I confess to a long-standing affection for the matzoball, perhaps for its ease in swallowing whole. The small round form, always fashioned by hand, passed over with the Israelites when they fled Egypt. There, the round sun-disc with hands provided the model for the original, or Ur, matzoball of Pharaoh Akhenaten. It thus recalls some of the earliest culinary culture of humankind. My controversial book, Moses and Monotheism, brought evidence to show that the matzoball is not a Jewish invention, but Egyptian, as was Moses himself. To those speculations, I would now add one more: Moses was slow of speech, as the Bible says, not because Hebrew was not his tongue, but because he had burned it schlurping matzoball soup.
For me, the little ball, uniform, supportive, and immersed in its bowl of broth, answers to the deepest needs of mankind for a universal symbol in its struggle for meaning. The matzoball, compact and indissoluble, is the ego in the midst of the primal broth. No sublimations are permitted: it may not be too light so that it floats. No substitution either: it may not be made of bread crumbs instead of matzo. Above all, there must only be the one.
So much has been said and written about kneidlach — matzo balls — and yet I haven’t come across a single version related to the city of Vienna, the one place in the world related to Moses and Matzobolism. The place that stands for Egypt, Galut, Diaspora Jewry. Where everything began, you’ll see. So finally, here’s a very Viennese version of this popular Jewish delight, for “the ego in the midst of the primal broth”.
Before we dive into this succulent variant, let me insist that all possible variants stem from this very region. They came into the Jewish diet via the Southeastern German-speaking and Czech territories.2
Spelling It Out
The very word knaidl (knaidlach in its plural form) in Yiddish hails from the German word Knödl. This simply translates to “ball-shaped dumplings”, as if they were the only ball-shaped dumplings around. Indeed, the Jewish cuisine features quite a few lesser-known ball-shaped dumplings, including the potato knaidel, the challah knaidel, and so on.
From the Middle Ages, dumplings were popular in German cuisine, and the Yiddish kneidl was almost certainly derived from the south German Knödel, meaning a [ball-shaped] dumpling, but in a Western Slavic environment.” [John Cooper in: Eat and be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food]3
By the way, there’s no consensus over the proper thing to call (let alone spell) matzo balls when transliterating them from the Yiddish קניידלעך. Should it be knaidel, knedel, or kneidel aso (all singular forms of respective knaidlach, kneidlach, knedelach, etc.)? Not surprisingly, in June 2013 this confusion led to controversy during the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee, as it was the winning word.4
These dumplings are so important to the Viennese soul and its diet that the German origin “Knödl” is used today in Vienna as slang for “money”. To have kneidlach, or balls, means to have money! The Viennese pray to Mammon as they pray to dumplings. And we won’t even start with what it means in English to have balls:
How do you like your balls? It’s one of the more divisive questions in the Jewish community. Obviously, I’m referring to balls of the matzo variety […] [Jake Cohen, Jew-ish: A Cookbook: Reinvented Recipes from a Modern Mensch]5
Passover Dumplings or Not?
Adding to the linguistic conundrum, matzo balls are sometimes referred to as “Osterknedel” in some old Jewish cookbooks! This term translates to “Easter dumplings”. This hints of their origin in the holiday of Passover, when all forms of leavened bread are forbidden and all religious Jews thus eat matzo or unleavened bread. So the cooks substituted matzo for bread in their dumplings.
Some Jews, especially the Hasidic, do not even let matzo come into contact with water for fear that a possible residue of uncooked flour could touch water and thus — as a result — rise. This is called gebrokts (or “gebrochts“)6 in Yiddish. As strange as it may seem, these communities, of which my family counts itself members, do not follow the tradition of eating matzo balls during Passover until the eighth day of the holiday and outside of Israel, when the laws of “gebrochts” are no longer applied for various reasons pertaining to rabbinic law. This makes matzo balls a real Diaspora food.
Matzo Ball Discussions
Matzo balls, and matzo ball soup as a whole, are very much a question of personal taste and upbringing. If you have no personal history regarding matzo balls, be like Israeli chef Michael Solomonov and feel welcome in the wide world of Jew-ish choices.7 Here too, one can say: Tell me the kind of matzo ball you like and I’ll tell you which kind of mensch you are.
There are several schools of thought on each of the various questions asked about matzo balls. As is often the case with food-related topics, matzo ball gourmets are divided into very opinionated camps. The subject is debated endlessly, in person as well as on the Internet in a variety of forums and Facebook groups. Some, like Daniel Gritzer over at Serious Eats, even taken a quasi-scientific approach to matzo balls.8 Very few, like me, feel like Leah Koenig:
That being said, if I can choose, I do prefer my recipe below.
Sinkers versus Floaters
The most important debate that has raged over the generations is the one over sinkers versus floaters. Some are fluffier, airier, and taste more of egg than those that are a little denser, or “al dente” if you prefer. The latter often taste a bit more like matzo, which is the main ingredient after all. Among those who like matzo balls to have a little bite to them, you can count the grand dame of Jewish food, Joan Nathan. Golda Meir was known for her especially hard sinkers, which were said to be dense like rocks.10 I see no harm in that.
There’s definitely no one right kind. I prefer them cooked as indicated in my recipe. The ready-made boxed matzo ball mixes often contain baking powder. My family likes them denser, but in the end, there are as many flavors as cooks and families. You probably like what your mother made.
There does seem to be a dynamic in which the more liberal and loosely-connected-to-tradition the Jew, the softer he prefers his kneidlach, and the more on-the-right-and-conservative, the harder he likes matzo balls. If this is true then I am an exception to this rule, with my kneidlach that have a little bit of bite to them.
Schmaltz versus Oil (or Even Butter)
The runner-up in order of debates is the question of whether to use schmaltz (chicken fat or, in Vienna often suet and beef marrow — but more on that later) or oil, or for some even butter. “Oy gewalt!” What heresy!
Abe Lebewohl, of New York’s famous Jewish food institution the Second Ave Deli, only used schmaltz when cooking a small amount for his private consumption or for the Second Ave Deli cookbook,11 but for the restaurant he had to come up with another solution, as too much schmaltz was necessary — at least more schmaltz than he had on hand. It may come as a shock to you, but the celebrated matzo balls at the Second Ave Deli were made (by the maven himself) with oil and onion to flavor.12 Even doing this has two schools of thought: There are those who use raw grated onions and some who use caramelized. To my taste, a third option — using onion powder – is preferable. Here too, do as you like or were taught.
Small versus Giant
Yet another debate that has gone on forever is the question of small versus giant matzo balls. Professor Sigmund Freud apparently favored small ones that could be swallowed whole, and I remember Freud saying, “Above all, there must only be the one.” Obviously, delis and restaurants have taught us to prefer the giant species that both appeals to the eye and are much less work to make. You just roll one big globe that sits in the soup like a savory îles flottante, and may be almost as airy. As it happens, Vienna’s Jewish Quarter is nicknamed “Mazzesinsel”, or Matzo Island.
Forming a load of tiny little matzo balls is a very tedious task unless you know my wife’s trick, which consists of forming a long thin raw rope of matzo ball dough, cutting it up into small even slices, then quickly rolling those between your hands before dropping them into the hot, gently simmering liquid. If you don’t follow my wife’s instructions, you’ll need help from an extra couple of little hands that you need to be occupied.
Kabbalah and Hasidism
But why would you want so many small matzo balls to begin with? Because the point is not to have small ones but how many to have. How many? Ninety-one exactly! Why? Because of “Echad Mi Yodea“.13 The famous Passover seder song adds up to 91 when totaling the numbers of all the verses. That’s a kabbalistic gem that comes from the Zohar, I was told. “Minhag Yisrueil Toireh he”. The custom of the Jewish people is Torah, or law. Thus many Hasidic households make many, if not 91, small or smaller matzo balls whose consumption was possibly spread over several meals of the Yom Tov, or holiday.
Among other things, in Jewish thought, Tehillim chapter 91 — Psalm 9114 known as the “Anti-Demonic Psalm” — conveys the themes of God’s protection and rescue from danger. This is a very important matter on Passover.
The tiny kabbalistic matzo balls found on this page are a tribute to the many Eastern European Hasidic immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century Vienna when the Habsburg Empire collapsed (or in the decades just before). They made up the bulk of Vienna’s large Jewish population at the time. This made it one of the biggest Jewish agglomerations in the world. The Jewish neighborhood’s markets, like the “Karmelitermarkt”, would sell live chicken at that time, as the demand was big enough.
As a side note — and as surprising as it may sound — there exists what is commonly known as “space balls”: Cannabis-infused matzo balls that have nothing to do with Mel Brooks as far as I know. To accommodate all tastes — and jurisdictions — they often don’t officially contain THC, which is the psychoactive part of cannabis. The doyen of all things Jewish cooking, the revered Joan Nathan herself, promotes such recipes!15
The Viennese Touch: The Balls
Now I present to you a matzo ball soup with a Viennese touch, but rest assured I have tried as much as possible to remove out the endless debates on the equation. Everyone should do as they prefer, but the Viennese (or in this case the Austro-Hungarian touch) resides in the addition of parsley, ginger, and nutmeg to the matzo balls, while the Yemenite appropriation adds turmeric and cilantro.
