Felafel. Sushi. Cholent. Israel today is a weave of flavors, colors, and ethnic and culinary traditions. There is no definitive Israeli cuisine, just as there is no definitive Israeli. Within the last 50 years, almost 100 Jewish ethnic groups have come together; Russians and Ethiopians, Indians and Greeks, Chileans and Persians.
There is also the Arabic (in Israel referred to as "Oriental") influence. From Eilat to Metulla, the most popular food in Israel is no doubt humous (mashed chickpea salad),along with various eggplant, bulgur and vegetable salads that reflect the country's geographical location at the crossroads between the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Asia. The 400 year Turkish Occupation of the Holy Land also contributed to our culinary development, introducing new vegetables, spices and more sophisticated cooking techniques.
One of the surprising changes over the years, has been the increasing Asian influence. Many Vietnamese Boat People, who settled here during Begin's tenure, contributed to the locals' penchant for what may loosely be described as "Chinese" food. Since Asians - primarily from the Philippines and Thailand - have over the years (beginning with the Intifada era) replaced Palestinian workers from the Territories in construction, restaurant kitchens, agriculture, care-giving and other menial labors, you can now find seaweeds, pickled ginger, wasabi, oyster sauce, Chinese steamer baskets and many other Asian ingredients and utensils in health food stores and Asian markets - the largest selection of which can be found in Tel Aviv.
In Tel Aviv - "The City that Never Stops" - this ease of obtaining a new and diverse array of imported and domestic products combined with the creativity of a new generation of talented chefs (mostly trained in France and the U.S.A.) has led to a more sophisticated style of dining based on French techniques and "Californian" and Asian influences - our own domestic version of "fusion" cuisine.
To really understand how our native cuisine was created - we have to do a little sleuthing -right back to Biblical times. In addition, we can learn a lot from our Arab neighbors. In northern Israel, mostly in the Arab villages tucked around the Galilean countryside, some people still eat almost like our ancestors did - seasonal foods based on truly native crops - like The Seven Species - the foodstuffs that according to the Bible once characterized the ancient Land of Israel. It is the Seven Species - wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, figs, olive oil and honey -that formed the basic harvest of the fall season and the basic essentials of ancient life.
Wheat still plays a major part of the Israeli diet - from pita to low-calorie to organic breads, depending on your persuasion. Even stone-oven baked French and European gourmet breads are now available here, and served at all elegant receptions. In the shuk (open air market) and in villages - you'll find enormous "Iraqi" or "Druze" pita. Cracked wheat or bulgur forms a basis for fresh tabouli salad, kubbeh (bulgur-and meat stuffed rolls), and throughout the Galilee - in mejaderra (rice and lentils).
Today most of Israel's barley goes for the production of beer, which along with sunflower seeds, provides basic sustenance for sports fans. You'll also find it in Ashkenazic mushroom and barley soup and cholent.
The ancient Hebrews were wine drinkers, but the land once covered in grape vines was destroyed by war, successive invasion, and even the advent of Islam which severely cut into potential markets for Hebrew wine production - once shipped as far as Rome. Today, throughout the country, many hills are being reclaimed with their ancient heritage. Israeli wines from major wineries like Carmel Mizrahi, Golan, Barkan and cottage industries like Tishbi and Tzora, have already won international acclaim. In the last few years, there are wine courses, and tastings, and a significant growth in wine appreciation. Vines also provide grapes for drinking,raisins for winter use, and leaves for stuffing.
Red pomegranates once refreshed both King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, provided color for dyeing and inspiration for engravings on priestly ware and stonework. The scarlet seeds were dried and ground as a seasoning, yellow rinds stained leathers and colored ink. Some sources also suggest that the tufted crown of the pomegranate provided inspiration for the crown adorning the heads of kings as well! Medicinally, flesh and rind together were used in the treatment of respiratory and digestive ailments, the latter also responding to a brew of pomegranate blossoms steeped in wine. Today, most pomegranates are eaten as is, used as a garnish or drunk as juice. Once considered a symbol of fertility, it is now known, thanks to people like Dr. Efraim Lansky of Haifa, that pomegranates also contain phytoestrogens - just like tofu.
