Today’s Israel Is A Gastronomic Haven

By Jayne Cohen


The Book Of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey by Janna Gur (Schocken Books, 2008).

“They say nobody comes to Israel for the food,” Janna Gur begins this compelling tribute to the cuisine of modern-day Israel. But, she goes on, tourists of 20 or 30 years ago who may have tasted a memorable hummus in Old Jerusalem or a sumptuous hotel breakfast, will find that today’s Israel “has graduated … to a gastronomic haven.”

Gur Cookbook CoverPart valentine to her adopted country (Gur emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1974), the book reads as a coming-of-age story of the state of Israel told through its foods and recipes, beautifully illustrated with mouth-watering photographs by Eilon Paz. Using a pastiche of chapters, from “Salads” to “Grill” to “The Street and the Market,” along with insightful essays on such topics as olive oil, cheese-making and the fishing industry, Gur presents a detailed portrait of Israeli cuisine from its spartan beginnings to today’s dynamic, richly diverse repertoire.

As Gur explains, the European Zionists who began arriving at the close of the 19th century embraced the food of their Arab neighbors. It evoked the world of the biblical Hebrews rather than the painful shtetl memories they were trying to erase. Then came Central European Jews fleeing the Nazis who looked instead to cosmopolitan Europe for culinary inspiration. And beginning in the 1940s and ’50s, great waves of Jewish immigrants from North Africa and Arab lands brought their unique cooking styles and favored ingredients. Relations among the multi-ethnic groups ranged from competitive to distrustful to openly hostile. In addition, many preferred foods were scarce, even impossible to obtain, produce was often of poor quality and the climate was ill-suited to much of the cuisine of the European immigrants–not to mention the severe economic hardships and incredible homeland security issues facing the country.

As a food writer, I am often asked about Sephardi foods or whether a recipe is Ashkenazi, because in America, these cooking styles still reflect, by and large, two fairly distinct and mutually exclusive kitchens. Together, they form a mosaic of Jewish-American cooking. But in Israel, somehow, immigrants from more than 70 countries have managed to share, adapt, transform and refine their disparate dishes to form a single melting pot cuisine, in much the same way these various ethnic groups have struggled to forge a nation.

Today Israeli cuisine benefits from excellent fruits and vegetables, fine olive oils, cheeses and an abundance of other ingredients needed for good cooking. But after reading this book, I am reminded that Israel’s greatest resource is its people. There is a cross-fertilization and a synergy among the different sectors: European, Sephardi and Arab-Jewish; ultrareligious and secular; immigrant and Sabra; Old World and cutting edge. And the constantly evolving cuisine draws heavily on this extraordinary heritage.

Non-Jewish Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the Israeli population, have contributed richly to the cuisine. Gur highlights not only the well-known Arab street foods–hummus, falafel, kebabs–but Arab food stalls and restaurants where cooking with local, wild herbs and other age-old Palestinian food traditions are preserved. In the Holidays chapter, she also includes a lamb shank and sweet treats for the Muslim celebrations of Ramadan and Eid El-Fitr.

For families who want to use the book to put together Jewish holiday meals, Gur includes a section with recipes for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Tu b’Shevat, Passover and Shavuot, as well as a separate chapter on Shabbat. Some of these recipes are traditional–for example, classic potato pancakes and honey cake from the Ashkenazi kitchen; Moroccan-style spicy fish and a lamb-quince casserole from the Sephardi repertoire. Others are imaginative variations: a gorgeous Passover chicken soup, green with a panoply of fresh herbs, afloat with matzoh balls made of ground chicken and cilantro; a mousse-cheesecake fragrant with dried rosebuds and orange blossom water (alas! both no-bake cheesecake recipes for Shavuot contain raw eggs). Other chapters entice with wonderful salads (tangy beetroot and pomegranate; fennel and pistachio, in addition to the iconic Israeli salad), homemade versions of street foods like shawarma and an intriguing fusion of fish cakes and falafel served with an easy, spicy harissa mayonnaise.

The focus is on fresh, light foods that make the most of the Mediterranean fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, nuts, oils and dairy. Most recipes are straightforward (several do contain special seasoning mixes or Middle Eastern ingredients, though these are often available at well-stocked supermarkets and specialty stores) and many are easy to prepare. Gur includes useful information for the cook, such as detailed instructions for flame-roasting eggplants (ubiquitous in Israeli recipes) and a double herb bouquet trick for chicken soup.

Many of us may think of certain recipes included here, such as chopped liver, even Israeli salad, as “Jewish,” that is, something to enjoy on religious holidays, not quite “secular” foods. But as Gur makes clear, this is a book not of Jewish but of national Israeli cuisine. Even hamin, a dish traditionally identified with religious observance–the stew is slow-cooked overnight on Friday so observant Jews can savor a hot meal at Saturday lunch without contravening the Sabbath laws–is popular among secular Israelis who happen to enjoy its long-braised flavors. The point is these are foods to be enjoyed by all people, any time of the year. And here are three recipes to tempt you.

Beetroot and Pomegranate Salad

Ingredients (serves 6):
3-4 medium beets
2 tablespoons pomegranate concentrate
2-3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2-3 dried chili peppers, crushed
coarse sea salt
¼ cup delicate olive oil
½ cup fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
1 cup pomegranate seeds 

  1. Boil the beets in water until tender. Cool, peel and cut into very small dice.
  2. Mix with the pomegranate concentrate, lemon juice, peppers and coarse sea salt. Set aside for about 15 minutes.
  3. Mix the salad with the coriander leaves and pomegranate seeds, pour the olive oil on top and serve.

Roasted Chicken Drumsticks In Carob Syrup

Gur notes that “carob syrup, delicately sweet, dark and very thick, is a wonderful addition to salad dressings, marinades and desserts. Try to find it in health-food stores. If unavailable, use a combination of honey, soy sauce and orange juice (see below).”

Ingredients (serves 4-6):
12 chicken drumsticks
6 cloves garlic, halved
¾ cup carob syrup
¼ – 1/3 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed coarsely
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 sprigs rosemary, chopped coarsely
salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Make 2-3 incisions on each drumstick and insert half a clove of garlic into each.
  2. Mix the marinade ingredients, pour over the chicken and let it marinate in the refrigerator for a minimum of six hours.
  3. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  4. Arrange the drumsticks on a rack and roast for 30-40 minutes until golden-brown and juices run clear when the meat is pricked with a fork.

Variation: Substitute the carob syrup with ½ cup honey, ¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice and 2-3 tablespoons soy sauce.

Balkan Potato and Leek Patties

These are perfect for Hanukkah or at any time of year.

Ingredients (makes 25 pancakes):
2 leeks (white part only), chopped
oil for frying
5 potatoes
salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the crust:
3 eggs, beaten

  1. Cook the potatoes in their jackets in boiling water until they are tender. Cool slightly, peel and mash.
  2. Heat oil in a frying pan. Add the chopped leeks and fry for eight minutes or until tender and golden.
  3. Mix the fried leeks with the potato puree and season with salt and pepper. Roll the mix into a sausage and cut into ¾-inch-thick slices.
  4. Heat more oil in a clean frying pan. Dip the slices in flour and then in egg and fry two minutes on each side until golden. Remove the pancakes from the pan, drain on paper towel and serve hot.


About Jayne Cohen

Jayne Cohen's newest book is Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisations, published by John Wiley and Sons in February 2008.