Ruthie Russo is a chef and food writer with a down-to-earth attitude about food and what makes people like it (snobbery and education are two of them).
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In an interview with TheMarker, she pooh-poohs the cult of quality ingredients and thinks people’s choices about cuisine – sushi in, Ethiopian food never – has as much to do with economics and status as it does with taste.
“The way people view food also says something about international power politics,” Russo says.
Russo, 39, should know. In addition to a career in Israel in journalism, on television and on the lecture circuit, including TEDx Tel Aviv, she serves as the face of Israeli cuisine to the world.
Acting as an expert flown by the foreign and tourism ministries to far-flung places like Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Turkey – where her roots are – she not only is an expert of the Israeli menu and its eclectic foundations but knows a thing or two about food diplomacy and the interplay of menu and diplomacy.
How does a conversation about food start? How about we start with why TV cooking shows insist on “quality” ingredients?
"I studied cooking in New York. There they push mantras of the kind. They’re clichés that chefs say."
Do you believe it?
"It’s persuasive. I also used to say it until I was commissioned to write an article about Ethiopian food. An Ethiopian restaurant had just opened."
We’ll get to it. What raw materials do you buy?
"Now I buy what’s cheap, on sale. I say 'My kids get the cheapest,' a-la 'My kids get the best.' My husband, a former cook, and I know how to make the most of simple things."
Back at your Ethiopian restaurant –
"I came and it was empty. I asked myself why."
"It took me a while to understand I told people that I was doing an article on Ethiopian food and they wrinkled their noses. The Mapa website, then a serious search engine for restaurants, didn’t even have a category for ‘Ethiopian’. One was classified under meat restaurants, another under ‘home cooking’.
In the New York Times they had Ukrainian food, Vietnamese, tapas but no Ethiopian. The closest category was ‘African food’ The most advanced people I know told me they were grossed out by African food and that injera, the Ethiopian bread, is like eating a wet rag somebody told me they use a lot of spices to disguise their bad raw materials. That ties with the ‘quality raw materials’ we were talking about.
Tel Aviv has four Vietnamese restaurants. Why shouldn’t it have four Ethiopian restaurants?
"The way people view food also says something about international power politics. There are reasons Ethiopians in Israel get hit by the cops, that they have no category in the search engine, and that people say their food is disgusting."
In other words, the world’s relationship to Africa expresses itself in food.
"That’s what I’m trying to say. It’s no coincidence that a liberal paper like The New York Times shuns them and that my editor and everyone I met scorns their food. But there’s no such thing as food that doesn’t taste good."
No? Why won’t my son eat his vegetables?
"I’ve been dealing for years in whether there is such a thing as personal taste in food."
Of course there is, isn’t there?
"I assume there’s a biological dimension to food as well, because we have taste buds, but by and large I don’t think it’s biological. Taste is acquired. When we say we don’t like food, that means we’re not used to it. Ask most people what their three favorite foods are and at least one will be something their parents made."
There must be things you don’t like to eat.
"Filipino food is terribly sweet, garish and colorful. Israelis don’t like it and I didn’t connect much, but I know I’m overdoing the critique. One hundred million Filipinos think their food is fine and we’re just eight million Israelis."
What about branding?
"Take Indian food, which had been a daily norm for ages, and economical. If somebody suggested an Indian meal for $100, you’d snort. Suddenly after the Indian economy picked up and the chefs Yonatan Roshfeld and Yuval Ben Neriah decided to do Indian night, and people weren’t upset at forking over 400 shekels [$100]. They felt it was legitimate."
Does Israeli food have an international brand?
"There’s interest in it all over the world. There’s a strong Israeli trend in the West and in Asia, too.
But there are people who don’t like it?
