Israeli Food Has Forever Changed Me & My Cookery - Part 1
Updated: Aug 1, 2018
The evolving Israeli cuisine is absolutely extraordinary. Imagine all the places Jews and Arabs have lived are meeting at one table here in Israel to dine - more than 150 different cuisines. Ashkenazi Jews' culinary traditions coming from Eastern Europe such as Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Lithuania etc. and Sefardic Jews' cuisine from Iraq, Morocco, Persia, Turkey etc. meets Palestinian established food culture exploding to a vast palette of tastes, spices and ingredients. And it's only the first steps of this cuisine...
When I first came to Israel my then boyfriend was working in a family run Yemenite workers restaurant serving Yemen classics for lunch. I remember my Soviet pale taste buds felt raped by the rich palette of spices they used for their dishes. I wasn't able to eat anything; it must have been so frustrating for him. I come from a household where black pepper is considered spicy. It took me a couple of years until I started appreciating local tastes and spices.
However, lets try to get back in time and try to understand what happened to the Jews who came to Israel and their food habits. Its known that many families who arrived here were so traumatized from the poverty, misery and discrimination they've previously experienced; they wanted to forget their language, their food and their entire previous identity and replace with a new image of strong Jew who was not scared. These Israelis were influenced by this "national spirit" which threw a shadow over the "mizrahi" (eastern-arab) grandma's home cooking they were ashamed of. They wanted to be modern and not be seen eating Kube Selek (It's an Iraqi dish consisting from minced meat in a dough in red beet soup). It still hasn't grown on me.....
Israel though - at the same time was only an emerging very young state which was very poor and starting to develop "Israeli nationalism". It was so poor that people had cookbooks teaching them how to cook efficiently and how to maximize your scraps and food waste.
Another stopper in the development of an interesting food culture was also the religious aspiration of living a modest lifestyle which contradicted celebrating food as a lifestyle. So basically up until the early 80s there wasn't much of a fertile ground of inventing Israeli food culture. Then Israel experienced an economic boom and people started traveling abroad and saw celebrating food is actually quite fun and that it doesn't necessarily needs to contradict their God, as long its kosher of course ;). Young chefs started traveling abroad; being taught little miracles there and bringing it back and make it their own.
In the 90s also with the arrival of the Soviet immigration wave (over one million people from the soviet union) things started to shake up even more. This was also about the time when Israel started getting seriously into the wine business starting to establish wineries all over the country including the Negev desert. Today they also do a quite impressive job even internationally. I want to research this topic more in depth and write a separate post about it.
Today Israel's development of food is literally exploding, defining and reinventing itself. I thought for a long time into which direction I want to take this post and decided to present to you an homage of my favorite Israeli foods; which have changed my attitude to food entirely and made me the cook I am today. This is the first part:
It's a shabbat dish in a pita filled with fried eggplant, chopped salads, potato and boiled egg. It's said to come from Iraqi Jews, however the exact origin is unclear.
Why is it in this list? It's absolutely delicious if you succeed in the mastery of allocating all the freshly fried and chopped ingredients inside the steaming pita into a certain position, that every bite will be an explosion of ALL(!) of these amazing middle eastern flavours; including Amba. Instead of the classical version with hummus and tahini I prefer it with feta cheese. It's so good that it totally deserves a dedicated place in this post and in my life.
My favorite spot in Tel Aviv is Sabich Tchernichovsky, Tchernikhovski St 2, Tel Aviv-Yafo. Another very recommended place is also Sabich Frishman, Frishman St 42.
***If I would open a Sabich shop somewhere in Europe I would be a millionaire ;).
2) Salads and vegetables
Doesn't sound like something revolutionary... However, the regular amount of eaten salads and veggies here is absolutely incredible. They are everywhere and are also encouraged to be eaten all the time in the most amazing combinations. I completely changed my diet throughout the years because of the astonishing amount of amazing produce magically created to the most original and delicious dishes on the markets, in the supermarkets and in the restaurants. I seem to have much more vegetable options than I ever remember having in Switzerland or Germany. This new type of food makes me feel strong and healthy; plus I cook also mostly vegetarian (and gluten-free) dishes at home.
Of course, one of the most amazing experiences in Tel Aviv is the HaCarmel Market - Shuk Hacarmel where you can find pretty much every vegetable or fruit imaginable. However, after all these years in Tel Aviv I myself don't shop there much for veggies and fruits. I prefer ordering a case of organic vegetables from Havivian, which is conveniently delivered to your door step. #decadent Here you can also find a nice Carmel Market guide.
Israel is the fruit lover's paradise. I don't have the habit to grab a fruit daily, but I really try to work on my habits and take advantage of this vast palette. Israel is a leader in agricultural technologies and is one of the centers in the world of developing some of the world's most popular fruits and vegetables. Most of Israel's produce is for export, however we also keep some of the goodies and depending on the season have some amazing stuff filling the stalls of the markets. Here you can check out in which season you can find which fruits and vegetables being harvested. Since I live here I also started being much more aware of this since many things are simply not available out of the season (unthinkable for someone who grew up in Berlin). Furthermore, eating produce at its best is very rewarding.
Besides the sheer choice of undefinable exotic fruits; basically growing anywhere on the trees I'd like to point out two fruit-related loves:
1) Here I discovered the insane variety of dried fruits, which are an amazing snack and valuable nutrition for long hikes. They are very affordable and are amazing additions to salads or other dishes. My favorites are the dried coconuts, cranberries and pineapples.
2) In the beginning I didn't understand the concept but now I adore it; watermelon with Feta cheese or how you call it in Israel "bulgarian cheese". Sounds funny, huh? But the saltiness of the cheese goes perfectly together with the sweetness of the watermelon. It blew my mind when I finally got it. Better late then never. It simply makes the summer better.
This is a genius dish. Once I've overcame the weirdness of poaching eggs in tomato sauce I realized that this thing is winning it all; it's breakfast, lunch and dinner - it's rich, beautiful and satisfying - it's spicy, mild and rustic. It comes from North Africa and is so simply genius that everybody's in love with it. Oftentimes it's served in a hot pan which is exciting. You can have it with a million different tomato sauces; also in green and yellow. You can add cheese, other veggies or sausages. It's also super easy to cook at home and I tell you from experience, it's crazy impressive on people. Shakshuka is a wildcard. My favorite Shakshuka is served in the Shakshukia, Ben Yehuda St 94, Tel Aviv.
I will compile another post with interesting facts about Israeli eating culture and a couple of more delicious things I've learned here and hopefully will share it soon.