The Making of 'Falafel Nation': How Vegetables Became Part of Israeli Identity

Food simply was not that important in the early days of the state — and that’s how the modern Israeli breakfast came to be, author Yael Raviv explains.

Israeli breakfast at Jerusalem's Te'enim restaurant.
Rafi Kotz

Falafel Nation,” by Yael Raviv, is a work of culinary anthropology that looks at the founding of the state of Israel through the prism of food. The book (University of Nebraska Press) is the outgrowth of Raviv’s Ph.D. dissertation in performance studies at New York University.

Raviv spoke with The Forward’s Alix Wall about how food helped Israelis form a new identity in the early days of the state. Here are excerpts from their interview.

How were oranges, olives and other native fruits and vegetables integral to forging a new Israeli identity for the newcomers from Eastern Europe?

"For many years, cooking and consumption of food were really not important, but agriculture was really important in the early decades of Zionism, so a lot of these products became hallmarks and were used as markers of identity because they illustrated so well this connection to the land. They became emblematic of this new Jewish persona of the halutz (pioneer) that’s vital and strong and rooted in the land. The fact that olives and grapes are mentioned in the Bible illustrated an unbroken connection, linking current pioneers to their ancestors in Biblical times."

For years, many tourists thought of the huge hotel buffet breakfasts as emblematic of Israeli food. How did this tradition begin?

"Food was just not that important in the early years, so breakfast featured many basic products that don’t require cooking. The hotel breakfast became dairy products and fresh fruits and vegetables, because you don’t have to do too much to them to have fabulous meals. The more sophisticated cooking only evolved in the last decades to be on par with any other tourist destination."

Just as the kibbutz movement had a huge influence on the country in its formative years, the communal dining experience did as well. How?

"The reason that the kibbutz movement in Israel was so successful and still goes on is because it was so much a part of the country in general and was able to change and adapt with the times. People could be flexible and keep the ideology and values but be willing to adapt when things weren’t working. The kibbutz members were part of that emblem of the Israeli ideal that I mentioned earlier; they were young and strong and rooted in the land and self-sufficient, which made them take on this greater significance. It’s changed a lot in the last few decades. The hallowed image of an Israeli hero now may be a tech start up."

When you began studying Israeli cuisine, it was a topic not much discussed outside of Israel. Now Israeli cuisine seems to be having its moment, thanks to chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, Alon Shaya, Michael Solomonov and Einat Admony. Why do you think this is, and did you plan such good timing for your book?

"It probably was easier to publish my book now that there’s such an interest in Israeli cuisine. When I worked on Israeli cuisine in the ’90s people would ask if there is such a thing. Now it’s understood that there is, like French or Italian cuisine. People accept that now, when a couple of decades ago, they wouldn’t have. 

"It did grow up and mature, and all of these chefs have contributed to its maturity and articulation. They’re all mining their heritage and their family recipes, whether it’s a mother or grandmother, and their experiences growing up, but also bringing their culinary training and travels around the world to it, whether it’s French techniques or Asian ingredients or influences from wherever they live now.

"When you try and define it, one of the traits that characterizes it is this openness. The results are really exciting, as you have these really talented chefs thinking about Israeli cuisine and what it is and playing around with ingredients and bringing together different traditional recipes with new influences, to create something really exciting and fun."

Alix Wall is a freelance writer and personal chef in Oakland, California, and the author of the blog TheOrganicEpicure.com.