Authentic Israeli Cuisine Simplified
When British chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty cookbook, a hardbound tome with gorgeous, colorful photography, quickly sold through thousands of copies in its first release, the world began to pay more attention to the foods and traditions of Israel.
Since then, certainly chefs in the States seem to have paid more attention to this complex cuisine. Last year in New Orleans, acclaimed Chef Alon Shaya of the John Besh group opened his eponymous eatery, Shaya, paying homage to his heritage cuisine with modern twists and the use of both local and authentic ingredients.
So why Israeli cuisine, and why now? “People are always looking for new and more now, and there are so many cultures that make up Israeli food,” says Michael Solomonov, chef/owner of Zahav in Philadelphia. Eight years ago he devoted his attention to Israeli cuisine after his brother was killed in a military campaign in Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday of the year. “Israeli cuisine is almost what it’s not; it’s not only Middle Eastern or Mediterranean or Jewish, it’s all of those and more. There are also influences from Bulgaria, Hungary, Turkey, Greece, Russia, Yemen, and now Ethiopia and Georgia because of all the people coming to the country and the blend of cultures. And then you have Palestinian cuisine in the West Bank, which is closer to Galilean cuisine from Northern Israel.”
To simplify the complexities, here are some of the top foods and cooking techniques that identify Israeli cuisine.
In Israel, the main methods of cooking are actually quite primitive, Solomonov says. Meats, fish, and vegetables are primarily grilled over live charcoal, and often on skewers. At Zahav, he uses Japanese fireboxes to recreate the open charcoal, or “ash,” cooking technique used in Israel. Specially trained cooks man the equipment, which cooks meat, whole fish, and vegetables suspended about two inches above the charcoal.
“There’s a stereotype that Israel food is only falafel and shawarma, but there is more to it than that,” he says. The spiced, ground lamb and beef kufteh (kabob) comes from Bulgarian influences. In another dish, Solomonov marinates chicken thighs cut into cubes in onion, garlic, mango, pickle, and fenugreek in the cooking style of the Iraqi Jews, who then grill the meat over the charcoal.
Lamb shoulder that’s been brined for two days, smoked for four hours in the charcoal boxes, and braised for six hours in pomegranate juice pairs with Persian rice that has been spiked with pistachios and currants steeped in tea and then cooked in a cast iron Dutch oven so the bottom crisps up like popcorn.
As Ottolenghi’s book showcases in its recipes and photography, Israeli cuisine revolves around fresh, seasonal vegetables, making it well-suited for today’s culinary obsession with healthier eating.
“Israel is basically the birthplace of modern agriculture,” Solomonov says. “Because of the topography and fertile soil, there are many different types of fruits and vegetables growing year-round, and everything is local because there is no trade. Israel is essentially like an island, so all of the produce is grown in the country and [sourced] from that week, not traveling more than 100 miles sitting on a truck or train.”
The most recognizable Israeli foods, perhaps, are tomatoes and cucumbers, which are often combined with chopped parsley, salt, olive oil, and lemon juice as a salad and garnish for many meals and dishes.
Zachary Engel, chef de cuisine at Shaya, who participated in the research and development that went into opening the restaurant, also points to the local, seasonal vegetables that characterize Israeli cuisine as the foundation for many of the dishes.
“I worked in Sonoma for a couple of years, and it was amazing to be able to pick our own vegetables in the garden growing right on the estate, so any chance when we can use the best, seasonal ingredients or work with local farmers, we do.”
At Shaya, Engel works with a local hoop house to get tomatoes and cucumbers for the ubiquitous salad year-round. He stuffs pickled hot peppers grown in Louisiana with goat cheese, just like the Greeks and Armenians do at Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv. He roasts whole eggplant in the wood-burning oven and fills it with summer beans. He and Shaya source only local, fresh parsley for their tabbouleh so it has a “really beautiful, vegetable crunch and doesn’t taste like a generic herb.”
In the fall, he’ll take acorn squash and roast it whole in the wood oven until it becomes super soft, and then fills the insides with a mixture of black-eyed peas and bubbly Israeli couscous in a twist on mujadara, a Lebanese lentil and rice dish.
Spices and Flavorings
Spices are important in Israeli cuisine and dominated by za’atar, a blend of herbs like cumin and oregano, salt or sumac, and sesame, that are found all over the Middle East and used in many dishes, according to Solomonov. Israeli olives and olive oil lend a fruitier, peppery bite to salads and vegetables.
At Shaya, Engel uses urfa biber, a smoked, mild pepper from Turkey—similar to an Aleppo pepper—that’s dark and purple in color, with chocolate and tobacco notes. “We don’t cook over charcoal in the restaurant, so this is a great way to add that smoky flavor,” he says.
In the winter, Engel prefers Hawayej, a Yemenite spice blend with turmeric, cumin, black pepper, coriander, and fenugreek used to season chicken, fish, rice couscous, and salads. He uses the spice primarily for curried cauliflower, which is deep-fried and then becomes the topping for the house-made hummus.
For sweeteners, Engel turns to date molasses sourced from Israel to balance out vinaigrettes, and also in a more savory, braised lamb dish with pomegranate glaze and whipped Feta. “That caramelization you get with the dark date molasses balances out the high sugar content with nutty notes and makes the spices in the lamb and tabbouleh on top really pop,” he says. Sometimes, Engel uses carob molasses, which is made in a similar fashion as the date molasses, but has a more chocolate flavor that pairs well with the foie gras dish.
Fruit and Cheese
Aside from dates, Israeli cuisine is known for its use of figs, persimmons, and apricots, which Engel is lucky enough to buy locally during the summers in Louisiana. He’s cut the inside out of a persimmon, hit it with olive oil and salt, and thrown it in the pita oven to roast. He then pairs the fruit with fresh Labaneh, a thick, tart, and creamy yogurt-like cheese often enjoyed with a drizzling of olive oil, a sprinkle of za’atar, and plenty of pita to mop it all up.
“Some of the beauty of cooking Israeli food is we can easily put stone fruits on the menu in savory dishes because that lends itself to the Moroccan and Turkish influences,” Engel says. “While we might be limited in the scope of what we’re cooking, this allows us to do more than what people might expect. “
Engel pairs plums roasted with that dark date molasses and puréed with beets for a sauce that’s drizzled over haloumi. “It took us three months to source this particular type of Greek haloumi, which is very different than haloumi made in Wisconsin in its taste and mouthfeel,” he says, noting the cheese is more grassy, nutty, and creamy in flavor and texture because the sheep feast on the grasses in the Cyprus hills. “If we can’t get something locally, we try to get the best ingredient we can get locally.”
Plenty of Pita
Perhaps the most important bread product in Israeli cuisine, the pita pairs with hummus and dishes of all types.
At Zahav, Solomonov makes an Iraqi- style pita—a laffa, that’s slightly thicker and chewier—fresh-to-order in a wood-burning oven. Shaya also uses a pecan wood-fired oven to bake pita and other foods like corn that’s charred and used in hummus.
Engel says he’s excited to see others becoming more excited about Israeli cuisine. ‘”It’s a relatively young country with tons of history and cooking traditions shaped by many different cultures and religious customs,” he says. “We try not to be preachy and just try to make people feel comfortable trying everything and discovering this unique cuisine.”