'At 70'- From Jaffa oranges to gourmet shakshuka

Over 70 short years, Israelis have developed a cuisine that draws tourists from all over and has begun to spread around the globe

March 11, 2018 12:05
A TANTALIZING DESSERT plate at a Jerusalem eatery.

A TANTALIZING DESSERT plate at a Jerusalem eatery.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

London, Paris, New York – if you land in any one of these cities, arguably among the hottest foodie destinations in the world, you’ll be able to find acclaimed and popular restaurants serving Israeli food.

Take a stroll around Tel Aviv, and you’ll find an eclectic mix of upscale restaurants, fast-food joints, street-food vendors and everything in between, serving cuisine inspired by tastes both around the globe and close to home. In the 70 years since Israel’s establishment, its cuisine has come a long way, from practically nonexistent to internationally acclaimed.

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In the US, native Israeli chefs have opened restaurants that garner starred reviews, long waiting lists and prestigious awards. Alon Shaya and Michael Solomonov have both been honored by the James Beard Awards, considered the most prestigious culinary accolade in the US. Meir Adoni and Eyal Shani, two chefs with long careers in the Jewish state, have won high praise from The New York Times for their eateries in the city – Nur and Miznon, respectively. Shani has opened eateries in Paris and Melbourne, and another famed Israel chef, Assaf Granit, is responsible for some of the most buzzed-about food in London.

But back in humble little Israel, things are no less exciting. While it’s true that Michelin has yet to evaluate the country’s cuisine or award stars to any of its restaurants, Israel is fast becoming known as a top culinary destination.

From a country that got its start with communal dining rooms serving up bread, eggs and chopped salad, Israel has jumped leaps and bounds in seven decades.

The first hints of change, said Gil Hovav, the food writer, chef and TV personality, came in the 1980s, when a financial boom saw more Israelis traveling abroad and experiencing restaurant culture and fine dining.

“Up until the ’80s we can say that Israel was really modest and sort of socialist,” said Hovav. “And people didn’t really pay much attention to what they were eating.”

When the state was first founded, its pioneers were thinking more about survival and self-sufficiency than fine dining and a national cuisine.

While Zionist leaders heavily promoted living off the land, the foods were very simple, straightforward, and eating out was unheard of.

While the first decade of the state saw rationing of many products, others emerged as markers of Israeli identity. Jaffa oranges served for decades as Israel’s No. 1 export, and today the majority of the world’s Medjool dates are grown in the Jewish state.

But restaurant food? National dishes? Those were mere pipe dreams for the first decades of the fledgling state.

“In the kibbutzim, members ate simply – some say that they grew up on cottage cheese and chopped salads,” wrote Lori Stein and Ronald Isaacs in Let’s Eat: Jewish Food and Faith (2017). “Members took turns in the kitchen, turning out solid, satisfying but unglamorous fare that could be made quickly.”

AS THE country developed, eateries began to open, but most offered fast food, street food or stuck to the very basics.

“For the first 30 or 40 years of Israel’s statehood, knowledgeable tourists agreed: Stick to the simplest foods you can find, like fine, fresh produce (especially tomatoes and cucumbers, citrus and strawberries), just-baked breads, and phenomenally rich dairy products (like the cottage cheese),” wrote Stein and Isaacs.

But at the turn of the century, that all started to change. And the rapid growth over the past two decades has produced a restaurant scene in Israel those first kibbutznikim would never have dreamed of. Today, Israel has celebrity chefs, TV cooking competitions, foodie Instagram stars and thousands upon thousands of dining establishments. That, Hovav said, is a product of the past 20 years.

“Food TV I would say began after the year 2000,” he said, “and then the celebrity chefs came about 10 years ago. It’s really an epidemic and it’s really huge now – Israel is just like Europe or the US when it comes to food culture.”

Today Israel has an active and thriving restaurant scene, with an estimated more than 11,000 in operation. A study released in December by CofaceBDI, a business data company, reported that Israelis spent more than NIS 20 billion eating out in 2017 – an increase of 3.5% from the year before.

