After a rich dinner of kishke, chicken soup, gefilte fish and cholent, high-tech entrepreneur Yossi Vardi took the microphone - as he likes doing at events - and told diners at the Sender restaurant on Tel Aviv's Levinsky Street what real Polish food was. It was close to 11 P.M., the end of a food- and vodka-filled evening that had begun three and a half hours before. The people in attendance, most of whom were silver-haired couples of Ashkenazi descent, included Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, a former president of Tel Aviv University and Israel’s former ambassador to the United States; Jacek Chodorowicz, the Polish ambassador to Israel; and Piotr Bikont, the well-known Polish food critic who is very proud that his Jewish daughter Ola lives in Israel, and swore that he had never tasted such good cholent.
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“There are two kinds of Polish cuisine,” a well-fed Vardi said after the meal. “One is fake Polish cuisine, which the Poles produce in Poland. The second is our cuisine, which is made up of bread and the leftovers from yesterday, the day before and before that - all the way back to Abraham.”
Vardi was in high spirits. “I’m stunned by how successful the Order has been,” he said, referring to the Order of the Knights of the Kishke, the secret society of lovers of Polish-Jewish cuisine that he established in 2004. He founded it in response to a “scathing” review that Haaretz published about the Sender restaurant. “The restaurant critic wrote that the chopped liver here was lumpy. We took that as a personal insult, and came out in defense of its honor and the chopped-up reputation of the chef. Chopped liver is supposed to be lumpy,” Vardi said firmly.
'Creativity and recycling'
Sender, which hosted the Order of the Knights of the Kishke last Thursday, started as a delicatessen in Jaffa when the State of Israel was established, and it has been preparing traditional Polish food ever since. It moved to its current location on the outskirts of the Levinsky Market in 1960. Every day, chef Zami Schreiber, the founder’s grandson, prepares dishes such as egg salad with hints of schmaltz (chicken fat, just like Bubbe used to make), chopped liver, and kishke according to the recipe his father got from the partisans. “It’s a classic leftover recipe. It’s poor people’s food, fitting for partisans who lived on the leftovers they stole from farmers,” says Ronit Vered, who writes a food column for Haaretz’s weekend magazine and helped organize the event.
Vardi spoke about the special properties of chopped liver. “The proportion of Jews who win Nobel Prizes is higher than among other nations because Jews eat what everybody else doesn’t. So to win the Nobel Prize, you have to eat chopped liver,” he said. For him, technological progress is also linked to chopped liver. “The explanation for the high-tech phenomenon in Israel is that we eat dishes that don’t exist in other countries. Polish-Jewish cuisine is about creativity and recycling,” he said.
Vardi mentioned his mother, who owned a restaurant on Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street in the 1950s. “She always prepared dishes from the previous day’s leftovers," he recalled. "The Polish kitchen is called just a kitchen, but it is really a laboratory of innovation - a laboratory in which we grew and developed well,” he said. “My mother was actually a pioneer of biotechnology, even though she had, perhaps, an eighth-grade education. She could turn any organic thing into chopped liver, and always obeyed another rule of the Polish kitchen: to conceal all enigmatic ingredients.” Polish food, he explained, is served chopped, grated or crushed so that people will not know what’s really in it.
The motto of the Order of the Knights of the Kishke was projected onto a screen before the guests’ astonished eyes: “Kishke is like the Internet - a wide tube filled with unknown but addictive things that destroy your health.”
The evening was organized by the Polish Institute in Israel as part of its Polish Culinary Week. Arieh Rosen, the institute’s cultural programming director, was very excited when he saw the long line of people outside the small restaurant. “I had no idea that so many people cared so deeply about this subject,” he said. “They come here with longing, as if they had waited years for this.”
At the start of the evening, Rosen was still optimistic over the average age of the guests. “I hope young people will also attend, so we can have a mix of older and younger people,” he said. A quick glance at the guests was enough to show that the reality was rather different. “It’s not that the young people didn’t want to come,” he said later, with a smile. “It’s that the older people got here first, and everything was sold out.”
As Polish as can be
One pleasant young woman stood out among the crowd of mostly older people: Piotr Bikont's 25-year-old daughter, Ola, who has lived in Tel Aviv for the past five years, studying gold- and silversmithing and waiting tables at the city's Minzar bar. She says she can’t stand carp or gefilte fish, noting that fish aren’t supposed to be sweet because they don’t swim in sugar. “Bottom line, it’s gross,” she said in Hebrew. But, she added, she likes some aspects of Polish cuisine, such as pickle soup. “Everything people say about Polish women is true,” she says. “Before I came here, I didn’t know I was the most Polish a woman can be, but it’s turned out to be true.”
Piotr Bikont was glad of the opportunity to meet up with Ola in the Holy Land, and to offer some insights into the Polish-Jewish kitchen. He said that the Jews who still live in Poland do not know much about Jewish cuisine. Most of them grew up in assimilated families. Others admit that they detest Jewish cuisine, and say their mothers were the world’s worst cooks.
But at Sender’s, the guests seemed more than satisfied. Zami the chef went among the tables with an expression of pride. “Are the Polish people pleased?” he asked, referring to the Polish guests. “We didn’t hold back. We’re not Poles, but rather Poles of the new generation.” Still, when he was asked about the tradition he absorbed, he said that his father “never ate fresh food all his life. Only dry.”
Vardi understood what he was talking about. “Polish cuisine is like wine,” he said. “You mustn’t throw anything away.”