The most diverse cuisine in the world in the most convulsive place in history: this is the gastronomy of Israel
Shuki Haidu, our guide, is not having a good day. Today the liberal candidate, Ofer Berkovitch, has lost the Jerusalem City Council elections to the conservative, Moshe Lion, backed by the city's growing ultra-Orthodox population, which now represents 22% of the census. The result, very tight (only a few thousand votes difference) heralds a new religious regression that the most liberal Jews do not want to see even in paint.
We walked hand in hand with him to the Mahane Yehuda market, on a visit organized by the Open Restaurants festival, an event that tries to put Jerusalem on the map of world gastronomic tourism. The market, explains our guide, is the only point in the city where Arabs, secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, Christians, tourists meet ... A quite disconcerting amalgam for the newcomer, which is, in short, the one that configures the city culture.
Shuki Haidu, our guide, shows us a stall in the Mahane Yehuda market that sells spices brought from Iran, a country that does not have commercial relations with Israel, thanks to a family of Jews of Persian origin.
During our entire trip to Israel, which has lasted a week, we have asked chefs, guides and neighbors how they would define their gastronomy. There are several answers, but they all point to the same thing: there is no such thing. And perhaps this is what makes their food so appealing.
Between 1945 and 1951 alone, 750,000 refugees arrived in Israel, some 600,000 from Arab countries
There is, of course, a great presence of the culinary tradition of the Middle East, of Arab cuisine, that we must not forget represents more than 20% of the citizenship of a country built on a territory that, despite being less populated, was not very much less empty (an idea that is repeated in many explanations is that it was a desert until the Hebrew emigrants arrived).
Added to this are all the traditions of the Jews from Central Europe, Ethiopia, the Maghreb and the rest of the Arab world. Between 1945 and 1951 alone, 750,000 refugees arrived in Israel, some 600,000 from Arab countries. The country's Jewish population doubled just a year after independence was declared, when many well-settled Jews in countries like Iraq or Iran were driven from their homes.
Much of Israel's cuisine is of Arab origin.
It should not be forgotten, moreover, that after the disintegration of the USSR Israel experienced a third wave of migration: more than a million people from all the former Soviet republics came to the country in search of a new home, bringing with them new foods, as well as new ingredients (including pork, which until then was non-existent in the area).
Young Israeli Jews perform compulsory military service of two or three years
To this amalgamation of culinary cultures must be added, in addition, the limitations of those who follow the kosher rules -which prevent mixing meat with milk or eating seafood-, but also the commitment of those who want Israel to resemble more and more Europe, are all these rules pass through the Arc de Triomphe and they play loud music in restaurants: young people forced to do compulsory military service (two years for girls, three for boys), who travel the world after this - a year of Backpacking is the norm - bringing back a cosmopolitan spirit, also in culinary matters, that proudly walks alongside the same tradition that justifies the militarization of the country.
The cuisine of Israel is, in short, as diverse and convulsive as its history.
Young Israeli recruits during an instruction in the middle of the old city of Jerusalem.
Fresh cuisine, hot territory
Although the ultra-Orthodox insist on wearing large coats, vests and hats all year round, as a way of freezing a past that will never return, the truth is that Israel is very hot. This forces one of the greatest characteristics of your kitchen: a mixture of spicy, salty and sweet flavors, but always fresh.
It is shocking for those who do not know in depth the history of the Hebrew people their obsession with tradition, a tradition that they have endeavored to preserve tooth and nail over thousands of years of history and diaspora, and that justifies for many its current presence in Israel. It is this effort to claim their historical bond on this land that leads them to make enormous archaeological efforts to unearth the Jewish past of Palestine, but also what drives a chef like Moshe Basson of The Eucalyptus restaurant, a member of the NGO Chefs por La Paz, to work only with foods that are named in the Bible.
Aromatic herbs have a huge presence in Israeli cuisine.
The word “tradition” is repeated in the mouth of Assaf Granit, one of the most famous and successful chefs in Israel, who has subsidiaries of his restaurant Machneyuda (located next to the market of the same name in Jerusalem) in Paris and London. This is what he says at least in a meeting with journalists at the Israel Museum. And what is this tradition? One that is still being invented today.
"This mixture of cultures, war, and the economy defines our cuisine," says Granit.
“We approach cooking from tradition, but it is something that is difficult to define,” explains Granit. “We are all migrant Jews, who mix with the Palestinians who lived here. My grandmother came from Poland escaping from World War II, pregnant with my father, like her neighbor, a lady from Morocco. They both cooked and shared the recipes. On Fridays couscous was eaten at my house. This mix of cultures, warfare, and economics defines our cuisine. And it's an explosive mix. "
Assaf Granit, chef at the Machneyuda restaurant, after the meeting at the museum.
