Israel's foreign workers are diversifying its cuisine

Israel's foreign workers, who mostly comes from Asia, are introducing Tel Aviv's gourmet chefs to Asian cuisine, which has been wildly popular.

By , Correspondent

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Arlene Cedeño came to Israel nine years ago from the Philippines to clean houses. But she didn’t expect her clients to love ramen noodles.

“Sometimes they give me money to buy this kind of food,” says Ms. Cedeño, walking between piles of bean noodles and a counter of pork chops at the East Asia grocer in south Tel Aviv.

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Israel has employed foreign workers like Cedeño since Palestinians stopped working in Israel in the 1980s. In 2009, these workers numbered 220,000, with about half the undocumented workers, and nearly four-fifths of those here legally coming from Asia. While the Israeli government debates measures to reduce foreign workers, a walk through Tel Aviv’s restaurants and grocery stores shows how these workers have lent vitality to Israel’s gourmet cuisine.

Chef Avi Conforti, whose Zepra and Zozobra restaurants serve Asian food here, says he used to recruit Chinese cooks at construction sites. Now he handpicks his staff in Beijing.

Fellow Tel Aviv chef Zion Barnes looks for ideas at the city’s central bus station, where foreign workers eat on Saturdays. Like chef Conforti, chef Barnes now imports directly from Asia and buys lemon grass and bok choy locally. Because of this growing self-sufficiency, the Asian food industry will survive if the migrants leave, taking their won ton-rolling skills with them.

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