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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

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Dumplings at Taizu–Asia Terranean Kitchen in Tel Aviv. (Ilya Melnikov)
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One of the most talked-about new restaurants in Tel Aviv is Taizu–Asia Terranean Kitchen. With a menu based on chef Yuval Ben Neriah’s interpretation of street foods from five countries in Southeast Asia—India, China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—Taizu opened on Menachem Begin Road last March and has been praised for its design as much as for its menu, which includes everything from Shanghainese dumplings to Bengali shrimp.

Taizu is part of the current Asian trend that is changing the face of Israel’s culinary map. All kinds of Asian restaurants—some dedicated to specific regions or cuisines, others pan-Asian—are opening across the country. “An undeniable Asian trend is felt all around the country now,” said celebrity chef Yisrael Aharoni. As Aharoni’s own career clearly attests, this trend didn’t come from nowhere. But after years of gradual growth, Israelis’ love for Asian food has deepened and broadened until it reached a sudden explosion in popularity in the past year.

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For many years, the only Asian food Israelis knew was Chinese. Aharoni, who is commonly credited for playing cupid in Israel’s love affair with Chinese food in the early ’80s, discovered it while studying art in Amsterdam. He felt compelled to travel to Taiwan to study Asian cooking (“I even have a diploma in Chinese!” he told me), after which he returned to Israel and opened his first Chinese restaurant, Yin Yang, on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in 1981. Yin Yang may not have been the first Chinese restaurant in the country—Mandarin opened in Jerusalem in 1958, and Rafi Shauli’s trendy Mandy’s Singing Bamboo catered to Tel Aviv’s who’s-who in the early ’70s—but it was Aharoni who made Chinese food an Israeli staple and who is responsible for the fact that if you wanted to dine out in the ’80s, chances are you did it under a red paper lantern. In fact, for Israelis, sweet corn soup, brimming with cornstarch, symbolizes the ’80s no less than Pac-man or the Rubik’s Cube.

“You have to understand that there were no real restaurants in Israel, even in Tel Aviv, at the time. There was nothing,” said Aharoni. “All you had were Mizrahi restaurants that served shashlik and steak. No fine dining, no chefs. Israelis were craving nice restaurants, and Yin Yang provided exactly that. It was a huge hit, and after that Chinese restaurants popped up all over the country and became extremely popular. At one point there were nearly 70 Chinese restaurants in the larger Tel Aviv area, while there were no other kinds of restaurants. It’s interesting that Israel’s culinary revolution started with Chinese restaurants. After that came French and Italian restaurants, and only after getting a taste of faraway lands, Israelis started to develop the local cuisine as well.”

Since Chinese food was so popular, and not everybody could afford more upscale restaurants, Chinese fast food began taking over, the best example of which is the dubious Pikansin chain, which filled the land with greasy egg-rolls dripping with sticky, red sweet-and-sour sauce in the early ’90s. A bit later, sushi made aliyah, too, similarly trickling down from the high-end to the low. If in the late ’90s sushi was still reserved for pretentious Tel Avivis, nowadays every mall, no matter how small or provincial, sells cheap maki-rolls in the food court.

While Chinese food was losing its initial appeal, considered as dated as shoulder pads and leg warmers—even the trailblazing Yin Yang fell out of favor, changing owners and locations before finally closing after 27 years—more varied Asian options started popping up. Giraffe, which opened in Tel Aviv in 1996, was probably the first pan-Asian restaurant in the country. It offered mainly noodle and rice dishes in a casual modern and distinctly Western setting and nowadays holds branches in five different cities. And while Giraffe’s manifesto states that it doesn’t have a problem making Malaysian dishes that no one in Kuala Lumpur would recognize, or serving crème brûlée as dessert after tempura shrimp, Thai House—an authentic Thai restaurant that opened on Tel Aviv’s busy Bograshov Street the same year as the first Giraffe—displays a very different approach. Yariv Malili and his Thai wife Lek Sunan, who comes from a long line of Thai restaurateurs, are the duo behind Thai House, which is among the very few establishments successfully serving authentic Asian food to Israelis for many years.

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While Asian food took root in Israel over a few decades, and dishes like noodles and sushi became favorite take-away options long ago, in the past year it’s become impossible to ignore a sudden burst of new Asian options all around the country: Frangelico Asian Kitchen—one of the most popular Asian chains outside Tel Aviv—opened new kosher branches in Pardes Hanna and Shefayim, while Hippo Sushi-and-Grill, which was born in Ramat Gan eight years ago, recently opened a new branch in Ashdod. On the one hand, Israelis can suddenly enjoy food from many different Asian countries—not just the obvious ones—and on the other, more and more Israeli chefs have decided to incorporate the Far East in their own personal cooking.

Authenticity is the first thing any Asian restaurant in Israel has to consider while defining itself, bearing in mind that being 100 percent authentic isn’t an option: There will always be things Israelis won’t eat—say, jellyfish or insects—and exotic ingredients that are difficult to obtain. While Tiger-Lilly, a brand new Thai restaurant in Ramat HaHayal in the north of Tel Aviv, intends to serve authentic Thai dishes that chef Yanir Green traveled to Bangkok to master, Taizu is an example of quite the opposite.

“We’re not authentic, and neither are most of the other new Asian restaurants in the country,” said Ben Neriah. “Since Israel doesn’t have a population of Asian immigrants, like other major cities in the world do, it’s obvious that local Asian restaurants are not authentic. Even though we import ingredients like spices, oils, and special seaweed from the Far East, so we don’t suffer from a lack of ingredients, we still choose not to make authentic Asian food, exactly like there are lots of great non-authentic Asian restaurants in London or New York City. I find it nice that there’s room for interpretation.”

At Taizu, Ben Neriah strives to create new dishes that are born out of a combination of the original Asian recipes he encountered while traveling with his sous-chefs to China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and India—all part of the long preparation for opening the restaurant—together with modern Western techniques, equipment, and presentation, and with an Israeli touch, achieved by incorporating local ingredients like olive oil, tomatoes, and local herbs. Ben Neriah is happy to say that Israelis like strong flavors and are very familiar with spices like cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon, prevalent in many Asian dishes, so while adaptations to local tastes need to be made in any Asian restaurant outside Asia, at least there’s no need to go light on the spices.

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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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

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