And according to a 2017 Tourism Ministry survey, 71.2% of tourists to Israel rated the country’s restaurants as either excellent or very good. Just last week Buzzfeed included Tel Aviv on its “11 totally underrated food cities around the world.”

There has even been talk of the prestigious Michelin international ranking system making it to Israel – though the company hasn’t indicated plans to do so. In 2016, World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder criticized Michelin for ignoring Israel. “Israel today is a venerable amalgam of cultures and traditions, which come together to produce a distinctive and exceptional culinary scene,” he wrote. “Why, therefore, has your company refused to produce a guide to Israel’s restaurants?”

IN ADDITION to its thriving local scene, Israeli cuisine is gaining a serious foothold in the international food world. In the United States, Israeli restaurants are popping up in cities around the country, Israeli cookbooks are winning awards left and right, and Israeli chefs – both those raised in America and those who cut their teeth first in Israel – are making themselves known.

Solomonov, Israeli-born and US raised, opened the doors to Zahav in Philadelphia in 2008, serving “modern Israeli cuisine.” He’s since opened a hummus joint, a falafel bar, expanded to New York and Florida, won four James Beard Awards and is working on his second cookbook.

Israeli-born, New Orleans-raised Alon Shaya gained acclaim and awards for his restaurant Shaya, and is opening up two Israeli joints – Saba in New Orleans, Safta in Denver – this spring.

Israeli native Einat Admony has a mini-empire in New York, owning two Taim falafel bars and two restaurants – Balaboosta and Bar Bolonat – which all serve up her local cuisine. She launched her first place in 2005, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Americans are crazy for hummus, falafel, shakshuka and fried haloumi.

And despite constant online bickering and fights over food origins and cultural appropriation, American taste buds are lining up with few problems.

“It’s something we’ve been dealing with for a very long time, but I think it’s a little bit less than what you should expect now,” said Solomonov on the accusations of Israeli food appropriation.

“It’s funny because food really comes from nowhere. To say that this is stolen food – not only is it inaccurate, it’s just lazy. The real reason that everybody in that region cooks the way they do is because of the Ottomans.”

Hovav agreed, saying that there is really “no such thing as stealing dishes – we eat what there is here, what we see around.”

In addition to his activities in the US, Solomonov has led tours of Israel for friends and colleagues and appeared in documentaries and TV shows about the country’s cuisine. He recently appeared in the Netflix show Somebody Feed Phil’s spotlight on Tel Aviv, and was the star of Roger Sherman’s 2016 documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine. This summer he’ll be bringing the Philadelphia Orchestra to tour the country, and he’s always ready to explore.

“You’ve always got the super new places, the places that you have to go to that just opened in Tel Aviv,” he said, “and then you have the places that are 100 years old that you just haven’t been to yet.” Personally, he said, anytime he lands in Israel, “I get a huge pack of burekas and take it from there.”

Hovav said he credits the international love affair with Israeli food – or at least Israeli-inspired food – to Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem.

That book, which was published in 2012 in the US and the UK, instantly became one of the most buzzed-about cookbooks of the year. Ottolenghi’s first cookbook, Ottolenghi (2008), also reflected Middle Eastern and Mediterranean culinary traditions.

While Admony, Solomonov, Shaya and Ottolenghi all found culinary success in the US, more recently established Israeli chefs have been trying their hands overseas.

Last year, Adoni opened up Nur in New York City, and Shani launched another branch of his Miznon chain in January in the same city. Uri Scheft, the owner of the popular Lehamim bakery chain in Tel Aviv, has found critical acclaim for his Breads Bakery’s three locations in New York City.

Solomonov said he doesn’t see it as competition; rather, “we’re proud of it.”

“We want to promote Israel through food. The more restaurants there are, the more people talking about Israeli food, the more people referencing Israel, the better it is for me,” he said, “and the closer we are to achieving these goals.”

Hovav, who said some of the international eateries serve more of an “orientalist fantasy about the Middle East” than actual Israeli cuisine, is still happy to see the spread of such restaurants.

“It’s Israeli-influenced, and that’s enough,” he said. “I think it’s great.... Everyone wants to make it abroad and it’s cool – I think it’s very good for the Israeli cuisine.”

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