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At some point in your life, you should question the world around you. If and when you muster enough courage to do so, ask yourself why Jews, especially the Ashkenazic, eat kasha varnishkes on a regular basis?

It is undeniable that kasha varnishkes has become a staple of Ashkenazic cuisine. Enter a kosher establishment offering prepared foods and invariably you will find kasha varnishkes among perennial classics such as coleslaw, potato salad and cucumber salad. Those other items are not uniquely or even particularly Jewish but the same cannot be said of kasha varnishkes. Reasonable minds can agree that kasha varnishkes simply sounds Jewish, possibly more so than knish, kreplach or kneidlach. Indeed, only a few words, like bupkis and kishkes, sound as Jewish as varnishkes.

It is rather fitting that kasha varnishkes begins with the word “kasha” because, in Talmudic parlance, a “kasha” is a difficult and perplexing question. Deciphering the origins of kasha varnishkes certainly presents a difficult and perplexing question, one even more difficult and perplexing than questions like (i) why don’t adults take gap years?, (ii) why haven’t Jews petitioned NASA to build an eruv around the planet? and (iii) why don’t we refer to Jews who primarily eat cholent as cholentarians?

To properly solve the kasha varnishkes riddle, we need to break down both words.

Kasha, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is a porridge usually made from buckwheat groats. What exactly is a buckwheat groat? Well, buckwheat is a plant cultivated for its grain-like seeds. Despite its name, buckwheat actually is not closely related to wheat just like horseradish is not closely related to horses. More specifically, kasha is buckwheat groats that have been crushed into smaller pieces and toasted to bring out the nutty flavor. If you blame someone for failing to make kasha, then that person could be considered a scape-“groat.”

As an aside, “groat” also is the name of the now-defunct English and Irish silver coin worth four pence. Thus, there was a time when you could purchase groats using groats. In theory, you currently could purchase silver using silver dollars and nickel using nickels. Strangely, it costs the U.S. government seven cents to manufacture the five-cent nickel which, from a business perspective, makes about as much sense (or “cents”) as spending beaucoup bucks on a synagogue fundraiser that raises less than the fundraiser costs.

The precise meaning of “varnishkes,” as compared to kasha, is far less clear. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary does not define “varnishkes” but some experts believe that it is a Yiddish twist on the Russian or Ukrainian “vareniki,” meaning little boiled things. Apparently, the prefix “var” means boiled. So, for example, if you are sitting in a sauna and you are boiling and sweaty, then perhaps you are experiencing “varschvitzkes.”

Other experts contend that “vareniki” refers to small stuffed dumplings. This theory apparently has some support including a 1925 Jewish recipe for kasha-filled dumplings. In today’s world, however, varnishkes essentially is synonymous with bow-tie shaped pasta. This is a bit strange because most Jews (other than anal-retentive Yekkie extremists) do not wear bow-ties on a consistent basis. Indeed, a compelling argument could be made that bow-ties are worn mostly by professors, playwrights and those who wish to show off that they know how to tie a bow-tie correctly.

A true kasha varnishkes connoisseur should recognize that kasha and bow-tie pasta, by themselves, do not complete the dish. A key ingredient is sautéed onions, which often go overlooked and underappreciated because they seamlessly blend in with the kasha that coats the pasta. The onions are critical to the flavor of kasha varnishkes just like they are critical to the flavor of a bialy. Without the onion factor, kasha varnishkes and bialys would be as bland as salsa roja without onions, garlic or chili peppers. In fact, without onions, kasha varnishkes would almost be as bland as matzah-covered matzah.

For the record, in Jewish cuisine, kasha is not relegated to varnishkes. It also is used to stuff knishes. Kasha knishes are relatively popular but not as popular as potato knishes, just like cinnamon babka is not as popular as chocolate babka, water challah is not as popular as egg challah and prune hamantaschen are not as popular as apricot hamantaschen. Interestingly, there is no variety of varnishkes other than kasha varnishkes, but perhaps there should be. Potato varnishkes is not a crazy idea or at least is less crazy than square-shaped matzah balls, chopped liver popsicles or gefilte fish gum.

Final thought: How do you show your kasha-making spouse affection? With a varnish“kiss.”

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