Israeli food as the great connector, erasing borders and biases

Israeli food as the great connector, erasing borders and biases

The cuisine that binds

A spread at Zahav, Michael Solomonov’s James Beard award-winning restaurant in Philadelphia. Courtesy of Zahav/Alexandra Hawkins
A spread at Zahav, Michael Solomonov’s James Beard award-winning restaurant in Philadelphia. Courtesy of Zahav/Alexandra Hawkins

In a charged political climate, where ties between Israelis and American Jews are fraying, the multicultural Israeli table, it turns out, offers a recipe for something binding.

Adeena Sussman, a cookbook author and food consultant based in Tel Aviv, describes a menu that serves as a larger metaphor. On that melting pot of an Israeli table, she said, “There can be a dish that combines zaatar, which is something from the Levantine and Palestinian kitchen, and ras el hanout, which is Moroccan, with a Berbere spice, which is Ethiopian, as well as American influences.

“It’s also about harnessing [the food] in ways that reflect the ongoing story of Judaism and the way that Jewish culture melds many traditions.”

The Middle Eastern food that Sussman describes has exploded in popularity in recent years. Israeli chefs have opened upscale and casual dining spots in New York, Philadelphia, and here in New Jersey.

In New York, there’s Eyal Shani’s popular Miznon eatery in Chelsea Market that serves Israeli beer on tap and put whole-roasted cauliflower on the map. A second Miznon location is set to open soon on the Upper West Side, and a New York location of his upscale Tel Aviv eatery, HaSalon, recently opened in Hell’s Kitchen.

In the Flatiron district, Meir Adoni’s acclaimed Nur restaurant has introduced dishes like kubaneh with Yemenite schug and smoked eggplant carpaccio to unsuspecting New Yorkers.

Israeli chef Nir Mesika says food has the ability to erase borders and biases by bringing everyone to the same table. Courtesy of Liat Halpern

Montclair has its own rising star in Meny Vaknin’s MishMish Cafe, offering a twist on his grandmother’s Moroccan home cooking and his Israeli upbringing. Shakshuka gets its own section on the menu. Look for small plates that include zaatar garlic French fries, organic beets and labneh, and charred shishito peppers, along with more classic Old City-style hummus.

Quintessential Israeli foods like hummus and falafel are also giving Mexican and Asian fare some serious competition. Consider the popularity of new restaurants such as Pita on Essex in Millburn and the kosher Bridge Turkish and Mediterranean Grill in Highland Park (which started in Long Branch in 2010 but closed after Superstorm Sandy).

So what has caused this sudden explosion?

Every cuisine gets its day in the sun, Sussman said, and while the 1980s was the era of California cuisine followed by Asian and Italian cuisine, now it’s Israel’s turn.

“Israeli food started becoming more popular at a time when Israeli chefs were travelling around the world learning classic techniques and at the same time learning to take pride in their local ingredients,” said Sussman, whose cookbook “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen” hits bookstores in September.

Chef Meny Vaknin at his Marcel Bakery & Kitchen in Montclair. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

Vaknin added, “It’s just the direction of chefs now being inspired globally with food; Israeli food is all over the place so it fits right in.” He pointed out that because Israeli foods come from so many places, it’s an experience where “there are no borders.” 

And while debates continue to abound over how to define Israeli cuisine, everyone agrees it’s a synthesis of flavors and ingredients from across the diverse cultural makeup within Israel.

“It’s a huge melting pot of traditions and flavors coming together,” said Vaknin. “It’s diverse, fresh, vibrant, with mixed colors and flavors.” 

Much of the inspiration for the menu at MishMish Café came from Vaknin’s mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens. “Food is so personal to each chef,” said the Chopped Champion, who also owns Marcel Bakery & Kitchen and the soon-to-open Luisa, a bakery with grab-and-go items, both in Montclair. “The idea is to take what you grew up with at home, and make something new out of it.” That means infusing home cooking with old-school and contemporary cooking techniques, and adding other influences picked up along the way. For Vaknin, that may include French, Arabic, or Italian flavors.    

This growing obsession with Israeli cuisine couldn’t come at a better time.

Zahav, the modern Israeli kitchen in Philadelphia. Courtesy of Zahav/Alexandra Hawkins

As the Israeli government struggles to maintain good footing with diaspora Jews, particularly in left-leaning circles, over issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s political grip on power, food is a way for people to engage with Israeli culture without political or religious undertones.

“Food and cuisine, although sometimes highly politicized, is a safe place to start a conversation,” said Michael Solomonov, whose Philadelphia restaurant Zahav (the modern Israeli cuisine spot he opened 10 years ago with partner Steven Cook) just snagged the coveted James Beard award for Outstanding Restaurant. “It can open the door to an open dialogue that can affect people politically.”

Vaknin views himself as “an ambassador for [Israeli] food.”

He believes food also has the power to erase borders and biases. “Food is glue, a language that brings people together,” he said. “It’s like music.” And hospitality is a key feature. “I treat everyone in MishMish as if they are in my home and they are my guests.” And politics, he said, has no place at the table.

Adeena Sussman, second from right, leads a tour of A-list chefs — from left, Ido Nivron, Herb Karlitz, Nancy Silverton, Ruth Reichl, Mitchell Davis, Eden Grinshpan, and Sarah Carey — around the Tel Aviv shuk. Courtesy of Herb Karlitz

In perhaps one of the most tangible displays of food’s unifying force, more than a dozen A-list chefs and foodies traveled to Israel on a Birthright-style trip in January to get a taste of the burgeoning food scene. The group included food writer and chef Ruth Reichl, cookbook author and “Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons, baker and restaurateur Nancy Silverton, and the Cooking Channel’s Eden Grinshpan.

The participants were completely blown away by the food scene there, said Herb Karlitz, a food-industry marketing executive who organized the trip.

Karlitz had previously organized similar food-focused trips to other destinations, but after a trip to Israel 20 years earlier from which he’d returned “all shnitzeled out,” Israel had never crossed his mind as a destination. Some friends convinced him to return and check out the new food and wine scene. He was impressed. 

The chefs traveled the length and breadth of the country from Tel Aviv to Acco trying different cuisines within Israel.

A spread prepared by Israeli chef Hedai Offaime for the A-list chefs’ “Birthright” trip to Israel. Courtesy of Herb Karlitz

“This is a group that never stopped eating,” Karlitz said. “We would have a nine-course dinner, then pass a pizza place and say, ‘Well, we’ve got to try it.’”

Naama Shefi, founder of the Jewish Food Society and one of the participants on the trip, said it was fun to witness the group try foods like Yemenite soup or sumac for the first time.

More than that, it was the general conviviality and hospitality that accompanied the food that really struck participants.

“Everything is a party there. It’s a celebration of life,” said Karlitz. “For a country that’s constantly under attack and being oppressed, it was just amazing to me how it doesn’t faze people; it’s just the daily life.”

Celebrity chefs explore Israeli chef Hedai Offaime’s herb garden near Jerusalem as part of their food tour of the country. Courtesy of Herb Karlitz

Aside from Israeli cuisine’s soaring reputation, Sussman said it’s this sense of fun that really defines the food culture. “It’s as much fun to hang out on the beach eating a slice of watermelon and the best local feta as it is to go to a fancy, nine-course tasting menu restaurant. You really get a sense of the terroir and the land and the food in every bite.”

Perhaps it’s food as the great equalizer doing a better job than any government-sanctioned hasbara.

After all, as Karlitz said, “everybody loves to eat.”

Miriam Groner is web director at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. NJJN Senior Writer Johanna Ginsberg contributed reporting.

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