For every exalted dish in the Jewish culinary canon—every blintz and brisket, boureka and bimuleo—there are many others that have been all but forgotten. Black radish salad is one of those dishes. Those who know it, a luscious relish of grated black radishes and onion mixed with schmaltz, adore it. But the old world dish has largely fallen out of favor—a relic of another era, as black and white as the radish itself.
Black radishes are larger (about the size of a baseball) and milder than their petite and fiery red counterparts. Available year-round, but at their peak in the early autumn, they joined hearty vegetables like cabbage, beets, turnips, garlic and potatoes as the backbone of the Eastern European Jewish diet. Black radish salad was not the kind of dish only reserved for Shabbat and special occasions, though it was a staple of the Shabbat lunch table. It was also simple, everyday fare—often served slathered on dark pumpernickel bread alongside hard-boiled eggs, or used as a garnish for the already schmaltz-heavy dish of chopped liver.
According to Gil Marks in “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” black radish salad was known as shvartze retach mit schmaltz (literally black radish with schmaltz) or retachlich for short, and was characteristic of Lithuania, Northern Poland and Ukraine.
“In that stretch of Eastern Europe, Jews of the 19th century could not imagine a world without retachlich,” he wrote. In early 20th-century America, he continues, the tables in many Jewish restaurants were “pre-set with a bowl of sliced black radishes mixed with chicken fat and a plate of bread for customers to nosh on while waiting for their order.”
But the dish has its challenges.
“We would cut the black ones in thin slices (or grate them) and eat them with salt and rendered goose or chicken fat,” recalled artist Mayer Kirshenblatt in “They Called Me Mayer July,” his illustrated memoir about growing up in Poland before the Holocaust. “They were very tasty—a real delicacy—but they made us burp and fart something awful. Can you imagine after such a meal when the men went to synagogue? It is a wonder the place did not explode.”
Author Mimi Sheraton also captures the lovable-but-problematic nature of black radish salad in her book “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.”
“Although the mixture can be served fresh as a salad, it attains more character when allowed to age and ripen,” she wrote. “Packed in a glass jar or ceramic crock and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator for four days, it achieves its fully ripened promise, becoming a heady mix that lets the strong of palate triumph over the weak.”
An elegant French preparation of slender breakfast radishes spread with cool butter and sprinkled with sea salt this is not. Black radish salad is formidable and arguably crude—two characteristics that likely account for its decline in the latter half of the 20th century. But the combination of spicy radish and onion cooled under a slick of rich schmaltz is unforgettable and entirely worth revisiting.
The dish is also open to experimentation. Earlier this year, the Israeli-based chef Erez Komarovsky posted a variation of the salad, made with red radishes, on Instagram.
“Every Saturday morning my grandfather made a radish salad … [served with] a hard boiled egg and a piece of challah,” he wrote in the post. Komarovsky later told me he continues to experiment a lot with the flavors his grandfather introduced him to “because I loved him a lot.” These days, he uses Ukrainian cold-pressed sunflower oil in place of schmaltz—a lighter and fresher option that lends richness without being overpowering. Either way, black radish salad stands a chance at making a comeback on the 21st-century table.
As Komarovsky put it, “It’s so good.”
Leah Koenig is the author of The Jewish Cookbook, Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen, and The Little Book of Jewish Appetizers.