When Polish chulent met Iraqi kibbeh: Israel's quirky fusion cuisine
On Israel's Independence Day, Vered Guttman tells the story of her mixed family and examines the creative and sometimes over-the-top ways Israeli chefs blend traditional Jewish foods with new flavors.
Sweetbread in porcini foam, calamari in tahini sauce over tabbuleh, seafood couscous, Palestinian inspired beef tartar with pine nuts, chicken liver over Romanian polenta, char-grilled eggplant with tahini and yogurt. All these are just a few samples of what you can easily find in chef-restaurants around Israel today. At the same time, traditional dishes that were brought to Israel by Jews from all over the Diaspora are still very popular all over the country as well.
It’s interesting to follow the development of Israeli cuisine from the first days of the young country and until now, 64 years later. It’s a fast-forward process of establishing a unique and distinctive cuisine by an immigrant society - a process that takes other nations centuries to go through. The process is not over, but following Israel’s winding culinary path is fascinating.
There are many ways to explain the development of the Israeli cuisine, and I like to do it in the most intuitive way for me: through the story of my family - a typical Israeli family.
On my mother’s side, my grandparents sailed the Mediterranean Sea from Poland in the 1930s to fulfill their dream of living in Israel. They were ardent Zionists and believed their destiny was to live and create in Israel. They brought with them the traditional Eastern European food: gefilte fish, kugel, borscht, chulent and pickled fish (herring). Many ingredients were missing in Israel at the time, and immigrants had to adapt to what was available.
My father’s parents, with him as a baby, came from Iraq to Israel in 1943 (earlier than most Iraqi Jews). They simply took a taxi from Baghdad to Tel Aviv.
Their food was very Iraqi – kibbeh, sambusak, sweet and sour stews, date-filled cookies. And that’s what they continued to prepare in Israel, changing some recipes slightly to fit the limited variety of ingredients the Holy Land had to offer at the time.
In my grandparents’ generation, these different cuisines - the Polish, Iraqi, Moroccan, Hungarian, Yemeni and many others - existed side by side for years without ever mixing. Each family continued cooking the same way they did in the Diaspora, or as much as they could. Neighbors would suspiciously sniff and look at each other’s dishes - the Ashkenazis making fun of the Sephardi food, and vice versa.
When my mother told my grandmother she wanted to marry my dad, her mother cried out: “marry a Sephardi?” But my uncle reminded her they were all Jewish and so they married, and like many other mixed couples of their generation, began to mix their foods at home.
So on my parents’ table, much like on the tables of many of their friends, you could find a first course from Poland served with a Moroccan salad; Turkish pastry followed by a Farsi main course; and a Hungarian cake. The food was still very traditional, but dishes from different origins were naturally served together.
In the meantime, the Israelis learned from their neighboring Palestinians to use olives and fresh herbs, to make fresh salads and to grill meat. And yes, they also learned to love hummus, which became an obsession for Israelis over the years.
With the economic growth in the 1970s, Israelis started traveling the world. Suddenly Israel had its first real French restaurant, Chinese restaurant and Pizza parlor. Asian and South American influences were introduced by young Israelis who traveled the world after their mandatory military service and the Russian immigration wave of the 1990s led to the opening of grocery stores offering for the first time sausages, pork, caviar and other non-Kosher ingredients.
All of the above led to a new generation of Israeli food: the fusion of the grandparents’ traditional cuisines with the local Palestinian cuisine and the influence from world traveling. All these new culinary trends were fitted to what Israel already had to offer: a warm climate, bountiful fruit and vegetables, olive oil, and local fish.
Now, all the traditions handed down from grandmothers were blended together, resulting in dishes that were new, exciting and creative - sometimes too creative.
So we had talented chefs coming up with creations like veal stew with garlic confit kreplach cooked with Swiss chard and beans, or chicken livers drizzled with Iraqi date molasses (silan). This new cuisine offered ceviche with pomegranate and sumac, chicken and mango tortilla in tahini sauce and grape leaves filled with halva and prunes in vanilla and cardamom oil. And how about a dish of chicken breast in couscous and grape leaves crust, filled with spleen and hearts with root vegetables and turnip cream in silan and raisins sauce? Which is, by the way, a real dish.
It went completely wild!
And since Israelis always like to pursue trends, some ingredients became overly popular by chefs with the general public following suit. Tahini, quinoa, pomegranate syrup, pickled lemon and silan are just a few examples of trendy ingredients that worked well with the local cuisine. Suddenly, everyone was drizzling silan or tahini, or both, on top of their ice cream. Silan showed up in salad dressings, on fish, over kebabs and in all types of dessert.
Not all the trendy choices made sense. Black truffles and chestnuts for example, that were highly fashionable in the last couple of years, seem a little out of place when served on a hot summer night in Tel Aviv. And at one point, passion fruit became so popular that it provoked the anti-passion-fruit demonstration by some passionate foodies in Tel Aviv.
The Israeli cuisine today still follows the same principle – no rules, just fun. It’s understandable in a country that was formed by young immigrants who were trying to break with old traditions. Chefs feel free to play with their heritage, not stick to it, to choose from each cuisine what works and to have fun with it and make it contemporary by using local exciting ingredients. This fusion is completely and uniquely Israeli.
And that’s how I cook today. Incorporating Ashkenazi notes into mainly Sephardi cooking, trying any new Middle Eastern ingredient I discover. But the more I cook and experiment, the more I realize just how wonderful those original cuisines are. It’s the simple Polish chulent and Iraqi kibbeh soups that I crave the most. I even miss dishes of other grandmas, like the Libyan mafroom, or Yemeni kubbaneh. It’s what I ask my mother to make for me and what my family asks me to make for them. These recipes satisfied generations of Jews, so maybe, after all, there’s no need for a change.
See? Not a single word about falafel!
Recipes for this article:
Vered Guttman is a caterer and a food writer based in Washington DC. Growing up in Israel she took her first lessons in Jewish cooking sitting at the tables of her two grandmothers, one from Poland, the other from Iraq. In Modern Manna, Vered will share a mix of new Israeli trends and old Jewish traditions, sprinkled with a distinct Sephardic flavor. Follow Vered on Twitter @veredguttman