The Cuisine That Binds
Israeli food as the great connector, erasing borders and biases.
Israeli food as the great connector, erasing borders and biases.
In a charged political climate, where ties between Israelis and American Jews are fraying, the multicultural Israeli table, it turns out, offers a recipe for something binding.
There seems to be one thing everyone can agree on: food.
Adeena Sussman, a cookbook author and food consultant based in Tel Aviv, describes a menu that serves as a larger metaphor. On that proposed melting pot of an Israeli table, she said, “There can be a dish that combines zaatar, which is something from the Levantine and Palestinian kitchen, and ras el hanout, which is Moroccan, with a berbere spice, which is Ethiopian, as well as American influences.
“It’s also about harnessing [the food] in ways that reflect the ongoing story of Judaism and the way that Jewish culture melds many traditions.”
The Middle Eastern food that Sussman describes has exploded in recent years on the New York food scene as top Israeli chefs have opened upscale and casual dining spots all around town.
A dish at Timna, Nir Mesika’s popular eatery in the East Village that recently closed. The foods he grew up eating in Israel as young child still inspire his cooking, a blend of flavors and colors with a focus on freshness. Courtesy of Liat Halpern
There’s Eyal Shani’s popular Miznon eatery in Chelsea Market that serves Israeli beer on tap and put whole-roasted cauliflower on the map. A second Miznon location is set to open soon on the Upper West Side, and a New York location of Shani’s upscale Tel Aviv eatery, HaSalon, recently opened in Hell’s Kitchen.
In the Flatiron district, Meir Adoni’s acclaimed Nur restaurant has introduced dishes like kubaneh with Yemenite schug and smoked eggplant carpaccio to unsuspecting New Yorkers. And over in Brooklyn, an Adoni protégé, executive chef Elior Bilbul, is making a name for himself at Alenbi Kitchen, where his menu embraces and puts an inventive spin on all the flavors he grew up eating. (Think: seared sous-vide chicken breast with saffron and arak freekeh risotto.)
Quintessential Israeli foods like hummus, falafel and shakshuka are also giving Mexican and Asian fare some serious competition. Hummus has virtually become its own food group, which the growing number of hummisyahs popping up (The Hummus Kitchen, Vish, Taim and Goldie’s Falafel) can attest to. And steps away from Miznon in Chelsea Market, Seed & Mill’s tahini might finally be giving sriracha some heat in the battle for topping of the decade.
Zahav, the modern Israeli kitchen in Philadelphia. Courtesy of Zahav/Alexandra Hawkins
So what has caused this sudden explosion?
Every cuisine gets its day in the sun, Sussman said, and while the 1980s was the era of California cuisine followed by Asian and Italian cuisine, now it’s Israel’s turn.
“Israeli food started becoming more popular at a time when Israeli chefs were traveling around the world learning classic techniques and at the same time learning to take pride in their local ingredients,” said Sussman, whose cookbook “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen” hits bookstores in September. “At the same time Israel became a tech hub and a hub of innovation, and Israelis are very entrepreneurial and not afraid to take risks. They love to go all over the world, and the idea of trying to show people what Israel is all about is something that’s ingrained in their DNA.
“It’s just a perfect confluence of different things going on in the food world and in Israeli culture.”
And while debates continue to abound over the definition of Israeli cuisine (remember the hummus wars?), everyone agrees it’s a synthesis of flavors and ingredients from across the diverse cultural makeup within Israel.
“It’s a true melding of many cultures, an extreme focus on freshness and immediacy that is reflected from Israeli culture into Israeli food,” Sussman said.
Israeli chef Nir Mesika says food has the ability to erase borders and biases by bringing everyone to the same table. Courtesy of Liat Halpern
Before it closed last month, Nir Mesika’s Timna restaurant in the East Village was one of the most celebrated destinations for Israeli cooking, earning shining reviews from tough industry critics. He agrees with Sussman: “Israeli cuisine is the combination of the Levantine countries, local ingredients, European twists and a mix of modern and old-school cooking techniques. All of that, topped with the Israeli hospitality and warmth, are what makes the Israeli cuisine so elaborate and unique.”
Much of the inspiration for Timna’s menu came from the kitchens of Mesika’s mother and grandmother. “When I burn eggplants on an open flame, the smell of the charred skin of the eggplants reminds me of when I was as young as 5 years old,” he said. “With this in mind, I think how I can bring these flavors in a modern and unique way and start building the dish.”
“Food Is The Common Denominator”
This growing obsession with Israeli cuisine couldn’t come at a better time.
As the Israeli government seems to be struggling to maintain good footing with diaspora Jews, particularly in left-leaning circles, over issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s political grip on power, food is a way for people to engage with Israeli culture without political or religious undertones.
