Israel's New Cuisine: More Than Falafel in a Pita

June 26, 2018Tina Wasserman

America is often referred to as a “melting pot” because of the vast numbers of immigrants who came here, seeking peace, security and freedom from persecution and hunger. Foods we think of as “American” – frankfurters, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, and bagels – originated in Germany, Italy, and the shtetls (small villages) of Eastern Europe, respectively.

When it comes to food, “melting pot” is a moniker that Israel also can own. After all, Israeli salad – tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onions – was called Arab salad before the birth of Israeli cuisine.

Jewish immigrants from Kurdistan, Syria, Egypt, and Yemen popularized all manner of kibbe, kubbeh, kobeiba, and the use of bulghur cracked wheat. These filled ovals of dough now often grace the Shabbat dinner tables in many Israeli homes. Similarly, konofi, a dish of strands of dough that look like shredded wheat layered with cheese, baked or fried until crisp on the outside and then soaked in a thick, orange-blossom sugar syrup was popular throughout the Greek, Syrian, and Egyptian communities, and now is ubiquitous in bakeries and shops throughout Jerusalem.

And these dishes, too, – Ethiopian Spiced Black Beans with Rice, Rumanian Carnatzlach cooked over the ubiquitous Israeli grill, and Matboucha, a Moroccan eggplant salad now found on practically every salatim (salads) table in Israel along with soft pillow-like Laffa bread – represent the melding of old recipes with new techniques to accommodate the new Israeli cuisine.

Waves of immigrants making aliyah (moving to settle in Israel) began to arrive in the early 1880s, most escaping the pogroms in Eastern Europe. Some Yemenites, arriving at about the same time, settled in Rishon Lezion, Rosh Pina, and Zikhron Ya’acov. The second aliyah occurred when a large wave of immigrants escaping the czar arrived from Russia and the Ukraine. Bringing their socialist ideals with them, they established the first kibbutz in Degania in 1909.

In the 1920s, pioneers arrived looking for a Zionist home where they could farm the land in peace followed in the 1930s and 40s by large groups of Polish and German Jews, attempting to escape the Nazis and thwart the quotas set up by the British. After the state of Israel was established and the right of return was decreed, Jews from the Maghreb region of Northern Africa and those residing in the newly mandated countries of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey made aliyah, both  out of Zionist joy and to escape attacks from Arab uprisings after Israel became the Jewish state.

The first settlers were poor, the land was arid, and farms were just beginning to be cultivated. As a result, cooking was done on makeshift stoves using little equipment besides a bowl, a knife and a spoon. The food was simple and scarce at first. The new Israelis often felt a need to hide their meager family recipes born of poverty and reminiscent of a hard existence in the old country and sought to adopt a new identity representing the promise and freedom they were seeking in their adopted homeland.

So, when and why did Israeli food begin to develop into one of the world’s most vibrant and eclectic cuisines?

By the 1980s, Israel was undergoing an economic boom. Agricultural initiatives were thriving, with worldwide produce sales and the country’s technology and business sectors boosting the economy. As a result of this success, Israelis began to travel and, no longer living in abject poverty, began to see food as enjoyment. According to one Israeli chef, “Israelis now felt that they can like food.” They also felt well enough established in their new country to comfortably re-explore recipes from the old country.

Another factor, the Slow Food Movement, developed in Italy, seeks to preserve cultural cuisines, as well as the plants, animals, and farming within specific ecoregions. It has become a social and political movement to resist large, commercial food production, and renowned Iraqi/Israeli chef Moshe Basson helped usher in the use of locally grown and raised foods in Israeli restaurants.

In addition, Israelis began to approach cooking at home as both a creative outlet and a sustenance activity. Ingredients commonly used in one ethnic cuisine began to find their way into others. In Tel Aviv, for instance, I tasted fresh hummus transformed into a vibrant red, silky spread by the addition of fresh roasted beets and a touch of cinnamon. Originally an Arab recipe, the ingredients have become an iconic Israeli dish, created with seasonal beets from a local farm.

Today, Michael Solomonov, Yotam Ottolenghi, and many other fine chefs have helped elevate Israeli cuisine on the international stage introducing cooks to the fresh vegetables, spices, and other ingredients that are uniquely Israeli. Among them are za’atar, a wild herb similar to wild oregano, or a blend of this herb with sesame seeds, sumac and salt; sumac, a tart, lemony berry; and pomegranate molasses, all of which are frequent ingredients in old/new Israeli recipes.

This summer – and year-round – combine your favorite vegetables and meats with seasonings and cooking techniques from the many cuisines in Israel to recreate foods from around the world. This, my friends, is the new Israeli cuisine and it is worth exploring in your kitchen right now!

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