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Chanukah Fish Fry
Jacob Schor, ND, FABNO
We celebrate the Chanukah miracle early this year; the first candle is lit on Wednesday night, December 1. No doubt some of my readers will point out that this is not early as Chanukah always falls on the 24th day of Kislev.
The miracle to which we refer involves Jewish forces led by Judah Macabee who defeated Syrian oppressors more than 2300 years ago and reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem. The "miracle" occurred when a quantity of oil that would normally have kept the sacred lamps lit for one day lasted a full eight days, enough time for additional oil to be made. This holiday has become something of a celebration of oil; by tradition we eat fried foods for our holiday meals, the staple being latkes, fried potato pancakes. In recent years I have wondered whether there could be alternatives to this staple. Admittedly, some of our guests last year found the Chanukah chili rellenos on our menu something of a stretch.
Still, I haven’t given up looking for alternatives and this year will promote fish and chips as Chanukah food. Not only will this meal amply meet the oil consumption requirement, but fish and chips, though many people don’t realize it, is absolutely traditional Jewish food.
Some people mistakenly think of fish and chips as British food. After all, there are over 10,500 fish and chip shops in frying away over in England, though this is a significant drop from the record high of 35,000 shops in operation during the 1920s.
But where did the British learn to fry fish? They learned from Jewish immigrants, of course.
Fried fish in batter originated with the Portuguese Marranos. These Sephardic Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition, first to Holland and later to London. They brought their talent for deep frying fish with them to London in the early 1500s. Manuel Brudo, writing in 1544, described how the Marrano refugees fried fish, first sprinkling it with flour and then dipping it in eggs and bread crumbs. Lady Judith Montefiore, the anonymous editor of the first Jewish cook book in English (The Jewish Manual: or Practical Information in Jewish & Modern Cookery; with a Collection of Valuable Recipes and Hints Relating to the Toilette, edited by a Lady, which was published in1846) called for “Florence oil” in her recipe, obviously referring to olive oil.
Thomas Jefferson, before he became president, wrote home from London in the early 1800s of eating a meal of "fried fish in the Jewish fashion" and brought the recipe home to Monticello. This Jewish fish recipe appears in a collection of Jefferson’s favorite recipes put together by his daughter Virginia.
Jews were also the first to serve both fish and chips together. A 13-year-old Jewish boy named Joseph Malin began selling fish with chips together in 1860 in the East End of London. He fried the potatoes in his family’s basement, bought the fried fish from a shop and sold the combo from a tray he carried on the streets.
As no one disputes the basic contention that fried fish was first sold in London as Jewish food, there should be no argument that it is a suitable choice for a Chanukah meal.
All of this discussion of course is but a prelude or an excuse for me to review some recent research about the health benefits of fish and olive oil.
Although in recent years fried foods have become symbolic of fast food and assumed to be unhealthy, let us take a more generous view of fish and chips and rationalize that this meal will bring us a step closer to a Mediterranean diet.
Research studies tell us that following a Mediterranean Diet reduces the risk of many chronic diseases including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma.
This past November 2010, an interesting analysis of the health benefits of following the Mediterranean diet was published. Francesco Sofi and colleagues from the University of Florence, Italy combined data from 19 earlier studies on the effects the Mediterranean diet has on major diseases and mortality. This created a data pool of 2,190,627 subjects. The diet of each subject was graded. The closer their diet adhered to the classic Mediterranean diet, the higher their point score. The further from it, the lower the score. Possible scores ranged from 0 to 9.
Sofi’s analysis found that even a 2-point increase in score produced statistically significant health benefit. For every 2-point increase, a subject had a 13% decreased risk for getting Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, a 6% decreased risk of getting or dying of cancer and a 9% decreased risk of dying of cardiovascular disease. Each 2-point increase was also associated with an 8% decrease in risk of dying during the study from any cause.
Simple rules to the Mediterranean Diet:
1. Eat abundant amounts of plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds).
2. Eat concentrated sugars only on rare occasions.
4. Use olive oil as your principal source of fat.
5. Eat dairy products (mainly cheese and yoghurt) only occasionally
6. Eat red meat and poultry rarely and then in small amounts. Eat 4 eggs or less a week.
7. Eat fish frequently.
8. Drink wine in low to moderate amounts, generally with meals.
Illustration: diet pyramid: http://www.oldwayspt.org/mediterranean-diet-pyramid
All this being said, please don’t get me wrong, fried foods may not be totally good for you. Each year when I send out holiday recipes I receive return emails from people who are outraged that I’ve suggested such horrible ingredients. The cream of mushroom soup recipe found in a 2007 article on mushrooms and breast cancer probably wins the prize for provoking outrage. Though as I think about it the chille rellenos were a close second.
In fact, thinking about this, I won’t include a recipe this year. Nevertheless, let me wish you all a happy holiday season.
Jacob Schor, N.D., FABNO, majored in Food Science and Product Development as an undergraduate at Cornell University, and received his doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine at National College in Portland, Oregon in 1991. He served as President of the Colorado Association of Naturopathic Physicians from 1992-1999. He is currently president of the Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians(www.OncANP.org). He maintains a private practice at the Denver Naturopathic Clinic. Other essays by Dr. Schor can be found at www.denvernaturopathic.com.