A contemporary favorite which I just mentioned en passant was and is to stuff matzo balls, a technique very popular with Viennese dumplings. One such most obviously delicious filling is caramelized chicken liver and/or onions.16 Now, doesn’t that sound tempting?
Another important part of the Viennese touch is the use of chives on top of the soup itself. Because these are susceptible to being cooked by the hot soup, this addition is only made outside of Shabbos and Yom Tov by those who are “frum” in Yiddish, that is “religious”.
I’m certain that — even with regard to these Viennese points — there will be some who contradict. Do let us know in the comments below!
The Viennese Touch: The Broth
The Viennese touch is found not only in the matzo balls but also in the soup broth itself. In Viennese tradition this would often have been a beef broth — Vienna is/was beef country, with large herds of livestock being driven in on foot from the wide steps of the Hungarian plains in the East, the so-called Puszta where they had been raised. It is only later, due to the socioeconomics of the shtetl, that chicken soup was made and schmaltz was used. So the ur-matzo ball was most certainly made with suet and served in a bowl of beef broth, and before the advent of machine-made matzos, matzo balls were made from the classic handmade, round, whole-grain, shmireh matzos made for Passover.
Incidentally, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere and as documented in contemporary cookbooks, in the city of Vienna pork only came to the forefront outside of sausages after the war, as cheap meat, once all the Jews had been murdered or chased off and the country-side took over the once cosmopolitan metropolis.
Before we dive too deeply into the topic of the matzo ball soup itself, I have to make clear the obvious point, which is that my mom makes the best chicken soup. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it, as most everyone has their own mom’s soup as their favorite.
Chicken soup17 is often referred to as Jewish penicillin, as it was Jewish mothers’ preferred — and successful (I’m a testament to this) — way of curing everyone and everything. Critics say this is especially true today because modern-day chickens contain so much antibiotics. (If you didn’t know, those are added to non-organic chickens in order to make them survive their horrid living conditions).
The Vegan Broth
Vegetable broths, on the other hand, are much more controversial. As Miri Rotkovitz recounts in her Bubbe and Me in the Kitchen18 she started to make the vegetarian version of her chicken soup for herself and a five-year-old that had just seen Chicken Run and had declared himself a vegetarian.
We in turn started to make a meatless matzo ball soup because of our teenage daughter, who refused to eat meat or anything that has eyes for that matter, and who still loves matzo balls!
To be more in tune with Vienna’s traditional beef broths we choose to make our broth rather dark. This is mainly achieved through the roasting of the vegetables, which adds a ton of flavor. At the risk of being thought a snob, I’ll add that homemade broths are undeniably, incontestably, incommensurately better than ready-made soup mixes out of a box. Take the time to make it … you won’t regret it!
Vegetarianism in Judaism
The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, said the chicken should be left to lay eggs. Professor Sigmund Freud was not a vegetarian by any stretch of the imagination, but vegetarianism does have a tradition in Judaism and a number of very interesting books have been written on the subject.19 Pushes for veganism and vegetarianism come in waves, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals was the Jewish star of one of the more recent ones.20 Richard H. Schwartz posted this reminder on November 9th 2021: Eighteen reasons Jews think they should not be vegetarians or vegans (and why they are wrong)21
One of the oldest vegetarian-dairy places out there, Ratner’s on 138 Delancey Street in the Lower East Side of New York, was a Jewish restaurant. Their World-Famous Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook22 features the recipe for their vegetarian consommé with matzo balls as served at the restaurant since 1918. But all that’s, unfortunately, part of Jewish food history now. Here is one of Ratner’s menus. (Source Alchetron)
Vegetable Broths Mustn’t Be Unexciting
Unfortunately, vegetable stocks are often a rather bland business. Few people bother to brown their vegetables, but even an official minimalist like Mark Bittman — we are huge fans of his at our house — goes out of his way to brown veggies for broths and stocks.23
Alice Waters, the queen of cooking often called “poetic”, “visionary”, and “pure”, adds a piece of kombu and a splash of soy sauce to her vegetable stock24 and so do we. Together with a bit of white wine whose alcohol gets cooked away, it gets our taste buds going and our recipe gets even more delicious. Our roasted garden vegetable broth doesn’t mimic any meaty version — it’s unique on its own. It’s very possible you’ve never had anything so succulent!
