- Ashkenazi cuisine is known for its meat- and dairy-heavy dishes, but vegan versions are on the rise.
- A new crop of delis is offering vegan takes on everything from lox to pastrami to hamantaschen.
- Many Jewish delis are closing, and offering vegan options may help preserve the cuisine.
While kosher eaters can sink their teeth into an Impossible Burger, that won’t be happening anytime soon with Impossible Pork, which recently failed to secure an endorsement from the world’s largest kosher certifier.
But who can blame Impossible Foods for trying? After all, plant-based meat is increasingly finding its way into Jewish delis. In some cases, it’s even taking over the shop.
Over the past four years, vegan Jewish delis have been sprouting up everywhere — from reliably vegan hubs such as Portland, Oregon, to budding cores of plant-forward eating such as Rochester, New York. Unreal Deli, a plant-based deli-meat company, just expanded its “corn’d beef” to Publix, the Florida supermarket chain known for its sub sandwiches.
You can even find vegan options at delis in meat-and-potato country — and we’re not talking sad salads. Vegans can now enjoy mushroom pastrami — cured in salt, spiced, and smoked to perfection — carrot “lox,” and beet-based Reubens.
The creators of these dishes joke that they’d have been a shonda (that’s Yiddish for “scandal”) in the eyes of their elders. But as the Jewish deli evolves to fit the tastes of modern diners, veganism has to be part of the picture, they said.
“People still have taste buds, and they don’t want to eat a sprout salad,” said Jenny Goldfarb, Unreal Deli’s founder and CEO. “They want to feel like they’re munching down on a delicious mile-high deli sandwich, and they should be able to do that.”
An experiment with plant-based pastrami leads to a ‘Shark Tank’ investment
Goldfarb grew up with her “very New Yorker” parents in South Florida, surrounded by deli classics: corned beef, pastrami, and roast beef. Her great-grandfather Morris Gross owned five delis in Brooklyn and Manhattan in the 1940s and ’50s, after escaping persecution in Romania without a word of English and only $5 in his pocket.
“A classic deli sandwich on toasted rye with a sour pickle on the side was very much home to me,” Goldfarb said.
About a decade ago, Goldfarb moved to Los Angeles and became a vegan, thanks to a cocktail of Facebook videos and documentaries that showed what happens on animal farms. But she couldn’t find anything that stood up to the nostalgic flavor of her beloved deli foods.
So she experimented with her own plant-based corned-beef-pastrami hybrid, looking for a juicy, meaty, peppery flavor with a robust mouthfeel. It was a family hit, even with her skeptical in-laws, who encouraged her to make a business out of it.
“They pushed me hard enough and long enough that I said, ‘All right. I’m going to rent a tiny commercial kitchen. I’ll make it a few times. I’ll see if I can sell it around town,'” she said. Starting with a few nearby delis, she eventually struck a deal with her local Whole Foods.
From there, Goldfarb reached out to “Shark Tank,” which brought her on for a 2019 episode. Mark Cuban agreed to invest $250,000 into Unreal Deli, and by the end of 2021, its products were available in 2,200 grocery stores across the country.
“It was the most exhilarating experience of my life,” said Goldfarb, who planned to launch a new East Coast production facility later this year and teased an upcoming partnership with a “big sandwich chain.”
Justin King, the owner of the vegan Jewish deli Ben & Esther’s in Portland, is among Unreal Deli’s wholesale customers.
“For vegan meats, it’s as real as I found,” said King, who recently expanded Ben & Esther’s to San Diego. Piled on slices of the deli’s signature marble rye for a Reuben, the Unreal corned beef gets “a really positive reaction,” even from meat eaters, King said.
While Unreal supplies Ben & Esther’s corned beef and the steak for its “Benny’s Brisket” sandwich, other vegan items are made in-house. The “lox” is actually seasoned, brined, and slow-roasted carrots served with plant-based schmear on a house-baked bagel. There’s a “whitefish” salad made with hearts of palm, tofu-based egg salad, and vegan hamantaschen and black-and-white cookies.
“The tastes and textures we’re going for are meant to mimic the real deal,” King said. “Our goal is to appeal to people beyond just the vegan scene.”
Using Japanese-style fermentation to make mushrooms taste like meat
Open the door of Larder, the Jewish delicatessen and bakery that occupies a refurbished mid-19th-century firehouse in Cleveland, and you’ll be greeted with the comforting aromas of challah, babka, knishes, and of course, pastrami on rye.
But chef Jeremy Umansky doesn’t stop at the classics. “We make sure that there’s at least one vegan main course and then a whole host of other vegetarian and vegan food on a daily basis,” said the 2020 James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef, Great Lakes. Depending on when you stop by, you might find a vegan cold-cut sandwich, knish, or vegetable-based charcuterie.
Umansky puts his plant-based meats through the same process as animal-based ones. To make his vegan pastrami, he cures mushrooms with salt and koji, a beneficial Japanese mold that gives them a smoky, savory taste with a texture resembling meat. (Umansky is a koji connoisseur. In 2020, he coauthored the book “Koji Alchemy: Rediscovering the Magic of Mold-Based Fermentation.”)
