From falafel to croissant
Israel is a food lover’s destination. It wasn’t always like this. Thirty years ago the culinary delights were limited to falafel, shawarma and chocolate milk in a bag. They continue to be as popular as ever, but now there are in competition with an eclectic range of international favorites, from sushi to croissants.
The beauty of Israel’s food transformation is the ability to absorb new influences while holding fast to tradition. Although formal culinary training in Israel is heavily based on French technique, many chefs add their own personal ethnic twist to their creations. Halva crème brulée, stuffed figs in wine, Moroccan pastries filled with chocolate, slow cooked beef with root vegetables and Persian loomi lemons…dishes that are both international and distinctly Israeli.
Some classics, however, seem impervious to change. They have become part of the country’s cultural heritage, analogous to the French baguette or American apple pie. Hummus, the ubiquitous chickpea puree, is a classic example. Tradition stipulates that it is always made the same way, never flavored with exotic additions. Pumpkin, sun dried tomato or roasted garlic hummus? A laughable suggestion and not even considered.
Workers’ diners offer a taste of Israeli home cooking. These humble establishments are living museums, preserving age-old culinary customs of the immigrants who settled in this country. Couscous, mafrum and shakshuka can be sampled in a Libyan restaurant, while an Eastern European eatery may offer kreplach, gefilte fish and chicken soup. Hidden in the commercial districts around the country, these family owned restaurants are advertised by a simple sign or none at all. In time, these foreign food cultures have become the anchors of Israeli cuisine and deeply tied to personal and even national identity.
However, before all else, regional cooking is composed of the people who have lived here; The Arab, Druze, Circassian, along with the Levantine Jews of Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian descent. The commonality between these groups is clearly reflected in their shared food culture which is as rich as the land they live on. A unique aspect of local culinary heritage lies in their deep understanding of edible wild plants.
Indigenous species such as mallow, mustards, hyssops (za’atar), chicory, cyclamen and sage are used in everyday cooking and herbal medicine. Moshe Basson, chef at Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem and a slow food advocate, incorporates native plants in many of his dishes. He was first taught the secrets of foraging by the Arab women he met as a child while wandering the hillsides of Jerusalem. There is a growing interest in the local flora, not only in their practical use but their place in biblical history and their connection with the land.
The standard items of Israel’s formative years are still the basis for its cuisine; an abundant of fresh fruits and vegetables, a few core dairy products, whole grains and legumes. In the past there was a minimum of processed foods and most of the cooking was done at home. As the economy strengthened, so did the appetites. Travelers brought home stories of legendary foods from the far reaches of the earth. Croissants from France, momo dumplings from Nepal, tapas from Spain, fresh fragrant ginger from India… these were yet unavailable in this small Middle Eastern country. Israelis began a culinary exodus and returned home with inspiration from afar.
The first trailblazers had to learn new techniques at their roots. Some went to formal training, such as Chef Oren Giron who studied pastry making at Le Cordon Bleu in England. Later he would open Osim Bishool Culinary School in Herzliya. Adi Frishman studied the art of the iconic croissant and brought Parisian chic to Tel Aviv at La Gaterie Bakery. The owner of Manuella in Zichron Yaacov gleaned his secrets of handmade pasta in southern Italy. Many of the celebrity chefs, cookbook authors and TV personalities have also gone on an internship abroad, including Israel Aharoni, Michal Ansky of Master Chef fame and dessert queen, Carine Goren.
Recipes have migrated from one kitchen to the next, inevitably changing to suit the Middle Eastern palette. Others have remained unchanged from their country of origin. Today patisseries, brasseries, tapas bars, Argentinean grills mingle with old time favorites. During Shabbat and holidays, families serve Moroccan tagines near grandmother’s famous Polish krupnik.
The culinary journey is still evolving, adding depth and flavor to Israeli cooking.