Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

When Roman artichokes were deemed non-kosher

Roman-style artichokes (carciofi alla romana in the original Italian) should not be confused with Jewish-style artichokes (carciofi alla giudia). Both of them are certainly staples of Roman cuisine. But whereas Roman-style ones are cooked in stock (a mixture of water and olive oil, although some variants include white wine), Jewish-style artichokes are deep-fried. Most of the time, two different varieties of artichokes can be used: mammole (a local, Roman version of the globe artichoke), or romanesco (almost the very same variety, although with a slightly purple-tinted globe. Both recipes include sprinkling them with salt and pepper, previously soaking in lemony water to prevent discoloration. And whereas these recipes have a rich history that dates back to ancient Rome (Jewish communities were already established in the Città Eterna way before Christians, since the 2nd century BCE) they also include a contentious debate within the Jewish community about their kosher status.

Artichokes are one of the oldest foods known to humans. It is no surprise, then, that Roman-style artichokes have been around for a long time –Jewish-style ones have too. It is known that both Greek and Romans enjoyed artichokes, seasoning them with cumin and honey. But these two very specific recipes (alla romana and alla giudia) date back to the Roman Empire, where this thistle-like vegetable was a staple in the diet of the Roman elite –and, to a certain degree, of the populus as well.

The noted Apicius (also known as De re culinaria or De re coquinaria) is a classic Roman cookbook compiled in the 5th century CE –although some scholars claim it is an earlier anthology. It includes a recipe for stuffed artichokes, which already is a good indicator of their popularity in Roman cuisine. The dish evolved over centuries, leading to the modern-day carciofi alla romana.

Jewish friggitorie in the Roman Ghetto sold other fried foods that soon became “staple items of Roman cuisine, such as fiori di zucca fritti (stuffed courgette flowers), baccalà fritto (fried codfish) and abbacchio fritto (fried lamb).”

Roman-style artichokes are typically prepared by removing the outer leaves, trimming the top, and scooping out the hairy choke. The artichoke is then gently braised in a mixture of olive oil, garlic, and perhaps some herbs –some variations include stuffing them with parsley and mintuccia. Finally, they’re soft-boiled in a mixture of water, olive oil, and perhaps white wine. The slow cooking process infuses the artichoke with a delicate, savory flavor, resulting in a tender and aromatic dish. The artichoke hearts are often served with a drizzle of lemon juice or extra virgin olive oil, making them a favorite antipasto.

Now, the controversy surrounding Roman-style artichokes in the Jewish community of Rome revolves around their kosher status. This debate has deep historical roots, and some would date it back to the 16th century, when Jewish immigrants fleeing the Iberian Peninsula settled in Rome, bringing some deep-frying traditions with them. Traditional Jewish dietary laws require careful inspection and preparation of vegetables –to avoid worms or other small insects that might be found hiding in their leaves. Since insects are listed among forbidden foods in the Torah, the braising method used in preparing Roman-style artichokes might not meet the standards for thorough kosher inspection, potentially leaving insects or other contaminants on the vegetable.

The debate within the Jewish community of Rome led to differing opinions among rabbis and scholars. Some deemed the artichokes non-kosher due to the (rather abundant) use of garlic (a pungent, sharp vegetable that needs careful scrutiny and proper processing) and the difficulty of proper inspection. Others argued that the dish could be made kosher if prepared following strict guidelines and using certified kosher ingredients. Roman Jews, as Vittoria Traverso explains in her article on the matter, “did not take it well” and “inundated social media with messages of solidarity for the hundreds-year-old dish, from angry posts to love poems and revisitations of popular mottos – the Je suis Charlie meme that went viral after the attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015 was turned into Je suis carciofo”.

Defenders of the carciofi alla giudia explain that the artichokes used in the recipe are pretty special: local Roman artichokes have a different leave structure than other varieties, which renders dame basically “bug-proof” –so, yes, they’re pretty much kosher. By the 16th century, Traverso explains, Jewish friggitorie in the Roman Ghetto sold other fried foods that soon became “staple items of Roman cuisine, such as fiori di zucca fritti (stuffed courgette flowers), baccalà fritto (fried codfish) and abbacchio fritto (fried lamb).”

Garum: the ancient Roman ketchup

This post is also available in: Español Italiano

Leave a Comment