Indians who think they know how best to eat their vegetables, think again. Israelis eat vegetables even for breakfast, a throwback to the kibbutz era when farmers who went to the fields early ate a simple meal of bread, yoghurt, and whatever vegetables were available. It’s not quite so simple anymore, though. “Food is extremely trendy in Israel now and food culture has gone from spartan 20 years ago to a vibrant gourmet milieu,” says Janna Gur, founder and editor of Israel’s leading food magazine in Hebrew, Al Hashulchan, and author of The New Book of Israeli Food, over lunch at a health-oriented restaurant on Tel Aviv port. (“The proof is in the pudding,” she says, explaining her choice of the restaurant.)
There’s a different taste to almost all food in Israel, whether you’re biting into a luscious pita stuffed with falafel and salat at a streetside joint, sipping a glass of Jaffa orange juice, or spreading soft white cheese (called gvina levana, it is referred to by its fat content) on bread at your hotel’s breakfast buffet. It’s what fresh tastes like, and what you will taste and smell if you visit one of the rambling traditional souks of Israel where everything—be it olives, nuts, dried fruit, fresh greens, organic spices, burekas, flavoured halva or boutique cheeses—can be taste-tested before purchase. It’s enough to inspire anyone to pick up a wok. Or, in Gur’s case, to become a food writer. Born in Latvia, she studied literary theory and wanted to translate from Russian to English, but found her calling in publishing instead. The magazine, which will complete 20 years this winter, started out as a guide for professional cooks, and only missed an issue once—in the early 1990s, during the Gulf War. “That’s about the time Israeli cuisine started getting interesting. We realised foodies were reading the magazine too, thus the shift towards a general-interest, lifestyle magazine with a strong focus on food,” Gur says.
In the land of kashrut, you are what you eat. “Food is very important in Jewish culture. While a lot of restaurants here adhere to kosher laws—which is why vegetarian food is not hard to come by—there is a theory that kosher laws became stricter in the diaspora as Jews tried to use culinary segregation to preserve their culture better,” Gur says. If the diaspora has enriched Jewish food culture, immigration has added variety to Israeli cuisine. “In the Passover issue of the magazine, we featured a family from Jerusalem, where the mother is Persian and a younger sister is married to a Moroccan. So the sister brought with her spiced fish. Her Argentinian daughter-in-law made Jewish chicken soup. One of the sons was dating a girl from Libya, so there was a lot of diversity in one plate of food—the Passover seder, the ritual first meal of the holiday,” she says.
While the Palestinian tahini and hummus have become cult foods, with whole blogs and books dedicated to them, the shakshouka, an egg curry which was brought here by Tunisian Jews, is one of the most popular dishes in Israel today, and restaurants often serve it with spinach and swiss chard. The Iraqi sabbih, often called a Baghdadi sandwich, is equally trendy. “Jews from Iraq introduced raw mango—incidentally, it’s called ‘amba’ here, like in India—as a condiment. And of course, the baking culture and the Hanukkah donut (it’s shaped like a ball and doesn’t have a hole) came from Germany,” Gur says. Today, Tel Aviv is dotted with little bakeries that serve up some of the best strudel and cheesecakes you might have ever had.
Rounding up the meal with malabi—it is made of milk, cornflour, rose water and sugar syrup and had its beginnings in street carts before being recreated in restaurants—Gur insists we have coffee—“Israel is one of only two countries where Starbucks failed. We have the best coffee in the world,” she says.