“They say nobody comes to Israel for the food,” begins Janna Gur in her luscious cookbook/stunning photographic journal/history lesson on a plate: The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey (Schocken Books, $35). That might have been true 20 or 30 years ago, she says, but no more.
“Israel has some world class restaurants,” she told me when her book tour brought her to Los Angeles. “It’s very interesting – it emerged when the chefs stopped looking for inspiration in France and Italy, but looked instead to their immediate surroundings, our vegetables, our wild herbs. Of the ten best restaurants in Israel, only one is French. The others serve a creative mixture of Jewish-Israeli foods. Every time I come back from my travels, I have even a higher opinion in terms of what we have to offer.”
But what is Jewish-Israeli food? And is there such a thing as a true Israeli cuisine?
“Well, there’s definitely such a thing as Israeli food!” she said. “And it’s not just a mixture of a little Middle Eastern and maybe some American or Italian. There is a unique style that started to evolve during recent decades, but it’s too early to call it a full-fledged cuisine, as in Chinese or Italian.
“Some people say there are only three great cuisines: French, Italian and Chinese, and everything else is an imitation. We are ages away from becoming a cuisine, but our dishes are composed of fresh, bold flavors and flavor combinations that speak Hebrew: lots of vegetables, lots of spices that are not necessarily hot, olive oil, burned eggplant, grilled meat – chicken and lamb rather than beef – whole grilled fish.”
When people think of “Jewish food,” Russian-Polish dishes come to mind – gefilte fish, chopped liver, kugel, brisket. While Ashkenazi Jews comprise the majority in the United States, wherever Jews have scattered throughout the world, they have incorporated the cuisine of their neighbors. “Jewish food” is, therefore, highly diverse, and nowhere is this more true than in Israel, a society composed of immigrants from more than 70 countries, Gur notes.
“There was a big wave of immigration from North Africa in the fifties, and we have more and more the influence of Mizrahi cuisine.” (Mizrahis descend from Jewish communities of the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus.)
“A kind of snobbery developed from the Ashkenazim. Mizrahi food was considered at the time fit for very simple family-style restaurants, not for fine dining. Today the menus in almost all of the leading Israeli restaurants reflect some kind of fusion combining Mizrahi food, Jewish ethnic food and Middle Eastern. Our food is very much influenced by the climate, the sunlight and the temperament of the people. That’s the food Israelis like the most.”
As waves of immigrants have settled in at different periods in Israel’s history, the individual ethnic cuisines have formed a unique blend.
“In the beginning individual groups kept to themselves,” she noted. “There were vegetables that only Bulgarian Jews or Moroccan Jews would buy, and Ashkenazi Jews would never touch them. Today there are so many cross-marriages that the combination of ethnic origins happens on the table as well. The food is not homogenous as much as it is a mixture that is the norm.”
Gur, the founder and editor of Al Hashulchan (“On the Table”), a leading Israeli food and wine magazine, cited as an example a holiday story her magazine ran about a family from Jerusalem. “The mother is Persian, a younger sister married a Moroccan, and she brought spiced fish. She also made gefilte fish that she learned from a neighbor, but changed the recipe because she didn’t like sugar. Her daughter-in-law is Argentinean and made chicken soup, but it was a little different from the classic. One of the sons was dating a young girl from Libya…so what is typical is a mixture, even inside one plate.”
Despite the ever-present political conflict in her adopted country, Gur, who immigrated to Israel in 1974 from the former Soviet Union, sees food as a possible bridge between disputing factions. “The source of so many Israeli menu items are actually Arabic,” she said. That is why she made the controversial decision to include Ramadan in her holiday section. “Some people weren’t happy about it. Ramadan is not just religious; it’s a whole way of eating. It’s a celebration around the clock.”
Our prayer for the New Year as always is a poignant hope for peace. “There are very good ties between Israeli and Palestinian chefs,” she noted. “Food is something that actually connects us. Sometimes even during harsh times it may be a beautiful springtime day, and we share the same sunlight. Eventually we’ll have to find a way to live and share this country.”
Yield: 4 servings
If you can’t find goat milk yogurt, Greek yogurt may be substituted.
4 medium eggplants
4 tablespoons top quality raw tahini
4 tablespoons goat milk yogurt
4 tomatoes, halved
4 teaspoons silan (date honey) or 3 teaspoons honey
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small bunch fresh hyssop or oregano leaves
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 teaspoon chopped hot green pepper
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Roast eggplants (on open flame, broiled in oven or grilled on charcoal barbecue). Cool slightly and cut open.
2 Place eggplants in center of 4 plates and flatten slightly with a fork.
3 Pour small puddles of tahini, yogurt, honey, olive oil and lemon juice over eggplant. Spoon out contents of one tomato over each eggplant. Season with salt, pepper, garlic and hot pepper. Garnish with hyssop or oregano leaves and serve immediately.
with Dried Fruit on
a Bed of Couscous
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
12 chicken drumsticks
6 whole small red onions, peeled
12 pieces (each 2 inches long) Jerusalem artichoke, peeled
9 ounces dried figs
7 ounces pitted prunes
7 ounces dried apricots
For the marinade:
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup soy sauce
5 cloves garlic, chopped
3 sticks cinnamon
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 level teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, crushed
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 cups dry red wine
1 package (about 18 ounces) instant couscous
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted
1 Mix all ingredients for marinade.
2 Arrange chicken, onions, Jerusalem artichoke and dried fruit in a baking dish and pour over the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for 3 to 24 hours.
3 Preheat oven to 350˚F.
4 Bake uncovered for 40 minutes or until chicken turns shiny and brown. Baste chicken occasionally with liquid from bottom of pan. The dish up to this point may be prepared in advance and later heated in the oven.
5 Before serving, prepare instant couscous as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
6 Arrange chicken casserole and sauce over a mound of couscous, sprinkle walnuts on top and serve immediately.
Source: The Book of New Israeli Food by Janna Gur