One building, dozens of traditions
Igal Zeevi's father came to Palestine from Uzbekistan in 1930. In World War II he fought alongside the British Army, then participated in the battles that led to the establishment of the State of Israel. Here he met Igal's mother, of Iranian origin. Despite this family background, we chatted with him in Spanish, as he spent a year living in the Madrid neighborhood of Hortaleza, where he got a girlfriend.
Its history seems incredible, but after spending a week in Israel it is clear to you that all its inhabitants have similar stories. Once again we talk about food, it is impossible not to do it together with Joel Solish, one of our travel companions, a Canadian zampon of Ashkenazi origin and a Polish family, who has a tattooed on his right arm the cutting of a pig with a star of David in the cut corresponding to the ham.
Igal Zeevi, one of our traveling companions.
Igal tells us that one of his greatest childhood memories belongs to the smells that the kitchens of his apartment block gave off on Friday, when the families of Jews from all over the world prepared their meals for Shabbat (during which there is no public transportation in all of Israel, and religious families don't cook).
All these influences are mixed, of course, with the climatological and economic conditions of the territory itself: a place where it hardly rains a little during two months of the year and it is necessary to import a large part of the food by boat, since no neighboring country wants to do business with a state whose very existence they don't even recognize.
Aware of its always fragile position, Israel has always strived to have its own fruit and vegetable production, that of the Mediterranean countries, in a tireless fight (wars included) against drought.
The Morduch restaurant in Jerusalem, one of the best to try Middle Eastern cuisine.
Between orange trees and missiles
The first Jewish settlers who settled in Israel lived in relative peace with their Arab neighbors, and managed to subsist in a hostile terrain that they completely changed. Agriculture was decisive in these early years, when oranges from Palestine became known in much of Europe.
Between 1925 and 1935, the cultivation of oranges in Palestine increased tenfold
As Ari Shavit explains in My Promised Land (a very interesting volume for anyone who wants to get closer to the history of Israel) already in the 1850s a new variety of orange was discovered in the citrus groves of Jaffa, and by 1890 the new Shamouti orange - large, oval and juicy - arrived at the table of Queen Victoria. In the first decades of the 20th century, oranges became very popular in Europe and in a decade, between 1925 and 1935, the cultivation of oranges in Palestine increased tenfold. The Jewish settlers began to have a continuous source of income, and the first Jewish middle class of Palestine appeared, and with it the first tensions with the Arab population, which only increased with the result that we all know.
Israel is still a major producer of oranges today.
Today Israel has an excellent fruit and vegetable production that, despite its high cost of production, allows for good seasonal products: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cauliflowers, broccoli ...
The vegetables are of quality and have a huge presence in the kitchen. In fact, Tel Aviv is the city with the most vegans in the world. Harel Zakaim, chef at the Sultana restaurant, which serves what many consider the best vegan shawarma on the planet - made with mushrooms and soybeans - says that 10% of the city's inhabitants do not eat animal products.
Harel Zakaim, chef of the Sultana restaurant with his beloved creation, the vegan shawarma.
Vegetables, unlike what happens in Europe or America, are not limited to playing a secondary role, as garnish, but are the star dishes of many restaurants in Tel-Aviv, the cultural and culinary capital of the country. Chef Eyal Shani is now a celebrity thanks to the signature dish of his North Abraxas restaurant, which is already imitated in many places: a whole roasted cauliflower. Vegetables are also the protagonists in the Ha’achim restaurant, where we taste a roasted kohlrabi accompanied by frankly spectacular goat cheese.
Roasted kohlrabi from the Ha'achim restaurant, pure butter.
Today there is no longer a trace of the first orange trees in Israel, planted by one of the first communities of European Jews, installed in the new town of Petah Tikva, founded in 1878. This municipality, just a few kilometers from Tel-Aviv, is today a modern suburb, with large apartment buildings, hotels and shopping centers.
It would seem the United States or Europe, if it weren't for the high security controls and the warning that, if an alarm sounds, it is necessary to go to the hotel's emergency staircase, the safest place in the event that any of the missiles launched this week by Hamas from Gaza will reach here.Something unlikely, our host and guide Gabi Landau assures us, but not impossible. "That's how our neighbors are, we give them electricity and they return bombs to us," he remarks. "But we are used to it, it is our reality."
It is enough to cross the street and enter the Islamic quarter of Jerusalem to suddenly be in a completely different world.
Unfortunately, the fraternal mixture of flavors and influences of Israeli cuisine does not correspond to the geopolitical reality of the region, a quagmire whose solution no one seems to even see on the horizon.
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