Previously in Corby's Table:

"Napa Valley Blend" (January 31, 2001)
Corby Kummer on Terra: Cooking From the Heart of Napa Valley, and its authors' unique mix of Mediterranean style with a Japanese sensibility.

"Revelations of Greece" (December 20, 2000)
Corby Kummer on Aglaia Kremezi's revelatory new Foods of the Greek Islands, a book that offers "a short course in how Greeks cook for themselves."

"Confessions of a Cookie Eater" (October 4, 2000)
Corby Kummer makes a shameless plea to readers of Nick Malgieri's new Cookies Unlimited.

"The Bygone World of the Bialy" (August 31, 2000)
Corby Kummer on Mimi Sheraton's The Bialy Eaters, a food critic's account of her seven-year, still-incomplete search for the origin of the distinctive little onion roll that is often mistaken for a bagel.

"The Chowder King" (July 26, 2000)
Corby Kummer on Jasper White's 50 Chowders, the latest from Boston's master seafood chef.

"Simply Summer" (June 22, 2000)
Corby Kummer satisfies his fresh-herb lust with a new book by Lisa Cowden, Ladle, Leaf, & Loaf.

"Tuscany, Reluctantly" (April 26, 2000)
Corby Kummer is tired of Tuscany, but he likes Pino Luongo's new cookbook, Simply Tuscan.

"Matzoh Makeover" (March 22, 2000)
Corby Kummer on Jayne Cohen's The Gefilte Variations, a new cookbook offering multiple versions of Jewish holiday classics.

"Ham and Beans to the Rescue" (February 16, 2000)
Weary of the Boston winter, Corby Kummer serves up "one of history's great couplings."

More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

Atlantic Unbound | February 28, 2001
Corby's Table
Israel on a Bun


My Favorite Falafel
Old City Tahina with Flat Italian Parsley and Lemon
Za'atar: The Spice Combination That Opens Up the Mind
Soofer Family lranian-Israeli Haroset

The Foods of Israel Today hy can't a country with two and a half million Jewish mothers have better food?" Henry Kissinger supposedly moaned while conducting shuttle diplomacy in the 1970s. Even today Israel isn't known for the quality or variety of its restaurants—although Joan Nathan, an indefatigable expert on Jewish food and the author of monumental and authoritative books on the subject, says that things have changed enormously since the days when she lived there, in the early 1970s.

At that time, she writes in her new book, The Foods of Israel Today, "only tourists, diplomats, or foreign journalists ate in restaurants. Grabbing hummus and falafel at a fast-food stand or dropping into a café for coffee and cake was the Israeli idea of 'dining out.' Food was scarce, and wasting time on such a bourgeois matter seemed contrary to the pioneering spirit of the country."

On my own recent visits, I've found this to be more true than not. However chic a few trendy restaurants may be, the best food is still to be had from street vendors and takeout restaurants, particularly Palestinian ones. Food in Israel combines Jewish traditions from both eastern Europe and North Africa and Spain, and the Mediterranean and Arab foods that have recently become popular as "Mediterranean cuisine."

Nathan chronicles and demonstrates them all in a book delightfully peppered with stories of the places where she discovered the dishes whose recipes she gives, and of the people she meets along the way. Telling those stories, she says, is why she wrote the book—a way of writing a personalized portrait of a country she has observed intimately for several decades. Appendixes give invaluable restaurant tips and glossaries of food-related phrases in Hebrew and Arabic, which should be photocopied and brought on any trip to Israel.

Falafel is Israel's signature dish, so I've included the recipe for Nathan's "favorite" version, to which she adds cilantro and parsley, because she likes them. Yes, it calls for the time-consuming preliminary step of soaking chickpeas overnight, and it's deep-fried. But the final spiced and herbed result is Israel on a bun—or, rather, in a pocket (buy the best pita bread you can find, or buy her book for an easy recipe to make your own.) The tahina that is an essential component of any falafel sandwich makes a versatile dip in itself, especially as Nathan stirs the sesame seed paste (which you buy) with fresh lemon juice, garlic, and parsley.

Another emblematic, but less famous, taste of the modern country is za'atar—a lemony sesame herb mixture that often coats toasted pita and makes returning visitors' mouths water at just the thought of it. Nathan calls it "the spice combination that opens up the mind," and I must agree. I've bought packaged za'atar mixtures but have been vaguely disappointed, and was excited to find Nathan's formula for one that might not be quite authentic but will certainly taste fresh and bright. You'll have to find dried sumac, which tastes like essence of lemon, thyme, and oregano combined; one mail-order source is Kalustyan's, in Manhattan. You'll want to use this mixture everywhere, particularly sprinkled on top of baked vegetable and pasta dishes—it mixes beautifully with tomato sauce.

