You do not need to check your calendar in Israel to know what holiday is approaching. It’s enough to see the commercials on television or which foods are being promoted in the newspaper. Supermarkets offer special discounts for the foods people want, so honey is on sale in September before Rosh Hashanah, oil before Hanukkah, candy and other Purim-related items, and so on.
What else is special about Israeli food? Israeli cuisine comprises different traditional dishes that were brought to Israel by Jews from over 100 countries. Since the late 1970s, Israel has developed a Jewish fusion cuisine. Adopting elements from the Mizrahi, Sephardic, and Ashkenazi styles of cooking, Israeli food incorporates many dishes traditionally eaten in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries. Falafel, hummus, shakshouka, and couscous are now considered synonymous with Israeli cuisine, although these dishes originated in other Middle Eastern cultures.
The Old Yishuv
The Jewish community that lived in the Land of Israel prior to Zionist immigration (pre 1881) was known as the Old Yishuv. The cooking style of that community was Sephardi, which became known as Jerusalem Sephardi, which is now considered to be Jerusalem classic. Hasidic Jews from Eastern Europe began establishing communities in the late eighteenth century, and brought with them their traditional foods, which are less spicy and sweeter.
Beginning with the First Aliyah in 1881, Jews began immigrating to Palestine from Eastern Europe in larger numbers, particularly from Poland and Russia. These Zionist pioneers were motivated both ideologically and by the Mediterranean climate to reject the cooking they had grown up with, and adapt to local produce, especially vegetables such as zucchini, peppers, eggplant, artichoke and chickpeas. The first Hebrew cookbook, written by Erna Meyer and published in the early 1930s, exhorted cooks to use Mediterranean herbs and Middle Eastern spices and local vegetables. The bread, olives, cheese and raw vegetables they adopted became the basis for the kibbutz breakfast, which in more abundant forms is served in Israeli hotels and in most Israeli homes today.
Other influences are the foods common to the region, especially certain kinds of fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and fish. Israel is one of the world’s leading citrus producers and exporters, and more than forty types of fruit are grown in Israel. Israelis consume an average of nearly 160 kilograms (350 lb) of fruit per person per year.
Is that Chopped Liver or Eggplant?
The State of Israel faced enormous military and economic challenges in its early years, and the period from 1948 to 1958 was a time of food rationing and austerity known as tzena. In this decade, over one million Holocaust survivors and immigrants from Arab countries fled to the new state. They arrived when only basic foods were available, and they had to modify their favorite dishes. So chopped eggplant took the place of chopped liver, turkey substituted for veal schnitzel and lamb kebabs. Beef was scarce, and it was not until the late 1950s that herds of beef cattle were introduced into the agricultural economy. The Jerusalem radio station, Kol Hamagen, broadcast instructions for cooking with what was available. These adaptations remain as a legacy of that time.
The first Israeli patisseries were opened by Ashkenazi Jews, popularizing cakes and pastries from central and Eastern Europe—yeast-raided cakes (babka), nut spirals (schnecken), chocolate rolls and layered pastries.
After 1948, the greatest impact came from the large migration of Jews from Turkey, Iraq, Kurdistan and Yemen, and Mizrahi Jews from North Africa, particularly Morocco. Mizrahi cuisine features grilled meats, sweet and savory puff pastries, rice dishes, stuffed vegetables, pita breads and salads, and shares many similarities with Arab cuisine.
As Israeli agriculture developed and new kinds of fruits and vegetables appeared on the market, cooks and chefs began using biblical ingredients such as honey, figs, and pomegranates. Since the late 1970s, there has been an increased interest in international cuisine, cooking with wine and herbs, and vegetarianism. A more sophisticated food culture in Israel began to develop when cookbooks such as the legendary From the Kitchen with Love by Ruth Sirkis, published in 1974, introduced international cooking trends. Together with the opening of restaurants serving cuisines such as Chinese, Italian and French, these trends encouraged more dining out.
The eighties brought one of the biggest shifts: increased optimism after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, the economic recovery of the mid-1980s, increasing travel abroad were all factors contributing to a greater interest in food and wine. In addition, high quality, locally produced ingredients became more available. Privately owned dairies began to produce handmade cheeses from goat, sheep and cow’s milk, which quickly became popular. New attention was paid to handmade breads and the production of high quality olive oil. The successful development of aquaculture ensured a steady supply of fresh fish, and the agricultural revolution in Israel led to an overwhelming choice and quality of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs.
Sushi as Well as Hummus
The 1990s saw steady interest in international cuisines, with sushi, in particular, hugely popular. Interestingly, Russian immigration has led to small delicacy shops selling pork and other Russian favorites. Israelis are eating more organic and whole-grain foods, and medical research has led many to re-embrace the Mediterranean diet, with its touted health benefits.
Israeli eating customs also differ from those in North America: lunch is the main meal of a regular workday. The kibbutz tradition of light evening meals has held, as well as the focus on salads and fresh baked bread. Israeli school kids take a sandwich and fruit to school, and will have the time to eat their meal at what is known as the “10 o’clock break” (now a term that relates to eating time).
Obesity is not yet a common phenomenon in Israel, although junk food is becoming more and more popular, and the Israeli version of “The Biggest Loser” scores high ratings. Another major difference is food allergies: Whereas nuts allergies are pretty common in North America, they are less common in Israel, maybe due to the fact that most Israeli babies eat Bamba, a soft, peanut-flavored snack before they eat any other food. (We joke that for many children, Bamba is the first word they say.)
Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday that commemorates the re-dedication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 B.C.E. and it has its accompanying food traditions. The holiday is marked by the consumption of foods fried in oil in commemoration of the miracle in which a small quantity of oil sufficient for one day lasted eight days.
The two most popular Hanukkah foods in Israel are potato pancakes, levivot, also known in Yiddish as latkes; and jelly doughnuts, sufganiyot in Hebrew, as these are deep-fried.
Bakeries in Israel have popularized many new types of fillings for sufganiyot besides the standard strawberry jelly filling, including chocolate, vanilla or cappuccino cream, and others. In recent years downsized, “mini” sufganiyot have also appeared due to people’s concern about calories.
Potato latkes by Linda Larsen
* 2 lbs. russet potatoes
* 1 lemon
* 1 onion, grated
* 2 cloves garlic, minced
* 1 egg, beaten
* 1 tablespoon lemon juice
* 3 Tbsp. flour
* 2 tsp. baking powder
* 1 tsp. salt
* 1/8 tsp. pepper
* solid vegetable shortening for frying
Preheat oven to 250 degrees F. Squeeze the lemon and add the juice to a large bowl of ice water. Peel the potatoes and roughly grate them into the bowl; let stand for half an hour.
Drain the potatoes well, squeezing dry with a kitchen towel. Process the potatoes in a food processor, using the pulse function, until fairly smooth. Place the potato mixture in a large bowl and add onion, garlic, egg, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, flour, baking powder, salt and pepper.
Place a few tablespoons of the solid shortening in a heavy duty frying pan and heat over medium heat. Scoop 1 Tbsp. of the potato mixture into the skillet for each latke, cooking four of them at a time. Cook until golden and puffy, about 1 minute. Turn and brown the other side for about 30-45 seconds. Place on a rack and keep them warm in the oven. Add a bit more shortening to pan for each batch. Yields about 24 latkes.