May 21, 2008
The transformation of Israeli food—from falafel to fennel
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Life was tough. The settlers were lonely for their homelands and afraid of contracting the malaria that was so prevalent. They had no money and couldn't invest in improving their farms, so they were reliant on local Arab produce for consumption at home.
The halutzim were a new breed of Palestinian Jew. Even in the kitchen, they shied away from the elaborate, table-centered habits of their predecessors from Russia, eating in a much more casual way, often with elbows on the table and a big bowl of whole vegetables that they would cut themselves.
By the end of World War I, Tnuva, the agricultural arm of the increasingly powerful labor movement, began marketing the produce of all collective and cooperative settlements (kibbutzim and moshavim). It was Tnuva, for example, that started selling carp from the fish ponds in the Galilee and exporting bananas after World War II. Eventually, kibbutzim were producing so many chickens, ducks and turkeys that Tnuva had them preserved in cans, and Israelis learned to prepare schnitzel with turkey instead of veal.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Jewish Palestinians tried to recreate the pageantry of the biblical festivals, in which the first fruits of the harvest were brought to Jerusalem. One of the goals of these modern day pageants, still celebrated at many kibbutzim today, was to show the superiority of Jewish products. Despite Herman Melville's prediction to the contrary, the Jews were slowly becoming farmers. Jaffa oranges, as well as Israeli grapefruits and lemons, became renowned for their quality and flavor.
By 1945, with the influx of survivors of World War II, the Jewish population had swelled to more than 450,000. Despite the growing British opposition to new immigration, the country was flooded with the bedraggled victims of the Holocaust, often arriving illegally on the only soil that would welcome them. Between 1946 and 1953 the Jewish population doubled again with more survivors as well as immigrants from Romania and North Africa. No one thought about a "cuisine" in those days, nor were they concerned with the niceties of the table. They just thought about having enough to feed the poverty-stricken from the concentration camps.
One of the many issues to be resolved in this new Jewish country was the official position on the dietary laws. David Ben-Gurion decided to remain with the "status quo" agreement, maintaining rabbinical supervision of kashrut in all government organizations, military service, schools and hospitals.
The massive immigration was also a strain on the economy, so the period from 1948 to 1958 was a time of government regulated tzena (food rationing.) Stories abound of women cooking with khubeiza (wild greens) from the fields. The creation of new foods like the internationally popular "Israeli couscous" satisfied the needs of the rice-loving and couscous-loving immigrants who could not have that in this poor country, and surplus vegetables, like eggplant, were ingeniously used to simulate meat. Israel's canning industry increased production, supplying canned tomato paste and puree, hummus, tahina and mayonnaise in tubes.
It must be remembered that Israeli cuisine reflects not only the varied influences of a Jewish population coming from 90 different countries, but also the Christian and Muslim traditions from throughout the Middle East. Israel is a land that transcends ethnic identity, where an immigrant's native tongue might be Russian or Farsi, Polish or Ladino, where some Jews came knowing how to bless bread in classical Hebrew but could not use modern Hebrew to buy bread and cheese.
Whenever I walk down Jerusalem's Jaffa Road to Mahane Yehuda, the Jewish marketplace, I always see hundreds of tiny stalls filled with fresh spices and vegetables, some dating back to the biblical period and others as modern and sophisticated as anything in New York's gourmet markets. In some shops, expert hands mold and bake ornate artisan pita bread, called aish tanoor. In others, women sift couscous through their fingers, as they did in their native villages in Morocco or Tunisia. As I observe each ingredient, I play that same game I played in the Sinai, imagining the layers of history behind the foods. Which plants are native to the land and which came with conquerors or new immigrants? Did the sugar beet come with English Crusaders? Did the Turks bring green peppers?
A typical Israeli main meal, as codified in the Israel Defense Force Cookbook, includes a Middle Eastern hummus or tahina, a Central European turkey schnitzel with a Turkish eggplant salad, or a Hungarian goulash-type stew, with fresh native fruit for dessert. Over the years I have noticed that most tourists to Israel, when asked to name a local dish, usually mention only street food -- hummus, shwarma (spicy rotisserie-grilled meat in a pita) and falafel, or the addictive sunflower and pumpkin seeds whose shells carpet some city sidewalks. In fact, few of these dishes can be identified solely as "Israeli"; hummus and falafel, for example, are certainly not "Israeli," but are adapted from local Arab foods. While these street foods are indeed popular, it is important to consider also the multinational dishes that are so common in Israeli homes.
Sabbath and holiday recipes increasingly reflect the diverse heritage of Jews from many parts of the world who have brought their dishes and customs back to their ancestral land. But there is a noticeable gap between generations: a Czech survivor of the Holocaust, for example, may make for her children a stuffed chicken from Prague as a kind of tribute to a community that exists now only in her memory. But her children, who have grown up in Israel, have less of an emotional connection to their Czech heritage and more of a willingness to cook and eat foods native to Israel. Thus, traditional food is yielding both to the more modern everyday convenience food -- frozen schnitzel, packaged hummus and prepared soup -- and to today's sophisticated restaurant cuisine, which increasingly plays with the bounty of the global market, resulting in a distinctly cross-cultural eating experience.
For the past 30 or so years, an excitement inspired by this multiculturalism has been building in Israel's culinary community. The country has become an increasing presence in the international food world, contributing new and unusual products made from native ingredients. Fifteen years ago, there was little good local olive oil. Today, Jewish and Arab farmers are pressing extra virgin olive oil in small, rural villages. With boutique cheeses being made throughout the country, kosher wines from the Golan Heights and throughout the country winning first-class competitions worldwide and more cookbooks being written per capita than in almost any other country, Israel is bursting with culinary creativity. The interplay of cultures and cuisines has made eating an art such as it has never been in Israel before.