Israel's complicated relationship with other nations is what makes its food so good
On Friday mornings at Dizengoff Center, one of the flagship malls in central Tel Aviv, the term “food court” takes on a whole new meaning.
Carts peddling home-cooked dishes from Iraq, Iran and Tunisia are wheeled in, as are those packed with delicacies from Italy, Morocco and old Europe. At the Persian stand, well-dressed young Israelis queue up for Gondi, an Iranian spin on matzo-ball soup; at the Tunisian stall, they grab steaming bowls of chicken and whole eggs in the shell that has been enjoyed in Tunis for centuries. There is Iraqi kubbeh seleq, a blood-red broth filled with piquant beet dumplings; there is rich Druze flatbread smeared with tangy goat yogurt and there are potato pancakes, meatballs and garlic-roasted vegetables in the style of the old Ashkenazi Jewish shtetls outside of Warsaw and Minsk.
But to Israelis, the Friday food fair at Dizengoff Center is not an EPCOT-style bonanza of foreign cuisine. It is one of the most accurate — and appetizing — cross-sections of Israeli food to be found in the Jewish State. The colorful smorgasbord on hand is both totally Israeli, and also not Israeli as all, because of one simple fact: there is no true definition of Israeli food, because for Israeli food, like Israelis themselves, nationality is complicated.
Around half of the Jews in Israel descended, just one or two generations ago, from Middle Eastern or North African nations like Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Called Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews, their families brought with them a unique repertoire of Jewish recipes that is worlds away from the gefilte fish, noodle pudding and slow-cooked meats that were staples of holiday kitchens of Jews in Eastern Europe. Israel, not yet 70 years old and defined by a half-century of conflict, is home to more than 100 immigrant groups linked only by their shared Jewishness. This simmering melting pot has produced, in turn, a cuisine as culturally diverse as it is complicated.
"Everyone says that Queens, New York, is the most diverse place in the world and they have 70 immigrant groups. [Israel] has 100 in a place the size of New Jersey," said cookbook author and food writer Adeena Sussman in a phone interview. Sussman is based in Tel Aviv and currently working on a book about the Israeli kitchen. "Israeli cuisine is defined as much by a national ethos as it is by the food itself. The food is just a reflection of the place."
Israeli cuisine, which is only now emerging as a tour de force in the western world after decades of misunderstanding and misappropriation, has earned itself a place at the global gourmet table by embracing its hodgepodge status as a home for exiled Jewish dishes. The recipes, adapted to be Kosher, or consumed on the Sabbath, or mixed with ingredients from borderlands as the keepers of the recipes fled pogrom or destruction, draw on inspiration from nearly every continent, yet also represent a window into several centuries of cloistered Jewish life, now adapted for modern consumption.
Take jachnun, for example. This flaky, amber-colored rod of dough that is rich with butter and served for breakfast with a boiled egg and grated tomato has its origins in Yemen, but became a staple of Jewish cooking, and later Israeli breakfast, because it can be slowly cooked in a low oven overnight. That means it can be eaten warm even on the Sabbath, when Jews are prohibited from lighting fire or using electricity, and as a result it’s evolved today into a lazy-Saturday delicacy in modern Tel Aviv.
Sabich, the unofficial street sandwich of Israel, benefitted from similar utility. Iraqis have long enjoyed a breakfast of fried eggplant, egg and tehina, but when Iraqi Jews came to Israel, they began stuffing those ingredients (which can also be precooked on Friday and enjoyed on Shabbat, making them extra desirable) inside pita — the ubiquitous Middle Eastern bread. The sabich sandwich, now beloved by Israelis and considered a staple of the cuisine, was born.
"I would challenge people to stop looking at foods in the context of geographical borders," said Sussman. "The modern Israeli food revolution is about globalization, about young chefs who traveled the world and learned techniques from Michelin masters and came back to Israel at a time when the world was realizing the raw ingredients here are first-class. In this moment, there’s a confluence of traditional and innovation."
The so-called “Israeli” foods that are best recognized, however, remain trapped in a more contentious custody battle. Reem Kassis, a Jerusalem-raised Palestinian whose cookbook The Palestinian Table will be released in September, said in a phone interview that it doesn’t matter to her if Israelis say that hummus and falafel are their own. What bothers her is when they say that they aren’t also Palestinian.
"In the Middle East everybody eats kubbeh and falafel and hummus, and you don’t see Syrians and Lebanese and Palestinians fighting over who owns it," Kassis said. "The issue is that they need to recognize that these foods were adopted from us, and even if Israelis are improving on them and marketing them abroad, they can’t deny their origin."
She points to two of the world’s best-known Israeli chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi and Janna Gur, who both have written about the overlap between the Israeli and Palestinian kitchen. "That sense of respect and recognition has the potential to take the edge off the food conflict between Israelis and Palestinians," she said.
But while Israeli cuisine is gaining a global following, the long-simmering debate over cultural appropriation continues to bubble. In a country whose cuisine is based on exile, where 5,000 years of Biblical history has been tainted by one half century of occupation, how does one define the Israeli kitchen?
Francis Lam — food writer, Top Chef judge, podcast host — says we might not be able to define it, and that’s ok. "In the world of food writing there is this idea of food as a unifying thing. And maybe it’s naive, or maybe it’s something we just have to believe in, but what is true without question is that food is powerful," he said in a phone interview. Lam tells the story of when he interviewed Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi — the Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab who together created a restaurant empire and a line of bestselling cookbooks, and the duo told him how the public loves their story of co-existence cooking. "They kind of put cold water on it," Lam said, "saying, 'We would love if it were that simple, but honestly it’s not that simple and it never will be.'"
Food heritage, Lam says, is simply very powerful and must be handled with care.
"I love the idea that food can be a tool for uniting people. But it’s important to recognize what a tool is — it’s all about how you use [it]."