Passover is coming, and although this book is far lighter in Passover (and holiday) recipes than, for instance, Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America, it does have a few. An Iranian haroset will open anyone's mind (especially anyone used to the Macintosh-walnut-Manischewitz version), studded as it is with cashews, pistachios, almonds, and walnuts, and spiced with cayenne, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, and ginger. These are spices that can induce a mild addiction, and this might make new addicts of those attached to the sweetly bland version, among which I number my family. I'll see how many minds I can open at this year's seders.

Corby Kummer

Excerpts from The Foods of Israel Today, by Joan Nathan

My Favorite Falafel

Every Israeli has an opinion about falafel, the ultimate Israeli street food, which is most often served stuffed into pita bread. One of my favorite spots is a simple stand in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem, adjacent to Mea Shearim. The neighborhood was established in 1891, when wealthy Jews from Bukhara engaged engineers and city planners to plan a quarter with straight, wide streets and lavish stone houses. After the Russian Revolution, with the passing of time and fortunes, the Bukharan Quarter lost much of its wealth, but even so the area retains a certain elegance. There, the falafel is freshly fried before your eyes and the balls are very large and light. Shlomo Zadok, the elderly falafel maker and falafel stand owner, brought the recipe with him from his native Yemen.

Zadok explained that at the time of the establishment of the state, falafel—the name of which probably comes from the word pilpel (pepper)—was made in two ways: either as it is in Egypt today, from crushed, soaked fava beans or fava beans combined with chickpeas, spices, and bulgur; or, as Yemenite Jews and the Arabs of Jerusalem did, from chickpeas alone. But favism, an inherited enzymatic deficiency occurring among some Jews—mainly those of Kurdish and Iraqi ancestry, many of whom came to Israel during the mid 1900s—proved potentially lethal, so all falafel makers in Israel ultimately stopped using fava beans, and chickpea falafel became an Israeli dish.

The timing was right for falafel in those early years, with immigrants pouring in. Since there was a shortage of meat, falafel made a cheap, protein-rich meal—and people liked it.

Rachama Ihshady, daughter of the founder of another favorite Jerusalem falafel joint, Shalom's Falafel on Bezalel Street, told me that her family recipe, also of Yemenite origin, has not changed since British times. Using the basics taught to me by these falafel mavens, I have created my own version, adding fresh parsley and cilantro, two ingredients I like and which originally characterized Arab falafel in Israel. Give me mine wrapped in a nice warm pita bread, swathed in tahina sauce and overflowing with pickled turnip and eggplant, chopped peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, amba (pickled mango sauce)—and make it harif, Hebrew for "hot." The type of hot sauce used, of course, depends on the origin of the falafel maker.

Yield: About 20 balls

1 cup dried chickpeas

1/2 large onion, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon salt

1/2-1 teaspoon dried hot red pepper

4 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon baking powder

4-6 tablespoons flour

Soybean or vegetable oil for frying

Chopped tomato for garnish

Diced onion for garnish

Diced green bell pepper for garnish

Tahina sauce

Pita bread
1. Put the chickpeas in a large bowl and add enough cold water to cover them by at least 2 inches. Let soak overnight, then drain. Or use canned chickpeas, drained.

2. Place the drained, uncooked chickpeas and the onions in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the parsley, cilantro, salt, hot pepper, garlic, and cumin. Process until blended but not pureed.

3. Sprinkle in the baking powder and 4 tablespoons of the flour, and pulse. You want to add enough flour so that the dough forms a small ball and no longer sticks to your hands. Turn into a bowl and refrigerate, covered, for several hours.

4. Form the chickpea mixture into balls about the size of walnuts, or use a falafel scoop, available in Middle Eastern markets.

5. Heat 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees in a deep pot or wok and fry 1 ball to test. If it falls apart, add a little flour. Then fry about 6 balls at once for a few minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Stuff half a pita with falafel balls, chopped tomatoes, onion, green pepper, and pickled turnips. Drizzle with tahina thinned with water.

Note Egyptians omit the cilantro and substitute fava beans for the chickpeas.

Old City Tahina with Flat Italian Parsley and Lemon

One day I visited the onion-domed Greek Orthodox Church of the Seven Apostles at Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. The priest had just baptized two children who were visiting from Jerusalem with their families and their local priest. They asked me to join them at their celebratory picnic, arranged on a table near the water. One dish that I particularly enjoyed was their tahina salad with fresh parsley and lemon. I had tasted something similar perhaps a hundred times, but that salad—perhaps because of the freshness of the ingredients, or the setting next to the biblical Lake Tiberias—was especially memorable. I have tried to reconstruct the perfect balance of tahina, parsley, and lemon that I tasted that day. Serve this with other salads, baked fish, or falafel.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups, or 4 servings

3/4 cup tahina

1/2 cup lemon juice

1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons water, or as needed

1 cup roughly chopped Italian parsley

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, puree the tahina, lemon juice, and garlic until smooth. If the tahina is still too thick, add a few tablespoons of water and it will thin down and become a pleasing white color.

