The Transformation of Israeli Food — From Falafel to Fennel

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 East??? 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.

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.

Increasingly, due to a general rise in income and the elimination of travel taxes, Israelis have become open to new experiences in travel and food. Many young Israeli soldiers, after their two-year mandatory service, go abroad, most frequently to travel in East Asia or Latin America and to spend some time working in the United States. Many of these young people return home with new culinary tastes, as did American Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s. A number of them have become chefs, schooled in international cuisine and influential in the development of modern Israeli cooking.

Despite their global lifestyles, the new Israeli chefs still cultivate a link to the foods of the Old Testament. Grapes, dates, lentils and chickpeas are but a few of the ancient ingredients that have captured their imaginations in producing their signature dishes. And, with constant waves of immigration, Israel is rapidly incorporating the native cuisines of its new populations. The story of Israeli food is not just a Jewish story — its recipes cross borders more easily than people do. It is the story of a land that has overcome harsh natural deprivation to bring forth new agricultural produce. Because it constantly incorporates so much from the rest of the world, Israel may never boast of one “cuisine,” but it will always retain a rich mixture of fine tastes. It reflects the modern mosaic of the country, embracing the culinary influences of its Arab neighbors and gathering in the varying ingredients and dishes of world Jewry. I can only begin to imagine what the next 60 years will taste like.

My Favorite Falafel
Adapted from “The Foods of Israel Today” by Joan Nathan

1 cup dried chickpeas
1/2 large onion, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 — 1 teaspoon dried hot red pepper
4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons fine bulgur
Soybean or vegetable oil for frying
Pita bread
Chopped tomato for garnish
Diced onion for garnish
Diced green pepper for garnish
Pickled turnips for garnish
Tahina Sauce
1. Put the chickpeas in a large bowl and add enough cold water to cover them by at least 2 inches. Let soak overnight, then drain.
2. The next day place the drained, uncooked chickpeas and the onion in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the parsley, cilantro, salt, hot pepper, garlic, and cumin. Process until blended but not pureed.
3. Dissolve the baking soda in cold water and add to the chickpeas. Then add the bulgur and pulse. You want to add enough bulgur so that the dough forms a small ball and no longer sticks to your hands. Turn into a bowl and refrigerate, covered, for several hours.
4. Form the chickpea mixture into balls about the size of walnuts, or use a falafel scoop, available in Middle Eastern markets.
5. Heat 3 inches of oil to 375 F in a deep pot or wok and fry about a half dozen at once for a few minutes on each side or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Stuff half a pita with falafel balls, chopped tomatoes, onion, green pepper, and pickled turnips. Drizzle with tahina thinned with water.
Makes about 25 balls.

Roast Chicken With Fennel, Garlic And Currants
Adapted from “The Foods of Israel Today” by Joan Nathan

1 4-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, crushed, plus 2 whole heads garlic, separated into unpeeled cloves
10 brine-cured green olives, pitted and crushed
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 fennel bulbs, cored and quartered lengthwise
1/4 cup dried currants
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 large pita or 4 8-inch pitas
5 sprigs fresh oregano or parsley, cut to about 3 inches long

1. Wash the chicken well and pat dry. Place in a large bowl.
2. To make the marinade, put the vinegar, brown sugar, oil, crushed garlic, and olives in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, and pulse to a coarse paste.
3. Place the chicken pieces in one layer in a flame-proof baking dish. Sprinkle salt and pepper over them and pour the marinade on top, rubbing it in well. Add the wine and 1/2 cup water. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours, or overnight.
4. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
5. Drain off most of the marinade from the chicken and reserve. Scatter the fennel and the whole cloves of garlic around the chicken.
6. Roast the chicken, uncovered, on the top rack of the oven for 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 375 F, turn the fennel, and bake for 20-25 minutes longer, or until the chicken is thoroughly cooked. Transfer the chicken pieces, fennel and whole pieces of garlic to a serving platter, reserving the pan juices.
7. Add the currants, soy sauce, and the reserved marinade to the pan and cook for about five minutes on the stove over medium heat to reduce.
8. When ready to serve, heat the pita and place it on a large platter. Spoon on the chicken, fennel and garlic. Pour the currant sauce over the dish, garnish with the fresh oregano or parsley, and serve.
Makes six to eight servings.

Joan Nathan, the doyenne of Jewish cooking in America, lived in Israel in the 1970s and has written two books on Israeli food: “The Flavor of Jerusalem” (Little, Brown, 1975) and “The Foods of Israel Today” (Knopf, 2001).


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