Is Israeli cuisine the original fusion food?
This year, a few weeks before Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, I inadvertently answered this question while shopping for a dinner to celebrate the day. Last summer, I had heard that at the Trader Joe’s supermarket chain, several groups had attempted a boycott of Israeli products, and now I wanted to show my commercial support of everything Israeli by throwing a totally Made-in-Israel dinner.
I read on the Web site of the Israeli Embassy that “Americans spend about $100 million on Israeli foods each year.” So, I figured, how hard could this be?
There was even a Web site, www.buyisraelgoods.org, that, depending on where you live, directs you to stores and products.
“Oh, too easy,” I thought. What about the unlikely places? Could I find Israeli made products there?
So I drove to an area of Orange County, California dubbed Little Gaza. That’s when things started “fusing.”
I went into the Sinbad Ranch market, which caters to local Lebanese and Palestinians. First off, in a burst of relief, despite the mostly Arabic typeface packaging, I saw cans and boxes of stuff I recognized: Falafel mix, stuffed grape leaves, pickles and halvah. And—surprise, surprise—a lot of it was even kosher. Who knew?
But as I scrutinized the labels more carefully, I saw that none of them were marked “Made in Israel.” Among all this Middle Eastern food I saw “Made in Michigan,” even L.A. The closest I found to Israel was some canned goods from Jordan.
Knocked off my original course, I turned to the other side of the Middle East street, so to speak. I visited Sami Makolet, a market in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles that is frequented by Israelis, where Hebrew always seems to be the lingua franca in the check-out line.
There, I purchased cans of pickles and eggplants, some locally baked pita, a big red box of chocolate-covered wafers and some spicy, cracked green olives.
Cracked yes, but also not at all what I thought they were cracked up to be: Once home, I noticed that the olives were actually marked “West Bank.” Should this, I thought, be part of my Made-in-Israel dinner? To keep peace at the table would I need to re-mark the can “Made in the Occupied Territories,” as the European Union recently demanded several companies do?
Next up I went to the Kosher Club, where I hoped boundaries would be clearer. The manager told me, “There’s been an increase in the number of Israeli-made products that are now available. Mostly, though, we get requests for Israeli wine,” he said. So I bought a bottle of Merlot (French, right?) from the Galilee, as well as some frozen potato puffs.
Walking to the car, I read the box. The filo dough puffs were called bourekas. “Was that Hebrew?” I wondererd. Turns out they were originally from Turkey.
Despite my best intentions, the dinner was getting more international with every stop.
Next, I turned hopefully to the simpler environs of Trader Joe’s, where I could pick up some Israeli goat-milk feta cheese. “Had there been any continued fallout from last summer’s incidents?” I wonder. According to Alison Mochizuki, the chain’s director of national publicity, the answer was no. The chain continues to carry all the Israeli-made products it carried last summer. In a prepared statement, she said Trader Joe’s has “no intention of removing any products based on pressure from any group.”
Great to hear. However, if no one buys the Israel-made stuff, I’m thinking it doesn’t get re-ordered.
So, at the end of my visit to Trader Joe’s, I headed out with a package of feta, great for a meal honoring the land of milk and honey. Also, I bought a box of Israeli couscous, which I saw through the box’s window was larger than the usual kind. From reading the box, I discovered that the product was also called “maftoul,” the name for this kind of couscous in Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank.
My Israel dinner was getting more multicultural by the box.
To add a little Hebrew flair to my dinner, I asked my friend, Rabbi Bob Golub, who is the executive director of Mercaz USA, the Zionist organization of the Conservative movement, for a little help. In an e-mail he responded: “Start with your ‘mivchar salatim—mini plates of different salads—meaning humus, tahina, tabooleh, babaganoush, etc.”
“B’teavon”—Bon appétit!—he added.
But wait, weren’t the names for all those appetizers in Arabic? How would that fit with my Made-in-Israel theme?
Finally, the time arrived to break bread (or tear pita?). The four of us—me, my wife, our son and a friend—sat down to eat: Greek salad, hummus, bourekas, cracked olives and couscous—or was it maftoul?
Surprisingly, it was a politics-free dinner. I called it Middle East fuss-free fusion. Regardless of language or national origin, for one meal, everything just seemed to go together.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.)