Although they still grow wild in Israel, domestic figs no longer play the major part they did in ancient society, when they provided both a (fresh) late summer and (dried) winter food. Figs were also boiled down into honey, and the milk of fresh figs was applied to alleviate boils. However, probably since the rule of the Ottoman empire, most of our figs are imported from Turkey.
Many Israelis begin their meal with pickled olives and vegetables, not realizing that they are merely continuing a custom that began thousands of years ago, when bread, cheese and olives were a favorite meal or snack relished by both rich and poor alike. Olive oil lit the homes of the ancients and served a primary function in their health and beauty regime - in soap, as a moisturizing conditioner, and as a base for scented oils. Our ancestors also used it as a remedy for wounds, sores, chills, aching throat, ears and muscles. Olive oil softened weathered skin- the cracked hands of the shepherd and the shoemaker, protected the tender skin of babies, and relieved the feet of the tired traveler. It is so integrally bound up with the lives of the Jewish people, that it appears on the holy candelabrum that is the country's official emblem.
Although for the native residents of Israel, olive oil has always been the primary cooking oil, thanks to "progress" most other oils - like soy, corn and canola - have been introduced and have replaced the traditional oil. Only in recent years, after numerous health reports appeared touting the benefits of cold-pressed olive oil, has it returned to significant use in the daily diet.
Honey was actually the only sweetener in biblical days, yet most biblical commentators agree that the "honey" of the Seven Species does not refer to bee honey, but rather a sweet syrup derived from dates, figs, carob or grapes. To make fruit honeys, the fruit was soaked in water until fully softened and cooked down to a thick syrup. The Talmud relates that real honey was considered a preservative, noting that King Herod preserved the body of his beloved in it for seven years! Today you can find the best selection of non-heated honeys in a health food store, along with Royal Jelly and propolis.
For thousands of years, these were the basic items in the daily diet, seasoned by native herbs and spices like cumin and coriander, sea salt, anise, black nigella sativa and sesame seeds, along with fennel, parsley, za'atar and dill. Cinnamon came from India and the Far East, together with ginger, turmeric, black pepper, cloves and nutmeg. Separately and together, these form the basic herbs and spices we still use in many homes faithful to ethnic cuisines today.
Tzena - Rationing
In the 1950's the fledgling new country suffered a bout with tzena - the Rationing Period. Limited in their consumption of almost everything, housewives were forced to queue up for hours, only to come home - on a lucky day - with a few precious eggs, a small package of flour, and a dwindling supply of dairy products. Although thanks to the first cookbook writers like American-born Lillian Cornfeld, women learned to make chopped liver from yeast and eggless cakes to feed their children, primarily mothers, who went without to feed their children, suffered from severe nutritional deficiencies. It was eventually their protest, an ever-increasing reliance on the black market and a rise in local agricultural production that finally convinced the government to end this traumatic era.
Israel Goes Global
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), Israel is also going "global", with ethnic home-cooked foods slowly giving way to mass- produced chemically-colored and preserved prepared foods. In the last decade, many local companies have aligned themselves with international conglomerates, introducing new and ever more sophisticated products to tempt the Israeli consumer. The concepts of marketing strategies, product management, focus groups, taste-testing, and aggressive, expensive advertising campaigns have become de rigeur in the food industry.
More women entering the workforce, make convenience foods ever so much more desirable, especially since very little awareness exists of the harmful effects of chemical additives. A perfect example of this is powdered soups. More than two decades ago, several soup powder manufacturers decided to increase their market share by investing major advertising efforts in trying to convince housewives that powdered soups could be used to flavor any kind of cooked dish more conveniently and inexpensively than buying a variety of spices. This meant that a Yemenite housewife whose mother used cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon and cloves to flavor foods, could now "save time and money" by adding only one "spice" to everything. Slowly, over the course of time, other ethnic groups followed suit - creating a disaster for natural ethnic flavorings.
Global Americanization in the form of fast foods, has also not passed over Israel - with MacDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin' Donuts, Dominos Pizza and others becoming a regular part of an Israeli child's life. It's also no problem to find American products here, like Haagen Dazs, B & B Bagels, Uncle Ben's and Aunt Jemima. In fact - a walk down the aisles of any major supermarket - will make many Anglos feel almost at home.
By Phyllis Glazer