Couscous or Gefilte Fish?

Couscous or Gefilte Fish?

Claudia Roden celebrates the changing faces of Israeli cuisine


Thirty years ago, food was a matter for embarrassment in Israel. Visitors always complained and only had praise for Arab restaurants, most of which were kiosks at the back of petrol stations. If I told people that I had come to find out what was happening in the kitchen, they would look surprised and say things like, ‘Please don’t write anything bad’ and ‘Why don’t you write a sexy novel instead?’ They would tell me stories about the first couple of decades after the establishment of the state, when refugees lived in absorption camps, and when city apartments were small and sometimes had three families sharing. People cooked on tiny oil stoves, there were no refrigerators, only ice boxes, and at meal-times dining tables had to be dragged out from under school books and sewing. You had to make do with nothing, with what you got with ration coupons.

A legacy of those times of scarcity and austerity is a repertoire of mock or simulated foods that are the popular butt of humourists. They were ingenious ways of making something out of something else — chopped liver from aubergines, apple sauce from courgettes, radish jam as a substitute for cherry jam, semolina pudding instead of whipped cream, and turkey instead of veal for schnitzel and instead of lamb for kebabs. Twenty years ago, restaurants served a ubiquitous fish ‘fillet’ — an unidentifiable compressed fish mixture imported from Norway — nondescript ‘white’ cheese, yoghurt and salad, bean and vegetable soup, mushy pasta with a little goulash. You only went to a restaurant if your mother was sick and there was nothing to eat in the house. Pioneers and volunteers never went. By their standards, only ‘decadent’ people spent time in restaurants.

Today, in a hedonistic part of Israeli society, food is enormously important and ‘sexy’. In Tel Aviv everybody is out and about in the evenings, the city is full of restaurants and they are packed and buzzing with noise and activity. After Rabin was murdered, and during the recent intifada, the trade slumped terribly, but now it is bubbling again. Those who grew up on raspberry juice are now connoisseurs of wine. In ten years, more than 30 boutique wineries have opened, some making exceptional wines. One, by the Recanati family, originally Italians from Egypt, has won international awards.

Israelis have also come to appreciate good cheeses and there are now many artisan goat and sheep’s milk cheese-makers. Shai Zeltzer, a wartime hero, set the trend with his goats. Jamie Oliver’s TV programmes started a fashion for men cooking and the enthusiasm has continued with new young Israeli TV chefs. Shops selling trendy kitchen utensils do cooking demonstrations. A chain of truly mega-supermarkets, called Tiv Ta’am, are the new ‘Israeli temples’. Originally opened to cater for the Russian communities, they sell upmarket products from all over the world (including Russian vodka and kvas, a cider made from bread). They also sell ready-cooked Jewish specialities such as chopped liver, gefilte fish, kreplach, borekas and Moroccan cigars, frozen packs containing the ready-prepared components of cholent and hamine (traditional Saturday meals), as well as a huge range of pork charcuterie and seafood. They are open on Saturdays and around the clock every day. At night there is a jazz club in one branch where you can also eat and drink.

A new phenomenon is the zimmer (meaning rooms in German) — with people around the country offering rooms promoted for their cooking. Nili Friedlander, who has written a guide book for travellers called Forty Weekends — the Joys of the Road (in Hebrew), explained that zimmer, originally just a cheap room in somebody’s house, can now also be something very grand and fancy with marble and Jacuzzis or, in the southern desert area, in the style of a Bedouin tent, a Moroccan or Indian palace — a mix, she says, of all the fantasies of people who have travelled to exotic places. It started with people offering rooms in their homes in small villages and in moshavs when agriculture became uneconomical. Now the government sponsors them and they build new houses — usually of prefabricated wood and stone — in beautiful settings such as among olive trees, where wild flowers and herbs grow, or in the desert. This form of affordable tourism has become very popular, with extended families going almost every month as well as for the holidays. The most expensive zimmers are for couples only — usually young people in high tech.

All offer a variety of home-baked breads and artisanal cheeses that are served with salads for breakfast; they usually grow their own vegetables — tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, courgettes — and make their own goats’ milk yoghurt. A usual meal is with meat ‘on the fire’. Some zimmers have become famous for their cooking. The food is a mixture of every kind of style. In the south, where Thai families have settled (the men work in agriculture and the women in the zimmers), there is a strong Thai influence. But Arab food is the most popular.

After Oslo and before the second intifada the most trendy and best places to go were Arab villages. Now this has become a problem, and people go to villages in the Judea hills where, at the end of the winter, old Jewish women from Kurdistan and Iran open their homes and serve traditional foods. For a while Jews stopped going to Nazareth and Acre. Now they have gone back and Nazareth has become the capital of Arab food. Nili was the first to discover the restaurant Diana there — she says it is the best of the best. Now Diana and another, Duchul Safdi, are so full of people from Tel Aviv that the locals can never get in.

