Words: Ruthie Rousso
Is there even such a thing?
The question is legitimate: Local cuisines are shaped over hundreds and thousands of years of transformations and cultural influences, so how can we argue that we have already created a distinctive kitchen? I lecture about Israeli food as a reflection of national identity all over the world, and it is a question that I’m asked time and time again. Surprisingly, the ones who argue over it the most are waiting for me back home, with many local chefs and journalists insistent that Israel does not have its own signature culinary identity.
The international response settles the issue for us all: Israeli food is quickly becoming among the most popular in the world. Israeli restaurants bloom and boom in London and New York, Israeli cookbooks win international prizes, and Israel in general has become a place of pilgrimage due to its restaurants and not only because of the Old City and the Dead Sea.
This rise in popularity has taken the question “Is there even such a thing as Israeli cuisine?” from the shelf, and replaced it with another, equally challenging dilemma: “What is Israeli cuisine?”
Food is a reflection. Plates have narratives. They tell different stories. Those stories always have a very personal connection to the traditions and habits that pass from generation to generation. But there is also a much broader dimension related to issues of culture, history, conflicts, wars, international relations, and even GDP. The complex Israeli identity is contained on every plate: In every tiny heirloom Palestinian bamya with preserved lemon and brown butter served in “haBasta,” and in every steaming pita, stuffed with roasted cauliflower, crème fraiche and local hot pepper, at Eyal Shani’s Miznon.
What makes the Israeli identity so complex? To start, ask anyone to define what an Israeli person looks like. Are they dark or light? Tall or Short? Russian, Moroccan, Polish, Kurdish, or a mixture of these backgrounds? Are they educated? Ignorant? Rightist or leftist, religious or secular? No one could answer.
It begs the question, as a young country of diverse immigrants, how can we establish a cohesive cuisine? Yet the reality proves that despite the obvious differences, every Israeli—and sometimes even non-Israelis—when traveling abroad, can identify another Israeli from miles away. It is not due to their appearance (it is very diverse). It is not due to the way they are dressed (they wear Zara), and not even due to their chutzpah. Israelis can identify another Israeli, no matter how different from themselves, because they are familiar with the most elusive and profound characteristics of the Israeliness.
Israeli cuisine, like Israeli identity, is a fragile and frail tissue of crossings and stitching, fraught with youth on the one hand, and with hindering history on the other, full of adventurous urges, creativity and courage. Yes, and some chutzpah as well. Just look at the plates of sauces and dips served today in every sushi restaurant in Tel Aviv alongside your maki order. Once you are there, you can enjoy the sight of dozens of Israelis mounting spicy mayonnaise on a piece of nigiri, as if they were pita and hummus. The Japanese are horrified, but they should give it a try. It is delicious.
The nature of Israeli cuisine and identity is further complicated by the barriers and borders that separate us from our neighbors. While for seven decades we have shared cultural and geographical commonalities with the Lebanese, the Syrians, the Jordanians and the Egyptians, our relationship is still complicated.
As a chef I mourn about this quite a bit. I am sure that many Israelis who deal with food feel the same way. I would love to stop by Beirut for an evening and see what is happening in the Lebanese restaurant scene, swim through the Red Sea for some fish along the shore of Saudi Arabia or (in better times) meet a friend for some mint tea and cookies in Syria. At the same time, my very inability to do so is both a springboard and a driving force. Perhaps in a different reality, our cuisine would have quickly developed to be similar to that of our Middle Eastern neighbors, only kosher. Instead, local chefs go to study in Europe and Asia, bringing home a variety of foreign techniques that enable us to develop the Israeli culinary identity we have today.
But do not be mistaken. It is not a detached Millennial culture puppeting the scene. Its founders and creators feed not just on young crispy shoots, but also gain nourishment from profoundly strong roots dug deeply into Jewish and local history. Those roots are connected to millions of immigrants who lost their families and communities in World War II. They are crawling all the way back to Biblical Israel, the promised land of milk and honey, with its fertile soil and friendly climate. And they intertwined, against and despite all politics, with the magnificent Palestinian heritage, with its heirloom crops, its wise use of vegetables, its low-fat goat cheese, sun-sweetened tomatoes, and the best tahini in the world.
Israeli foodies today are working to root out the past and re-plant it in the present. The mission requires developing the foundations of the Israeli culinary language, something which takes both sacrifice and vision. They face a volatile and unpredictable ecosystem, subject to frenzied trends from outside and rockets and missiles from inside. The odds are against the food business: 92% of restaurants opening in Tel Aviv will close within five years, and 80% will not light the first candle on their Malabi-Matcha cake. Yet, every year, more restaurants are opened here than are closed. The Israeli chefs and restaurateurs continue to dare, insist on trying, are driven to create. If I had to put a finger on one characteristic of Israeli identity and cuisine, it would be this: It is a turbine, refusing to stop, pushing forward against all odds.