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Pitas, Pride, and Prejudice

Israeli cuisine is the all the rage in New York these days. But it’s missing one key ingredient: nationalism.

Liel Leibovitz
June 23, 2017
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine

As a patriotic Israeli expatriate of noble proportions, I have reacted to reports of my native cuisine’s moment as the darling of New York’s sanguinolent restaurant scene with pangs of pride and hunger. I was familiar, of course, with the field’s luminaries, patricians of the pita like Einat Admony and Meir Adoni and the saintly Michael Solomonov, but seeing my homeland cuisine described in terms usually reserved for multilateral peace talks sponsored by the European Union—“complex,” “contentious,” and “actually Palestinian,” is how a recent New York Magazine article described it—I decided it was time to go eating. With a dear friend by my side, I zoomed, like a mad and ravenous Colonel Kurtz, up the river to Brooklyn, to see what familiar flavors tasted like far from the source.

Where we ended up eating isn’t important. There’s no point lingering on the inanities that gum up the usual restaurant reviews, quibbling about textures or aromas or other terms technocrats make up when they can’t feel a thing. What’s important is what we learned as we bit into one dish after another, which is that Israeli cuisine in New York, with a few shimmering exceptions, is an embarrassment precisely because it makes no effort to be Israeli at all.

Consider the Williamsburg eatery: Its storefront painted a cheerful teal and salmon, its interior airy and cool, it’s the sort of place an imaginative set designer might whip up if instructed to evoke a nondescript Mediterranean atmosphere. Which, it turns out, was precisely what the restaurant’s owners had in mind: Chatting with The New York Times a few years back, they said they “wanted to be free of culinary or geographic limitation.” The food follows the same deracinated logic, with an acrid and pasty babaganoush and a lamb kebab with neither juice nor joy. This is not what you eat in Israel or, for that matter, anywhere in the real world; it’s what you eat if you want just a dab of vaguely ethnic flavor without bothering with the rich and strange specificities that make up any national cuisine. It’s the culinary equivalent of being a tourist.

The same affliction repeated itself, more or less, everywhere we went. In Park Slope, amid colorful glass lamps and terracotta plates that could’ve worked in Rabat or Rehovot or Rome, we were fed shakshuka that could’ve doubled as salsa and a schnitzel crusted with panko, a flaky departure from the humbler, more finely ground, and more delicious variety you’d eat anywhere in the Holy Land. The sandwiches in Windsor Terrace were neatly executed, but the menu, with its ocean of acai smoothies and forests of everything kale, was facing west, toward California, not east to Tel Aviv. Ditto for the tasteful SoHo café, where you can order a whole continental cornucopia without ever bothering with the exotic sounding dishes that pop up here and there.

Israelis are hardly alone in this predicament. Every meal at an ethnic restaurant is a small heartbreak, with the exception of those staples in immigrant communities that neither cater to nor welcome outsiders. The newly arrived want to offer just enough of themselves to feel interesting but not enough to open themselves up to ridicule or disgust. Some noodles or egg rolls are fine at the corner Chinese restaurant, but not ji jiao, or chicken’s feet. The Smiths wouldn’t like that. In fact, better to play it safe and make a whole new dish, with ingredients that are palatable and inoffensive and familiar. These days, that’s the logic that governs all of us cosmopolitans; we are all chop suey, happy to give up most of our flavor if that means more orders at the lunch counter.

The masters, of course, know better. Walk into any of Solomonov’s restaurants—his New York hummus joint, Dizengoff, is a marvel, and Philadelphia’s Zahav offers nothing short of a religious revelation—and you’ll be treated to peoplehood in a pita. A true master, he is bound by neither the constraints of authenticity nor the pressure to innovate. He cooks as he is, a proud and talented Israeli who contains multitudes and who cannot imagine himself as rooted in any other culture or tradition. Solomonov, Admony, and Adoni aren’t purveyors of Israeli cuisine; they are its embodiment, and as such, whatever they do—even if highly unorthodox, like Admony’s amazing lamb cardamom pappardelle or Adoni’s beguiling foie gras with rhubarb, figs, and coffee, or Solomonov’s apricot harissa with feta and pickled ramps—becomes, by the transitive property of pride and peoplehood, Israeli.

If you’re trying to understand Brexit, then, or the rise of Donald Trump, don’t bother reading The Economist or the Times. Just go to the nearest Israeli restaurant and order the masabacha. That paltry petecure on your tongue is the taste of globalization, a logic that believes it can produce more or less the same flavors more or less anywhere in the world. Resist it. Our palates are precious, and they should demand nothing less than what is ours by right, the sweet and distinct and perfect tastes of home.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.