March 22, 2001
From Kataif to Kasha
"The Foods of Israel Today" by Joan Nathan (Knopf, $40)
Joan Nathan is one of America's premier food journalists, which is what makes "The Foods of Israel Today" so important a book. It has recipes, 300-plus, and pretty pictures of food, but it is no plain cookbook. What it abounds in are insightful stories about the way food and culture are interwoven in the land of Israel.
Nathan lived in Israel during the 1970s, serving as an aide to then-Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. She has visited countless times since and has discovered dishes and cooks, from Michelin-rated chefs to Palestinian bakers to the Mizrahim grilling scraps of organ meats in open-air markets, who are emblematic of Israel's promise, its progress and its problems.
The recipes reveal an Israel far more complex and varied than even regular visitors there realize. Nathan travels from a Druze wedding feast of kibbeh to an East Jerusalem Arab hummus specialist to a kibbutz that excels in organic fruits and vegetables to a Tel Aviv street stall that turns out grilled foie gras, describing each in clear, detailed vignettes.
Here Nathan the cook shines. Unlike most books on Israeli food, indeed most Middle Eastern cookbooks, this one features not just perfected recipes for more standard dishes like falafel and cholent, but hard-to-find recipes for delicacies: Palestinian chicken baked with sumac and pine nuts (mousakhan), figs stuffed with chicken in tamarind sauce and the airy Arabic break-fast pancakes kataif.
Her recipes are carefully edited and tested, but it is in her narrative vignettes, illustrated with nothing but first-rate prose, where the book shines.
What becomes apparent from her journeys is that Israel offers sensational food. Boutique producers are creating world-class cheeses and fine olive oils, and venerable family establishments still offer the kind of slow-cooked, traditional foods that are disappearing elsewhere. And in the many homes that Nathan visits, she finds recipes that echo the far-flung traditions of many of Israel's Jews, from Hungary to Ethiopia, while speaking of the land's ancient bounty.
What also becomes clear is that the inhabitants of Israel are, in terms of the food they eat, more alike than different. Israeli Jews have adopted a more-or-less Middle Eastern diet, even as Palestinians and Israeli Arabs have, as their incomes have grown, taken to more Western foods. This is small consolation for the fact that, given the current crisis in Israel, Nathan is fortunate to have finished researching her book several years ago. The security situation has made many of the homes and restaurants she explored in East Jerusalem and the West Bank too dangerous to visit.
Hopefully, the situation will improve. As Kollek taught Nathan, breaking bread with people is a great way of breaking barriers. Nathan's book is a good first step. It is a serious but delicious work, a testament to a remarkable country and the great cultures that inhabit it. One day soon, perhaps they will again break bread together.
Joan Nathan will be speaking about her new book, "The Foods of Israel Today," and signing copies at the Skirball Cultural Center on Tues.,March 27, at 2 p.m., (310) 440-4500; and at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on March 27 at 7 p.m., (323) 761-8648.