Written by Zachary Shapiro
To a Jewish family, matzo ball soup is not just a normal dinner food; it is a traditional dish that reminds us of our rough history.
“Matzo balls began as the German knödel, a bready dumpling. Jewish cooks in the Middle Ages first adapted the dumplings to add to Sabbath soups, using broken matzo with some kind of fat like chicken or beef marrow, eggs, onion, ginger, and nutmeg.” Laperruque, Emma. “Best Thing to Do with Bread Scraps? These Fluffy, Cheesy Dumplings.”
-Food52, Food52, 5 Mar. 2022.
Matzah is both lechem oni, or “poor man’s bread,” and a symbol of redemption and independence. As a result, it serves as a reminder to maintain humility and never lose sight of what life was like under servitude. Additionally, because leaven “puffs up,” it represents pride and corruption. Eating the “bread of affliction” is an act that increases respect for freedom and is supposed to show humility. Although matzo ball soup can be eaten any day, it is traditionally served at Passover dinners. Passover is a Jewish holiday that honors the freedom and exodus of the Israelites (Jewish slaves) from Egypt during the reign of the Pharaoh Ramses II. The Sabbath is a day of religious observance and abstinence from work, kept by Jewish people from Friday evening to Saturday evening. The matzo balls represent the unleavened bread that the Jewish people ate in the desert to sustain themselves when they fled from Egypt. They did not have time to wait for the bread to rise, so they settled for matzo, a thin, crisp, unleavened bread.
It is believed that Jews began placing matzo balls in their soup when Eastern European cuisine introduced dumplings in traditional foods. The Jewish people were adapting them to their dietary restrictions and culinary tastes. German, Austrian, and Alsatian Jews were the first to prepare matzo balls for their soup; middle eastern Jews introduced additional variations. An early recipe for matzo ball soup, made with beef stock, is found in The Jewish manual, or, Practical Information in Jewish and modern cookery (1846). Matzo balls, as we know them today, first appeared in 1888 when the U.S. Manischewitz company introduced packaged ground matzo meal and promoted matzo balls as a year-round food to promote product sales.
“The industrialization of the bread brought matzo to households that previously couldn’t indulge in it, making Manischewitz a household name in the Jewish community. Matzo ball soup came about as a way to use the leftover crumbs from the bread and create a substantial dish that used all this precious baked good.”
-Barganier, Erich. “The True Origin of Matzo Ball Soup.” Mashed, Mashed, 7 Feb. 2022.
With the promotion of a convenient pre-prepared matzo meal, the matzo ball reached mass popularity and became an iconic Jewish food. An example of its popularity is when the recipe appeared in the Evening Star Newspaper in Washington, D.C. This is one of the first times it appeared in a major newspaper.
- “Matzo Balls: FilI a good-sized covered pot with water; add salt. Let come to a boil.
- Separate the yolks and whites of four eggs into separate bowls. To the yolks add ⅕ teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. Mash up 1 tablespoon chicken fat. Beat whites until quite stiff, then pour into yolk mixture, adding one cup Matzo meal slowly and stirring well, and ¼ cup lukewarm water.
- Let stand for a few minutes until mixture has thickened enough to shape into balls. Wet hands with cold water. Take 1 tablespoon mixture, put in palm of hand and shape into a medium-size ball; then drop into the boiling water and let cook in water that has come to
- Boil for 15 to 20 minutes.
- When done, put matzo ball right into the soup that has been cooked.”
-Washington, H. E. “Readers’ Clearing House.” Evening Star, 25 Mar. 1956, pp. Page D-16, Image 90.
The practice of making matzo ball soup broth dates back to Northern Europe, where households would use leftover chicken bones, pieces of meat, and vegetables to flavor and nourish their family’s meals. It was firmly held that no food should go to waste, especially if a family needed to stretch their budget. Instead of keeping pigs due to Jewish dietary laws, many Jewish families in Europe preferred to raise their chickens. This is why chicken soup is popular among Jewish people and is considered soul food. A nickname for chicken soup is “Jewish Penicillin.”
“It has been renowned for relieving colds and nourishing pregnant women, and has even been said to cure asthma and leprosy, as the 12th-century Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides claimed in his book “On the Cause of Symptoms.” Hence the well-earned nickname of “Jewish penicillin.”
-Guttman, Vered. “A Brief History of Chicken Soup, the ‘Jewish Penicillin.'” Haaretz.com, Haaretz, 13 Sept. 2021.
The main ingredients for a matzo ball are simple: matzo meal, egg, water, oil, schmaltz, or margarine. Matzo meal is created from crushed-up matzo, and schmaltz is rendered chicken or goose fat. Although shmaltz can be made with goose and duck fat, chicken is more commonly used in the United States. Shmaltz is also used because most fat varieties are either non-Kosher or weren’t affordable in much of the Eastern European Jewish community.