“It’s the common denominator” is the oft-repeated refrain of many chefs and industry-folk.
“Food and cuisine, although sometimes highly politicized, is a safe place to start a conversation,” said Michael Solomonov, whose Philadelphia restaurant Zahav (the modern Israeli cuisine spot he opened 10 years ago with partner Steven Cook) just snagged the coveted James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Restaurant. “It can open the door to an open dialogue that can affect people politically.”
A spread prepared by Israeli chef Hedai Offaime for the A-list chefs’ “Birthright” trip to Israel. Courtesy of Herb Karlitz
Sussman added, “It’s a way for people to — no pun intended — sit around the table together, enjoy a meal together, and connect over something that’s iconically Israeli.”
While Israeli food may not entirely bridge the gap between U.S. and Israeli populations, perhaps it’s more of a subtle yet unifying source of connection, with Israeli chefs acting as unintentional ambassadors bringing the vibrancy and diversity of their country to life on plates around the globe.
It’s the great connector, Mesika said, erasing borders and biases. “Food brings people together and makes them excited and open to share stories and memories about their countries, families and religions. There’s room for everyone in the kitchen and around the table, no matter one’s gender, religions, political beliefs, sexual orientation.”
In perhaps one of the most tangible displays of food’s unifying force, more than a dozen A-list chefs and foodies went to Israel on a Birthright-style trip in January to get a taste of the burgeoning food scene. The group included food writer and chef Ruth Reichl, cookbook author and “Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons, baker and restaurateur Nancy Silverton and the Cooking Channel’s Eden Grinshpan.
The participants were completely blown away by the food scene there, said Herb Karlitz, a food-industry marketing executive who organized the trip.
Karlitz had previously organized similar food-focused trips to other destinations, but after a trip to Israel 20 years earlier from which he’d returned “all shnitzeled out,” Israel had never crossed his mind as a destination. Some friends convinced him to return and check out the new food and wine scene. He was impressed.
It took two years of planning and fundraising with many stops and starts to finally get the trip — all privately funded — off the ground. Once there, the chefs traveled the length and breadth of the country from Tel Aviv to Acco trying different cuisines within Israel.
“This is a group that never stopped eating,” Karlitz said. “It wasn’t about being hungry. We would have a nine-course dinner, then pass a pizza place and say, ‘Well we’ve got to try it.’”
All the while beaming back photos and Instagram posts to their thousands of followers around the world.
“We ate and ate until we dropped. We had a sweet potato at 2:30 a.m., and there was a line outside [a restaurant in Tel Aviv] like it was 2:30 in the afternoon,” Karlitz said.
Adeena Sussman, far right, leads a tour of A-list chefs — Ido Nivron, left, Herb Karlitz, Nancy Silverton, Ruth Reichl, Mitchell Davis, Eden Grinshpan and Sarah Carey —around the Tel Aviv shuk. Courtesy of Herb Karlitz
Naama Shefi, founder of the Jewish Food Society and one of the participants on the trip, said it was fun to witness the group, many of whom were making their first trip to Israel, try foods like Yemenite soup or sumac for the first time.
More than that, it was the general conviviality and hospitality that accompanied the food that really struck participants. “This is a concept that is pretty difficult to translate outside of Israel,” Shefi said.
Karlitz agreed. “Everything is a party there. It’s a celebration of life. … For a country that’s constantly under attack and being oppressed, it was just amazing to me how it doesn’t faze people; it’s just the daily life.”
Aside from Israeli cuisine’s soaring reputation, Sussman said it’s this sense of fun that really defines the food culture there. She helped consult on the trip and hosted the group for cocktails and coffee in her home near the Tel Aviv shuk. “I think that’s what’s actually really appealing about the Israeli food scene,” she said. “It’s as much fun to hang out on the beach eating a slice of watermelon and the best local feta as it is to go to a fancy, nine-course tasting menu restaurant. You really get a sense of the terroir and the land and the food in every bite, and people’s appreciation and connection to it.”
Celebrity chefs explore Israeli chef Hedai Offaime’s herb garden near Jerusalem as part of their food tour of the country. Courtesy of Herb Karlitz
Following the success of the trip, Karlitz said more chefs begged him to organize another. The next one will take place early next year and more than 40 chefs have already expressed interest.
“Israel is just in step with the rest of the world when it comes to the culinary scene. I don’t know if it’s the second coming of Italy or Paris, but it’s up there,” Karlitz said.
Perhaps it’s food as the great equalizer doing a better job than any government-sanctioned hasbara to give diaspora Jews here a taste and appreciation for Israeli culture.
After all, as Karlitz said, “everybody loves to eat.”
Miriam Groner is the Web Director at The New York Jewish Week. You can follow her wonderings and wanderings on Instagram here: @mim____g.