Matzo ball soup presents two separate culinary problems. One is the vegetable stock and the other is the matzo ball itself. We will address them in separate recipes, found below. But they always come together, matzo balls with broth. Remember: “The matzo ball, compact and indissoluble, is the ego in the midst of the primal broth”.
Matzo Ball As a Cultural Marker
It’s safe to say, that matzo balls are, together with challah, bagels, and cholent, the most famous of Jewish foods. You don’t have to be Jewish to love matzo ball soup. Among the Jewish specialty dishes, it is the one quite popular among non-Jews, especially in North America where it is a deli staple, particularly in its giant form. As for Jews themselves, foods like matzo balls are often among their most important remaining links to Jewish culture.
Vienna’s Vegetarian Matzo Ball Soup:
This is the recipe for matzo balls with a Viennese touch to the taste. Just be aware that one family’s perfect knaidlach are another family’s cannonballs! If you really want them lighter, add 1 teaspoon of baking powder. (We would certainly omit this on Passover but do follow your minhag, your family’s custom).
If you think they need to be harder, add more matzo meal.
I very much prefer the taste of whole wheat matzo when using the square machine-made ones, probably because they are closer to the taste of the round, hand-made shmurah matzah made for Passover.
125g (1 cup) matzo meal, I preferably whole wheat (or 4 sheets of square whole wheat matzo ground finely in the food processor.)
1 teaspoon iodine-free salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons onion powder (or 1 onion grated)
2 teaspoons garlic powder (or 1 large clove of garlic crushed)
(1 teaspoon of baking powder — optional, see note above)
Freshly ground black pepper
200g (4 large) eggs, beaten
60g (1/4 cup) vegetable oil like canola
1 to 2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
2 tablespoons freshly ground ginger
- Mix all the dry ingredients.
- Mix all the liquids with the parsley.
- Mix everything together.
- Cover and let rest in the refrigerator for 1 to 4 hours.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Lower to a simmer. (For even more taste use broth here but try not to serve them in their cooking liquid as this will get cloudy).
- Form as many matzo balls as you like, from the classic 1.5 inch (4 cm) balls to 91 very tiny ones.
To form tiny matzo balls: Roll out the matzo mixture in a rather thin rope and divide the rope with a knife, into tiny slices. With wet or oily hands, quickly roll each slice into a ball and drop into the simmering water.
- Simmer covered for up to 1 hour (If you want them to have a bite in the middle, cook them for less time depending on their size. Your best bet is to taste them as you go, at least the first time.)
- Leave in the warm cooking liquid until ready to serve. Remove with a slotted spoon.
- Serve in a stock or broth (See vegetable broth below) or freeze them (put them individually on a tray in the freezer. Once frozen put them in a Ziploc bag). Top with freshly chopped chives.
Viennese Vegetable Broth
The celeriac and different root vegetables combined with this spice mix are the essence of the Viennese touch here. The chives finish it off. Kombu, soy sauce, and white wine are the secret ingredients that I picked up from Mark Bittman and Alice Waters (kombu is kelp in English). You don’t need to be overly precise with the measurements.
Don’t skip the roasting part — it’s essential and gives a dark color like that of the one at the famous MGM Commissary in Hollywood (as told by Joan Nathan in Jewish Cooking in America).25
250g (2 medium) onions, skin on, quartered
100g (2 medium) carrots, cut into chunks
150g (1 medium of each) parsnip, parsley root, and yellow turnip cut into chunks
250g (3 to 4 stalks) celery, cut into chunks (discard green leaves)
500g (2 to 3 stalks) leek, cut into chunks
100g (3.5 ounces) celeriac, cut into chunks
250g (8.8 ounces) zucchini (1 small), cut into chunks
1 head of garlic, halved horizontally
200g (7 ounces) cremini or button mushrooms
250g (8.8 ounces) tomatoes (2 medium), quartered
30 + 15ml (2 + 1 tablespoons) olive oil
30g (1 ounce) dried porcini, morel, shitake, etc. mushrooms
15g (1 sheet) kombu
1 tablespoon soy sauce
240 ml (1 cup) white wine
1/2 teaspoon juniper berries (about 7)
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns (about 12)
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs of thyme (1/2 teaspoon dried)
10 stems of parsley
iodine-free salt to taste
chives for garnish, chopped
- Preheat the oven to 440°F (220°C).
- In a roasting pan, toss the vegetables (the onion, carrots, parsnip, parsley root, yellow turnip, celery, leek, celeriac, zucchini, garlic, mushrooms, and tomatoes) with 30ml (2 tablespoons) of olive oil.
