Israeli cuisine: How did we get here?

Israeli cuisine is a hot topic

‘Salat, beitzah, hatzilim’: Sabich is comprised of a pita  lled with fried eggplant slices, hard- boiled eggs, often a potato element, assorted salads, tehina and amba. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘Salat, beitzah, hatzilim’: Sabich is comprised of a pita lled with fried eggplant slices, hard- boiled eggs, often a potato element, assorted salads, tehina and amba.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israeli cuisine is a hot topic. Chefs Yotam Ottolenghi, Mike Solomonov and Eyal Shani are now recognized names, and have changed the landscapes of supermarkets across the world, introducing spices and herbs such as sumac and za’atar, and transforming the reputations of eggplant and cauliflower from dowdy to modish. Media attention has been generous, from publications like The New York Times to documentaries like “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” offering their perspective and research into the complexities of Israeli eats and its recent rise to culinary fame.
How did we get here? In a series of three articles, we will explore Israel’s secret to culinary success.
On one hand, it is easy to view this recent fame as a sign of the times. “Israeli cuisine” (if it can be considered a cuisine – more on that later) effortlessly achieves the trifecta of today’s culinary trends: vegetable-centric, animal-friendly dishes; farm- (or kibbutz)-to-table eating; and fresh, locally sourced fare. What’s more interesting, however, is the makeup of “Israeli cuisine” and why it is so universally appealing.
The many culinary influences, cultures and techniques that contribute to our “cuisine” are key to its broad appeal.
This is not unique by any means; most culinary traditions are molded by a place’s history. Whoever ruled over a territory enforced not only its laws but its way of life, including how people cooked and what they ate. In addition, over time, immigrant communities’ foods wheedle their way into nations’ mouths.
What sets Israel apart is the fact that it is a young country, meaning that the formation of a culinary tradition is unfolding before our eyes. The effect of each influence is far more evident. Because of its status as a Jewish homeland, home to many cultures from around the world who live side-by-side, there are numerous influences occurring at one time. Moreover, it is a small country, so the melting pot of flavors is concentrated.
What makes our cuisine “Israeli” – and the quotes end here because I believe that this next point is precisely what turns our collection of food into an actual cuisine – are the tweaks and changes we have made to dishes that came from elsewhere. These tweaks are often due to a lapse of time, dishes “lost in translation,” or due to substituting local ingredients for the originals, which are uncommon here, or to our lifestyle – the weather, Jewish law, the seasons, etc.
We tweak dishes until they can be considered our own.
Each article will discuss one of the three “layers,” or influences, of Israeli cuisine.
Layer 1: food that immigrants brought to Israel when they settled here from all over the globe.
Layer 2: food that already existed in the Middle East before 1948.
Layer 3: modern manifestations of the cuisine, influenced by Israeli agriculture and happenings over the last 70 years.
A couple of “case studies” will help to illustrate each layer.
We’ll start with layer 1: food that Jewish immigrants brought with them to Israel, which have been tweaked and embraced by Israelis to the point that they are now considered national dishes. Our case studies will be malabi and sabich.
“Muhallabia,” the Arabic – and arguably original – name for malabi, is referenced in Arabic legends dating back to the seventh century, and the earliest-known recipes for the sweet dates back to the 10th century. So it’s been around for a while. The version we enjoy in Israel was brought over by immigrants from Turkey 80-odd years ago, where it is alternatively known as sutlach or sut, meaning “milk.”
Malabi, at least in modern-day Israel, is a panna cotta- like milk pudding, topped with a sweet syrup typically flavored with rose water, and something crunchy – here, peanuts and desiccated coconut are most common, though pistachios would likely have been the crunch of choice originally. The milk is typically thickened with rice flour, though corn flour is now an accepted substitute for a silky texture. Due to kashrut laws, naturally vegan, or parve, versions of the dish have become popular, such as those made with coconut milk or simply water.
While there is not much inherently Israeli about malabi besides our substituting pistachios for peanuts, the dish is arguably better known in Israel nowadays than the countries which birthed it; kiosks, street vendors and even high-end eateries around the country offer their versions of the cooling dessert. Just one visit to the popular Hamalabiya mini-chain in Tel Aviv (with locations in Jaffa’s flea market, the Carmel Market and the Rothschild- Allenby market) will demonstrate how this simple dish has weaved its way into Israeli culture. Market vendors dig in during heated rounds of shesh-besh (backgammon), schoolkids flirt and shout at the communal tables after lessons, and hip Tel Avivians chug pints of beer and shots of arak alongside their malabi after dark.
Alongside street-side stalls shaving shwarma and stuffing falafel into pita is another, heart-wrenchingly underrated treat: sabich. Pita filled with fried eggplant slices, hard-boiled eggs, often a potato element, assorted salads, tehina and amba, a tangy mango pickle straight out of India, sabich is the perfect hearty vegetarian street food.
The dish originated in Iraq and is uniquely Jewish. It was originally eaten on Shabbat for breakfast and served on a plate – the pita element was added later. The eggs were taken from the hamin, which is why many sabich vendors use tea to dye their eggs an authentic-looking deep tan color.
It was only when a large community of Iraqi Jews moved to Ramat Gan in the 1940s that the plated meal was stuffed into a pita and became the on-the-go dish it is today. Various theories regarding the name of the dish have emerged — sabich standing for “salat, beitza, hatzilim” (salad, egg and eggplant in Hebrew), or the S-B-H root letters spelling “morning” in Arabic. One thing’s for certain, this national treasure is a winner and, arguably, one of the few truly Israeli dishes (it’s amazing what a difference a pita can make!)
In Part 2, we will delve into the dishes that had been enjoyed by inhabitants of the Middle East for centuries, and examine how they have been tweaked and reworked in modern-day Israel.