A bagel with lox and a nice schmear of cream cheese may be, to some, the essence of Ashkenazi food, but it is actually more of what one might call nuevo-Jewish cuisine. It’s not all that traditional, and it’s not all that old because most Jews in Europe did not have access to salmon. The Jews of the shtetel were much more likely to have eaten carp (think gefilte fish) or herring.
For Eastern European Jews, many of whom were poor, fish was an important part of their diet because it was inexpensive. Fish had two other significant benefits. One, that it was pareve and could be eaten at a milk meal or a meat meal (although it is customary not to eat meat and fish together). Second, fish, when cured rather than cooked, does not need the same strict level of supervision as does meat.
Lox became popular in the United States, where the Pacific Northwest offered an abundant supply of salmon. The best way of transporting the salmon was by curing it in a salt brine...and thus Lox (which is “lachs” in German and “laks” in Yiddish). With the invention of refrigeration, the demand shifted from lox, which is heavily salted, to smoked salmon, which is similar, but different.
There are several different types of cured salmon that the general public refer to simply as lox. Real lox is salted in brine and not smoked. Nova Lox originally referred to lox made with fish from Nova Scotia, but is not a reference to lox made with a milder brine. And finally, smoked salmon, which is less salty and more popular, is slowly smoked at low temperatures.
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