New Israeli Cuisine
From markets to restaurants, explore the fresh, local and inventive flavors of an ever-evolving food scene.
By Jayne Cohen
“Israel is the biggest laboratory of Jewish food on earth. You can taste anything in a restaurant or a friend’s home—Syrian meat, Iraqi bread—and it will become part of the repertoire,” Janna Gur explains over tea in Tel Aviv.
“Israelis,” she adds, “are very good home cooks.” A Polish grandmother, a Moroccan father-in-law, an Indian neighbor—each may contribute a recipe to a meal.
I’ve been cooking from Gur’s groundbreaking The Book of New Israeli Food since it came out in 2008, and more recently I devoured Jerusalem, celebrity cooks Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s paean to their native city.
Still I am totally unprepared for the food here. Brash, earthy and deliriously flavorful, it is at once cutting-edge and exotic—and hauntingly familiar. I fall for it hard, and feel immediately at home.
Yes, food here reflects the fresh tastes of the Mediterranean Rim, the kitchens of more than 100 ethnic immigrant groups and the tapestry of the Middle East from the Ottomans to today’s Arab, Druze and Bedouin neighbors. But then Israeli cuisine goes its own way, guided in part by innovative chefs who marry the best of what they learn abroad to favored local ingredients and cooking styles.
Actually, travel is a major player here. For you can’t have world-class cuisine without adventurous eaters, and after serving in the army, many Israelis travel for a year or more. In Europe and the Americas, India and Thailand, “they’re open to trying local foods and bringing back new flavors,” says Orly Ziv, who leads Cook in Israel culinary tours and just published a book with the same title.
And that means they’re ready to take on the sacred cows back home. Last Purim, Tel Aviv bakeries like Lehamim met customers’ insatiable hunger for the new with savory hamantaschen fillings like feta and beet or sweet potato, goat cheese and walnuts. In Israel, where Purim is a raucous national carnival, you don’t need to be locked into bubbe cuisine to feel that you are a Jew.
My “aha” moment comes at Barood, a restaurant in Jerusalem where the menu dances between owner Daniella Lerer’s traditional Ladino specialties like pastelikos (Balkan meat pies) and more modern and distinctly not kosher offerings, including pork osso buco. I order sutlaj for dessert. The pudding is slightly different from Turkish-Jewish versions friends have taught me: The rice is not ground, but in soft broken kernels suspended in the velvety milkiness. But what sets it apart is the topping, an only-in-Israel mix of silan (date honey), crumbled halvah and the crunch of toasted pistachios.
The day I arrive, I go to Tel Aviv’s Carmel shuk. You learn a lot wandering food markets. Huge opened pomegranates, looking as if their glistening rubies had exploded into monarchs’ crowns, are piled near juicers. Sipping a fresh-pressed cup, I walk into a tiny branch of Uri Scheft’s Lehamim bakery. He is obsessed with freshness: His irresistible challah, dense-but-moist European-style breads and (real) buttery chocolate rugelach are baked several times daily. I leave chewing one of the addictive cheese sticks.
Lesson No. 1: No matter how serious a carb-phobe you are, don’t even think of giving up the bread in Israel. And that’s before I’ve even tasted the homemade pillowy pitas and Iraqi breads blistered from the hot tabun ovens that are to come.
Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Market specializes in nuts, dried fruits and spices. At home in New York I have found every spice I ever searched for. But as I enter the Arama Cafe, I am immediately enveloped in sensory overload, and I know the za’atarand sumac that Izik scoops up for me will taste totally different. Lesson No. 2: Even flavors you thought you knew taste like a revelation here.
That lesson is to be repeated over and over. I’ve always been immune to tahini’s charms: All too often, it’s been inedibly acrid, or at best, boring or meh. But a sample at Tahina King in the Machane Yehuda shuk, where a huge volcanic stone press was just installed to fresh-grind sesame seeds, makes me a convert. Rich, nutty and delicately fragrant with smoke, it’s remarkably creamy. Along with za’atar and sumac, it’s destined to become a go-to seasoning at my kitchen back home.
