Israeli Chefs Go Back to Their Roots To Find Inspiration in the Kitchen
Old family recipes—from Morocco, Iraq, or Poland—in a new context offer a new range of options for Israeli restaurants
Omer Miller, a chef of Polish descent, is well aware of this: “There is no doubt that many more restaurants in Israel serve Middle Eastern and North African dishes than Ashkenazi ones,” he said. “This might stem from cultural reasons, and obviously it suits the local style, weather, and materials. But taste is personal, and I believe you can learn from both Middle Eastern and Ashkenazi cooking, and you can enjoy both hummus and chopped liver.” Indeed, at Miller’s The Dining Hall—an Israeli multicultural restaurant at the Performing Arts Center in Tel Aviv—one can taste his interpretation of Sephardi, Arab, and Jerusalem-style dishes, as well as of his own Ashkenazi specialties. The same goes for his other establishment Shulchan, which opened on Rothschild Boulevard last year.
Chopped liver with fried onions and pickle—one of Miller’s popular starters—is a perfect marker of his origins: “This is a dish that reminds me of home,” he said. “Many times I don’t make the exact dishes I know from home, I just get my inspiration from them. For example, I like using ptitim or making meatballs. Israeli society is made up of many different cultures, so it’s difficult to define what exactly Israeli cuisine is, but my personal Eastern European roots are part of me and my cooking style. I don’t use my roots in order to consciously define what Israeli cuisine is, it’s just part of who I am. I feel very connected to the simplicity of Eastern European cooking, that manifests itself in unpretentious dishes like potatoes or chicken soup.”
While Israel’s Mizrahi chefs would probably never consider making something like gefilte fish, Ashkenazi chefs tend to be influenced by Eastern flavors as well as by their own. Miller, for instance, is a good example of an Ashkenazi chef who seems like he’s inviting an imaginary Moroccan grandmother to cook with his own Polish one: “I like to make my own interpretation of the dishes I know from home, using different materials and spices than the ones we used at home,” he said. “For example, I recently made a dish I called Kibbutz-Galuyot cholent, which is based on the cholent I know from home but has characteristics from other versions of the Jewish Shabbat stew. It has the sweetness of the Polish cholent, it is hot like the Moroccan s’hina, it has rice like the Iraqi tebit, and it has Tunisian-inspired seasoning.”
Another example of this ethnic blending is German-born chef Daniel Zach, who opened a new restaurant called Trumpeldor 10 in Ramat Hasharon last year, after closing his Carmella Bistro in Tel Aviv. On Trumpeldor 10’s menu you can find manifestations of Zach’s ethnic background, like pickled herring, pretzels, and Wiener schnitzel, as well as Middle Eastern dishes like labneh and chraime.
Although many Israeli chefs are incorporating their ethnicity into their cooking, Miller doesn’t regard this as a mere trend: “I see it as a natural step in building a personal local cuisine,” he said. “The moment a chef is ripe and mature enough to make his own creations, the tastes he absorbed as a child naturally come into play.”
And no matter where each chef’s roots lie, the ethnic influence is here to stay on Israeli menus, said Gur. “Returning to one’s roots is part of a general process in which Israeli chefs stopped looking only to France and Italy for inspiration, and started looking at what we have here,” she said. “And what we have here is local ingredients, Palestinian cooking, and ethnic cooking, be it from your own personal grandmother or somebody else’s grandmother. Nowadays calling back to your culinary roots is both obvious and widespread. This is an ongoing process, and it just keeps escalating.”
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We tend to overlook the gentiles who keep synagogues running. As we begin the Torah anew, let’s acknowledge our debt to them.