If you are a Tel Aviv foodie—and, not too long ago and for lack of anything better to do, I was—your life revolves around a few truths you hold to be self-evident in your heart and in your gut. You enter into a physical altercation anytime anyone suggests that their favorite hummus joint—usually one run by a cantankerous old man in some shaded alleyway in a dusty town far away—is better than yours and twice as obscure. You hold forth on the importance of using good tehina in your cooking, and sneer at anyone who dilutes it with water rather than with pure lemon juice. You gaze at eggplants the way some men ogle centerfolds. And—this part is de rigueur—you revile anything that smacks of Poland. Cholent, gefilte fish, chopped liver: These are the evildoers, the retrograde culinary beliefs against which the modern Israeli gourmand rebels with every bite of perfectly golden bourekas.
It’s a curious bias. Say you’re into Romanian food, and you’re bound to meet with a pat on the back and a strong recommendation to visit Haim Nelo’s stellar Jaffa grille. Express a hankering for a taste of Tbilisi, and someone will direct you to Nanuchka, a popular and rowdy gastro-bar. But mention Warsaw, and you get dirty looks. A serious eater, it is implicitly understood, defines him- or herself primarily against Polish cooking. In a nation founded largely by Eastern European immigrants, many of whom are Poles, Polish cooking is perceived as the primordial and unappetizing ooze that dominated all dishes until our palates began evolving, stood up erect, and sought their thrills in other, distant flavors.
No more: The Polish pot has risen, heralded by the knights of the Order of the Kishka. That is a real thing.
Last week, marking the first-ever Polish Food Week in the Hebrew metropolis, these lovers of the intestinal and the becreamed stepped up to sing the praises of their favorite plates. They were gathered at Sender, a legendary establishment on the outskirts of Shuk Levinsky, a marketplace of spices and edible goods. The restaurant was established shortly after the state of Israel, and so were most of the men and women in attendance last Thursday. These were no trendsetters or hipsters; these were the faithful, there to relish grayish fish and brownish stew and drink vodka in celebration of Mother Poland.
They were led by Yossi Vardi, the mustachioed godfather of the Israeli tech scene. The Israeli-born billionaire was reared on a diet heavily shaped by his parents’ Polish roots, and he spent much of his childhood in his family’s small eatery. “My mother,” Vardi said, “had maybe eight years of formal education, but she was a pioneer in the field of biotechnology. She could turn any organic matter into chopped liver. And she remained faithful to the cardinal rule of Polish cooking: hiding the enigmatic ingredients of her dishes.”
Far from a point of demerit, he added, this tendency to chop, this predilection for glop, is a highly evolved form of cooking, the equivalent of a software hack. “My mother always cooked using yesterday’s leftovers,” Vardi said proudly. “The Polish cuisine is called a cuisine, but really it’s a lab for innovation. It’s the lab that raised us and helped us grow nicely.”
As the cholent was passed around to pleased diners—including the Polish ambassador to Israel and Piotr Bikont, a well-known Polish food journalist who had translated Art Spiegelman’s Maus into Polish and whose daughter had settled in Tel Aviv and cooks in HaMinzar, one of the city’s coolest pubs—Vardi and his guests talked gleefully about the genius of Polish cooking in general and Jewish-Polish cooking in particular. Polish cooking, some of those present opined, was practical and open-minded, absorbing influences from the cuisines of various neighboring countries and openly importing other cultural and culinary influences. It was, to borrow a term from the world of computer programming open-source. And the Jews added their own layer of distinction, turning disadvantages—poverty, persecution—into a platform for invention. The owner of Sender, for example, Zami Schreiber, is a third-generation master of Polish cooking, and he walked around telling his guests that several of the restaurant’s signature dishes were taught to his father by the partisans with whom he had fought against the Nazis. All they had were the scraps they managed to steal from local peasants, and they adjusted their recipes accordingly.
The same logic works nicely even in times of affluence. As the silver-haired and the wealthy celebrated in Sender, the young and the penniless filed into HaMinzar for a cornucopia of treats. Titled “Alone, in the dark”—a catchphrase often assigned, in popular Israeli culture, to the guilt-inducing Polish-Jewish mother who urges her child to go ahead and have fun and ignore her lack of companion or light—the menu might as well have been composed by modern-day partisans, had the partisans left the woods and settled into cheap apartments and learned all about the slow food movement and growing your own heritage beans. Those who braved the pickle soup could follow it with a hearty dish of bellybutton confit served on toasted challah. Extra griebenes, or chicken skin cracklings with fried onions, were five shekels a pop.
Back at Sender, the night was drawing to an end. The simple light bulbs that dangle from the ceiling were dimmed, and the Order of the Kishka was ready to reveal its motto, projected now on a large screen propped against the wall. “Kishka,” it read, “is like the Internet: a broadband that is filled with unidentified but highly addictive things that can destroy your health.”
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.