Israeli cuisine – dissecting our national dishes

The future of Israeli food is boundless and full of excitement.

Ptitim, often known as ‘Ben-Gurion rice' (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ptitim, often known as ‘Ben-Gurion rice'
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With appreciation for Israeli cuisine spanning far beyond the Middle East, I decided to take a look at its secrets to success. I found that the magic of the food cooked up in the Holy Land lies in its complexity. Essentially, it comes down to three main “layers” of influence and contribution that are particularly evident because of how young Israel is: first, the food brought by Jewish immigrants from all over the world, secondly, the food that was already eaten in the Middle East pre-1948, and finally, how Israeli agriculture and culture have birthed a world-renowned native cuisine. 
In this article we will be focusing on the third layer, dissecting modern Israeli dishes to understand how they came to be and where they may lead us. Our “case studies” will be Israeli breakfast ptitim and Eyal Shani’s roasted cauliflower. 
Israeli breakfast
The Israeli breakfast began as a humble meal to feed kibbutz members who began work early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day. After a couple of hours of work, at mid-morning, they would gather to eat a fresh, filling brunch (for all intents and purposes) in the communal dining hall. The meal has since become known as the Israeli breakfast. 
The Israeli breakfast was formed of readily available produce, such as eggs (laid by the kibbutz’s hens), cheeses (from the cows), fresh vegetables and fruit juices (grown in the fields), and bread. The Israeli breakfast of today uses this as a base, though it has become far more extravagant. Typically served buffet-style with groaning tables crammed with goodies at hotels throughout the country – and meze-style at cafes, where the offerings barely leave room on the table – the breakfast has grown to include riotous arrays of salads, breads and pastries inspired by culinary traditions from around the globe, from croissants to waffles and rye breads, hard and soft cheeses and everything in between, from salty feta to creamy labaneh, as well as freshly squeezed, seasonal fruit juices.
The Israeli breakfast is a sign of the times; as Israel has become more prosperous, so has its breakfast. Its modern appeal lies not only in its abundance, but its inclusion of fresh produce, particularly the salads. Most national breakfasts are sweet-heavy and vegetables that do feature are often fried, not fresh. 
One of the key reasons why Israeli cuisine has entered the culinary spotlight is that the country is relatively prosperous and has had, for the past few decades, the financial freedom to enjoy good food and dining out. Such an environment encourages creativity. 
It was not always this way. Ptitim were invented in 1953, following a period of food rationing in Israel as a solution to rice shortages. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion asked Osem to develop a wheatbased rice alternative and ptitim were born, hence they are often referred to as “Ben-Gurion rice.” Originally rice-shaped, they quickly became available in pearl-shaped balls, termed couscous. Abroad, ptitim are often referred to as “Israeli couscous.” 
While ptitim are very similar to maftoul, popular around the Middle East, Sardinian fregula and types of pastina eaten in Turkey, there are subtle differences that make ptitim unique. So there we have it – an Israeli food, born out of economic necessity, now a staple – particularly when feeding fussy children. 
Though in Israel ptitim are usually reserved for kids, often sautéed with a little onion and served alongside schnitzel, they are poised for new heights abroad. Martha Stewart has a recipe for ptitim with parsley and caramelized shallots, and The New York Times has a collection of recipes with “Israeli couscous,” pairing it with spicy calamari, sautéed cherry tomatoes and basil, and dried apricots and preserved lemon, to name a few.
It seems that the rest of the world has cottoned on ptitim’s potential before us, but I would bet some good money that Ben-Gurion’s rice will start to show up on the menus of Tel Aviv’s trendiest restaurants soon. You heard it here first.
Roasted cauliflower
Modern Israeli food can be summed up in one dish: celebrity chef Eyal Shani’s whole, roasted cauliflower. The perfect illustration of using seasonal produce (luckily for us, cauliflower is in season throughout the year), simple preparation, and letting the vegetable take center stage. Shani’s cauliflower dish was first published in 2006, and has since been tackled by famed chefs such as Jamie Oliver, though in this case, the original seemingly can’t be beat.
Steamed then roasted with olive oil and sea salt, with a creamy interior and crisp leaves, Shani managed to elevate the dowdy cauliflower to a gourmet dish that relies on only three ingredients. At once creative and reserved, it shows off the best of Israel’s produce, which needs no fancy sauces or techniques to hide behind, and has encouraged a new generation of chefs to approach food in a similar way.
To sum up 
Israeli cuisine is still in its infancy, but its complex mix of influences and affiliation with modern approaches to cooking and eating account for its worldwide recognition. Its infancy is instrumental in its success; those who brought their food to Israel when they immigrated are still alive, they can still be consulted, their secrets can be shared with the new generation of Israeli cooks, who can develop these dishes, while still respecting their roots. This new generation of cooks are experimenting; there are no centuries of Israeli culinary history binding their creativity. They can play freely, a privilege that most culinary cuisines around the world have long passed.
I have no doubt that the three layers of Israeli cuisine – Middle Eastern influences, immigrant influences and modern-day influences – will continue to mold what we eat, but aside from that, the future of Israeli food is boundless and full of excitement.