Liquid Gold

Memories of darker times, when olive oil was hard to come by.

“Until 20 or 25 years ago, you couldn’t even get olive oil in Israel,” chef Yisrael Aharoni said yesterday, reminding the audience at a Literary Cafe panel on Jewish cooking about a darker era, when what passed for “cuisine” here had to make do with less noble forms of cooking oil.

If you wanted olive oil, he went on, “you had to have a friend who had a friend who knew someone who lived in an Arab village.” It was only via the Italian cuisine much beloved here, Aharoni explained, that olive oil penetrated the local kitchen.

Olives.Daniel Tchetchik

Trying not to gloat, Jerusalem chef Ezra Kedem, who was born in 1965, said that when he was growing up in the capital and someone in the family was hungry, the remedy was a piece of dark bread with olive oil and za’atar.

Nonetheless, he admitted that his parents had to buy their oil from Arabs in Beit Jala, south of Jerusalem, where they would go once a year and return with two or three jerricans filled with the liquid gold.

Aharoni and Kedem were joined by American food writer Joan Nathan, in a lively and good-natured discussion moderated by Washington D.C. baker Mark Furstenberg. Nathan recalled how she wrote her first book, “The Flavor of Jerusalem” ‏(1975‏), after a two-year stay here in the early 1970s. That book is filled with dozens of local recipes and the stories behind them, and Nathan confirmed in her remarks yesterday that “none of the women I interviewed then used olive oil.”

If there has been a great culinary leap forward in Israel over the past two decades, then, it seems Mediterranean olive oil deserves a large part of the credit. When he is asked to define the “essence” of Israeli cuisine, Kedem says he points to the juice that remains on the bottom of the bowl, after one has eaten an Israeli salad.

“The liquid left behind from the veggies and the olive oil distills into a juice,” he explained. That’s the taste Kedem can’t be away from for too long. When he’s traveling for lengthy periods of time, after a while, he said, “I have to go into a store and buy some veggies. I need my salad.”