In a kitchen test of “Modern Israeli Cooking,” we tried to prepare falafel according to its recipe. “This will never work,” said the disbelieving cook. “You make falafel from chickpeas that have not been cooked or soaked. It’s impossible to prepare falafel from canned, precooked chickpeas. There is no starch to hold the dough together, and the balls will just fall apart.”
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Still, we tried. After all, falafel, according to the introduction to the recipe, is “another one of those Israeli street foods that you can’t go a month without having,” and one occasionally has to push the conventional envelope of the culinary universe.
The recipe by chef Danielle Oron is for “Green Spinach Falafel,” evidently a twist on the norm, which in her opinion transforms it from just another Israeli food into a modern Israeli food. (Her hummus recipe includes a sautéd spinach and radish salad, to be served with the hummus, to the horror of diehard hummus purists.)
The cook’s brow was deeply furrowed. We support innovation and creativity, but behind the conversion of traditional to modern, there must be a thread of logic or at least a trace of charm. It’s not certain that spinach, with its anemic flavor that has a hard time competing with the dominant chickpea and cumin, is a worthy substitute for the herbal spices that are traditionally used in the preparation of green falafel.
We followed the instructions to the letter. Nevertheless, the frying stage ended in a colossal disaster: the falafel balls completely disintegrated, leaving behind a phosphorescent, turbid green oil with grains of falafel dough floating in it. And the few green embers that could be salvaged were rejected derisively by the tasters.
In recent years, it seems it has been easier to try to define Israeli cuisine when you are geographically situated outside the borders of the country. In Israel itself – a young nation in an ancient region rich in complex history and conflicts – every attempt to define a national cuisine has come up against impassable minefields: What is Israeli and what is Palestinian? Is there such a thing as Palestinian cuisine and is it different from what has existed for centuries in the area of Greater Syria and was common to the native Jews, Muslims and Christians?
Can hummus and falafel be called Israeli dishes? Is there a Jewish culinary common denominator, and does it have anything to do with Israeli cuisine? There are dozens more burning questions, and all of this without even addressing the big issue of why, really, do we need a national cuisine?
Those who work abroad – be they Israeli chefs who have opened restaurants overseas or chefs born to Israeli parents living outside the country – are for the most part exempt from having to address these tough questions. Most global consumers are not versed in the fine details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is possible to simply cook food that tastes good, without any need to explain it. Jewish Israelis are convenient Western middlemen for Mediterranean cuisine and the Middle Eastern diet – of which olive oil and fresh vegetables have become symbolic – well suits the current trend of eating light, healthy food.
The soaring popularity of the Middle Eastern kitchen corresponds to a real and sincere search. Members of the third generation of migrants and refugees – dating back to the establishment of the State of Israel following World War II and to the Nakba – are all seeking identity and finding their roots in the kitchen.
The upshot is dozens of cookbooks – Israeli and Palestinian – now being churned out by international publishing houses. Some of them – like “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi or “The Gaza Kitchen” by Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt – offer modern, sophisticated and stimulating recipes, or traditional recipes and glimpses into a complex story. Others are riding the wave of success without offering anything in exchange, apart from the sumac and za’atar that are sprinkled in nearly excessive quantities on every dish.
“I don’t think anyone in Israel knows what shepherd’s pie is. But nevertheless there is a similar dish that is called Siniyet Batata, which literally translates into ‘tray of potatoes.’ If the two dishes would make love, you’d get this bouncing baby recipe.... The combination of the baharat seasoning and the beef lends the dish its distinctive Moroccan flavor” (from the introduction to the recipe “Moroccan Spiced Shepherd’s Pie”).
Danielle Oron, author of “Modern Israeli Cooking,” was born in Israel and moved with her family to New Jersey when she was three years old. Her professional resume includes a stint at “Moo Milk Bar” in Toronto (which has since closed down) and her blog, “I Will Not Eat Oysters” (that’s a shame, because they’re tasty).
In her introduction, Oron notes that Israeli cuisine is difficult to define, without getting into any superfluous details. She does mention the magic words “melting pot.” However, the title that she chose for the book, as well as the recipes and texts that accompany them, profess to tell the story of Israeli society through its cuisine.
The paragraph cited above is a good example of the way they are reflected through Oron’s eyes. She demonstrates some haughtiness (in fact, there are a few Israelis who do know what shepherd’s pie is; it is a fairly popular dish served in local bars and pubs), and more than a little ignorance. Sinia is indeed the kitchenware on which various foods are prepared, and named for the serving dish. But that is not the precise literal translation; it would have been worthwhile to cite its origin (the book barely says a word about the influence of dishes from the Arab kitchen). Baharat is a mixture of spices typical of Middle Eastern cuisine, not North African. Arising from the pages of the book is a fantasy-laced Israel (“Without fail, everyone in Tel Aviv arrives at the beach at some point on Saturday”). It is a country full of Orientalist scents (“Hawaij. A super ugly name for a delicious combination of spices used widely in Middle Eastern cuisine, especially by the Yemenite Jews”). Some of the recipes are aimed directly at the North American public (Beer-Braised Holiday Brisket, or Chermoula Fish Tacos). Others are banal and do not offer any innovation on tradition (Fattoush Salad); while still others are truly unrealistic (Buckwheat and Eggplant Salad, or Avocado and Amba on Grilled Bread).
You can talk nowadays about a new Israeli cuisine – improvisation, daring and creativity are some of the traits that define a cuisine contending with a rigid centuries-old tradition. But the cuisine Oron offers is neither Israeli nor new. At best, it is the personal cuisine of a chef whose links to Israel are weak. It should be noted that you don’t have to be born in a certain place or spend most of your life there to document a culinary culture. There are excellent books that have honored local and national cuisines or breathed new life into them, penned by “foreigners.” But they were written out of respect for tradition, together with intensive study and research. And not only for the sake of childhood memories of schnitzel and meatballs.
“Modern Israeli Cooking,” Danielle Oron, Page Street Publishing, 240 pages