Once the mushrooms are cured, he spices them, smokes them, and steams them. “Throw some mustard and kraut on the bread, and we’re ready to go,” Umansky said.
Despite a meat-heavy reputation, vegetarian fare is nothing new in Ashkenazi culture
While Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine is often associated with meat- and dairy-heavy food, from brisket to kugel, Umansky said vegetarian eating has long been part of Ashkenazi culture.
Fania Lewando’s “The Vilna Vegetarian,” a Yiddish-language vegetarian cookbook published in 1938, opened Umansky’s eyes to the reality that massive meat consumption was far from the norm in the food culture of Eastern European Jewry. As a result of both kashruth (kosher dietary laws) and poverty, Jewish cuisine has always included many vegetarian recipes.
“The majority of us throughout history would not have been able to afford a pastrami sandwich, or the brisket to make one at home,” Umansky said. “We would have a little bit of meat, whether it was a dried product or a cured product, that we would incorporate into all these vegetable dishes to get a little bit of meat satiation.”
In fact, the Jewish-owned Vegetarian Hotel in the Catskills was a favorite of Ashkenazi Jews more than a century ago. The resort opened in the 1910s, and by the 1940s, founder Fannie Shaffer had expanded it to 100 rooms across 100 acres of land.
A 2013 retrospective in the River Reporter said meals at the Vegetarian Hotel included radishes and other vegetables from the garden, freshly baked pumpernickel and challah, and vegetarian chopped liver — long before it became trendy on social media. There were salads (beet salad, tahini-eggplant salad), soups ranging from barley bean to millet, and entrées such as red-kidney-bean stew and sweet-potato kugel.
Other amenities included nightly dancing, boating, swims in a mile-long lake, hiking, and lectures on health and nutrition that extolled the benefits of vegetarianism.
“Many Jews have felt that being a vegetarian was a step toward increased spirituality, because by refraining from eating fish and meat, they were avoiding the necessity of slaughtering living beings,” Joan Nathan wrote in the foreword to the 2015 English-language reprint of “The Vilna Vegetarian.”
Antisemitism also played a role in Ashkenazi vegetarianism. In the 1930s, laws outlawing kosher slaughtering practices swept across Europe, and Yiddish and German kosher cookbooks responded by offering more meatless recipes. Lewando published “The Vilna Vegetarian” three years after Polish-occupied Vilna (now part of Lithuania) banned kosher slaughter.
“It’s all about the method and technique behind the production of those foods,” Umansky said. “You know, going back and looking at things and seeing that there is historical precedent for this.”
‘We’re literally saving the Jewish deli’
Nora Rubel is a Jewish-studies professor at the University of Rochester, where she researches American Jewish foodways, religions, and culture, among other topics. Last year, she and her husband, Rob Nipe, opened Grass Fed, a vegan butcher shop and deli in Rochester offering “plant-based protein for the people.” On the menu, you’ll find vegan chopped liver and pastrami, as well as beer brats, Korean gochujang sausage, and mushroom bulgogi.
“I love the nostalgia coupled with new, sustainable practices,” she said. “I love that we can offer a kosher, vegan Reuben — a Judaization of a super-‘Jewish,’ yet nonkosher sandwich.”
The majority of Grass Fed’s meats are seitan-based, Nipe said. For pastrami, he cuts the spiced seitan with chickpea flour to help with texture — before wrapping it in parchment paper and aluminum foil, baking it, and cooling it for at least eight hours. The “meat” is then sliced and put in a bath with another round of spices and beet juice, to give it that meaty pastrami color.
“When it comes out, there’s still some of the crust left, and the pastrami has a deep red color and smells slightly smoky and sweet,” Nipe said. “We focus not only on the flavor, but also the texture of the finished product.”
The couple says they’ve benefited from Rochester’s status as a vegan destination. Recently, it topped a VegNews ranking as the best small city in the country for vegans. But they’ve also made inroads with kosher carnivores.
“COVID has been hard on restaurants, so the kosher options here in town ended up being reduced to one shop — an actual butcher shop,” Nipe said. “The vegetarian and vegan options there are minimal, so we thought there was a niche to fill.”
Rubel called the revival of the deli “a perfect storm of interests.” Many Jews, particularly young, healthy, and environmentally conscious Jews, are earnestly drawn to this kind of Yiddishkeit, or Jewishness. With Jewish delis dying out even in strongholds such as New York City and Chicago, the generation of Ashkenazi Jews learning Yiddish on Duolingo needs a deli that reflects their tastes.
“A lot of the customers we have are not vegan, but they have kids that are,” Nipe said. “So if the kids are coming to visit, they want to make sure they got something that the kids will eat, that makes them feel welcome, and that they’ll come back for.”
Goldfarb agreed. “We’re literally saving the Jewish deli,” she said. “We’re giving it the modern twist that’s desperately needed to stay delicious and relevant to a growing segment of the population.”