- Roast the vegetables till browned to your liking (the darker they get, the more intense the flavor) for about 1 hour. (Be careful to brown the vegetables, not to burn them, as the black parts taste bitter and aren’t healthy).
- Meanwhile, add the rest of the ingredients except the salt and the chives to a large stockpot.
- Add the roasted vegetables to the stockpot.
- Deglaze the pan (scrape of the bits and pieces) from the roasted vegetables with water.
- Add the deglazing liquid to the stockpot.
- Cover with water by 1 1/2 inches (4 cm) and bring to a boil.
- Simmer for about 1 hour until vegetables are completely tender and stock is aromatic and flavorful. Stir occasionally.
- Sift the broth through a fine strainer. Discard all the solids. (Refrigerated stock will keep for about 1 week.)
- Salt to taste.
- Serve with matzo balls and top with chopped chives.
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- Freud’s Own Cookbook. Edited by James Hillman and Charles Boer. (Harper Colophon, New York: 1985)
- See Gil Marks, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston: 2010)
- John Cooper, Eat and be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food. (Jason Aronson Inc. Publishers, Lanham: 1993)
- Wikipedia: Matzo Ball link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matzah_ball
- Jake Cohen, Jew-ish: A Cookbook: Reinvented Recipes from a Modern Mensch (Mariner Books, Boston: 2021)
- Wikipedia: Gebrochts link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gebrochts
- As told by Michael Solomonov in Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston: 2015)
- Daniel Gritzer, Myth Testing: The Secrets of the Best Matzo Balls. link: https://www.seriouseats.com/how-to-make-the-best-matzo-balls
- Leah Koenig, Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Todays Kitchen (Chronicle Books; San Francisco: 2015)
- Celebrating Passover: The History And Symbolism Of Matzo Balls (NPR) link: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/397213116?t=1635857200740
- Sharon Lebewohl, Rena Bulkin, and Jack Lebewohl, The Second Avenue Deli Cookbook: Recipes and Memories from Abe Lebewohl’s Legendary Kitchen (Random House, New York: 1999)
- As told on Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America show in the episode on chicken soup and matzo balls (Season 1 Episode 21) link: https://youtu.be/sedfSYLFbjA
- Here’s Echad Mi Yodea in Yiddish Mu adabru, mu asapru performed by Yiddish Philharmonic Chorus (formerly Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus / JPPC) from New York. Choral arrangement/Conductor: Binyumen Schaechter. A treat! Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cq4RUs27Eas
- English/Hebrew text of Psalm 91 see link: https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16312/jewish/Chapter-91.htm
- See Joan Nathan make the weed-infused matzo balls in this video by Vice. Link: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=523856044646318
- See for example Israel Aharoni’s famous chicken soup with matzo balls stuffed with chicken liver from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today (Knopf Doubleday, New York: 2001)
- Vered Guttman, A Brief History of Chicken Soup, the ‘Jewish Penicillin’ Link: https://www.haaretz.com/food/EXT.premium.EXT-RECIPE-the-chinese-marilyn-and-golda-a-brief-history-of-chicken-soup-jewish-penicillin-1.9926040
- Miri Rotkovitz, Bubbe and Me in the Kitchen: A Kosher Cookbook of Beloved Recipes and Modern Twists (Sonoma Press: 2016)
- Five books about Judaism and vegetarianism, and respectively veganism, that I found interesting: Louis A. Berman, Vegetarianism & The Jewish Tradition (Ktav, New York: 1982); David Sears, The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare And Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism (Meorei Ohr: 2015); Richard H. Schwartz, Judaism and Vegetarianism (Lantern Books, New York: 2001); Roberta Kalechofsky, Vegetarian Judaism: A Guide For Everyone (Micah: 1998); Roberta Kalechofsky (Editor), Rabbis and Vegetarianism: An Evolving Tradition (Micah: 2002)
- Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (Back Bay Books, New York: 2009)
- Richard H. Schwartz, Eighteen reasons Jews think they should not be vegetarians or vegans (and why they are wrong) (November 9th 2021, Times of Israel, Link: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/eighteen-reasons-jews-think-they-should-not-be-vegetarians-or-vegans-and-why-they-are-wrong/ )
- Judy Gethers, Elizabeth Leffr, The World-Famous Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook (Bantam; Toronto, London: 1975)
- Mark Bittman, How To Cook Everything Vegetarian (John Wiley & Sons; New York: 2017)
- Alice Waters, Chez Panisse Vegetables (Harper Collins, New York: 2003)
- As told on Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America show in the episode on chicken soup and matzo balls (Season 1 Episode 21) link: https://youtu.be/sedfSYLFbjA