highest quality Italian olive oil. To me, Vienna, among its many faces, always had the flair of being what could be considered Italy’s Northern-most city. But historically, with the Habsburg, it’s more the other way around, with parts of Italy, Trieste, Venice, Milan even, having been at one point Austrian. I wanted to go along with the Florentine tradition, which is to use good olive oil with steak.
Viennese Steak Thickness and Doneness
In Austria, steaks, traditionally only as thick as a finger, are first pounded to tenderize, then roasted and subsequently even braised until they are well done and perfectly fork-tender. But today, many places serve what is believed to be a more contemporary version, namely a thick cut of beef cooked to the doneness desired by the customer.
This was unpopular in Vienna because people preferred very tender meat to what they saw as a chewy piece of half-cooked beef, especially as they often used very fresh unhung meat. Jewish cooks anyways always preferred to completely eliminate all trace of red bloody rawness.
Today though, the local market provides steak meat ranging from cheap supermarket vacuum-sealed slices to very high-end organic dry-aged cuts. Nowadays there are even kosher stores here in Vienna that sell real steak labeled as such.
The Jewish Twist on a Traditional Accompaniment
In Vienna, “Vanillerostbraten” steaks are regularly served with pan-fried potatoes quartered lengthwise. In the classic setting, they should never be served on the same plate as the meat, so as not to soak up the juices and the gravy of the meat and hence stay crispy until you decide when and if to sauce up the garlicky liquids with them.
Now, these gratifying potatoes are often slightly coated with breadcrumbs to give them an even crunchier texture. For a Jewish twist on this, I use regular coarse matzo meal, which offers a similar result to something like panko crumbs, but with a nuttier flavor and a rougher texture.
(Makes 8 servings)
2 sprigs of thyme
18 fresh cloves of garlic, peeled and halved, approx. 135 (4.8 oz)
175ml (3/4 cup) premium quality olive oil (to roast the garlic at low temperature)
2g (1/2+1/3 tsp) hot paprika
100ml (1/3+1/8 cup) juices from the resting steak + water
4g (3/4 tsp) salt (iodine-free to avoid bitterness)
salt and pepper to taste
8 “Rostbraten” Steaks (aka an entrecôte, rib, ribeye, club, Scotch fillet, Delmonico, or in Vienna as a “Hohes Beiried” or “Rostbratenried”)
Kosher Salt to season the steaks
plenty of garlic oil from the roasted garlic (for searing)
1kg (2.2 pounds) waxy or medium-starch potatoes, peeled and quartered lengthwise
30g (4 Tbsp) regular coarse matzo meal or “panko” breadcrumbs
60ml (1/4 cup) neutral vegetable oil (to fry the potatoes)
salt to taste
- Tenderize the meat (optional): If you bought kosher meat or meat that hasn’t been hung or vacuum-sealed, you can leave it submerged in a neutral oil for a couple of days or follow this stunning way to dry-age meat at home.
- Pre-salt the meat (optional): Right after purchasing the meat, liberally salt with kosher salt and leave it uncovered on a rack in the refrigerator to air dry for two days.
- Roast the garlic: In a pan, just large enough to fit the garlic, put all the halved heads with the olive oil and the sprigs of thyme. Bring to a boil and immediately lower the temp to a light but steady simmer. Watch the garlic! (Don’t let it burn, or it will get very bitter!) The garlic should just be lightly browned on its edges after approximately 15 to 20 minutes. (Alternatively, you can put them in the oven at 255°F/125°C for about an hour). Turn off the heat and let it cool.
- Meanwhile, boil the potatoes: Start the peeled and quartered-lengthwise potatoes submerged in cold, lightly salted water. Cook until tender, or until a knife easily glides in and out. Drain and reserve.
- Salt the steak(s): If you skipped step #2, you can now pat the steaks dry and cover them liberally with salt, either just before you put them in the pan or at least 50 minutes in advance.
- Sear the steak(s) in a pan: For a perfect pan-seared steak, use a heavy cast-iron pan if possible, one that just fits your steaks. Heat it on high, and add a thick layer of the garlic oil (remember to place the steak into the pan in a motion away from you, so as to avoid splatters of dangerously hot oil towards you). Just as the oil begins to lightly smoke, start to sear the steaks on both sides, turning them as often as you like (famed food scientist and author Harold McGee recommends every 15s).
115°F/46°C for Extra-rare, Blue (will reach target 115-120°F/46-49°C during resting),
120°F/50°C for Rare (will reach target 125-131°F/52-55°C during resting),
125°F/52°C for Medium rare (will reach target 130-140°F/55-60°C during resting),
135°F/57°C for Medium (will reach target 140-149°/60-65°C during resting),
145°F/63°C for Medium well (will reach target 150-156°F/65-69°C during resting), or
155°F/69°C for Well done (will reach target 160°F/71°C during resting).
For thicker cuts, use the low-temperature oven method (aka “reverse-sear”), or sous-vide, as follows.
For the reverse-sear cook the well-seasoned steak(s) on a rack in low-temperature oven (200°F/100°C-275°F/135°C) to an internal temperature 10°F-15°F/5-10°C below the target. Finish in a pan as above or in a deep fryer (400°F/204°C) to form a perfect crust.
For a sous-vide steak set the bath to the target temperature to cook the seasoned steaks in. Here too, finish in a pan as above or in a deep fryer (400°F/204°C) to form a perfect crust.
- Let the steak(s) rest for at least as long as it took you to sear them, or until the internal temperature has dropped back to where it was when you took it out of the pan. (For example, a medium-rare steak is ready to be cut when it’s cooled down to 125°F/52°C.)
- In a blender, mix the roasted garlic with 100ml (1/3+1/8 cup) of the olive oil you used to roast the garlic in, along with salt, hot paprika, and the juices from the steak and water. This mix should total 100ml (1/3+1/8 cup). Blend until the emulsion forms and is completely homogenized. Season to taste!
- Meanwhile, roast the potatoes: Shake the potatoes and the matzo meal in a bowl until coated. Quickly fry the potatoes in a pan large enough to accommodate them in one layer until browned.
- Serve with the garlic sauce and potatoes (traditionally, on an oval-shaped plate with the potatoes on a separate plate, so as not to smother them in the sauce).