Everything changes constantly, as one would expect in a country of immigrants from more than 70 countries where each wave of settlers has brought something new. In 1992 I attended a gastronomic conference in Jerusalem entitled ‘Couscous or Gefilte Fish?’ I was in the kitchen with cooks from Poland, Georgia, Bukhara, Morocco, Iraq and many other countries preparing tastings and demonstrations of Jewish festive dishes from each of our communities. The first discussion, in Hebrew, was ‘Is there such a thing as Jewish food?’ Eastern European food was thought of as ‘Jewish’, Jewish food from elsewhere labelled ‘ethnic’, and Arab street food such as falafel, humus, babaghanoush and shakshouka considered Israeli. Meanwhile, trendy chefs and food writers were trying to create a national cuisine using biblical ingredients such as honey, figs and pomegranates; indigenous foods including prickly pears and chickpeas; and new Israeli products such as avocado, citrus, mango and cream cheese that the government was promoting. While elsewhere in the world cooking was becoming detached from cultures and subject to changing fashions, Israelis were longing for a distinctive national cuisine.

Today in the upmarket restaurant and catering trades an ‘Israeli nouvelle cuisine’ is emerging. It is couscous rather than gefilte fish. I participated in a conference at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem in June 2005 entitled ‘A Taste of the Mediterranean’. There were papers by food writers and historians, nutritionists and chefs from around the Mediterranean, including Turkey and Morocco. Top Israeli chefs demonstrated their dishes. There was a duet of baladi (local) aubergines by Ezra Kedem of Arcadia in Jerusalem; crown of lamb and stuffed aubergines and zucchini by Josef Asfour of Darna in Ramallah; fillet of red snapper on a bed of green and white mangold leaves in fresh artichoke cream and pickled lemon by Shalom Kadosh of the Sheraton Plaza in Jerusalem; tender lamb ribs wrapped in thistle leaves and hummus beans by Chaim Tibi of Muscat in Mizpe Hayamim; figs with arak and figs with syrup and cream by Hila Solomon of Spoons, Yemin Moshe; grouper tagine by Victor Gloger of Chloelys in Ramat Gan. These dishes are a modern interpretation of various Sephardi culinary traditions, and they are labelled ‘Mediterranean’.

Not so long ago a cook was the lowest of the low in Israel. Now cooking is glamorous and chefs have become stars, many of them Sephardim whose families came from Morocco, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and other Middle Eastern and North African countries. For decades Israelis with ‘ethnic’ or ‘oriental’ backgrounds were ashamed of what were seen as their backward cultures. Today those cultures are blossoming in the kitchen as in music, song and crafts.

Ezra Kedem, said to be the best chef in Israel, explains that his cooking is based on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines using French and Italian techniques. After the conference the athletically built chef invited me to spend the day at his aunt’s house. I went with my friend Ella Almagor. We watched two of his aunts (his mother had recently died) make all kinds of kubba (or kibbeh). These are balls of fine bulgur and semolina blended with meat, stuffed with a spicy onion and minced meat filling, then flattened and deep fried or stewed in a variety of vegetable stews and soups with stuffed courgettes and okra or with stuffed cardoon leaves and lemony chicken. We heard how the family had been early Zionists in Zaho in Kurdish North Iraq; how they came in a convoy on donkeys back in 1929 to live in the Kurdish neighbourhood near Mahane Yehuda; how they left their doors open on Saturday and exchanged food with their neighbours from Morocco, Syria and Turkey (Bukharan Jews had their own quarter and did not mix); how they prospered in the building trade. It is through the Iraqi Kurds that Jerusalem has become the world capital of kibbeh.

A couple of months ago I went to see Kedem again, this time with my daughter Nadia, at his restaurant Arcadia, an old house and garden situated in a neighbourhood formed by Jews who moved out of the Old City in 1868. As we sat in the afternoon tasting the new seasons menu, the staff were also tasting at a long table nearby. (Kedem says he believes in team work.)

His menu is sensational. His signature dish is roasted aubergine, peeled and cut so that slices remain attached at the stem. These are fanned out and raked with a fork, then drizzled with olive oil and yoghurt, and sprinkled with salt, pepper, chopped walnuts and parsley. The aubergines are accompanied by little pools of ever so light tahina sauce and yoghurt.

Kedem explained that he was part of a mini-revolution in the kitchen that occurred in the early Nineties when chefs went out to train in the top restaurants in Europe and America and returned to develop a modern Israeli haute cuisine. (Until then top restaurants had aspired to serve French cuisine.) Most of the ground-breaking chefs he cites were of ‘oriental’ origin. Everyone, he says, ‘wanted to rediscover his grandmother, his mother, his aunts — the tastes and aromas of his childhood’.

