This story originally appeared in the 2012 October-December Issue of Taste & Travel International. Click here to see a PDF of the original magazine article
Authentic Food in Israel
It has become a culinary cliché: Israeli cuisine has blossomed in the last decade, and now features the blending of the country’s diverse influences – from the Middle East, North Africa and Russia. True enough, but exaggerated. For falafel from the Middle East, harissa chilis from North Africa, smoked fish, and pastries from Eastern Europe have long been staples of the Israeli diet. You can see this in profusion at the Israeli breakfast buffet. At the Dan Panorama in Tel Aviv, the buffet takes up all four sides of a room, and includes smoked fish, cheeses, breads, salads and of course shakshuka, a North African specialty of eggs poached on top of a sauce of red peppers and tomatoes.
What struck me on a recent journey through Israel was not so much fusion but the raised bar for the freshness and purity of ingredients. In this small, agriculture-laden country, which invented drip-irrigation, the 100-mile diet is hardly a challenge. Herbs grow wild – the bible mentions dill, coriander, thyme, oregano, marjoram and myrtle. Citrus fruit and mangos, dates, eggplant and artichoke – they are all just down the road. But now organic is a common label. And despite the chronic political indigestion brought on by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, there is a new appreciation of the sophistication and variety of the Palestinian kitchen, many of whose of dishes originated in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.
Tel Aviv is famous as Israel’s western-looking capitol of pleasure, with a multitude of restaurants and clubs. But I was more interested in discovering the authentic specialties of other areas of Israel.
First, a pilgrimage to that Israeli obsession, hummus. Made of chick peas mashed with olive oil and lemon juice, with a dash of tahini (sesame paste) and garlic, hummus is fried falafel’s refined cousin. And the best place to eat hummus, many Israelis say, is at Hummus Said restaurant in the mainly Arab town of Akko, or Acre. There are plenty of other reasons to stop at this atmospheric port: it is the largest preserved Crusader city in the Middle East, with layers of history that are now accessible to the public. You can walk through 360 meters of tunnels used by the Knights Templars, visit a restored but non-functioning Ottoman Hammam and see a video of the men who frequented it in the l8th century. But you shouldn’t miss Hummus Said.
In the middle of the winding souk filled with food stores, it’s a bustling, no frills restaurant that serves hummus, ful (mashed fava beans) a few salads, peppers, pickles and pita from the bakery across the way. Enhanced with dense high-grade olive oil and fresh lemon juice, this is hummus at its best; it can ruin you for the store-bought stuff or even the homemade kind that is made with canned instead of fresh chick peas. Hummus Said closes at about 2pm, so there was time to do a little spice shopping.
At Kurdi and Berit Shop for Turkish Coffee and Spices, I bought some zatar, the signature spice of the Middle-East, certainly of the Palestinians. Zatar (or za’atar) varies. It can contain oregano, or hyssop, and thyme. It’s sometimes it’s used as a condiment and contains sesame seeds and sumac. Ah sumac, with its piquant taste of lemon and pepper.
I tasted sumac on the soft flat bread called taboun at an exceptional restaurant called Tishreen. Located in Nazareth (how many places in this area resonate with the names of the ancient past) near the Church of the Annunciation, it opened in 2004 in a stone houses built in l868. The owners, Musa and Ehsan, both Arab Israelis, have a low-key elegance that’s reflected in this rustic restaurant. Everything tasted freshly sourced and exquisitely prepared. The array of salads that makes this cuisine so vegetarian-friendly, came first, with tabbouleh, (chopped parsley, tomato, cucumber, bulgur, onion, olive oil, lemon), so common but seldom so accomplished. The fried eggplant was marinated for 24 hours in balsamic vinegar. Then came the kofta, chopped lamb, baked with tahini (sesame seed paste) in the restaurant’s traditional brick oven. One standout was chicken breast cooked in a sauce that includes coffee, raisins and dried apricots. It was wittily presented with a scattering of coffee beans and an espresso cup on its side. (See recipe). Dessert was a refined version of Malabi, a popular sweet from Turkey made of corn flour, milk, rosewater, almonds and walnuts.
Tishreen has a mid-sized list of local wines, and we chose a Cabernet-Shiraz blend from Carmel Vineyards in the fertile Galilee. The wine story in Israel is about change that is extreme and all for the better. Carmel, for instance, used to signify sweet sacramental, head-achy wine. Now all that has changed. The winery has appellations and a range of fine wines. Elsewhere, there are boutique wineries and single growth vineyards. At Golan Heights winery, there are wine dinners and tours.