When many eastern European Jewish families immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century, they brought their cooking. Foods such as challah, kugel, and potato latkes are well known, but the most famous dish brought from eastern Europe through immigration is matzo ball soup. My family helped contribute to that; they immigrated to the United States from Odessa, Ukraine, to escape religious persecution. They traveled to the United States in the steerage of a cargo ship and arrived at Galveston, Texas, in 1907. With them, they brought our family’s matzo ball soup recipe, which consisted of
- 1 1/2 – 2 pounds of chicken thighs
- One box of matzo ball soup mix
- Six large eggs
- Approx six large cloves of fresh garlic
- Olive oil
- One large onion (no preference on type)
- Approx four average-sized carrots
- Approx four large ribs of celery
- Three boxes of chicken stock
- and salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
The ingredients are easy to find and simple to cook. The recipe’s simplicity, along with its history, is what makes it special. It does not take someone with a vast knowledge of cooking to create this meal. I know this because I have made this recipe multiple times, and I was eight years old when I first made it.
There are also two different types of matzo balls: sinkers and floaters. Sinkers are bigger matzo balls that usually have a hard center and a fluffy exterior. To make matzo balls that sink:
“(1) Beat the eggs lightly with cold water. Add the chicken fat and stir until the fat dissolves. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper.
(2) Gradually beat in the matzo meal, two tablespoons at a time, proceeding slowly as it thickens so you do not add too much. The mixture should be as thick as light mashed potatoes and soft and spongy. Add salt and pepper as needed. Chill for 5 to 7 hours.
(3) Half an hour before serving time, bring 2 1/2 to 3 quarts of water to a boil. Add a handful of salt.
(4) With wet hands or two tablespoons dipped intermittently in cold water, shape the mixture into balls about 1 inch in diameter. Drop gently into the boiling water, cover the pot loosely, and let boil at a moderately brisk pace for about 25 minutes.
(5) When one ball tests done (cut it open and see if it is light and cooked all the way through), remove all carefully with a slotted spoon. Serve in hot chicken soup.”
-Sheraton, Mimi. “Knaidlach.” Epicurious, Epicurious, 20 Aug. 2004.
To make Floaters, repeat the same process, but separate your eggs and whip the whites separately. Adding club soda to lift the batter will have the same effect. To make the rest of the recipe using my family’s recipe:
(1) Season the chicken with salt, pepper, and garlic powder,
(2) Sear chicken in olive oil in the pot you will be making the soup in,
(3) Slice carrots, celery, and onions (thick/rustic chunks) and chop all of the garlic,
(4) Once the chicken is browned, remove the thighs and then let them rest while you mix in the vegetables over medium heat and occasionally stir,
(5) Slice the chicken into chunks,
(6) Once the vegetables are starting to get soft, then add in the chicken stock,
(7) Once the chicken stock simmers, start rolling matzo balls (a little smaller than a golf ball). Wet hands before rolling to prevent sticking. Don’t let the matzo balls cook on a hard boil. Just add the balls as the water goes from a simmer to a slow boil,
(8) Cover and simmer the pot over low to low/medium heat for approximately twenty minutes, then serve.
When talking about the Jewish people, the two groups separate where their ancestors come from. The first group is Ashkenazi Jews, who originate from eastern Europe, and I have been talking about their style of the recipe for matzo ball soup. The second group is Sephardic Jews. Their ancestry extends through the Iberian Peninsula—Portugal and Spain. It is unclear when the groups split, but it is suspected to have occurred around 1000 C.E.
“Their naming patterns most obviously differentiate the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. The Ashkenazic Jews followed a patronymic system until the 1800s when they were forced to take surnames. Sephardic Jewish surnames, on the other hand, were adopted when Sephardi settled in Southern Europe during the 1100s and have remained consistent since.”
-W. Todd Knowles February 10, and W. Todd Knowles. “Identifying Sephardi Jews .” FamilySearch, 18 May 2022.
Because they were separated by distance, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews developed different customs and identities. An example of the different Sephardic customs is what ingredients they add to their matzo ball soup. Sephardic recipes for matzah ball soup add Middle Eastern flavors, such as chickpeas, lemon, lime, or saffron. An example of a Sephardic-style matzo ball soup is Lemon Saffron Matzo Ball Soup. Its key ingredients are the same as Ashkenazi-style Matzo ball soup; however, the middle eastern style adds cayenne, saffron, turmeric, lemon zest, and Persian dried limes. Despite its various ways to cook it, Matzo ball will remain the food that reminds us of the hardships our Jewish ancestors had to overcome.
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