Defining Israeli Cuisine


Photo by rankun76/Flickr CC

I recently spent two months working as a kitchen apprentice in Tel Aviv, a city that doesn't generally rank high on gastronomic capitals of the world lists. Most Israelis looked perplexed when I told them I was there to learn more about their cuisine. "Why would you come to Israel?" my friend Natan asked shortly after I arrived. "Israel has no food culture. Hummus, falafel, we stole those from the Arabs. The only truly Israeli food is chicken schnitzel."

Indeed, chicken schnitzel is hugely popular in Tel Aviv, brought during the Austro-European immigration influx. It's been re-appropriated (chicken swapped for the traditional veal), and the many schnitzel shops dotting the city serve it with hummus, tehina, pickles, and cucumber-tomato salad inside a pita or baguette.

In more upscale cafes or restaurants, the fried cutlets are served alongside pureed potatoes and maybe a simple chopped salad. And while chicken schnitzel represents everyday fare more than haute cuisine, it illustrates why I wanted to experience Israel. Like a teenager trying to figure out his personality, Israel doesn't lack a food culture so much as it encompasses many different culinary traditions while trying to decide what, exactly, constitutes Israeli cuisine.

So is Israeli cuisine just a hodge-podge of dishes from around the world? Yes and no.

Many people identify Israeli cuisine as Jewish cuisine, which certainly it embraces. However, when people think of Jewish cuisine, they almost always think of the Ashkenazi culinary tradition with its matzoh ball soup, brisket and gefilte fish, and not the Sephardic Jewish culinary heritage, which is steeped in the rich flavors and spices of the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Yet many of these Jewish culinary traditions which for years existed outside of Israel are disappearing in their countries of origin for various geopolitical reasons resulting in dwindling numbers of Jews to carry on the recipes. And so as non-Israeli Jews come to Israel, they are bringing these would-be forgotten recipes and ingraining and transforming them into the Israeli culinary landscape, like left-over squares of fabric woven into a patchwork quilt.

Sabich, one of my favorite foods from my time in Israel, is a great example. Sabich is an Iraqi Jewish food, made by stuffing cold, fried eggplant slices into a pita along with preserved hard boiled eggs, tehina, hummus, chopped salad, and amba, which is a mango pickle, and is said to have been brought to the Middle East by spice traders in India. Traditionally, sabich was eaten for Shabbat breakfast, since all of the ingredients were cold and were prepared the day before. When the Jewish population was expelled from Iraq, many fled to Israel and brought sabich with them. Over time, sabich became a popular street food and is now available throughout Tel Aviv.

Similarly, for breakfast in Tel Aviv, two favorite dishes are jachnun, a traditional Yemenite dish of rolled dough served with grated tomatoes and harissa, and shakshuka, a dish of poached eggs in tomato sauce originally eaten in North Africa and brought to Israel by Tunisian Jews. And the ubiquitous chopped cucumber and tomatoes tossed with oil and lemon? It may be known as an Israeli salad, but it comes from the Arab culinary tradition, along with other "Israeli" favorites as hummus and pita.

So is Israeli cuisine just a hodge-podge of dishes from around the world? Yes and no.

More sophisticated restaurants in Israel, like the one where I was working, still exhibit a clear French influence. Lacking a distinct Israeli food culture in the early years, upscale chefs embraced generic continental cuisine. But things are quietly evolving in Israel, as chefs are shying away from the cream sauces and chocolate cakes, looking less to outside influences and more at what the terroir of Israel has to offer. Maybe they, too, are affected by the growing locavore trend sweeping the Western world, but I think it relates more to the unique opportunity Israeli chefs have in creating an Israeli food culture for future generations.

We are beginning to see a cuisine that takes note from the Mediterranean diet with its emphasis on olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Perhaps the best rule for creating a national cuisine is to look first at what your land can provide you, and then go from there. And so, pomegranates, dates, figs, and olives are taking center stage in today's new Israeli cuisine, just as they did back in Biblical times. As is often the trend in cooking, what's old is new again.

By the end of my two months in Israel, I realized that I still couldn't define modern Israeli cuisine because it was still evolving. It took France several centuries to develop its cuisine so how could Israel do it in just a few decades? But this was part of the draw for me to Israel; I wanted to learn to cook there because I wanted to understand what it felt like to be part of a movement defining a national cuisine. Maybe in 50 years I'll go back and I'll have a clear answer of what constitutes Israeli cuisine. Maybe I'll be able to taste the fruits of my labor.