On the fifth of Iyar (this year, May 2), Jews around the world celebrated Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. But if you missed it, you can still mark the anniversary of the nation’s founding on the secular calendar date that the declaration was made in 1948: May 14.
And what better way to celebrate than with a feast of Israeli food — which leads to the question: What is Israeli cuisine?
In fact, there really is no single distinct Israeli cuisine, in the sense that there is a French or a Japanese cuisine. Many of the foods that we think of as Israeli are not unique to the country. The influx of Diaspora Jews from approximately 100 countries around the world — including hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands — since the State of Israel was declared has created an eclectic mélange of gastronomic fare, introducing ingredients and cooking styles to the Israeli diet that reflect the culinary cultures of, among other regions, the Middle East, Mediterranean countries, Spain, North Africa, Greece, South America, and Eastern Europe.
In the 2016 documentary “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” Philadelphia chef and restaurateur Michael Solomonov serves as a guide as the film explores the country’s complex, diverse, and hard-to-define gastronomy. Solomonov calls Israeli food culture “a cuisine in progress,” compared to “Jewish food,” which he says is a “constant.”
In a country that began with experimental agricultural settlements in the late 19th century, Israel still produces much of the food it consumes; approximately 95 percent of its needs are met internally, and fresh ingredients are readily available. It should be noted that sesame seeds used to make the omnipresent tahini are mainly brought in from Ethiopia, and the staples of coffee, cocoa, and sugar are also mostly imported.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Israel began to attract superstar chefs from around the world and restaurants that appealed to European taste buds proliferated. Today, the food scene goes way beyond falafel and hummus; one can find high-quality Parisian, Palestinian, and Thai restaurants — among a plethora of others — throughout the country.
We cannot, however, underestimate the status of the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi specialties that were brought to Israel by immigrants from the countries of their origin. Blintzes and knishes, couscous, falafel, and shishlik are still extraordinarily popular and are an integral part of the national menu, though none can be considered truly “Israeli.” Couscous, for example, originated in North Africa; the roots of falafel are Egyptian; and shishlik (skewered meat) first came from Turkey. Tehina and hummus also come from Israel’s Arab neighbors. Pizza is also ubiquitous; some of the best comes from street stands run by immigrants from Yemen and their descendants.
Since Israel was reborn in 1948, myriad new customs, traditions, and menus have emerged. A good example of this is the Yom Ha’Atzmaut picnic, where shishlik is the Israelis’ version of the American hamburger. Here are two easy recipes for an Independence Day celebration or Lag b’Omer picnic (which this year also falls on May 14).
6 large cucumbers, peeled,
4 large tomatoes, skin on,
seeded and diced (I prefer plum tomatoes or bright red tomatoes on the vine)
4-6 scallions, washed and sliced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup fresh parsley
1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded
and chopped cilantro (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. salt (or more to taste)
1 Tbsp. ground black pepper
Toss all vegetables together. Cover with oil, juice, and spices; mix. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
2 lbs. cubed chicken, beef, or lamb
1 1/2 cups olive oil
2 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium/large onion, finely
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
2 Tbsps. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
Combine all ingredients except meat in a bowl; mix well. Add meat to the marinade; mix well. Marinate in the refrigerator at least two hours. Drain liquid (do not reuse liquid).
Skewer the meat. Broil or barbecue on preheated grill or broiler five-seven minutes on each side, depending on thickness of meat and personal preference.
Drizzle extra juice and spices and parsley on meat before serving.