This was the year when Israeli cuisine made it to the forefront of America’s food scene. Israeli restaurants - no longer viewed as merely falafel stands, or hidden behind vague promises of Middle Eastern menus - Israeli dishes, and most importantly, Israeli chefs, are taking center stage in the American culinary discourse.
Here are six signs that 2015 was the year of Israeli food in America.
1. Israel-born chef Alon Shaya opened an Israeli restaurant, Shaya earlier this year, his third restaurant in New Orleans. By the end of the year he had won the prestigious James Beard award for Best Chef in the South, and his restaurant, with Israeli classics including hummus, ikra, Moroccan carrot salad and fried cauliflower, was named restaurant of the year by the Daily Meal website and best new restaurant by Esquire. This is particularly admirable given that Shaya is in a city with its own well-established and much loved culinary traditions, Creole and Cajun cuisines. Maybe the Big Easy and the laid-back feel of Israel have something in common, not to mention the bold and fresh flavors that both cuisines share.
2. Timna in New York’s East Village, which serves new Israeli-style dishes such as risotto made from freekeh (smoked green wheat) with seared scallops, and Mediterranean tuna sashimi, was voted best new restaurant of the year by readers of USA Today.
3. More Israeli chefs are finally calling their restaurants “Israeli,” as Timna and Shaya are doing, and are no longer hiding behind the categories of Jewish, Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cuisines or declaring themselves “free of culinary or geographic limitations." New York-based chef and restaurateur Einat Admony’s two newest restaurants, Bar Bolonat and Combina are excellent examples of the new unabashed Israeli cuisine that distances itself from the traditional Jewish kitchen and gives it a new and unique interpretation with a chef’s touch and vision.
4. Michael Solomonov's cookbook “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking” (co-written with Steven Cook) came out in October to rave reviews from every food magazine across the country. The book covers the melting pot that is Israeli cuisine and presents it to American cooks in simple, easy-to-follow recipes with easy-to-find ingredients. Solomonov owns several restaurants in Philadelphia, most notably Zahav, an Israeli restaurant that won many awards. In August 2014 Solomonov opened Dizengoff, an Israeli-style hummus place, or hummusia in Hebrew, that serves hummus and only hummus, with rotating toppings.
5. Hummus was also the choice of Bon Appetit Magazine for the “creamy, dreamy dish of the year." The top culinary magazine based the choice on Solomonov’s mouth watering hummus plates with toppings such as radish, beet-pickled egg and fried chickpeas. This, with a fluffy pita bread on the side, is the dish of the year every year for most Israelis.
6. Zagat prepared a detailed list of “10 Israeli dishes you need to know” (which you probably already know, if you’re reading Haaretz). It includes many of the all-time Israeli favorites such as bourekas, hummus, sabich and shakshuka. And speaking of Shakshuka, the newly popular North African dish made it to the Forbes magazine list of restaurants trends of the year.
And one more thing: Many of the dishes praised by critics as staples of the Israeli kitchen have Arab roots and are served in Arab restaurants as well. So what makes them Israeli? Its the twist added in many Israeli restaurants, which serve them next to Ashkenazi and Eastern European fare, and the way they have been modified by creative chefs (i.e. Timna’s risotto made from freekeh). These combinations and alternations are what make them Israeli.