When did Israelis evolve from a nation that eats to live to one that lives to eat?
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Israeli-born foodie and performance artist Yael Raviv tries to get to the heart of that question in her upcoming book “Falafel Nation,” which ponders the role of gastronomy in shaping society in the modern Jewish state.
“In Israel, food has become a tool for discussing and highlighting identity, not only among Jews of different backgrounds, but also among Jews and Palestinians, who famously fight over who owns hummus” said Raviv, in a telephone interview from her home in New York. “In recent years, food has also played an important role in positioning Israelis as citizens of the world and turning the country into a vital tourist destination.”
The title of her book, scheduled for release next month by University of Nebraska Press, is a bit misleading. If anything, Raviv says she has discovered through her research that there is no one food today that defines Israeli cuisine. Rather, the country's up-and-coming foodie scene is a celebration of diversity and multiculturalism.
“Over the past 20 years or so, we’ve seen growing openness to different ethnic cuisines,” she notes.
“We no longer talk in broad terms about Ashkenazi and Mizrahi food," she says referring to the traditions of Jews who came, respectively, from Europe or North Africa and the Middle East. "Now there’s Moroccan and Yemenite cuisine, and Russian and Czech food.” Besides all the cuisines that Jews from around the world have brought with them to Israel from their places of birth, says Raviv, adventurous young Israelis have over the past few decades introduced the country to many new and exotic cuisines they learned about during travels abroad.
In the early days of Zionism before the establishment of the state, says Raviv, food was seen as a means of connecting the idealistic young pioneers to the land. After that, it was mainly valued as a raw material used in creating new homegrown industries for the fledgling Jewish state. The turning point came in the 1980s when Israel transitioned into a consumer society.
“That’s when you started seeing more cookbooks being published, more supermarkets opening up and cable television programs devoted to food,” notes Raviv. “People stopped thinking of food as something that is merely functional and started embracing it as a source of pleasure.”
Raviv, who moved to New York 21 years ago to pursue a career in theater, fell into gastronomy almost by chance. “Once I was married with kids, working in theater seemed very challenging, and decided to go back to school to do my doctorate” in performance arts, she recalls. “I was thinking what subject I’d like to spend the next 10 years of my life exploring, and what I came up with was food as an emblem of national identity. I thought my adviser would laugh me out the door when I told her, but in fact, she was very open to it.” Raviv’s dissertation, which was completed in 2002, served as the basis for her new book.
In addition to teaching in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, Raviv serves as director of the Umami food and art festival in the city.
The newfound perception of Israeli cuisine as “something that brings together everything cool about Mideast cuisine, on the one hand, and Mediterranean on the other,” according to Raviv, may explain its growing trendiness in international circles.
Although many skeptics may claim otherwise, the author says she is convinced there is a truly Israeli cuisine. “As I see it, as long as there are people, both in Israel and abroad, that cook a certain way and eat certain things, then yes, there is a cuisine,” she says. “If there are cookbooks and blogs and restaurants that are labeled Israeli, and they serve certain things that tie them all together, then that makes it Israeli cuisine. It may be constantly changing and reimagining itself, but that’s true of cuisine everywhere in the world.”