No, Cherry Tomatoes Aren't an Israeli Invention

Why Israeli cuisine is so successful in the United States and Europe - while Israelis themselves prefer pasta and pizza

Cherry tomatoes.
David Bachar

The cherry tomato is not an Israeli invention, and this isn’t the first time the fact has been stated loud and clear. But because the claim is so widely accepted, let me repeat once again: It’s false. The truth is that Israeli researchers developed modern varieties of the cherry tomato, which has become a commercial product found all over the world, mainly thanks to its long shelf life. Until the 1980s miniature tomatoes were a marginal crop used in dishes mainly as decoration.

To learn more about the origin of the cherry tomato and why it continues to appear on popular lists of original Israeli inventions, a good start is an article by Anna Wexler, which was published in the summer issue of the American quarterly Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. Wexler investigates the origin of the cherry tomato (apparently Central America), offers evidence of its presence in Western culture starting in the 17th century, and tries to explain why it has become part of an attempt to shape Israeli national identity, as well as an instrument of the country’s public relations.

According to Wexler, the almost blind belief in the cherry tomato as an original Israeli development is attractive to Israelis because it goes along with their self-image as innovators. “For example, Israelis often point to the fact that prior to 1948, Israel was a malaria-infested swampland, but in just 60 years – due to Israeli ingenuity – the country became a center of scientific and technological development,” she writes.

I recalled Wexler’s excellent article two weeks ago, when the cherry tomato was mentioned as proof of Israeli creativity and innovation at an academic conference devoted to Israeli cuisine sponsored by American University in Washington, D.C. The conference, “Israeli Cuisine as a Reflection of Israeli Society,” was initiated by the Center for Israel Studies at American University. This writer was invited to take part in a panel dealing with the politics of food and the Jewish-Arab conflict. The lectures and discussions, open to the general public, attracted large audiences.

“It’s not to be taken for granted that such a group of chefs, sociologists, anthropologists and other food scholars from Israel and worldwide, is convening here in order to talk about Israeli food,” said Dr. Yahil Zaban of Tel Aviv University, one of the speakers.

“Israeli cuisine is today seen as an exceptionally complex cultural phenomenon, in both its academic and culinary aspects. There’s no question that this is a subject that fascinates not only foodies but researchers of food and culture from all over the world as well.”

“It’s amazing that the organizers were able to convene almost all the academics who have written important studies on the subject of Israeli cuisine in recent years. We tried to do it in Israel and were unsuccessful,” says Prof. Nir Avieli of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, another speaker and a pioneer of academic writing about food in Israel.

He says that a local cuisine is almost always defined from the viewpoint of an outsider. “When I did my doctorate on field work in Vietnam, one of my interviewees made an unforgettable statement: ‘Food becomes local only when foreigners arrive.’ Until then it is simply food that is consumed on a daily basis.” In today’s Israel, where the restaurant scene is collapsing and many restaurateurs and chefs are trying to start careers abroad, this statement is even more pertinent.

Eggplant in tahini, also known as baba ganoush.
Dan Perez

Soft diplomacy

The Israeli chefs invited to speak at the conference – including Michael Solomonov (Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia and Dizengoff in New York) and Einat Admony (Taim and Balaboosta in New York), along with Tom Franz, winner of the “MasterChef” cooking TV program, work mainly outside the country. “Most of them haven’t operated a restaurant in Israel or passed the test of the Israeli public,” says Avieli.

The chefs were generous with compliments for Israeli produce (which, however, has become industrial in recent years, enslaved to draconian government regulation and exposed to massive imports from abroad). They played on the sense of identification of the audience, many of whom had some connection to Israel, and often did not stick to the facts (for example, on the invention of the cherry tomato, and used cliches about the melting pot and Israeli integration). Food scholar Mitchell Davis, the moderator of the judges’ panel, tried to get a clear answer from them to the simple question: “What exactly is Israeli cuisine?” but it’s not certain he succeeded.

“Most of the chefs who attended the conference are chefs who market ‘Israeli cuisine’ abroad, whether in the United States or in Europe,” says Dr. Rafi Grosglik, who received his degree from Ben Gurion University and now teaches at the University of California, Davis. “For political or commercial reasons they create a connection between foods, food products and culinary images on the one hand, and presentations of nationalism on the other. They use food as a type of soft diplomacy, to create a partial, positive picture of Israel, which is sometimes far from the reality. That happens all over the world, of course, not only in Israel, and it illustrates the way in which chefs have become important agents of culture, and not exclusively in the culinary sphere.”

The speakers from the academic world presented a more critical discourse than did the chefs. Dr. Ronald Ranta of Kingston University in London, who specializes in issues of cuisine and nationalism, delivered a fascinating speech about the constant duality in Israel’s attitude toward Palestinian cuisine, which involves denial, admiration and appropriation at one at the same time. Prof. Avieli presented a study proving that the foods most widely consumed in Israel are actually pasta and pizza – contrary to the popular conception that falafel and hummus are the favorites – and spoke of a desire to aspire to the Mediterranean ideal rather than Mediterraneanreality.

Love and hate

Foodie and artist Dr. Yael Raviv, author of “Falafel Nation,” demonstrated the way attitudes toward food are reflected in contemporary Israeli art; and Zaban made the audience laugh when he talked about the demand by Israeli chefs – including Pini Levy, Hussam Abbas, Eyal Shani, Ezra Kedem and Erez Komarovsky – to receive credit for inventing an eggplant dish with tahini (baladi eggplant carpaccio). In fact, this is actually baba ganoush, an ancient Mediterranean dish that was prepared and consumed by Muslims, Jews and Christians. In various versions, it is popular to this day all over the Levant.

“It’s no wonder that all the Israeli chefs who demand credit for inventing baladi eggplant carpaccio attribute it to the 1990s, right after the Oslo Accords,” says Zaban. “During those years Israeli cuisine developed a new identity, which corresponds with the Palestinian tradition and Mediterranean cooking. To this day Israeli cooking has a love-hate relationship with these traditions.

“Think how difficult it would be for an Israeli chef to say ‘Palestinian cooking’ or ‘Arab cooking,’ and how easy it is for him to say ‘Shami,’ ‘Galilean,’ ‘Jerusalemite.’ That may also be the reason why this conference could take place in the United States, and not in Israel. In Israeli discourse, diners flee from reality to food, which becomes a reflection of the fears and anxieties from which they’re fleeing. In today’s political atmosphere, the dark sides of ‘Israeli taste’ are downplayed: the economic, ethnic and national oppression that are hidden in a pita. That’s also the main reason why Israeli cuisine is so successful in the United States and Europe – it is able to provide a softened, ‘civilized’ and non-threatening experience of the Middle East,” Zaban concludes.