On the holiday of Shavuot, which begins Sunday evening, there is a widespread tradition of eating dairy foods; one such customary dish is a sweet version of noodle kugel made with farmer’s cheese. Joel Haber presents a brief history of kugel:
Of the two main kugel varieties today—noodle and potato—noodle (lokshen in Yiddish) is the older, originating in the 1500s. Earlier kugels were made primarily of bread dough, and potato kugels only hit the scene about 300 years after the noodle version.
It appears that pasta reached Ashkenazi Jews via two distinct routes. Jewish travelers brought noodles from Italy to France and Germany in the 14th century, but the food also reached the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe about 200 years later, brought via Central Asia by the Tatars. Linguistic evidence supports this two-pronged arrival hypothesis; the Western Yiddish word for noodles, frimzel, draws on the same root as Italian vermicelli (from the word meaning “worms” in Latin), while the Eastern Yiddish word, lokshen, derives from the Persian lakhsha, meaning “slippery.”
A similar bridging of cultures can be found in a distinctive Israeli version of noodle kugel. Y’rushalmi (Jerusalemite) kugel mixes thin noodles with caramelized sugar and a healthy dose of black pepper, along with the standard eggs and oil. Why was this the kugel invented in Jerusalem? Caramel was not a common ingredient in Europe, and black pepper was available but expensive. These two ingredients are much more common in the cooking of Jews from Arab lands. Early 19th-century Jerusalem was one of the few places at the time where Jews from all over lived side by side, and sometimes even married each other. An Ashkenazi food with eastern Jewish flavors inside is the perfect embodiment of the ingathering of the Jewish exiles to the Land of Israel.
As Haber notes, Rabbi Arele Roth (1894−1947)—a Jerusalem-based ḥasidic leader—once called kugel “the one special food that all Jews eat, one food in the service of one God.” Perhaps an exaggeration, but one grounded in reality.