2. Add the parsley and salt and pepper and pulse until blended. Adjust the seasonings and serve.

Za'atar: The Spice Combination That Opens Up the Mind

In search of an authentic za'atar, the popular Middle Eastern spice combination, I visited Rabai Ariedi in the Druse village of Ma'ghar in the Galilee. "We eat za'atar for breakfast, sprinkled on pita with olive oil from our village," said Mrs. Ariedi, the mother of five children, as she opened a jar of her homemade za'atar for me to taste. "My parents told us that za'atar opens up our minds and makes us more alert as students."

Za'atar, named for both the herb and the mix, is made from origanum syriacum, a wild oregano called hyssop in the Bible and whose flavor is a cross between Greek oregano and thyme. Symbolic of humility and modesty, it is possible that za'atar was the last food that Jesus ate. "After this, Jesus, aware that all had now come to its appointed end, said in fulfillment of scripture, 'I am thirsty.' A jar stood there full of sour wine; so they soaked a sponge with the wine, fixed it on hyssop, and held it up to his lips. Having received the wine, he said, 'It is accomplished!' Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (John 19:28-30).

Commercial za'atar mixes abound throughout Israel and can be purchased in Middle Eastern markets in the United States. Nevertheless, in April and May Mrs. Ariedi and the other women in her village drive to the hills behind her home to pick large quantities of the wild herb. (Wild za'atar, considered an endangered species by the Hagenat Hatevah, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, may only be picked at specified times during the year.) After the women have gathered the za'atar, they wrap the branches in bundles and dry them on the flat roofs of their houses. With the twigs removed, they sift the leaves and run them through their fingers, crumbling them into little pieces. Sometimes sesame seeds, salt, and sumac (a sour-tasting desert herb not related to the American poisonous variety) are added to the herb. Today, commercial za'atar is ground to a powder and often mixed with lemon salt or citric acid rather than the more costly sumac. The redder the za'atar, the more sumac has been included.

After one trip to Israel, I decided to make my own za'atar using the Greek oregano and thyme growing in my herb garden in Washington, D.C. It tasted so good that I continue to make it; stored in a cool, dark place, the blend will keep for several months. I pick the oregano just before it blooms and dry it with the thyme either on a flat basket or on a table in my kitchen. I buy the sumac from a local Middle Eastern market and preroasted sesame seeds from a Chinese market—you can also toast your own sesame seeds in your oven. My version is not the purist's za'atar, perhaps, but it is a flavorful first cousin. I sprinkle the blend on pita bread with a little olive oil to make a Middle Eastern breakfast bruschetta. It can also be used as a topping for pizza and pasta, or as a dry marinade for chicken or fish, and is a tasty addition to salads and vegetables. Today, you can buy a za'atar mix commercially in most Middle Eastern and other supermarkets.

Yield: 3/4 cup

1/4 cup dried oregano and thyme

2 tablespoons dried sumac
1/4 cup roasted sesame seeds

Salt to taste
1. Removing any twigs, crumble the oregano and thyme between your fingers into a bowl.

2. Add the sumac, sesame seeds, and salt to taste. Stir well.

Soofer Family lranian-Israeli Haroset

This flavorful version, with so many nuts, reminds me of the Talmudic suggestion as to the symbolism of haroset: that it represents the fruit trees under which Jewish women slaves enticed their husbands to make love, and thus propagated the Jewish people.

Yield: About 10 cups

1/3 cup shelled pistachio nuts

1/3 cup unblanched almonds

3/4 cup cashews

1/3 cup hazelnuts

3/4 cup walnuts

2 pears, peeled and quartered

2 red apples, peeled and quartered

3 cups seedless black raisins

1 cup seedless golden raisins

2 3/4 cups dates, pits removed
1 1/4 cups pomegranate juice

3 cups sweet red wine (about)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground ginger
1. Roast the pistachio nuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, and walnuts by placing them in the microwave on medium power for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

2. Place the roasted nuts in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process until coarsely ground. Add the pears, apples, raisins, and dates and pulse until the nuts are finely ground and the fruits coarsely chopped. Gradually add the pomegranate juice, continuing to process until thick. Add the wine and the spices and process once more to incorporate, adjusting to taste.

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More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The Joy of Coffee.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
Recipes from The Foods of Israel Today by Joan Nathan. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, NY, 2001. Hardcover, 433 pages. ISBN: 0-679-45107-2. $40.00. Copyright © by Joan Nathan.