Complex in history and culture, this cuisine exudes charm in its simplicity and authenticity of ingredients and preparation.
When British chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty cookbook, a hardbound tome with gorgeous, colorful photography, quickly sold through thousands of copies in its first release, the world began to pay more attention to the foods and traditions of Israel.
Since then, certainly chefs in the States seem to have paid more attention to this complex cuisine. Last year in New Orleans, acclaimed Chef Alon Shaya of the John Besh group opened his eponymous eatery, Shaya, paying homage to his heritage cuisine with modern twists and the use of both local and authentic ingredients.
So why Israeli cuisine, and why now? “People are always looking for new and more now, and there are so many cultures that make up Israeli food,” says Michael Solomonov, chef/owner of Zahav in Philadelphia. Eight years ago he devoted his attention to Israeli cuisine after his brother was killed in a military campaign in Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday of the year. “Israeli cuisine is almost what it’s not; it’s not only Middle Eastern or Mediterranean or Jewish, it’s all of those and more. There are also influences from Bulgaria, Hungary, Turkey, Greece, Russia, Yemen, and now Ethiopia and Georgia because of all the people coming to the country and the blend of cultures. And then you have Palestinian cuisine in the West Bank, which is closer to Galilean cuisine from Northern Israel.”
To simplify the complexities, here are some of the top foods and cooking techniques that identify Israeli cuisine.
In Israel, the main methods of cooking are actually quite primitive, Solomonov says. Meats, fish, and vegetables are primarily grilled over live charcoal, and often on skewers. At Zahav, he uses Japanese fireboxes to recreate the open charcoal, or “ash,” cooking technique used in Israel. Specially trained cooks man the equipment, which cooks meat, whole fish, and vegetables suspended about two inches above the charcoal.
“There’s a stereotype that Israel food is only falafel and shawarma, but there is more to it than that,” he says. The spiced, ground lamb and beef kufteh (kabob) comes from Bulgarian influences. In another dish, Solomonov marinates chicken thighs cut into cubes in onion, garlic, mango, pickle, and fenugreek in the cooking style of the Iraqi Jews, who then grill the meat over the charcoal.
Lamb shoulder that’s been brined for two days, smoked for four hours in the charcoal boxes, and braised for six hours in pomegranate juice pairs with Persian rice that has been spiked with pistachios and currants steeped in tea and then cooked in a cast iron Dutch oven so the bottom crisps up like popcorn.
As Ottolenghi’s book showcases in its recipes and photography, Israeli cuisine revolves around fresh, seasonal vegetables, making it well-suited for today’s culinary obsession with healthier eating.
“Israel is basically the birthplace of modern agriculture,” Solomonov says. “Because of the topography and fertile soil, there are many different types of fruits and vegetables growing year-round, and everything is local because there is no trade. Israel is essentially like an island, so all of the produce is grown in the country and [sourced] from that week, not traveling more than 100 miles sitting on a truck or train.”