Fried and True

Even in the heat of summer - and despite their name - 'chips' are an inseparable part of Israeli menus. Forget the calories.

Four bowls are standing on the table at Tel Aviv's Dixie Grill Bar. Chef Dan Kartela and owner Irit Shenkar scrutinize their contents. The first bowl contains cubed potatoes; the second, classic French fries; and the third holds wedges made of fried, red Desiree potatoes. The fourth bowl contains industrially prepared fries. Shenkar tastes the classic, French-fried potatoes. There's no denying it: They are a complete failure, she and Kartela agree. Both prefer the cubed "cottage fries" and fried potato wedges.

Like many other restaurateurs, these two frequently sample the "chips," as they are popularly called in this country. Those who believe that "French fries" have disappeared from menus the world over, only to be replaced by salad, should think again. Diets notwithstanding, the average Israeli consumes 35 kilograms of potatoes each year, according to statistics gathered by the Hadod Moshe factory in the Negev, which packs and markets potatoes. That amount has not changed in recent years.Restaurateurs also report a stable consumption of French fries. Chef Tzahi Bukshester, a co-owner of both Temple Bar and Black Bar 'n Burger, notes that the demand for fries did not wane during the summer. But the path to perfect fries, a seemingly humble dish, is tortuous. Israeli chips undergo a metamorphosis so as to interest consumers anew each season. According to potato farmers and chefs, summer is the time to eat fried potatoes: Summer chips are relatively crisp and have a high sugar content. But in any given season, the potatoes? quality is influenced by agricultural factors."Israeli potatoes grown in the winter are mainly intended for export; they sell quickly in Europe because the potatoes raised there in the winter don?t taste as good," explains Haim Ben Ari, the marketing director of Dod Moshe.

He makes a distinction between potatoes intended for frying, for cooking and for baking, and explains that, "In Israel, we grow four red types of potato intended for frying that contain high levels of the necessary starch." In addition to Desiree, prominent local frying varieties include Laura and Rodeo.Years of growing potatoes have apparently led Ben Ari to ascribe almost human qualities to them. "This is a relatively modest vegetable that never raised the consumer price index, contrary to tomatoes, for example," he says. "Their cost never exceeds NIS 4 per kilogram."

Peanut-chili and chocolateBut from the vantage point of restaurant owners and chefs, the lowly potato is less user-friendly. "We are nearly at war with suppliers," Shenkar says. "What are we asking for? That restaurants receive the same sack of potatoes throughout the entire month, that we don't get a different result every time we taste them, and that the Desiree variety always arrive in a separate sack and in uniform sizes.""Foreign growers can recite the sugar and starch contents in their products,? explains Bukshester. "In Israel, we have yet to achieve this precision."

Bukshester and Kartela agree on what is needed to prepare a fine dish of chips: Desiree potatoes, with their red peel and a relatively large amount of starch, are usually the favorites. But both of the chefs are willing to forgo Desiree in favor of other types during certain seasons, when the sugar and starch content in Desiree potatoes changes. Kartela explains that during the winter, potatoes have a higher sugar content, which causes them to brown too quickly and become tough during frying.

At Dixie, the potatoes intended for chips are cut, soaked in cold water and wiped dry before being half-fried at 180 degrees Centigrade and undergoing a final deep-frying before serving.

Patat, on Tel Aviv's Nahalat Binyamin Street, uses a somewhat different method. Owner Ido Dagan blanches the chips in boiling water and seasons them before a preliminary frying at 160 degrees Centigrade. The potatoes are then fried again, just a moment before being served, at a temperature higher than 200 degrees. "That's our system and our chips are different," Dagan says.

Patat focuses on fried potatoes served in three different forms: wedges, sweet potato fries and regular potato fries. Dagan lived in Amsterdam for three years and fell in love with Dutch finger food, the way it is served and the Indonesian peanut-chili satay sauce that often accompanies chips.

He agrees that Israeli consumption of fries during the recent summer evenings has remained the same. In fact, he says a dish of fries is often accompanied by a beer, and that discerning customers appreciate their superior, summer crispiness and color. "Those who are only interested in health salads wouldn't come here in the first place,? Dagan observes. ?We serve 10 different sauces with our chips, and our regular customers arrive until 11 P.M. We serve chips in chocolate sauce, a favorite of those who have an urgent need for something sweet in the middle of the night."

Texture matters"I like my chips firm − not crispy on the outside and mushy on the inside," Shenkar says. "I think that's the texture of industrial chips, made from potatoes grown specifically for that purpose and sold half-fried in sacks. But kids like that mashed-potato texture. So we included industrial chips in our children?s menu."

Speaking of children, how does all this work at McDonald?s? When the fast-food giant arrived in Israel 14 years ago, Desiree was the only local-grown potato available for frying. "We wanted to use Russ Burbank, Shepody or Santana [varieties]," recalls local franchise director Omri Padan. "the Tapugan factory wasn't willing to replace Desiree, and a battle of national proportions ensued. The minister of agriculture defended the growers and opposed importing potatoes. The minister of trade and commerce supported our position, because we promised to establish a factory that would purchase local products."

The fast-food chain finally persuaded farmers to grow other types of potato and a factory was established that eventually merged with Tapugan. All these efforts were aimed at preserving the long, thin fries identified with the chain. They are fried at 168 degrees and, according to Padan, the longer fries contain less fat because they have a relatively small center, compared to their weight.But Bukshester does not consider additional calories an obstacle. "I hope we can achieve a balance rather than become hysterically obsessed with nutrition," he says. "You will always fail if you declare that you will never eat something. On the other hand, it?s very nice to go out in the evening to eat chips - once in a while."