Israeli Chefs Bring a New Spin on Middle Eastern Food to America
Shakshuka is on menus all over the country, and za’atar appears in Rachael Ray’s recipes. Can America love Israeli cuisine more?
Shefi also explained that distance in itself can offer reason enough for some of Israel’s culinary finest to head abroad: “Cooking outside of Israel allows chefs the freedom to define Israeli cuisine in playful ways, without the pressure to stay overly traditional,” she said. That is certainly true for Admony, who writes in Balaboosta how she felt a “slight twinge of shame” opening Taïm, which at the end of the day was merely a falafel joint. Balaboosta, and now Bar Bolonat, allow her to fully flex the innovation muscle found in all good chefs.
Whatever the reason, the American palate has benefited enormously from these Israeli arrivals—and not just the name-brand stars. “There are so many Israelis working in restaurants all over the country as sous chefs and line cooks right now,” Shefi said. They may not be calling the shots, she added, but they “absolutely influence what is happening in those kitchens.”
Amid all the recent hype around Ottolenghi, and the increasing attention from national magazines on Israel’s food—like a spread in Saveur this past May on the cuisine of the Galilee—it’s easy to forget that this country’s Middle Eastern food consciousness actually goes back decades. “By the time we opened Taïm, falafel had been around for two decades,” said Admony. As a child of the 1980s, I am old enough to remember the time before falafel, as well as hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush. Back then, those foods could be found in Middle Eastern eateries, and were touted by health-food advocates as nutritious alternatives to the meat-and-potatoes status quo. But they were hardly mainstream.
Today you’re as likely to find hummus and pita on a random bar menu as mozzarella sticks, and Israelis are a large part of the reason why. None of these foods is explicitly Israeli in origin, but Israelis’ love for them, and America and Israel’s close relationship helped facilitate their widespread recognition here. As Gil Marks writes in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, “it was Jews returning from Israel, along with wandering Israelis, who initially popularized hummus [and many Middle Eastern foods] in the West.”
In some ways, then, the food world’s current preoccupation with new Israeli cuisine is just an extension of what came before. But there are important differences. More so than in the past, it’s not just particular dishes that are being embraced, but a whole philosophy of eating. “Americans love the Israeli-style dining experience,” said Shefi. “People get excited about straightforward meals where everyone shares plates across the table and where dining is more communal.”
They also love the vast array of new flavors these chefs have introduced. “We use nigella seeds and sumac in our chopped salad and pomegranate molasses in our dressings,” said Jeremy Garb, a Ra’anana native who runs Wolf and Bear’s with his partner Tanna Dolinsky. By doing so, these and other ingredients that never had an audience in the United States before—za’atar, labneh, silan (date syrup), and harissa (Tunisian chili sauce), among others—are slowly entering our country’s culinary lexicon.
Subtler still is Lior Lev Sercarz’s work. The kibbutz-born, French-trained spice monger sells custom spice blends—a number of which, like the “Tangier” (rose petals, cumin, cardamom) and the “Mishmish” (crystallized honey, saffron, lemon) feature Middle Eastern flavors—to many of America’s most influential chefs. Regardless of how Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, or Sercarz’s other clients use them, their essence infuses the food and opens up opportunities for creativity and fusion.
According to Shefi, who until 2012 worked as a cultural ambassador for the Israeli Consulate, in recent years Israel’s government and tourism boards have begun to understand the PR power behind their dense culinary heritage and now actively promote Israel’s food scene abroad. “When I first started my job in 2006 and suggested that we show the world our amazing cuisine, everyone looked at me like I was crazy,” she said.
These days, largely thanks to Shefi’s work, the tourism boards often sponsor guest-cooking spots for Israel’s best chefs at restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. They also work in the opposite direction, inviting writers, bloggers, and other influential taste-makers, including none other than Martha Stewart, to take culinary tours of the country.
I attended one of these trips in the spring of 2010. Sponsored by the American-Israel Friendship League and hosted by the inimitable Joan Nathan, our culinary delegation spent the week dining in Tel Aviv’s and Jerusalem’s most boundary-pushing restaurants, touring the Galilee’s verdant farms, and hearing the country’s food luminaries share their take on new Israeli cuisine.
We ate many wonderful meals during the week, and a few superb ones. But what struck me most, and what has stuck with me since, was the dizzying number of new region-specific flavors we experienced: green almonds with their peach-fuzz skin and lemony flavor, geranium leaf-infused syrup drenching a semolina cake; the nutty, roasted young wheat called freekeh; and bundles of fresh za’atar laid out at the Arab market in Nazareth. I came home inspired, with bags of toasted sesame seeds and spices in my suitcase and, just as the trip’s hosts undoubtedly hoped, with stories to share.
With za’atar appearing in Rachael Ray’s recipes, and shakshuka popping up as a brunch option at restaurants around the country, the only question is, how big can America’s love of new Israeli cuisine grow? A recent article in New York magazine suggested that it is “unlikely that modern Israeli cooking will ever bump New Nordic or Asian Hipster” from their current zeitgeist-y reigns. Shefi disagrees. “Look at Denmark’s government and what they have done for Danish food here,” she said. “I went to a dinner several years ago where Ruth Reichl [then of Gourmet] interviewed René Redzepi of Noma and was blown away.” Shefi believes that all the pieces are in place—the creative chefs, the rich mix of historical and contemporary culinary influences, and the diverse regional bounty—for new Israeli cuisine to have a similarly powerful impact. “If we would invest a little bit more funds and energy, it could be the most exciting thing of our time.”
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By imbuing even the most mundane things—like vinegar—with importance, the rabbis find proof of sacred history