Lemony, savory fusion: Israel's brash food revolution

Why We Wrote This

After all, we still need to eat – Israel’s food revolution, celebrated in popular cookbooks and restaurants beyond its borders, reflects its diverse culture and fits easily into the seasonal, local movement in modern cuisine.

Ariel Efron/Courtesy of Chef Eyal Shani
A platter of roasted peppers, falafel, and fresh vegetables at Malka, a Tel Aviv restaurant owned by chef Eyal Shani, a central figure in creating and promoting the new Israeli cuisine at home and abroad.

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After recent decades focusing on what the rest of the world was cooking, Israel’s food world has turned inward to find inspiration in the diversity of its Diaspora heritage. It’s a mix that stretches from the kitchens of Eastern Europe to those of Yemen, Iraq, and Morocco, and incorporates local Palestinian and broader Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences and ingredients.

Add to that Israeli chefs’ own personal interpretations, and a food revolution has been served up. The fusion of flavors – think olive oil, tahini, preserved lemons, pomegranate seeds, za’atar, and sumac – and the spotlight on fresh produce has been celebrated and amplified by popular cookbooks and award-winning restaurants in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, London, Philadelphia, and beyond.

Gil Hovav, an Israeli television food-show host, says Israeli food is having a “moment” for a few reasons aside from an interest in healthy, accessible recipes.

“One is that we Israelis are ruthless, disobedient, and disrespect rules. It can work out wonderfully when it comes to Israeli cuisine,” where you can find the “weirdest and boldest” pairings, mixing Ethiopian with Polish food, and Russian and Iraqi dishes, for example. “Sometimes it’s embarrassing, and sometimes it really does work.”

The best green beans I’ve ever eaten came to my outdoor restaurant table (remember restaurants?) glistening in the sun in lemon juice and olive oil and rubbed in sea salt and garlic and served in a brown paper bag.

Next, I was dipping fresh bread into a variation of msabbaha, a hummus-like dish that feels like a culinary warm, and garlicky, hug. This one swaps out the traditional main ingredient of chickpeas for long-simmered lima beans, soft and warm, topped with chopped onion, and sprinkled with tomato seeds.

Also on the menu: dishes like an Israeli version of bruschetta, topped with towering piles of avocado, and a minute steak, grilled and served on tahini and tomato tartar.

The restaurant, Port Said, named for the Egyptian city along the Mediterranean, is owned by Eyal Shani, an Israeli chef and a central figure in creating and promoting the new Israeli cuisine both at home and abroad.

I was tipped off by a friend, cookbook author Adeena Sussman, who says the restaurant typifies “the vegetable-forward, lemon-spicy, casual-cool vibe of Israel.”

After recent decades focusing on what the rest of the world was cooking, Israel’s food world has turned inward to find inspiration in the diversity of its Diaspora heritage. It’s a mix that stretches from the kitchens of Eastern Europe to those of Yemen, Iraq, and Morocco, and incorporates local Palestinian and broader Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences and ingredients.

Add to that Israeli chefs’ own personal interpretations, and a food revolution has been served up. The fusion of flavors – think olive oil, tahini, preserved lemons, pomegranate seeds, za’atar, and sumac – and spotlight on fresh produce has been celebrated and amplified by popular cookbooks and award-winning restaurants in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, London, Philadelphia, and beyond.

Ariel Efron/Courtesy of Chef Eyal Shani
Chef Eyal Shani arranging tomatoes at Malka, one of his restaurants in Tel Aviv.

“As the whole seasonal, local movement took hold internationally, a lot of Israeli chefs said, ‘Hey, look what we have under our noses,’” says Ms. Sussman, author of the cookbook, “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen.”

Rediscovered roots

In Israel’s early years, Jews who immigrated here from North Africa and the Middle East were encouraged to leave their culture behind. It’s their grandchildren who have worked to recover their culinary and cultural roots.

Starting in the late 1990s and 2000s there were Israeli chefs, many of whom had been trained abroad, who had the skills to take this culinary inheritance and help it evolve, says Ms. Sussman.

This meant making new versions of elemental Jewish staples like schnitzel or hamin, the Middle Eastern counterpart to Eastern European cholent – a long-cooked stew eaten on the Jewish Sabbath, “and taking the global market basket of spices and herbs and cultural influence and creating something we avoid calling fusion, but really is fusion cuisine on some level,” says Ms. Sussman.

One of her favorite dishes served in Tel Aviv is based on what is marketed abroad as “Israeli couscous” – a type of tiny round toasted pasta developed in the 1950s during a period of austerity at the request of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as a substitute for rice.

“It’s turned into one of the most sophisticated risottos, with local Pecorino cheese, Israeli white wine, and pieces of roasted zucchini baked in, with Swiss chard adding some green. The Israeli couscous soaks up all the flavor,” says Ms. Sussman. “Who would have thought Ben-Gurion’s rice would have come so far and be a totem to what a modern chef could do?”

Food fit for Instagram

Gil Hovav, an Israeli television food-show host, says Israeli food is having a “moment” for a few reasons aside from an interest in healthy, accessible recipes.

“One is that we Israelis are ruthless, disobedient, and disrespect rules. It can work out wonderfully when it comes to Israeli cuisine,” he says, where you can find the “weirdest and boldest” pairings, mixing Ethiopian with Polish food, and Russian and Iraqi dishes.

“Sometimes it’s embarrassing, and sometimes it really does work. And when it does, it’s incredibly energetic and works for the same reason we are good at startups. We are cooking out of the pot. We are inventive.”

Ariel Efron/Courtesy of Chef Eyal Shani
The lunch crowd at Port Said, a popular Tel Aviv restaurant owned by Eyal Shani, back when there were lunch crowds.

Mr. Hovav also has a theory that Israeli food is taking off because it’s a perfect fit for the Instagram age – appearing luscious with its bold reds, oranges, yellows, and greens.

“It looks very alive, and marketing is everything,” he says.

Alongside fresh produce like blood oranges and pomegranates that photograph well, there’s the sunflower gold of amba, a condiment of tangy pickled mango originally from Iraq, and the red and gold of another favorite topping for those who can handle its kick: schug, a fiery Yemenite import that combines cilantro, parsley, and garlic with spices like cardamom and cumin.

Mr. Hovav grew up in Jerusalem with his Yemenite grandmother in charge of the kitchen. He only started cooking when he was 20, he says, just after she died, to preserve the flavors of her cooking. Men were not allowed in the family kitchen, for fear they would bring bad luck.

Dishing up politics

Yet here, where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festers, one person’s family recipe can get caught in the tricky fault lines of cultural appropriation.

That makes defining what Israeli food is extremely complicated, “because we are not really talking about food, we are really talking about politics,” about food that gives meaning to a struggle over land and identity, says Ronit Vered, a food researcher and journalist.

Israel is a young country, founded in 1948, but located in a region with a tangled history of colonialism and war whose modern borders were only established in the 20th century.

“Today the biggest influence is local, and you can call it Palestinian, Arab, Levantine, Mediterranean. And then there is the influence of Jewish communities coming from other places that are now thought of as local – Israelis want to also feel part of this geographic, cultural unit,” Ms. Vered says.

This tension over who, for example, can claim hummus or falafel as a national symbol might ease up, she suggests, by stepping back into history itself.

“When one starts researching food, we see these are regional foods, not local foods. They are not Israeli or Palestinian.”

Luna Zraik, a chef and Palestinian citizen of Israel with a popular restaurant in Nazareth, says she has little patience for such debates: “I want them (Jewish Israelis) to honor my food as I honor their food. … At my bistro we exist outside of the [political] chaos.”

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