Taste Israeli food with Joan Nathan

Joan Nathan reflects on the evolution of Israeli cuisine and shares what’s on her Thanksgiving table this year

Joan Nathan (photo credit: MICHAEL LIONSTAR / WIKIMEDIA)
Joan Nathan
(photo credit: MICHAEL LIONSTAR / WIKIMEDIA)
Before multi-award-winning food author and matriarch of Jewish cooking, Joan Nathan, explores the evolution of Israeli cuisine with IsraelCast host Steven Shalowitz at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Fall Reading Series on Wednesday, November 18, she sat down to discuss the state-of-play in Jewish and Israeli cuisine.
Q: Since The Foods of Israel Today was published almost 20 years ago, how has Israel’s culinary scene evolved?
Joan: Israel’s culinary scene has evolved the same way Israel has evolved over the decades. The country has really found its place. When I lived in Israel in the 70s, people didn’t think about food. It was about sustenance. There were a few European cafes along with hummus, falafel and kubbeh places. Now Israelis who finish the army travel abroad and then come back. Through people like Yotam Ottolenghi and Michael Solomonov, Israeli food has come into its own – just as we’ve seen street food around the world come into its own. 
Q: Israeli cuisine has gained greater prominence in the US over the past 10 years. What do you attribute this to?
Joan: I think a lot of it has to do with street food coming of age. For example, here in L.A., for many years you could only find Israeli restaurants in The Valley. Now they’re all over the city and you have chefs like Ori Menashe who established a successful Italian restaurant (Bestia) embracing Middle Eastern and Israeli cuisine [through Manashe’s new restaurant, Bavel].
At the end of the day, people may not agree with Israeli politics, but they agree about the incredible food. And of course, “Israeli food” in itself is composed of multiple influences from around the world. 
There is also a greater trend toward plant-based diets in the U.S. Israeli food in a way is quite light on its use of meat. Just look at the humble chickpea – a staple of Israeli cuisine. Chickpeas don’t require a lot of water to grow and are one of the most popular foods today. It used to be that most chickpeas were grown in India, however, now they’re grown everywhere. 
I think chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi grasped the heart of the world – and he did it with an Arab co-author. And his books came out at the right time. People want to embrace peace. They like to eat, and Israeli food is above politics.
Q: Ashkenazic food sometimes gets a bad rap for being plain and uninteresting. Do you feel there’s still a place on our plates for traditional Eastern European Jewish food?
Joan: There’s some great Eastern and Central European cooking and it will continue to endure as a holiday food. People do, however, love some of the fruit-based meat dishes like tzimmes. It’s the food of our childhood, yet it uses less meat. Another example is matzo ball soup – everybody loves this. In fact, right now I’m making Yemenite soup with tiny matzo balls because I love the flavor. I think it’s good for you, but I also love the comfort of matzo balls.
Q: The Galilee Culinary Institute by JNF (GCI by JNF) will soon be established in the greater Kiryat Shmona region. What makes the cultures and foods of Israel’s north so special and unique?
Joan: I love Israel’s north. It’s so unspoiled and I’ve been there many times. When I think of the north, I think of culinary pioneers such as Erez Komarovsky, the Galilee based Israeli chef, baker, educator, and author who founder Lehem Erez bakery and café chain and is arguably the founding father of artisanal bread-making in Israel. 
I also love the untouched environment of Israel’s north. When you visit the Sea of Galilee, you’ll find these black stones that are perfect for making bread on. In fact, I took them home to make bread! 
The people and cultures of Israel’s north are also fascinating. I once went to a multi-day Druze wedding and it’s amazing to see how they’ve kept their rich traditions alive. I remember seeing the bride and groom travel from one village to the next on horseback. I also recall them making raw kubbeh for breakfast after slaughtering one of their lambs. I also recall watching the women pick leafy greens from various neighborhood gardens. You could actually see where the food on your plate had come from!
Q: GCI by JNF Culinary Advisory Council member, Chef Michael Solomonov previously remarked that cooking with kosher ingredients can present an exciting challenge. Do you agree?
Joan: Well, I think it’s certainly more limiting for a chef, but they [chefs] love challenges. It’s mostly meat ingredients that pose the greatest challenge. However, today it’s not a big deal to separate meat and milk. And as modern cuisine has evolved, people just aren’t using cream sauces in meat dishes like they used to. Plus it’s so easy to substitute milk ingredients with alternatives like coconut milk. 
Q: What do you think about the growing trend towards plant-based eating?
Joan: My daughter and her family keep kosher. They eat more vegetarian and fish dishes than meat. Meat just doesn’t appeal to their children. They don’t appreciate it and are even put-off by the look of a whole cooked chicken. Their generation is ultimately going to grow up eating much less [meat]. 
Q: So are you a fan of plant-based burgers?
Joan: Some of the plant-based burgers aren’t bad! It’s the future and we have to save the planet. 
Q: Many of us will be having smaller gatherings for Thanksgiving this year due to the pandemic. For those of us who are considering not cooking a whole Turkey with all the fixings this year, what do you suggest should grace our Thanksgiving menus?
Joan: It’s something I’m thinking about right now. I actually like turkey a lot, however, there are alternatives. People may wish to consider smaller birds such as chicken, Cornish hens, duck, or turkey breast. 
For me, turkey stuffing and cranberry sauce (homemade, not canned) is a must. I always make my mother’s cranberry sauce that includes using a whole orange. 
This year, I will still make my apple pie as well as sweet potatoes with marshmallows. That’s a favorite with the children, however, I need to make sure I use the large marshmallows! Our menu will also include a tuna ceviche.  
To register for Jewish National Fund-USA’s Fall Reading Series featuring Joan Nathan on Wednesday, November 18, click here