Israeli visitors admired and then devoured an abundant display of Polish baking heritage in Haifa on Dec. 3, 2014, as part of the second annual Polish Culinary Week. (Daniella Cheslow)
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Polish Cuisine Sweeps Israel

Popular food festival proves Poland offers more than just cabbage and carp

Daniella Cheslow
December 05, 2014
Israeli visitors admired and then devoured an abundant display of Polish baking heritage in Haifa on Dec. 3, 2014, as part of the second annual Polish Culinary Week. (Daniella Cheslow)

I was elbowing my way through a crowd with a palm-sized wad of brown bread in my hand, waiting for the chance to slide it down a foot-high hunk of butter, when I realized the chutzpah—and perhaps brilliance—of hosting a decadent Polish Culinary Week in Israel. Poland is, in the eyes of many Israelis, bland and flavorless. The country’s signature foods in Israel are grey gefilte fish, translucent steamed cabbage, and beige matzo balls in broth.

But when Haaretz food writer Ronit Vered visited Poland on a search for her family roots two years ago, she found a land of abundance: edible flowers, tart berries, juicy fish, rich pastries, and other delicacies that are now, like mushrooms in the Białowieża forest, carpeting the Polish culinary landscape.

“People came here and the ingredients were very different and the climate was different,” Vered, the festival’s founder and organizer, explained, “so we know a very grey and boring and different version of Polish Jewish food than the one that was there.”

The week-long festival, currently underway across Israel, is a showcase of the new Polish food and a culinary reimagining of the heartland of AshkenazI Jewry, where nearly half of Israelis trace their roots. On Wednesday, hundreds of visitors descended on a hangar near Haifa’s city port to learn about Polish baking. Vered said she plumbed old recipe books to find Polish creations lost in Israel, and asked local bakeries to resurrect them.

Their products—foot-long brown loaves of bread, elaborately braided pastry, puffy bialys—covered a table so completely it looked like a Flemish Baroque painting. After about an hour, the velvet ropes around the table were lowered, and the guests, mostly curious Israelis, tore apart the breads, cakes, and pastries with an unabashed animal delight that might have scandalized Warsaw high society.

The week has included more traditional events in Tel Aviv, like a herring and vodka menu at the city’s beloved Minzar pub and a pop-up gefilte fish restaurant at the Pasaz bar.

In Haifa, across from the bread festival at Bistro Venya, owner-chef Shahar Sivan hosted visiting Polish chef Alexander Baron for a night of high cuisine. In a nod to gefilte fish, there was carp, served in a sour vinegar sauce with “Haifa sand”—sweet crumbled almonds—and raisin jelly. Cholent was laced with a very unkosher pork short rib, and borscht fortified with oxtail. Żurek—a thick sour stew made of fermented bread—was the light counterpunch to bigos, a heavy bowl of stewed goose and cabbage traditionally served on Christmas. Dessert was cabbage yet again, this time stuffed with Sainte-Maure goat cheese and served with a white chocolate and boletus mushroom sauce.

Chef Baron explained that the flourishing Jewish society that existed in Poland for a thousand years before the Holocaust was only one element of a diverse empire that included influences from Germany, Hungary, Russia, Lithuania, and Turkey.

“We are in a Renaissance. This is a magical time and a big chance for chefs,” Baron said of Poland’s current culinary climate. “We started looking at old recipes, we look at our products that belonged to us for years.”

He brought a case full of dried mushrooms, single-distillation vodka, and mouth-puckering mirabelle prunes to Israel to celebrate his country’s offerings.

Sivan said Baron’s search for Poland’s varied history reminded him of Haifa, which developed as a local fusion of diverse Jewish and Palestinian cuisine, away from the dizzying international fashions of Tel Aviv.

“I’m trying to check recipes and information about food from my parents, from my grandparents,” Sivan said. “I’m hosting the security guard of the building as a cook, I’m hosting mothers of friends. Because everyone has a tradition, and you have to light it up and keep it.”

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.