Leah Koenig To Talk ‘Portico,’ Jewish Cuisine At Temple Israel

The seeds of writer and cookbook author Leah Koenig’s new cookbook, Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchen, were planted 15 years ago on her honeymoon.

“We ended up having Shabbat dinner at a kosher caterer’s house, and everything he served was unfamiliar to me,” Koenig said. “I’ve been to a million Shabbat dinners in my life. But because we were drinking wine together and talking like old friends, and they were so generous, I felt connected to that food. Even though it wasn’t what I had grown up with.”

In many ways, her chosen path as a food writer also came from that dinner. 

“That was the moment really where, I don’t know that I would have articulated it at the time, but really, where it crystallized for me that Jewish food is so deep and so broad and so diverse that I wanted to make it my life and my career; dedicated to digging in and sharing stories and sharing recipes.”

Koenig will be at Temple Israel on Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. for a conversation with Temple member – and yum! Kitchen and Bakery owner – Patti Soskin. Tickets are $36 and the event is in-person only. Copies of Portico will be available for purchase at the event.

One of the regular questions she gets is “what is Jewish cooking?” She says she addresses it in all her books, but Portico zeroes in more.

“Look at how Jewish food is more of a concept than like a set of ingredients or a set of structures,” she said. “It’s more about the context of Shabbat and holidays and family and simchas and all of the like things that make up Jewish life. I would struggle to think of one ingredient besides maybe salt and oil that you find across all Jewish traditions.”

Portico is Koenig’s seventh cookbook and the first where she has focussed on a specific region of Jewish cuisine. Her previous effort, The Jewish Cookbook, is very much the opposite kind of book.

“It was a 420-some recipe book that really meant to kind of like encapsulate the entire world – or as much as I could squeeze into two covers – of diasporic Jewish food,” she said. “And I loved that project. And I was really grateful to be able to do it. But by design, it was not a very personal book.”

Zeroing in one community was exciting for Koenig, as her regular writing has tried to shine a light on Jewish cuisines from around the world.

“I’ve been writing about Jewish food for about 17 years and Rome, throughout that time, has just been a consistent touch point,” she said. “Maybe you’ve been to Rome, maybe you’ve even walked in the Jewish ghetto neighborhood. Maybe you’ve had a fried artichoke, which are their signature dish and one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. But people don’t really know the history.”

Italy in general is, of course, one of the world’s great places to visit for those who want to eat their way through a country. But from a Jewish cuisine standpoint, it stands alone as an outlier in the Ashkenazi or Sephardic world.

“Jews have lived in Rome more than 2,000 years. Their community predates the emergence of Ashkenazi culture, and it predates the emergence of Sephardic culture,” she said. 

Koenig said that Roman Jewish cuisine is a melting pot; as Jews of Spain were forced out during the Spanish Inquisition, many relocated to Rome bringing a significant Sephardic influence to the food. And then in the late 1960s around the time of the Six Day War, Koenig said that Jews from North African Arab countries crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, bring a newer, North African thread to the food. 

“It’s just its own thing,” she said. She compared it to Jewish food from places like Ethiopia, India, and Azerbaijan in that “you can’t neatly place them in the Sephardi, or Ashkenazi or Middle Eastern categories. And that’s what makes it so interesting.”

Koenig is bucking the pressure to become a “brand” as a food writer – (“If you told me back then that I might part of my job would be like making reels for Instagram, I would have said, get the heck out of here,”) – and is much happier writing about others than herself.

“At the heart of it, I’m really glad I got into it when I did because I feel like I have a foot in the old school enough that like I know it’s really important to like do the research, do the work,” she said. “The stories mean so much more and the recipes are so much better when like you have a journalist’s soul and not just a marketing soul.”