At restaurants, bold flavors and exceptional ingredients make even the simplest mezze taste new again. Some quick takes: chickpeas and wild chard at a Druze home restaurant in Beit Jann; labeneh (yogurt strained until thick as cheese) and spinach at The Basta, a hipster café near the Carmel Market; and the charred eggplant and hummus everywhere. And at Haj Kahil, an upscale Arab restaurant in Jaffa: raw kumquats, halved, and simply dressed with rosemary, olive oil, lemon and tart-sweet dried berries.
Juicy and deeply flavored, “as if they are still alive,” is how the noted food blogger David Lebovitz describes the vegetables here, and months later, that taste memory still lingers. “Vegetables are what we do best—it’s our contribution to the world,” Gur tells me. “For my Friday night dinner, I start with at least five vegetables and plan my meal around them.”
She is not just talking about supporting roles as dazzling salads, spreads and sides. Garlicky purees of baladi (heirloom) eggplant and Jerusalem artichoke are luscious enough to upstage the pristine fish, or even the spoon-tender lamb. Roasted cauliflower takes center stage with a perfectly balanced drizzle of silan, tahini and lemon.
The storied Israeli breakfasts at hotels and restaurants feature a rainbow of vegetables in many permutations. At the Mitzpe Hayamim spa in the Galilee, my favorite morning drink is fresh-squeezed beet juice blended with lightly salted yogurt, a sassy twist on cold borscht that I will recreate for my Yom Kippur break-the-fast buffet.
Gorgeous Edible Herbs
A couple of decades ago, Ofra Ganor, founder of the Taste of the City food festival in Tel Aviv, had trouble sourcing fresh herbs for her restaurants. Now, she points out, “We are the No. 1 exporter of fresh herbs to Europe.”
In the shuks, huge bunches of gorgeous herbs crowd the shelves. These are not meant for timid garnishes. Intensely aromatic, but not grassy, a cascade will refresh homey soups and stews of the diaspora and bring Sabra salads fully to life. As culinary journalist Gil Hovav puts it, “We are like goats. Anything green, we eat it.”
That goes too for the wild herbs that carpet the country. Foraging edible wild plants here is no emulation of trendy Nordic gastronomes: It’s as old as time. The hyssop used in the za’atar spice blend is the same herb the ancient Israelites dipped in lamb’s blood to swab their doorposts, a signal to the Angel of Death to “pass over” their homes during the Exodus; the wild cresses and chicories are the original maror, the bitter herbs. In the Galilee, these wild herbs remain important staples in Arab, Druze and Bedouin kitchens. Abbie Rosner, who explores the traditional foodways of her neighbors in her book, Breaking Bread in Galilee, offers visitors an opportunity to forage and cook with these plants in her Culinary Tours of the Galilee.
Noted food historian and lifelong student of the Torah, Moshe Basson gathers edible plants in the Judean Hills and puts them to creative use at his restaurant, Eucalyptus, in Jerusalem, where he stuffs wild leaves like cyclamen and sage (more than 20 varieties of the herb are native to Jerusalem). I dip hunks of steaming bread into his pesto crushed from fresh hyssop and savor every shred of tender baby chicken flavored with foraged wood sorrel, lemony sumac and sweet caramelized onions.
Encoded in Basson’s recipes are Israel’s stories, ancient and modern. His delicious kubeiza (wild mallow) sautéed with garlic links us to the meatless “meatballs” that desperate Israelis made from these foraged leaves during the siege of 1948. And he plants us firmly in the Israel of today. A founding member of Chefs for Peace—which brings Jewish, Muslim and Christian chefs together using the culinary arena to promote peace—he features several recipes he learned from Palestinian chef friends, such as maqluba, a scrumptious upside-down jumble of chicken, fried onions and rice.
Passionate, opinionated, wildly inventive and totally original, Erez Komarovsky is signature Israeli. In 1996, he started the artisanal bakery chain Lehem Erez (Erez’s Bread), credited with ushering in the bread revolution in Israel, then left to open a cooking school in his home, a rustic paradise overlooking the hills and valleys that lead to the Lebanon border.
In the school kitchen, he mesmerizes us as he breaks up big chunks of cabbage with his hands and lobs them into his black lentil-beef stew. He works his hands into food like a baker and tosses in ingredients like an alchemist.
