It’s Passover time, and soon thousands of L.A. families will gather around their seder tables for an hours-long feast that involves storytelling, drinking and unleavened bread. Cooking for the occasion is on par with cooking for Thanksgiving: It takes all day, if not several days, and like the Americanness of mashed potatoes and marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, many of the dishes are equivalent to Jewish culture.
Ashkenazi Jewish food is rich, briney and carb-heavy. Its beige color palette makes it less visually appealing than its Sephardic counterpart, whose Spanish, North African and Middle Eastern influences bring more complexity to each dish. But despite its superficial shortcomings, Ashkenazi cuisine is extremely comforting — just look at all the people at Canter's at 2 a.m. on any given night.
Here are five classic Jewish dishes to try at L.A.'s many old-school (and a few new-school) delis.
Matzo ball soup
The star of Western Jewish fare is matzo ball soup: golden chicken broth, often swimming with noodles and diced carrots, with a big, fluffy dumpling in the middle. Enjoying a bowl is a two-part affair — slurping the salty broth and vegetables with a spoon, then digging into the matzo ball for a slice of its savory sponginess. Usually served with bagel chips or rye bread and butter (which are not technically kosher for Passover), matzo ball soup can be found at hundreds of restaurants and delis throughout Los Angeles. It’s a controversial claim, but some of the best can be had at Brent’s Deli, Country Deli in Chatsworth and Wexler’s Deli.
Often joked about as an afterthought, chopped liver is actually quite a luxurious-tasting dish. It’s basically Jewish pâté, despite the theory that it originated among poor Eastern European Jews who used all parts of the chicken for efficiency. (That's the origin of every meat product.) Commonly served as an appetizer at Passover or Shabbat (Friday) dinner, chopped liver is made with fried onions and hard-boiled eggs, giving it a hearty and grainy texture; it can be eaten straight with a fork or on a slice of rye. Get it at any of the old-school Jewish delis in town, such as Langer’s, Canter’s or Brent’s, many of which market it as an "old family recipe."
Get into the Passover spirit with matzo brei for breakfast. The Jewish lo-fi version of chilaquiles, matzo brei is made by scrambling eggs and milk with crumbled matzo, then seasoning it with salt and pepper or cinnamon and brown sugar. If you want to feel like a kid on Passover morning, order this at any of the delis in town or, better yet, make it yourself.
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Pickled beef tongue
Pickled beef tongue can mainly be found at old-school delis such as Langer's and Canter's, and isn't associated with a specific holiday. The old Jewish delicacy is often served in slices, because slamming a whole cow's tongue on the table might not go over well. Tongue was regularly served at our table when I was growing up; I happily knife-and-forked it plain because it's actually really tasty. Its distinctive, meaty flavor is reminiscent of a high-quality hot dog, making it a great candidate for sandwiches. Ever tried a lengua taco? Same part of the animal, different preparation.
Though latkes are traditionally eaten on Hanukkah, they can technically be served on Passover when made with matzo meal. Also known as potato pancakes, latkes are made with shredded or ground potatoes and onions, then deep-fried to a golden brown. Some delis, like Jerry’s, serve them the size and thickness of actual pancakes, while others, like Nate n’ Al’s in Beverly Hills, present them in bricks. But no matter the deli, latkes are always served with sour cream and applesauce. Eating them with ketchup, like an American hash brown, is a shonda.