Culinary Revolution Brings the Flavor of the Far East to the Middle East
Chinese food has long been a staple, but now Israeli restaurants offer dishes from Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, and India
Except for a few Chinese-owned Chinese restaurants that have been around for years and a surprisingly good Korean restaurant in Jerusalem called the Jewel in the Crown, most Asian restaurants in Israel are Israeli-owned. Most chefs are Israeli as well, and except for the kitchen staff, which usually comprises workers from Southeast Asia, the current resurgence of Asian food has very little to do with the tens of thousands of foreign guest workers living in Israel who come from China, Thailand, or the Philippines. (Most guest workers in Tel Aviv live around Neve Sha’anan; they operate some small restaurants in those areas, but few Israelis venture there.) It has much more to do with globalization and with the fact that nowadays Israelis travel more to the Far East. India, for example, is a prime destination for young Israelis finishing their army service, and while there are surprisingly few Indian restaurants in Israel, there are several stand-bys—from the veteran Tandoori and Indira in Tel Aviv and Tandoori’s Jerusalem sister Kohinor to cheaper and usually vegetarian eateries like Tel Aviv’s 24 Rupee and Ramla’s Maharaja.
The explosion of Asian restaurants is also due to Israel’s health-food trend. Asian food is considered healthier, fresher, and less fattening than Western food, and it also offers many vegetarian and vegan options, which are a must in today’s culinary climate.
Today’s Asian trend in Israeli restaurants is felt in the high-end, the casual-middle, and the fast-food scene as well. New pan-Asian restaurants pop up all the time, like the fancy Taizu or the hip snack-bar The Bun, which opened at the entrance of Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market at the end of 2011 and specializes in Chinese steamed buns. And there are also a few specific Asian eateries that introduce the Israeli palate to an ever-growing list of cuisines it never encountered before.
Hanoy and Vong are two Vietnamese restaurants that opened in Tel Aviv at the end of 2012 and boosted Israel’s new-found popularity of Vietnamese food, which had first become apparent when Vietnamese dishes started appearing in non-Vietnamese restaurants. For many years there was only one dim-sum restaurant in Tel Aviv, but today the country is bustling with new dim-sum fast-food chains, making the Cantonese steamed dumplings the new sushi. Also, a new and exciting dim-sum eatery just opened in Tel Aviv; Furama, which sprouted on Ben Yehuda Street about a month ago, is the little brother of Ashkelon’s Furama, which has brought authentic Chinese food to the coastal city in the south since the mid-’80s.
Yoram and Ari Yarzin, who own many restaurants across the country (not necessarily Asian ones), opened Zozobra Asian Noodle bar in Herzliya years ago and introduced Israelis to a dining experience in the vein of Union Square’s Republic in New York, or the British-born Wagamama chain. Last March, the two brothers opened a new almost-fast-food Singaporean eatery called Ang-Su (named after the Singaporean chef they employ) on Bograshov Street, while chef Avi Conforti, co-owner of Zozobra and owner of the highly regarded Zepra, where he has fused his personal culinary vision into the Asian base since 2007, is soon to open a new Asian restaurant called Topolopompo, right next door to Zepra on Yigal Alon Street. The investment in Conforti’s new restaurant is estimated around 12 million shekels (more than $3 million), which might be the highest investment in an Israeli restaurant yet—even more than the 8 million shekels (more than $2 million) that were invested in opening Taizu.
As opposed to other culinary trends, the current popularity of Asian food in Israel isn’t limited to Tel Aviv. Minato, the veteran kosher sushi-bar from Caesarea, opened a new branch in Herzliya two years ago. While most Asian restaurants in the country aren’t kosher (although the ones in hotels or in Jerusalem and other areas with large observant populations usually are), Minato is an example of a restaurant based on traditional Japanese cuisine that can make wonderful Japanese food without using shrimp, thanks to chefs Aki Tamura—Japanese sushi chef of a prominent dynasty of sushi chefs from the Minato quarter in Tokyo—and Matan Rosenthal, an Israeli.
Pan-Asian restaurant Minna Tomei, located at the Castra Center in Haifa since the end of 2010, is adding another branch next month, this time in Haifa’s Carmel Center. “Our menu has dishes from Vietnam, Korea, India, Thailand, and Japan, and we feel Israelis are much more open to those flavors now,” said Dina Fishlovich, one of the owners of Minna Tomei. “People travel more and know more, and all the cooking shows on TV also bring a new kind of openness to the Israeli diner. Some of our dishes are authentic, others have undergone adaptations to suit local tastes. For instance, Israelis like sweet tastes but they don’t like food that’s very hot, so the seasoning of some of our Indian dishes have been modified accordingly.”
Aharoni, who got the ball rolling decades ago for Israeli diners seeking Asian food, says the current trend is still developing and incomplete: “At the moment you have mainly pan-Asian options in Israel, a kind of ‘everything goes’ mentality,” he said. “Even some of the places that claim to be specific aren’t really. Many of the pan-Asian restaurants are great, but I feel there are not enough specific restaurants with food from specific regions.”
Still, there is no doubt that Israel has advanced immensely in terms of Asian food since the days when Peking duck reigned supreme. “What’s happening is great, and it’s surprising it didn’t happen much earlier,” said Aharoni. “And just like the Israeli public fell in love with Chinese food and sushi and noodles, I’m sure they’ll love any kind of Asian food they’ll encounter.”
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‘Not being able to process it religiously makes it a very hard experience. We thought it’s important to give it a voice.’