He is demonstrating a verdant spring soup, stirring leeks, a local “Turkish” spinach and artichokes into his mother’s heirloom Ashkenazi chicken soup. He pounds young garlic in his giant mortar and pestle, swirls it in, and the kitchen explodes with its fragrance. In the fall, he confides, the same soup will taste totally different when he adds pumpkin, fennel and carrots and finishes it with a handful of crushed chestnuts.
Fresh, Seasonal and Local
Komarovsky may be secular, but his visceral attachment to the seasons feels biblical here in the Galilee. When I ask him why cooking in the moment is so important to him, he explains, “I like to miss something. I like to look forward to watermelons in the summer, apples from my trees in the autumn. Then I try to create a balance on the palate, something that is mine, using only fresh things. That makes me happy.”
A few weeks from now on Yom Kippur, Jews all over the globe will read the story of Yona (Jonah) who set sail from Jaffa, trying to escape from God. Today, overlooking that same port—the world’s oldest—is Yona, the restaurant Ofra Ganor named for the prophet. The location was a homecoming of sorts. “My mother entered Israel at the Jaffa port, carried on her father’s shoulders, breathing in the smell of oranges and salt water.”
As I ravage a plate of fat Mediterranean sardines sizzling from the tabun oven and another of silky, house-smoked salmon, she talks about the restaurant.
“Everything is very fresh and very local.” The bread is made daily, as are the dairy products—ricotta, yogurt and the labaneh used to dress the line-caught grouper. Suppliers like Benzi, the fisherman who has worked the pier for decades, “are my spiritual partners,” Ganor says.
“Fresh.” The word comes up so often, it is nearly a cliché. But with a varied topography and staggering array of microclimates that rival California’s—compressed in an area roughly the size of New Jersey—“fresh” and “local” take on new meanings here. Apples, cherries and extraordinary dairy from the cool hills of Galilee; sugary dates and bananas that thrive in the hot sun; citrus and avocados from the Mediterranean coast; and legendary melons grown in the valleys—all can be trucked into urban markets in hours. Prized Suri olives are fresh-pressed right after harvest into green-gold oil, and grapes become celebrated wines.
In Deuteronomy, God promises “a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will want for nothing.”
But Israel was not a ready-to-eat Garden of Eden. The Promised Land overflowing with milk and honey was also more than half desert. Arable land was often stippled with rocks. And finding sufficient water has been a problem since time immemorial. Not too long ago, Gur reminds me, “cuisine” was a frivolous word.
But Israel’s greatest resource has always been its people: richly diverse, creative and exceptionally hard-working. Many of their high-tech, game-changing initiatives and discoveries, like drip irrigation, have been focused on food. They’ve figured out how to raise fish in the Negev—sometimes in the brackish water that flows deep beneath the desert sands—and use saline water for irrigation, producing intensely sweet tomatoes.
Once a gastronomic wasteland, now there are culinary tourists—and even Birthright Israel trips—coming for the food.
The Jewish calendar plays out against Israel’s seasonal cycles, and in the diaspora, that link is often tenuous. But in Israel, the ancient agricultural roots of the holidays still resonate, even among secular Jews.
And so when fall comes, I think of Machane Yehuda frenziedly getting ready for the New Year, stalls brimming with pomegranates and figs, and the Etrog Man, who sells the biblical citron juice at his stand there. The apples Komarovsky picks from his trees and the honey from the Galilee flowers to go with them. And the childhood memory Ganor has shared of the ripe guavas whose smell she could almost touch on her way to synagogue.
But I’ll be cooking Israeli for the holidays with the spices and other culinary souvenirs I brought home. I’ll buy rings of challah crusted with seeds of sesame, pumpkin, poppy and sunflower from Breads Bakery, the Lehamim outpost that recently opened near my Manhattan apartment.
And I know I’ll be back. It’s only autumn, but already I am thinking, “next year in Jerusalem.”
Jayne Cohen, is the author of Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasure of Classics and Improvisations (John Wiley and Sons), a 2009 James Beard Finalist in the International Cookbook Award category, and The Gefilte Variations: 200 Inspired Re-creations of Classics from the Jewish Kitchen (Scribner 2000). Jewish Holiday Cooking is now available in e-book format and features everything from the hardcover print edition in a very accessible, easy-to-digest e-book. Jayne writes “Essen Around,” a column at Centropa.org,and is a contributing editor and food blogger at Jewish Woman magazine.
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