While doing the research for Israeli food, I was concerned that, because my children live there, I would make a faux pas as to what is true Israeli and what is not. Then I read a note in a beautiful cookbook called “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi that made me relax and add a little of my own stamp to it:
“The food cultures are mashed and fused together in a way that is impossible to unravel. They interact all the time and influence one another constantly, so nothing is pure any more. Over millenia it has seen countless immigrants, occupiers, visitors, merchants, all bringing foods and recipes from the four corners of the earth.”
I expected a war ravaged place, but instead I was blown away by the tastes, flavors, spices and availabilty of fresh produce in Israel. The food was interesting and extremely appetizing. The variety of juices made my heart happy. There were juice stands around every corner in Tel Aviv and the market in Jerusalem. The juices were pressed by hand with a manual press. While in the old city of Jaffa, I asked my son Craig to buy me a fresh squeezed juice three times within the space of 30 minutes. I bled fresh pomegranate, ginger, mango & carrot. I was officially in love with Israel’s juices. The best dining experience was at Shila, the restaurant where Craig works. It is one of the top 10 restaurants in Israel and the raw bar presented dishes out of this world. I regret not going back there to spend a night sitting at this bar, eating seafood that tasted like it came fresh out of the ocean minutes ago.
During our trip to the old city of Jerusalem, we ate Shakshuka for lunch at a little cafe within the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. What I loved most about the dish was the fact that they served it in the pan it was prepared in. This gave it an authentic rusticity and somewhat of a charming messiness. The cafe was in a square with cobblestone floors and small rickety tables and chairs that added to the charm. While eating, all kinds of celebration marches with music came by us. People here love to dance and they do so without inhibitions. This was especially noticeable at Melanie’s wedding. I loved that. Music and dancing would break out spontaneously all over the beachfront as soon as the sun starts to go down, most of the music played by live musicians.
We didn’t eat much dessert, because we found an incredible ice cream shop on a street corner that sells the best ice cream in the world. Needless to say, we ate a lot of ice cream. I tried a more traditional rice pudding made with cardamom, pistachios and rose water. Normally I wouldn’t really enjoy a rice pudding, but cardamom is my favorite spice and the rose water adds tremendous interest to this dish.
Every morning we sat on our balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. It was our first time in the Middle East. It struck me that we sat in a war torn country, overlooking a beautiful Mediterranean, drinking some of the best coffee in the world in the Middle East. What an amazing contrast of flavors & scenes. I was just sad that I picked up a stomach virus halfway through the trip and couldn’t live it up as much as I would’ve liked to. We may have to go back to try again.
I never really thought about it in depth until someone asked: “So, what is Israeli food?”
It is the perfect marriage between Mediterranean & Middle Eastern dishes. In other words, flavorful use of spices and very healthy. Spices that I tasted the most were cumin, garlic, saffron, cardamom & a mild use of chili and rosewater. Pomegranates are popular everywhere and dirt cheap. I fell in love with the fresh pressed juice, ice cream, strong coffee, seafood (fresh), Shakshuka (eggs baked in a spicy tomato sauce) Baba Ganoush (eggplant dip), falafel (a deep fried ball made out of chickpeas, fava beans or both), pita bread, Israeli salad (a simple mix of cucumber, tomato, onion, & sometimes mint), hummus (a dip made out of mashed chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, salt, garlic & lemon juice). Tahini is a paste made out of sesame seeds.
While in Tel Aviv, we got invited to a traditional Shabbat (Sabbath) lunch/dinner so we could meet our in-laws. Here we experienced the traditional food first hand. The table was large. It hosted 14 people. Everyone was talking, singing, praying and there was food everywhere. It had all the dips, pickles, vegetables, meat, fish, chicken soup (for the soul) and the supply was endless. There are no photos of this day, because it was the Sabbath and taking photos would be considered work. I made some of the dishes later in my kitchen and took the photos. The food was cooked the day before and was put on hot plates until the following day when it would be eaten. My daughter felt anxious when I was cornered in the kitchen by all the women who explained to me how the food tradition works. Melanie thought I was being overwhelmed by all the people, but I was in my element. She had nothing to worry about. During the meal I had an Old Testament Biblical discussion about salt pillars with a 5 year old boy that astounded me with its intensity. I spoke German for the first time in many years with my son in law’s grandmother. She survived the holocaust and did all the cooking for the day. Her strength had me in awe and inspired me to write some of the recipes for my cookbook. Toasts where made throughout the day by happy people with sweet pomegranate liqueur.
L’chaim Israeli food!
Photos taken by me