On paper, I'm a bad Jew. I always order poached eggs with a side of bacon, my parents sent me to a Baptist school, and I'm seen at synagogue annually (usually for someone else's significant life event). I'm the furthest thing from kosher, but I find little more nostalgic than Jewish food.
There's more to the cuisine than being kosher, but it's a good place to start. Kashrut is the set of Jewish dietary laws that dictate what is consumed (no pork and shellfish), along with preparation such as dual kitchens to keep meat and dairy separate, and the proper slaughter and blessing of animals.
But eating out kosher in Melbourne isn't easy. Marc Stimar owns Regal Salmon, a kosher product blessed by a rabbi in New Zealand every month-and-a-half before it's delivered to cafes and restaurants around Melbourne. Although not kosher himself, Stimar has noticed a steady decline in kosher restaurants. "To get to the level of being kosher is frightfully expensive … In Glen Eira Road there were three kosher restaurants, and in the last few years they've all gone broke," he said.
Stimar attributes the success of kosher establishments, such as Glick's, to their institutional status. "In Ripponlea you've got the best restaurant in Australia (Attica), Spout, Hawk and Hunter, and in the last few months a new bar - all in the most religious area in Melbourne, but they're not kosher."
Kitchen Whiz host and former MasterChef contestant Alice Zaslavsky has also noticed more cafes popping up in what she calls her "'chood" in East St Kilda. "It's an area that is very young-family-friendly since there are so many great schools about."
I may not be kosher (a life without shellfish isn't a life I want to live), but I am an Ashkenazi Jew. Ashkenazi is one of the two main Jewish subgroups, the other being Sephardi. Ashkenazim originally hail from Central and Eastern Europe - typically Germany, Russia and Poland - where hearty stews and matzah-ball soup reign.
Sephardim settled in the Mediterranean after being expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, so typical dishes - shakshuka, hummus, stuffed vine leaves and falafel - are lighter and more colourful than their Ashkenazi counterparts. The socio-economic disparity between poorer Ashkenazi Jews and wealthier, more tolerated Sephardi Jews earlier in the Middle Ages also shaped regional fare.
Kreplach and kugel aside, contemporary, New York deli-style Jewish food is already popular in Melbourne. Reuben sandwiches and lox bagels are gracing city menus at Spring Street Grocer and Bowery to Williamsburg. But Daneli's Deli in Balaclava is keeping it kosher with Chinese takeaway, sushi and a burger menu to boot. Eli Grosberg owns the shop with brother Daniel. When they were growing up, their mother regularly cooked for up to 30 people. "She basically ran a restaurant without getting paid," he says. "It's in the genes."
Although all kosher food is Jewish, not all Jewish food is kosher. Chances are you've eaten Jewish dishes - kosher or otherwise - without realising their heritage. "Traditional" cuisine reflects a long history of forced relocation, where Jewish immigrants picked up dishes and techniques from other countries and made them their own. Living in Melbourne's cultural melting pot means being able to sample Jewish food from all corners of the globe, and this list will have you noshing in no time.
There are two things you need to know about chicken soup: it's Jewish penicillin, and everyone's grandmother makes the best. If you don't have a Jewish grandmother, pick some up from Eshel Fine Kosher Catering ($3.50 small, $6.50 large) and throw in a couple of knaidlach matzah balls ($1 each). Don't leave without Eshel's yerushalmi kugel ($15 a kilo) either, a block-like caramelised noodle pudding with a hit of black pepper. Try some gefilte fish at nearby Klein's Gourmet Foods - a poached mixture and acquired taste of ground white fish, onion, seasoning and sugar (six-pack, $13.50) - before heading to Lenny's Deli for the best chopped liver in town ($35 a kilo) and a pickled herring fix (jars from $7.95).
Eshel Fine Kosher Catering, 57-59 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, 9532 9000
Klein's Gourmet Foods, 47 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, 9528 1200
Lenny's Deli, 636 Inkerman Street, Caulfield North, 9527 5349
After school on a Friday, my friends always begged to come back to my house to eat "Jewish bread" - challah was too hard to pronounce. The braided egg loaf tastes more like cake than bread, and Glick's never disappoints. Choose from sourdough, poppy seed, sweet and sultana ($4.25 to $4.75). Asking, "who makes the best bagels?" is a more contentious issue, but it's difficult to go past Aviv Cakes & Bagels. Their boiled, white-floured beauties come in plain, poppy seed and sesame seed (regular $1.10, mini and cocktail $0.90).
Glick's, around Melbourne and Bondi Beach, NSW, glicks.com.au
Aviv Cakes & Bagels, 412 Glen Huntly Road, Elsternwick, 9528 6627
MEAT AND FISH
For a fried fish feast, head to Yumi's early on a Friday before the Sabbath crowd shops them dry. Renowned for their dips, their little shop in Ripponlea also sells kosher seafood and a range of ready-to-eat, deep-fried fish that will make your eyes pop, from balls and fillets to patties and whole flounder. If it's meat you're after, Continental Kosher Butchers has been catering to kosher carnivores since 1945. Schnitzels make for an easy meal.
Yumi's, 29 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, 9523 6444
Continental Kosher Butchers, 155 Glenferrie Road, 9509 9822
Monarch Cakes' chocolate babka cake has developed a cult following over the past 80 years ($36 a kilo). Experienced eaters demolish it layer-by-layer, ensuring family and friends don't pinch the chocolate swirls. Ponchkes (sufganiyah in Hebrew) are jam-filled doughnuts eaten to commemorate the Hanukkah oil miracle - when one day's worth of oil burned in the menorah (a religious candelabrum) for eight days. Lichtenstein's Bakehouse sells the kind of jam- and custard-filled ponchkes that will make you want to convert year-round ($1.80 small, $2.50 large).
Monarch Cakes, 103 Acland Street,
St Kilda, 9534 2972
Lichtenstein's Bakehouse, 287 Carlisle Street, Balaclava, 9530 3366
Brunch-lovers will be pleased to see smashed avocado and poached eggs with corn fritters on the menu at Milk N Honey, a cafe that wouldn't be out of place in the heart of Fitzroy. The difference is that it's certified kosher, right down to the coffee. For falafel you won't forget, Falafel Omisi around the corner uses a secret recipe that has come from Israel and been passed down across three generations (from $10). But for the most memorable kosher experience, head to Daneli's Deli for the Daneli's Burger, a jawbreaker with a beef patty, deep-fried onion rings, grilled pastrami slices, lettuce, mayo, and tomato and barbecue sauce ($13.95). Warning: serviette level extreme.
Milk N Honey, 792 Glen Huntly Road, Caulfield South, 9043 5991
Falafel Omisi, 359 Hawthorn Road, Caulfield, 9523 8882
Daneli's Deli, 328a Carlisle Street, Balaclava, 9527 7014
See ex-MasterChef contestant Alice Zaslavsky's recipes for Salted Caramel & Black Pepper Noodle Kugel and New York-style boiled bagels at goodfood.com.au.