Israel Offers a Melting Pot of Flavors
Comprising dozens of cultures, Israeli cuisine is on the rise
Israel often makes political headlines, but a number of American chefs have started shining a spotlight on the region for a much more delicious reason: the food.
Israel as a modern country only dates to 1948, but the culture goes back millennia. People all over the world – from Europe and North Africa to Asia and, of course, the Levant, an eastern Mediterranean region encompassing parts or all of Israel, Iraq, Egypt, Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, Cyprus, Jordan, Palestine and Syria – have settled or passed through, bringing different flavors, techniques and culinary styles that today comprise Israeli cuisine.
“It belongs to nobody, but encompasses so much history,” says Michael Solomonov, the James Beard Award-winning chef/owner of Philadelphia’s modern Israeli restaurant, Zahav. “It’s a culmination of like 100 different cultures, and you have food practice that was shaped by the Spice Route, which is important to the cooking.”
While it features meats, including lamb and chicken, Israeli cuisine focuses heavily on produce, sauces and spices. It’s a lighter style of eating, often shown through mezze, or small plates, also featuring different grains, hummus, legumes, baba ganoush, fruits, nuts and more. And it hits on many of today’s hottest dietary buzzwords.
“You can be dairy free, gluten free, vegan or vegetarian and order a full meal to share and not ask for any alterations on the menu,” says Jenn Louis, chef/owner of Ray in Portland, Ore. “It’s easy to eat a lot of food and feel good because you’re not eating a lot of cream and cheese, but grains, beans and vegetables.”
You can introduce diners to Israeli flavors easily through the addition of different spices like sumac, cumin, parsley, turmeric and paprika.
“Start with basic spices and learn how they interact with the foods you cook,” suggests New Orleans-based James Beard Award-winning chef Alon Shaya, who released his memoir/cookbook, “Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel,” in March. “Start simple with spice blends and tahini (sesame seed paste). Then you can incorporate that into your everyday cooking.”
Shaya also recommends making hummus, a chickpea spread comprising tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic. It’s delicious on its own, dipping in warm pita or raw vegetables like carrots or radishes. But he also says you can experiment by topping hummus with different things like lamb ragu or roasted cauliflower tossed with turmeric and cumin.
Louis says she likes introducing Israeli flavors by whipping ras el hanout (a Moroccan spice blend combining a variety of seasonings like cumin, dry ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander seed, cayenne, allspice, paprika and cloves) or harissa, a hot red pepper paste, into butter and cooking it with clams and white wine.
“It won’t be overwhelming, but will have a nice added warmth,” she describes.
You can even sneak Israeli flavors into your cocktails, which Solomonov does at Zahav with drinks like the Z&T (gin, za’atar and byrrh) and the Lemonnana (Jim Beam bourbon, muddled mint, fresh lemon and verbena).
“Starting with feta brine or za’atar may be alienating,” Solomonov cautions. “But adding orange blossom, rose water, rosemary or mint in simple syrup? That’s money.”