Bei Jan Druz Village
Another unforgettable Middle-Eastern meal was at a home-restaurant in the hilltop Druze village of Beit Jan, the highest point in Israel. The restaurant is run by Druze couple, Amal and Salman Dabur, who at first were reluctant to charge – for them hospitality and generosity were the norm. But urged on by clients from sophisticated Tel Aviv, they opened four years ago.
Amal learned to cook from her mother and her Lebanese grandmother. For her 20 guests, seated at a long table she prepared some 15 dishes. First the salads: hummus, eggplant with tomato, pureed pumpkin, lentils with wild fennel, red pepper. As we begin to eat, Salman told us about the Druze, an Arab people who are loyal to the state of Israel. “We are connected to Greek thought, to Judaism and Christianity as well as to Islam”, he said. “From each we choose only the good things.” The Druze do not eat pork or practice polygamy. They do not pray at regular times, and women hold high religious office. Druze believe that people are reincarnated – but as people. . “We look at an infant and see where he or she comes from,” Salman continued..” This gives us courage not to fear death, to see our lives as sweet.”
It was an uplifting complement to the food, which tasted pure and homemade. The hot dishes came next. Majadara contains lentils, caramelized onion and bulger wheat. Salman explained that they have eight kinds of bulger, some for tabbouleh. After cooking it, they put it on the roof to dry for 3-5 days, then sift it. Maklouba, Arabic for upside-down, is layers of sliced chicken, rice, almond, eggplant, with turmeric, cumin and sumac. When it is served, the pot is turned upside down so the chicken is on top. Desert was semolina with coconut. The price for salads, two meat courses and dessert is $25.
And finally, to Jerusalem and one of the most renowned restaurants in Israel. Chef Ezra Kedem opened his restaurant, Arcadia, in an atmospheric stone house in Jerusalem, and is credited with pioneering the new Israeli cuisine – local produce with Eastern Mediterranean with French techniques.
The meal began with appetizers: yoghurt and tahini with turmeric, house made soft cheese with hyssop and Arcadia’s organic olive oil. Then warm organic swiss chard salad, carpaccio of eggplant and another of sea bass. This was followed by lamb sweetbreads with sun dried tomatoes, beetroot, thyme, garlic confit and lemon, and a risotto with green vegetables. Another option was lamb stew with root vegetables and Jerusalem artichoke. The fish of the day was a filet of gray grouper grilled in hyssop butter with cured lemons and capers. Everything was masterfully prepared, without foams or towers or gimmicks. Fine dining, Israeli style, with ingredients grown in the restaurant’s garden or at chef Ezra Kedem’s organic farm.
Anything not grown there Chef Kedem can find just minutes away, at the Machane Yehuda, Israel’s most famous market. Begun in the l9th century by Arab village farmers, it was renovated in the l980’s. Today it’s a microcosm of the region’s edible bounty: olive oil, cheese, herbs and spices, local fruits and vegetables – a graphic-looking display of artichokes, a wheelbarrow of mangos. It’s surprising to see secular foodies easily coexisting with religious men in black hats and women in long skirts.
My guide was chef Tali Friedman, who studied at LeNotre in Paris, and who has worked at Arcadia (as many Israeli chefs have).. For the past five years she has led tours in the market, stopping for samples at her favorite stalls. At Bourkeas from the wisdom of Haifa (Chokmat Habourekas Mehaifa), I bit into the savory pastries filled with cheese, spinach, mushrooms and potato. At Halva Kingdom, the sesame sweet was the superb – none of that too sweet taste. The owner buys sesame seeds from Ethiopia and creates new versions halva – my favourites were coffee and also cinnamon.
A few more stops and then it was time to climb the narrow stairs to Talie’s state-of-the art kitchen. We began to wash, chop, dice and roll, , fortified with El Namrud, an apertif of arak, made with grapes and fennel. Talie’s assistants completed the meal, and we feasted on beef carpaccio with the season’s first strawberries, a green salad with pear cooked in white wine. Then a soup containing wild garlic, olive oil, potato and leek. . The main courses were fish balls on couscous and sliced beef tenderloin.. The dessert was caramelized apples wrapped in paper-thin dough. Everything was from the market. Fusion? Not exactly, but as authentic as hummus.