“A culinary desert” is how Janna Gur, editor of Israel’s leading food and wine magazine and an authority on the country’s culinary history, described the food scene in the 1970s. Few people in the 70s looked to Israel as a culinary centre. Gur explained that food was considered frivolous, as the populace was more concerned with fighting for its future due to political and civil turmoil.
According to Gur’s The Book of New Israeli Food, food has always played a role in Jewish history, but Jewish cuisine evolved over two thousand years in the Diaspora as Jews scattered to neighbouring regions and beyond. The cultures and countries in which they settled influenced them. The differences, Gur continues, arose from keeping kosher, which meant avoiding shellfish and pork and not mixing dairy and meat.
In the 1900s, Jews began immigrating to Palestine led by those coming from Russia, Poland, Eastern European countries, and Germany in the 1930s. In the 1940s and 1950s, immigration to the new state of Israel continued with Jews arriving from Arab countries, North Africa, Europe, Iraq, North America, and many other countries. Each brought their own style of Jewish cooking and dishes shaped by the lands from which they emigrated.
Gur explains that the Israeli culinary scene did not really start to evolve until the 1980s. The major catalyst, she says, was the peace treaty signed with Egypt, which provided a sense of hope and allowed people to feel that they could get on and live their lives without the same degree of uncertainty and unrest.
Chefs began to travel abroad, restaurants fusing different cuisines began to open, dining out became more prevalent and the availability, production and choice of great quality ingredients increased dramatically.
Today, Israel’s culinary scene is dynamic and diverse. On my visit to the country, I experienced incredible quality and variety of fruits and vegetables, great markets, a vibrant dining out scene, an emerging wine industry, and extremely talented chefs combining modern techniques with fresh, local ingredients and ethnic tradition. The following is a sampling of Israeli dishes, restaurants, and producers I encountered.
My first meal in Israel was a couple of hours after landing in Tel Aviv. I was taken for lunch to Dr. Shakshuka in the adjoining ancient port city of Jaffa. Shakshuka is a dish of Libyan origin that is made in a frying pan and contains tomatoes, hot sauce (filfel chuma, zhug, cayenne or harissa are the most commonly used), and eggs. Many other ingredients can be incorporated with the most common being onions, sausages, red peppers, and eggplant (I had the eggplant and sausage). Once the tomato sauce is completely prepared, small wells are made with a spoon and the eggs are carefully slid in without breaking the yolks. The eggs poach in the tomato sauce. The dish is served in the frying pan it is cooked in with white bread to soak up the sauce. Truly flavourful comfort food, Shakshuka is perfect as an all-day breakfast, a late-night snack or as hangover food. And while the owner is not a real doctor, his Shakshuka is so good…
A selection of small plates served at the beginning of the meal (akin to antipasti) to tempt your palate. Tastes can include hummus and tahini dips, olives, pickles, tabbouleh, vegetable salads, labane cheese and warm pita bread. I found it difficult to restrain myself (most often I didn’t) as the mezze were so delicious, but there was always so much more food to come.
Mitzpe Hayamim Hotel (Rosh Pina)
This hotel/spa has taken fresh and local to another level. Everything served in the hotel and all its restaurants (other than the meat) is grown on the 40-acre property. There is a huge organic garden with a massive variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables. They raise cows, sheep and goats and produce their own cheese and yogurt. They also raise chickens for eggs. They even produce their own soaps and oils. Forget the 100-mile diet, this is the 100-metre diet.
Bustan Levona Fruit Orchids
Walking the grounds, tasting as we went, with Chef Shi Shi Lishensky was a little surreal. Over 150 types of fruit with origins from around the world are grown on the property, ranging from avocados, eight types of mangos, dragon fruit, pitaya, guava, lemons, limes, olives, tamarind, jack fruit, durian, sapota and on and on; including several I had never heard of. Many functions and weddings are held on the gorgeous grounds with Chef Shi Shi creating stunning meals.
Kze Hanachal (Ginnosar)
Perhaps my favourite meal in Israel. The restaurant serves traditional Lebanese food and is operated by Arabic and Jewish co-owners. Everything was amazing, but highlights included eggplant baked with tahini, kibbeh (ground lamb kebabs), a strained yogurt dish that had been aged for a couple of days (sometimes getting the exact names and spellings was a challenge), and shish barak (like tortellini stuffed with ground beef and lamb fat cooked in a creamy goat yogurt sauce). There was an endless stream of amazing dishes from the warm and hospitable owners. Definitely worth seeking out.
Levinsky Street Market & Carmel Market (Tel Aviv)
Levinsky Street Market in the Florentine neighbourhood is the place to buy spices, coffees and teas, regional delicacies, and also great delis and bakeries. Stop for a sample of rice with pistachios, almonds and harissa from the spice store Pereg, or a flaky spinach bun from the Albert Bakery. The bustling Carmel Market is the city’s largest fruit and vegetable market, but there are also kosher butchers, clothing stands and street food vendors. Truly an experience for all your senses.
The Dining Room (Tel Aviv)
A vibrant, bustling restaurant with young staff serving traditional dishes with a twist. The innovative and tasty Sea Bass Baklawa saw the fish in phyllo pastry with caramelized pistachio, honey and thyme. Beets stuffed with ground beef, yogurt and pomegranate syrup were yummy, as were the Pot Bake (cubed beef and lamb, with Swiss chard and chickpeas cooked in a pot with a pastry lid), chicken livers with bulgur salad and garlic confit, and pretty much everything else we devoured. A great representation of the active dining scene in Tel Aviv.
Eucalyptus Restaurant (Jerusalem)
Chef Moshe Basson specializes in biblical cuisine. His figs stuffed with chicken and tamarind are worth the trip alone. He is a member of Chefs for Peace, an organization of Israeli and Palestinian chefs working together to foster understanding and co-existence between the two peoples and encouraging political leaders to move forward in the peace process.