Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Traditional (Ashkenazi) Shabbat Menu

Shabbat dinners were one of the most alien things about orthodoxy to me. Not only was the food weird, there was just SO MUCH OF IT. My family didn't do multiple courses or even dessert most of the time. Yes, my white trash family just took food from the pans on the stove.

Also... it was unnerving that almost everyone was serving the exact same meal. Did they get together and decide this? I began to wonder if it was a halacha to serve chicken soup and gefilte fish. Thankfully for me, it's not. Though some communities hold there are mystical meanings to serving certain foods and/or serving them at certain times. 

So what does the "traditional" Shabbat meal look like?

First off, in America, it's going to be an Ashkenazi-centric meal. Even Sephardi families within an Ashkenazi community may tone down the spiciness or unfamiliar foods simply to not freak out the neighbors and guests. You'll also find many mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi families, and the food will tend toward the background of the husband, as a general rule. (The path to a man's heart is his stomach, or so they say.)

Thankfully, things are getting more varied every Shabbat. The internet and the growing number of Jewish cookbooks are introducing new dishes left and right, both Jewish in origin or not. You'll also find a growing number of theme meals, like Mexican or Italian or Chinese or sushi. Shabbos tables look very different than they did even 10 years ago, when I entered the community. People are more adventurous with food today, and there are more kosher options. However, you'll still run into the "traditional" meal more often than not.

Rules of the Shabbos Meal

  • Pace yourself. There will usually be a lot of food. (I have no idea how people afford these meals regularly.) #ProTip: ask for the full menu at the beginning so you can pace yourself effectively.
  • Feel free to say no to food. You'll feel rude, but don't. If you know you hate gefilte fish, it's ruder to take and not eat it. But this is hard. Just try telling your host you don't want soup. I get questioned every time, and it can be very uncomfortable. 
  • Likewise, someone will eventually force food on you. Take this behavior as gracefully as you can, whether you actually take the food or not.
  • Unless told otherwise, the meal will be meat, not dairy. And there will be actual meat served. 
  • Remember that most people eat meat and fish only as separate courses, using separate dishes and forks. Remember to get your fish fork back to the kitchen before the meat comes out.
  • If you have a dietary restriction, tell your host in advance. Don't try to "make it work" because it often won't (Murphy's Law), and then the person will feel bad that you don't have any food.
  • You might be able to bring a dish or pre-made item. If you're not yet Jewish or don't keep kosher, there are many things you can bring. And don't forget to get them to the host in accordance with halacha.

The Courses

Kiddush with wine or grape juice
At lunch, kiddush might be made on other alcoholic beverages, like liquor or beer

Everyone will leave the table to wash their hands before eating bread. If your hosts are Yekke (German), this washing will take place before Kiddush. Either way, you'll stay silent between washing and eating the bread, minus any responsive Amens. People often hum or mime. It's often a silly time, especially when kids are around.
When everyone returns, the blessing over bread will be made. The bread is cut, and slices/pieces are handed out.

Salad Course:
The bread with "salads." These can include Israeli salad, chumus (often written hummus in America), babaganoush, tachina (also called tahini), Turkish salad. #Irony: those are all Middle Eastern/Sephardi foods.
May also include "real" salad.

Fish Course:
Will probably be done at the same time as the Salad course, but I've seen it separated too.
If any course is removed, it will be this one. Followed by reducing the number of salads.
Gefilte fish is often the fish of choice, but you might also find herring, salmon, or any other fish. 
Gefilte fish is often served with a bit of carrot and with purple horseradish on the side. The horseradish is purple because it's colored with beets. Why? Why not.

Generally will be chicken soup. You might be asked for what you want in the soup. This may include, but is not limited to: chicken meat, matzah balls, vegetables, or chicken bones.

Main Meal:
Pace yourself. Just when you think they've brought out all the platters, there will often be more platters. 
Meat, meat, meat. I have several friends who always serve at least three types of meat. Maybe two beef dishes and a chicken dish or the other way around. 
Kugel is usually a given, but they're getting more creative with kugels: broccoli kugel, cauliflower kugel, butternut squash kugel, etc. Traditional kugels are either potatoes or noodles (two main types: Yerushalmi and Lokshen kugel).
Assorted other vegetables and starches (potatoes, rice, couscous, etc).

Dessert, Coffee, and Tea:
They're probably going to be full of sugar and fat. But otherwise, there's a lot of variety here, and you'll often have some fresh fruit too. 
You'll be asked whether you want tea (and sometimes coffee).
Coffee or tea will usually be brought to you, so you can avoid some of the problems in making tea on Shabbat. The coffee will be instant coffee, and some even come in tea bags!

That is seriously a lot of food. No wonder I gained weight when I joined the community. And now that I have a different, vegan-ish diet, there's not a lot of Ashkenazi foods I eat. When in doubt, go for the veggies, bread, salads, and fresh desserts. You won't go hungry, even if limited to those.


  1. Ah, great post. We usually keep it really, really simple (unless we're having guests, in which case I usually feel compelled to make more because chas v'shalom anyone should not have enough to eat!). Even with keeping it simple (i.e. skipping the fish or soup course), it's still a ton of food.

  2. For me, the best part of Shabbat meals is not the food:
    it is the Torah that is discussed at the Shabbat table.

    This may sound strange to some people, especially those who are not fortunate enough to visit hosts who are not Torah scholars. But if your host is a genuine Torah scholar and some of the other guests are Torah scholars and you also have lots of Torah knowledge, then the Torah that is discussed at the Shabbat table can be very interesting and informative.

    There was once one hostess who apologized to me because she served the chicken cold. I told her that her apology was a mistake, because if she had remained silent, then I never would have noticed that the chicken was cold, probably because my attention was focused on the Torah discussion instead of the food. Also, I enjoy eating room-temperature (aka “cold”) food, so there was really no reason for her to apologize to me.

  3. there are lots of traditional ashkenazi mock dishes that are vegan/vegetarian (chop "liver", kishkah, stuffed cabbage) that it wouldn't be shabbos or yutif without

  4. I am a devout Roman catholic that was married to my late Jewish husband for 35 years,I was used to have formal meals growing up and Sunday dinners with relatives and lots of food.
    For my husband I learned to cook Jewish meals,I had great teachers,and even that we did not have shabbat because he was not religious, I cooked that day the meals his grandmother used to prepare.
    Because we lived in many foreign countries I learned to make bagels from scratch,kugles,soups,chop liver.
    Even now as a widow I enjoy a Jewish dinner once a week. He was 4 generation American Ashkenazi.