"I have a friend who brings over Vietnamese pilgrims from the middle and low socioeconomic classes and they can’t stand Israeli food. There’s nothing they’ll eat here. They bring food from home and it isn’t because of the restaurants they’re taken to in Israel. On the other hand, when I went to Vietnam and cooked Israeli food, they went nuts for it why? Because the people I met there were more sophisticated, had heard of Israel and knew it, maybe even admire it."
What is Israeli food, anyway?
"A sort of meeting between Palestinian tradition of agriculture and cooking with the international attitudes and techniques of immigrants. A unique type of fusion cuisine."
Give me an example.
"Roast beef with olive oil, tehina and hot pepper."
What’s so special about that?
"There are things that are unusual with roast beef. That combination is nervy.
What else is Israeli?
Hummus with roasted cherry tomatoes, purple onion and a small green salad. You won’t find that in Greece or among the Palestinians. It’s a unique mix the most trivial is schnitzel in pita but I wanted to give a more sophisticated example. It isn’t just about the raw materials. Look at how Eyal Shani’s method of service, see how he goes with local agriculture, adds insane innovative aesthetics with a Bedouin twist. Israeli food is the meeting point between local agriculture and aesthetics. It is a cuisine without roots, and subject to change."
Absence of roots is our advantage?
"When there are roots, it’s hard to change. In the Italian kitchen, you don’t monkey with their carbonara, and they don’t do adaptations well. Every time people try to impress me with innovative Italian restaurant fusion, I’m disappointed.
Being rootless, Israeli cuisine is flexible. Take sushi. Israel is No. 2 in the world in terms of sushi houses per capita, after New York and Japan, of course. When I was little, we didn’t have sushi, and we thought it revolting – ‘Yuck, me eat raw fish?’ Like people talk about balut eggs today."
"Filipino food - a cooked fertilized egg. You open it and inside there's a small duckling embryo. They swear it’s a delicacy."
It doesn’t sound like much of a delicacy.
"I wouldn’t touch it. At least until the Philippines becomes an economic superpower and extremely popular in the global community, then we’ll sit down over baskets of baluts and remember with nostalgia, ‘Remember when there were no balut eggs in Israel.’
"Taste is acquired over time."
Is there a shared element in the foods we like?
"There are three things we like from birth: two tastes – sweet and salty and one texture, crunchy."
Why do we like crunchy food?
"There are several theories. One is a history of eating insects."
"I don’t go there either. My theory is that it has to do with temperature, because crunchy food is exposed to high temperature, which ties with controlling fire, which gave us an evolutionary advantage and placed us at the top of the planet’s food chain. High temperature also prevents disease because the bacteria don’t survive it."
Let’s go back to sweet and salty.
"The real problem is that the giant food manufacturers discovered that it’s enough for food to be sweet, salty and crunchy for people to eat it, whatever it contains. Anything fried with salt and pepper, people will eat like wolves. And if you see on the package 'free of enriched uranium’ you say oh wow, I’ll buy this. It’s the biggest snow job in history. Why put sugar in mayonnaise?"
"Salt and sugar is pushed everywhere. We don’t see how bad the food we’re sold is. There’s a vast gap between being sated and receiving nutrition. Sugar and salt are cheap flavor boosters. It’s all about economics. I come from the juice industry. I can make 330 milliliters of juice, a standard bottle, from melon that costs $2.25 per kilo.
"If I dilute the melon juice with water and add sugar, I lower costs by 80% and the taste will still be great and I can write on the bottle, ‘natural ingredients, no preservative’ and all that crap. If there’s one thing I don’t buy, it’s industrialized products. I prefer make food myself."
Do you cook?
"All the time. I have two daughters. But we don’t have a lot of kiddie food. They have eaten what we eat from day one - insane amounts of vegetables and fruit, not much meat because it’s expensive in Israel, and occupied territories of legumes, lentils, beans, hummus and tehina, too.
Do your daughters cooperate?
"Not always. Every child plays power games with parents over food, and threatens to boycott – ‘ I won’t eat dinner tonight.’ And I say, ‘So don’t.’"