Haifa, Nordau Street, 1983: Three of us have a day off from our volunteer jobs at kibbutz, and belly up at a shwarma stand near Haifa’s famed Falafel Row. The shwarmista shovels moist lamb slices into a pita, which we smother with tehina and hot sauce. We polish off the sandwich and wash it down with a glass of fresh-squeezed carrot juice. Then we do it all over again.
I suppose it’s strange that most of my best memories of Israel are gastronomic. Sure, there’s its history, the people, the cradle of the Abrahamic faiths, yadda yadda. But every time I get home from a reporting trip in Israel, all the stories I tell somehow sound like this: “People were a little nervous about the shelling, but you can’t believe the meal we had.”
(This is actually true. Last year I had dinner in Be’er Sheva with students from Ben-Gurion University while the city was on high alert for Hamas rockets. We picked a bistro that had a bomb shelter, and I had lamb kabob, braised sweet potatoes, and chocolate mousse.)
Jerusalem, Nahalat Shiva neighborhood, 1997: The restaurant, set back from the main street of a busy shopping area, feels like our secret, despite the crowded dining room. We order kubbeh — moist dumplings made from bulgur and ground beef — floating in a sour green hamousteh soup. As the sweet gaminess of the dumpling makes peace with the sharp tang of the broth, I quote a line I picked up from a southern novel: “My tongue is slapping my brains out.”
Friends and relatives who have never been to Israel — and picture the country as an unholy mix of Hester Street and Black Hawk Down — don’t quite believe my descriptions of great meals in charming settings. But perhaps the world is catching up to Israel’s culinary scene, and the credit largely goes to chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.
Ottolenghi, a Jew, and Tamimi, a Palestinian, are the co-authors of Jerusalem: A Cookbook, which is enjoying the kind of sales and following usually associated with television chefs and classics like Joy of Cooking. “American food lovers are not only cooking from Jerusalem,” according to the New York Times, “many of them are cooking their way through it.”
Kornmehl Goat Farm, near Be’er Sheva, March 2012: In a glassed-in porch near their crowded goat pens, Anat and Daniel Kornmehl serve us a dizzying array of organic cheeses, from a runny brie to a hard “Adi.” We add a few bottles of wine, from grapes coaxed out of the desert at the nearby Derech Eretz winery. I recall a verse from Proverbs: “There will be goats’ milk enough for thy food.” Excellent: I want seconds.
Ottolenghi and Tamimi grew up on opposite sides of Jerusalem, and both now live in London. Like their partnership, their book celebrates the complexities of Jerusalem and Israel as a whole. The country’s cuisine, like its population, is almost hysterically diverse: Jewish and Arab; Ashkenazi and Sephardi; Polish and Moroccan; European, African, and Asian.
About the only thing that unites the various cuisines, the authors acknowledge, is a weakness for chopped cucumber and tomatoes and vegetables stuffed with rice.
The book is mostly a personal, not a political, manifesto, what the authors call a “self-indulgent, nostalgic trip into our pasts.”
And yet, you can’t talk about Israel without talking about politics, and the two do, glancingly. “Alas, although Jerusalemites have so much in common, food, at the moment, seems to be the only unifying force in this highly fractured place,” they write in the introduction. “It takes a giant leap of faith, but we are happy to take it…to imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will.”
Naive? Simplistic? I am embarrassed that I often find myself more interested in the food of Israel than the latest twist in the peace process, or the umpteenth report from a Mideast think tank. But there’s also a danger in treating Israel only as a geopolitical puzzle that needs to be solved: You risk turning Israel into an abstraction, and forgetting the people, the climate, the traditions, the flora, the fauna — and food — that make it a real place.
Abu Ghosh, November 2004: A fellow editor and I play hooky from covering the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly, and head to this Israeli Arab village famous for its restaurants and its hospitality to Jews and Arabs alike. The meal, like the country, is a princely mix of ingredients and influences: warm hummus, fried cauliflower, and charred eggplant; lamb, beef, and chicken kabobs; Maccabee beer and Turkish coffee.
There’s a poem by Yehuda Amichai, called “Tourists,” in which the narrator stops to rest while shopping for groceries in Jerusalem’s Old City. A passing guide urges a tour group to notice the Roman arch above the man’s head. But Amichai thinks the guide has it exactly backward. “Redemption will come,” he writes, “only when they are told, ‘Do you see that arch over there from the Roman period? It doesn’t matter, but near it, a little to the left and then down a bit, there’s a man who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.’”