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Jewish Journal

The transformation of Israeli food—from falafel to fennel

by Judy Nathan

May 21, 2008 | 6:00 pm

The 60th anniversary of the State of Israel is a good time to reflect on how this young country has progressed during its mere six decades of existence. Its economic growth, its leading role in technological advances and its presence in world affairs are all impressive, but most notable to me is the transformation of Israeli food from mundane and unknown to cutting edge and creative. Modern-day Israeli cuisine reflects ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity.

I have always thought of Israel as a microcosm of the world, blending three major world religions and countless nationalities, each with their own palates and flavors. What has resulted is an amalgamation of the best of all culinary worlds. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I lived in Jerusalem in the early 1970s, only tourists, diplomats or foreign journalists ate in restaurants. Grabbing hummus and falafel at a fast food stand or dropping into a cafe for coffee and cake was the Israeli idea of "dining out." Food was scarce and wasting time on such a bourgeois matter seemed contrary to the pioneering spirit of the country. In fact, the restaurants were so bad in those days that Henry Kissinger, engaging in his Middle East "shuttle diplomacy," once moaned, "Why can't a country with 2 1/2 million Jewish mothers have better food?"

Recently, Henry Kissinger told me that that lament is a thing of the past.

Whenever I go to Israel, I am constantly transporting myself, like a child playing make believe, back to my ancestry. The first time this happened was during a wonderful week spent in the sand dunes of the Sinai many years ago, where Bedouins continue to live much as the nomadic Israelites did when they were wandering the desert. I couldn't help imagining myself as part of that ancient culture, sharing the stew -- perhaps with lamb and chickpeas -- that Sarah prepared for Abraham or the pottage of lentils that Jacob gave to his brother Esau.

As I returned to Jerusalem after that week, layers of civilization and thousands of years unwound before me like a newsreel at each fork in the road.

Through culinary haunts one can uncover the enormously exciting story of how these pioneers transformed a harsh, arid land to one bursting with new produce and culture. Some of the dishes that we find in Israel today are as old as the land; others are quite modern; and still others mix the old and the new.

Since I left Israel, I have been back every year or so, and the transformation from the 1970s to now is enormous. Israelis, like Americans, are taking food more seriously. It is no longer shameful in Israel to enjoy the luxury of eating well. Since Israel is at the crossroads of so many cultures, both the ones that surround it as well as the ones that have immigrated to it, cooking there today reflects the fresh globalism that we are encountering everywhere. Just look at the fruits and vegetables coming out of Israel: various kinds of kiwis and avocadoes, persimmons, pomelos, pomegranates. Some of these fruits and vegetables are biblical. Some are brand new, brought to the country with immigrants or agronomists who have gone all over the world.

But what is Israeli cuisine? A cuisine is usually defined as cooking which derives from a particular culture. Since the Jewish population has essentially been dispersed throughout the world, Jewish food, and by extension that of Israel, while centered in the Jewish dietary laws, subsumes the cuisines of countries throughout most of the globe. Unlike in France and Italy, for example, where cooking has been grounded in the same soil for thousands of years, in Israel the "new food" is a hybrid, inspired by every corner of the world, but with an increasing emphasis on native ingredients.

The original ingredients used by cooks in the land of Israel included the seven biblical foods mentioned in Deuteronomy: barley , wheat, figs, dates, pomegranates, olives and grapes. Mizrachi or "Oriental" Jews -- those who left Palestine for Babylonia at the time of the destruction of the First Temple, or those who stayed in the Middle Eastâ?? have always maintained a cuisine more rooted in the original biblical ingredients. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the Jews who migrated to Spain and Portugal adapted the new local foods to their dietary laws. These people became known as "Sephardic" Jews following the Inquisition, and their cuisine took on the tone of their new homelands like Greece, Morocco, and Turkey. So, too, "Ashkenazic" cooking developed, as other Jews made their journeys to Central and Eastern Europe. Today, all these foods are being embraced by many of the Jews returning from afar to the "land of milk and honey." Christian and Muslim cultures of the region have also contributed their own customs to Israeli cooking, so that today Israel's emerging cuisine is global in scope.

The food of modern Israel began, really, with the first aliyah, the immigration that came in the late 19th century mainly composed of Eastern European Jews. It also included 5,000 Jews from Yemen, who made up 6 percent of the new Jewish population. Unlike the Eastern European immigrants of this period, the Yemenites were motivated by the biblical commandment to return to Jerusalem. The men often found work in kitchens and as waiters, and were most likely the first Jews to make falafel in the country. The women, mostly illiterate, hired out as domestics, which provided a meager subsistence.

Although they were not educated or sophisticated by European standards, they set an example of meticulousness in all aspects of housework, including the religious obligations taught by word of mouth: dietary laws, separation of challah, salting and koshering meat, the ritual immersion of utensils, blessings for meals and candlelighting. They would rise before dawn to fetch water and to prepare the gisher (Yemenite coffee), grind flour, bake and have breakfast ready when the men returned at sunrise from the prayer service in the synagogue.

Little by little, Yemenites and other Middle Eastern Jews started influencing the eating habits of the immigrants from Eastern Europe, and different tastes and traditions began to coexist. For some, like those from Eastern Europe, the idea of raw vegetables fresh from the soil seemed unhealthy. But their sense of curiosity prevailed: Yemenite soup with spicy sauces and the buttery layered bread called malouach may very well have been one of the exotic meals eaten by a group of well-heeled British Jews, organized by the Jewish industrialist Herbert Bentwich, who came to visit Palestine in 1897.

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