In preparing his menu Kedem starts with the local produce in season. (He picks his herbs in the Judean hills.) He is most concerned with taste but also wants to ‘create memories and emotions’. His dishes, he says ‘embody the spirit of Jerusalem and carry the memories of the melting pot of people and cultures that has always been Jerusalem’. He finds inspiration in his own family’s cooking and in the home cooking of the old and new inhabitants of Jerusalem — Jewish and Arab. One of the first established Jewish communities in Palestine was made up of families from Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, who came to be known as the ‘Jerusalem aristocracy’. Their dishes — pies such as sanbusak, pasteles and borekas, vegetable gratins and stuffed vegetables, rice and burghul pilafs, delicately flavoured with herbs and spices and aromatics such as tamarind, sour pomegranate syrup and flower essences — are Jerusalem classics. But there are always new things to discover. ‘For instance,’ Kedem says, ‘at the moshav where I buy my cardoons I met a Moroccan woman who always buys them there and I asked her how she cooked them. And when I go to the market I discuss with other shoppers and with the vendor what they will be making.’ This type of conversational exchange, between neighbours, with market people and through chance encounters, is a common occurrence in Israel.

Culinary trends depend on who works in the kitchens, who sells food in the street and who is in the business of catering for weddings and barmitzvahs. Chef Moshe Basson, whose famous Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem closed because of the effects of the intifada, joined us at Arcadia and took us on a tour of Jerusalem. He explained what has been happening in the kitchens. Like most chefs, he had trained in the military catering school, Tadmore. It was common for young men, usually Sephardi, to go into cooking through the army (the lowest, often stigmatized grades were cooks and drivers). When Moshe served on the Suez canal, there was a kitchen book written in Hebrew. Since the head cook could not read the language, he had to telephone his Moroccan mother and ask her for recipes!

The big hotels always used to bring executive chefs from abroad, mainly from Switzerland, Germany and Austria. The cooks they took on were Israeli Arabs and Sephardi Jews — people for whom cooking was the only job available. Because the hotels were catering for tourists, the food was mainly from Eastern Europe — gefilte fish, pickled herring, chopped liver, chicken soup, knaidler, tzimmes, lockshen pudding. Meanwhile, Israelis went to eat in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho. In the 1960s there were a few Jewish restaurants that served mostly local Arab and ‘oriental’ food. Cohen was a small oriental restaurant near the haredi area in Jerusalem. The owner was from Aleppo and did the kind of thing Syrian Jews cooked at home such as stuffed vegetables and quinces. Zion in Jaffa served Yemeni soups with bread. In those many ‘ethnic’ restaurants soon closed because of lack of custom, but today a large number of restaurants serving Bukharan, Iranian, Kurdish, Georgian, Iraqi, Moroccan, Hungarian and Ukrainian Jewish food have sprung up.

Moshe Basson opened one of the first of this new wave of oriental restaurants in Jerusalem in 1996. His family came from Iraq and his early years were spent in a refugee ‘transit camp’ in Talpiot until his father was able to buy a small house with a piece of land near the camp close to the Arab neighbourhood of Baka. When the family moved, they left their first home to Moshe and his brother, who turned it into a restaurant. Moshe planted a eucalyptus tree in the garden and got Arabs from the village to bring their own home cooking such as makhlouta (a layered dish of meat, rice and vegetables), and the village bakery to send local doughy specialities such as sfiha, lahma bi ajeen and fatair, which he arranged to be made in accordance with the laws of kashrut. Eventually Basson employed a young Syrian woman to cook.

Today the charismatic pony-tailed chef divides his time between teaching ‘biblical’ cooking, catering for special events, and consulting and developing menus for restaurants. But his main concern is the organization Chefs for Peace, of which he is one of the founders. The kitchen and the table, he says, are places of bonding and conviviality where Jewish-Arab relations have survived even the last intifada. ‘It was always natural for Palestinians and Israelis to work together in kitchens in hotels and restaurants,’ he says. ‘In the army there had been Druze. In the kitchens in towns there were always Arabs. Most of the waiters were Arab — they had welcoming ways and would always say et fadal [welcome] — while Jews did not want to be waiters. The Arabs were good cooks and held most of the higher positions, while Israelis did the peeling, chopping and preparation work. There were comradeship and close relationships. During the intifada they cried together. In circles where people do not work together you can poison people who do not know each other against each other.

‘But the intifada gradually changed things. Customers were afraid if Arabs worked there. New Arabs did not get any jobs. When Palestinian cooks who lived deep in Palestinian areas could not come easily and were not allowed to stay overnight, young Israeli chefs took their place.’

The idea of Chefs for Peace was born at the catering school at the Notre Dame centre, which belongs to the Vatican. Now their centre is Jerusalem YMCA, where Moshe consults on the menu. The committee is made up of an equal number of Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, and Jews. They cater together for events large and small and have done so for Knesset members, Palestinian leaders, church leaders and foreign consuls. They have created programmes for Israeli and Palestinian children. They act as ambassadors abroad and cook Palestinian-Israeli food at Israeli embassies and at conferences and festivals. Their aim is to show that Jews and Arabs can work and live together. They are determined to demonstrate that cuisine can contribute to the peace process, and they try to inspire other groups — not only chefs and cooks — to get together. A number of them were at a reception at the Mediterranean conference at Mishkenot Sha’ananim. They danced together and laughed together. It was heart-warming to be drawn into their jovial camaraderie.