Last year, just before the High Holidays, a producer from TVK24, Korean Broadcasting emailed me asking if I knew someone whom they could interview for a series about food and tradition in Jewish culture.
Yes, I said, me.
Jisung Bahng asked if she could film me in my kitchen. I said I had a better idea. She could film me in my sukkah.
The perfect filming opportunity was coming up in a few weeks, when Jews celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. We build simple huts and eat in them.
She asked if I had any photos of these huts, and I sent them along. I think she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t arrive at my home to find eight people huddled around a Bunson burner in a cardboard box.
After Jisung and I confirmed a date—the day before the actual start of the holiday, a kind of Faux-kot—I started thinking up a menu. TK TV is aired in America, Korea and Europe. It dawned on me I’d be representing Jews to millions of Korean speakers. My wife Naomi, a rabbi, I knew, could ace the orals, explaining what Sukkot is on camera. My job was to come up with a menu that didn’t embarrass us.
Truthfully, it was easy. At Sukkot the markets are overflowing with end of summer and early fall produce. Swing a lulav and you’ll find something good to eat. Seasonal food, fresh, great ingredients and plenty of it. Here’s what I decided to cook:
Eggplant with Tahini and Date Syrup
Sugar Pumpkin with Garbanzo, Garlic, Potato and Chard
Stuffed Cabbage, Stuffed Chard and Stuffed Zucchini
Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Green Olives
Salad with Fennel and Pomegranate Seeds
Salad with Fig, Walnut, Mint and Lemon
Apple and Peach Gallette
Apple and Cranberry Gallette
Apple Strudel with Pomegranates and Dates (Recipe Below)
We invited my parents, our friends the Druckers, my niece, and our friends the Adlers. Jenna Adler’s parents are Korean, and it’s absolutely true we are happy to hang with them anytime, anywhere. But it did seem like we were trying awfully hard to show off by trotting out the one part-Korean heritage Jewish family we knew.
Jenna was up for it: she could tell her parents to catch her on Korean TV.
Many weeks after our meal, a DVD arrived in the mail. It was our Sukkah meal, translated into Korean (with English subtitles), and produced for a Korean audience.
The title of the food documentary series in which our episode appears is, “Living and Breathing DNA.” Talk about Lost in Translation.
The segment begins with a wide shot of me picking vegetables for dinner, and Naomi picking pomegranates. I wonder if Koreans are keyed in to the whole backyard local sustainable thing, or if what looks so cool to us looks like peasant life to them. Just how bad is that recession?
Watching the video a year later, two things jump out at me: For someone trying to explain the joyous nature of Sukkot, I look like a constipated undertaker. Naomi is smiling, explaining the holiday with a relaxed cheer.
“Sukkot celebrates the fall harvest,” Naomi said. “We build these booths to remind us of the time the Children of Israel wandered in desert for 40 years. It was considered a time when the Children of Israel felt close to God.”
I look at her like I just swallowed a bug. And when it’s my turn to speak, when Jisung asks me what’s special about Sukkot food, I mumble through my explanation of its seasonal nature, the symbolism, yada yada yada.
Here’s the insight I contribute: “It’s a really fun holiday,” I say. “You sit outside and eat a meal.”
Four thousand years of Jewish civilization as interpreted by Beavis.
I began to feel self conscious—never a good thing on camera. Jisung, an earnest and charming young woman, was hanging on my every word, like the entire Korean nation would take this as they way Jews are. Over my left shoulder, out the living room window, Goldie Horn, our Nigerian Dwarf goat, had climbed onto the chicken coop, and was watching through the bay window. She was probably thinking, “Hey, I could do better than you.”
Plus, I notice I keep using the word “traditional. Like, in every sentence.
“Pomegranates are traditional,” I say.
“The holiday speaks to tradition.”
“The stuffed vegetables are traditional.”
Hate all you want on Food Network, but there is something to be said for a director.
Naomi of course needed no direction. She said exactly what I think about Sukkot, about the overarching role food plays in connecting us to our pasts, to our people, to our memory (I’m NOT going to say the T word).
“Nothing connects us more to the past than the smell of food from childhood,” she says on camera. “Every time we have a holiday it’s not just thinking about today, it’s rooting us in the past. For every people there’s a need to know where you come from, and what keeps you rooted where you are, and that food, that tradition, those aromas, that taste, bring you back to where you come from, and it’s so important to keep the traditions alive, to remember where you came from and feel that connection.”
The show really takes off for me when the guests arrive and the food comes out. We had plenty of bottles of wine, and the food really was good. The cameraman made the Sukkah, lit up in the center of a dark yard, look mysterious and warm.
They interviewed our guests at the table, and between bites I noticed everyone used the T word.
For some reason the one person they didn’t interview was Jenna. I still haven’t figured that one out.
Maybe, for their audience, a Jewish Korean American would be too—untraditional.
Apple Strudel with Pomegranates and Dates
There is no better dessert for a meat meal this time of year. Using olive oil instead of butter makes a lighter and flakier strudel. The better the apples, the better the strudel. Buy a mix of tart and sweet apples. Stay away from Red and Golden Delicious. If the apples are superb and fresh, don’t peel them: there’s flavor and color in the peel.
This recipe wants you to not follow it. Use pears instead of apples for all or part of the fruit. Figs instead of dates. Brown sugar instead of honey. Melted butter instead of olive oil, if you prefer.
12 apples, cored and diced into 1/8-1/4 inch pieces
1 1/2 cup walnuts
3/4 c. sugar or raw sugar
1/2 - 1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 c. pomegranate seeds
3/4 c. chopped fresh dates or figs
Preheat oven to 375. Line a baking sheet with bakers parchment or grease well.
In a large bowl, add apples, 1/2 c. chopped walnuts, honey and cinamon to taste. Taste: add enough lemon juice to balance flavor. Stir well.
Pulse remaining walnuts in a blender or food processor with sugar a dash more cinamon.
Place olive oil in a dish and get brush ready.
Lay out filo flat, and keep covered with saran.
Take a sheet of filo, brush lightly but thoroughly (and quickly) with olive oil. Sprinkle with ground nut mixture. Top with another sheet of filo. Repeat drill for up to 6 sheets. Spoon filling along the edge of the long side in 3 inch cylinder. Form into perfect shape with hands. Press ends closed.
Roll gently but not too tightly. Place seam side down on baking sheet. Use remaining filling to make another strudel.
Brush tops of strudel with olive oil and sprinkle with more walnut mixture. Bake until crispy brown and the apples inside are tender, about 40 minutes.
WATCH THE VIDEO HERE: