Israel may have transformed from a safe haven for displaced Jews to a buzzing IT empire, but the status of horseradish (chrain, in Yiddish ) remains as it was. Every year before Passover, hoards of Israelis raid Ashkenazi food stores searching for the purple gold.
At Sender, a veteran Ashkenazi restaurant in south Tel Aviv, you can only get their house specialty - prepared according to the same recipe for 65 years - if you order in advance. "Horseradish is a best seller," says Zami Schreiber, the owner. "And ours is the best in the country. It's a brand. We sell dozens of kilos a day."
Schreiber, whose father established the Tel Aviv institution, says that his horseradish sells all-year round ("People even add it to chicken soup," he says ), but before Pesach his customers become frantic. "People fear there won't be any left," he says. "And indeed, sometimes on the eve of Passover we haven't got one gram left. It's madness. People beg me to sell them some. It's incredible. 'Give me some for the holiday,' they say in tears. But I don't put any aside."
Schreiber invites me into the kitchen for a tasting. A colleague of mine, who happened to be there at the same time to research a story about matza balls, joins us. I take the first spoonful, burst into tears, but survive the challenge. The other guy looks tough but starts sneezing and nearly faints, to the amusement of the photographers. The kitchen staff is ecstatic with laughter. They are familiar with Schreiber's penchant for teasing innocent visitors.
Every year, Sender hires an additional staff member, who takes charge of preparing the spicy relish - a task performed while wearing a gas mask. "I hope the Home Front Command won't get me in trouble for this," Schreiber smiles. He adds that Passover is a "nightmare," much like Rosh Hashanah.
The root out of which the condiment is made, he says, is very expensive. "Before the holiday, prices soar as if it was a share in the stock market. All-year round it costs around NIS 30 a kilo; ahead of the holiday it is NIS 60 for us. A retail customer might pay up to NIS 100 a kilo."
The final product at Sender costs NIS 65. This is probably due to the soaring demand. Schreiber says that horseradish customers have quadrupled over the last decade.
At the nearby Shmulik Cohen restaurant, prices don't fluctuate seasonally. Here, 300 grams of the purple magic potion cost NIS 28. "Israelis love horseradish," says third-generation owner Tomer Rosin. "I, for example, eat it with meat, not just fish. It's fashionable: it's the Jewish answer to Japan's wasabi."
Every Thursday and Friday, Bnei Brak's The Jewish Restaurant turns into a Jewish food market, with a variety of some 50 salads and condiments, including horseradish, on offer. Here in Bnei Brak, horseradish costs NIS 47, almost half the price in Tel Aviv. "You came right after the big rush," says Noam Hovra, who has worked at the restaurant for seven years. "Horseradish is the basis of the Jewish cuisine," he says. "Just like hummus and tehina in the local cuisine, horseradish is indispensable."
Horseradish manipulation creates very difficult working conditions. "It's simply suffocating," Hovra says. "You only come near the powder and you choke - and before Passover there's plenty. Every year, we rent an extra room just for Passover dishes. We've just put six huge boxes of horseradish roots in it."
Hovra is of Yemeni descent, but he took a fancy to the Ashkenazi food's spiciness. "To be honest, I never thought I'd try it," he says. "I'm not Ashkenazi. But it's really cool. We're going to have horseradish on our Seder table this year. My sister married an Ashkenazi. Working here has taught me some Yiddish. The only thing I'm not open to is calf's-foot jelly. I tasted it once but it wasn't up my street."
Israel's horseradish capital is Kfar Bialik, a moshav northeast of Haifa with a population of 130. In the 1950s, German immigrants came here with horseradish roots in their luggage and changed the Passover seder for good. In the heyday of the village, some two-dozen farms labored to supply the root to the entire nation.
Growing horseradish is far from trouble-free: the root ripens after being provided with 1,300 cubic meters of water over a period of ten months. One big advantage, however, is that pests avoid it. However, growing horseradish is hardly a lucrative business, according to Kfar Bialik farmers.
"It sells almost exclusively on Rosh Hashanah and Passover," says villager Adina Levin, who abandoned horseradish for olives a while ago. Only two Kfar Bialik farms still grow horseradish. One of them belongs to Yaron Green, who took over his father's farm in 2006.
During the high season he has ten employees (producing some 50 tons ) and very little time to be interviewed. "It is absolute madness," he says. "It's working around the clock. Everyone wants fresh produce delivered immediately. It goes to Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, but mostly to supermarket chains. I sell roots for NIS 20-25, depending on the kashrut certificate."
Green says that the market is not growing, but he is doing better than before. "Five of my competitors stopped producing, and I've made some structural changes," he says. "It's a very expensive business." Yet he doesn't carry on just in memory of his father. "Had I not made money, I would have closed. At the end of the day, you've got to make a living."