Israeli Cuisine: It’s Real and It’s Spectacular

1 Apr

I have a dumb habit of the second that I bite into a pupusa saying, “I am getting in touch with my brown side.” My dad is no longer alive but he was a Salvadorean revolutionary and refugee and I feel very disconnected with that side of me. Sure I can so-so speak spanish, but it is the second that I bite into the food that I get in touch with that culture.

Being Jewish is quite different. That I get and I know. I can’t speak Hebrew, but I have my own special relationship with that side of me. Obviously I am a food-centric person, but there is no specific food where I say, “I am getting in touch with my Jewish side.” Pastrami, brisket, and a kosher pickle do it for me, but that feels New York. My Jewish grandma was an amazing cook and we spent a great deal of time in her kitchen, but that cuisine was very worldly. I fondly remember her stuffed cabbage rolls (my favorite “Jewish” food), but we just as often made chinese food, dumplings, curries, spaghetti and BBQ together. I know that a lot of the Jewish culture and holidays take place over meals and yet when I went on a Culinary Trip to Israel in February, I really had no idea what that meant. Sure, I know middle eastern food, but nothing that was “Israeli” specific.

It turns out that much like being Jewish, which has no clear and cut definition: a religion, a race, an ethnicity, a culture; Israeli food is also all over the map. It sounds so cliche but it is an absolute melting pot, not just with the bordering countries, but with the entire word.

Right outside the shuk in Jerusalem, we visited one of the first neighborhoods that was built out of the city walls and there was this great legend that we heard. These neighborhoods often had a central stove outside and each family would have their own special meals cooking and when the sons would fetch the pots sometimes they’d mix them up. The Ashkenazis would get the Iraqis’ food and think it was too spicy and vice versa and the Iraqis would think their food was too bland. Then over time the families would request that their sons would grab the wrong pot on purpose. Thus, the cuisines do meld together and there is room at the table for each place the wandering Jews wandered to make its way back into Israeli cuisine.

During my visit I did hear a great talk by Janna Gur, the Queen of Israeli Cuisine, and learned that some things are strictly Israeli. For instances, Israelis are the only people in the world that eat salad for breakfast, they invented the cherry tomato, and date syrup called “silan” is more popular than honey and sugar.

However, the real joy about Israeli cuisine is that everything comes together: schnitzel in a pita is the epitome of that. Another example I saw was at Shuk HaNamal (The Port Market), where the slow food movement is very much embraced. We got a demonstration from a chef that showed how an Israeli would make a panzanella salad: a variety of the freshest tomatoes, za’atar thrown on and strained yogurt.

I have never been to Yemen but this Yemenite flatbread that was all of over the country was a personal favorite. This four cheese and mushroom dish I got in the Kabbalah town of Tzfat was delicious.

In Tel Aviv, I dined with friends at a very cool Georgian restaurant called Nanuchka. There was a picture near the stairwell of a man with his very large member showing, after much questioning, I learned that all of its glory belonged to the DJ at the restaurant/louge. However, nothing compared to the warm chickpeas in the hummus at Abu Hassan in Jaffa. The picture of the DJ didn’t ruin all other men for me, but one bite of this warm hummus ruined me forever with the refrigerated packaged stuff.

Another great thing I put in my mouth was a Persian Jewish dish called Gondi, which reminded me of matzo ball soup mating my all time favorite, meatballs. As soon as I took a spoonful of this ball and broth, I grabbed my ipad to tweet this very import message: Gondi > Gandhi.

During my ten days in Israel the highlight was picking carrots in, of all places a tomato farm in the desert, Shvil Hasalat. Later that same busy day, my carrot relationship became even deeper as I found myself cutting pounds and pounds of carrots with the dullest of knives at Nahal Brigade for a vegetable soup my group and I cooked up for more than 350 soldiers.

While at the farm, I heard that carrots were initially from Afghanistan and that they were white. When they were imported to Holland, orange was an important color to the country so they only grew orange carrots and that’s how they became known as orange. I have no idea if that story is true but I like the metaphor for Israeli cuisine and I love that I got to pull out some O.G. carrots from soil in the Middle East. Jews have spent generations living all over the world, taking in cuisine influences and now they get to bring it all together in their own country, which is beautifully delicious!

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