Foods of Israel Today: Reflecting Israel's Past and Present through Its Many Cuisines

Foods of Israel Today: Reflecting Israel's Past and Present through Its Many Cuisines

by Joan Nathan
     
 

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"Joan Nathan has created a masterful blend of food and culture. She takes her reader on an extraordinary journey through the history of the land of Israel and the development of modern Israeli food. I was delighted to visit all the different ethnic communities that have contributed to Israeli cuisine, and my mouth watered just imagining the feast that Joan

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"Joan Nathan has created a masterful blend of food and culture. She takes her reader on an extraordinary journey through the history of the land of Israel and the development of modern Israeli food. I was delighted to visit all the different ethnic communities that have contributed to Israeli cuisine, and my mouth watered just imagining the feast that Joan Nathan describes."
—Teddy Kollek, former mayor of Jerusalem

In this richly evocative book, Joan Nathan captures the spirit of Israel today by exploring its multifaceted cuisine. She delves into the histories of the people already settled in this nearly barren land, as well as those who immigrated and helped to quickly transform it into a country bursting with new produce. It is a dramatic and moving saga, interlarded with more than two hundred wonderful recipes that represent all the varied ethnic backgrounds. Every recipe has a story, and through these tales the story of Israel emerges.

Nathan shows how a typical Israeli menu today might include Middle Eastern hummus, a European schnitzel (made with native-raised turkey) accompanied by a Turkish eggplant salad and a Persian rice dish, with, perhaps, Jaffa Orange Delight for dessert. On Friday nights she visits with home cooks who may be preparing a traditional Libyan, Moroccan, Italian, or German meal for their families, the Sabbath being the focal point of the week throughout Israel (all her recipes are accordingly kosher). And she takes us to markets overflowing with vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices.

To gather the recipes and the stories, Nathan has been traveling the length and breadth of Israel for many years—to a Syrian Alawite village on the northern border for a vegetarian kubbeh and to Bet She'an for potato burekas; to the Red Sea for farmed sea bream and to the Sea of Galilee for St. Peter's fish; to Jerusalem's Bukharan Quarter for Iraqi pita bread baked in a wood-fired clay oven, to the Nahlaot neighborhood for Yemenite fried pancake-like bread, and to a Druse village for paper-thin lavash; to a tiny restaurant in Haifa for Turkish coconut cake and to a wedding at Kibbutz May'ayan Baruch in the upper Galilee for Moroccan sweet couscous; and to many, many other places. All the while, she seeks out biblical connections between ancient herbs and vegetables and their modern counterparts, between Esau's mess of pottage and today's popular taboulleh, and she delights us with tales of all she encounters.

Throughout, Joan Nathan shows us how food in this politically turbulent land can be a way of breaking down barriers between Jews, Moslems, and Christians. Generously illustrated with colorful photographs, this enormously engaging book is one to treasure, not only as a splendid cookbook but also as a unique record of life in Israel.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Joan Nathan has created a masterful blend of food and culture. She takes her reader on an extraordinary journey through the history of the land of Israel and the development of modern Israeli food. I was delighted to visit all the different ethnic communities that have contributed to Israeli cuisine, and my mouth watered just imagining the feast that Joan Nathan describes."
-Teddy Kollek, former mayor of Jerusalem

"In The Foods of Israel Today Joan Nathan celebrates Israel's rich and flavorful diversity. It is a remarkable cornucopia of Israel's Jewish, Muslim, and Christian culinary traditions, including recipes being made in Israel today that originated everywhere from Morocco to Argentina to Transylvania to Rome. There are so many new dishes to try! In short, The Foods of Israel Today is a mitzvah and a mechiah."
-Sara Moulton

"Joan Nathan's cookbook is an intensely individual one, full of personal anecdotes and excerpts of relevant stories by various authors. I read this cookbook like a novel and really enjoyed learning more about the culture and cuisine of Israel. I also had the most incredible urge to try every recipe while I was reading the cookbook-a sure sign that a cookbook will be a hit."
-Daniel Boulud

"I have been waiting a long time for this book. The years Joan Nathan has taken to 'get it right' show on every page. No one has dealt with Israel with this combination of scholarship, good storytelling, and the pure joy of a gifted cook. This is one of those books that softens and opens the 'otherness' of a complex country. Thank you, Joan, for a masterful piece of work and for building a much-needed bridge. It goes on my short shelf of classics."
-Lynne Rossetto Kasper

"Joan Nathan's new book is just wonderful and so accessible. I think it is a major work."
-PaulaWolfert

"Israel may be the world's smallest melting pot and no one is more qualified than Joan Nathan to chronicle its culinary riches. In this remarkable book, she has written the 'greatest story never told.' Every recipe nourished my spirit, every page made me hunger for Israel's shared table."
-Rozanne Gold

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Modern Israel is one of the world's great culinary melting pots, and Nathan (author of the highly successful PBS series and cookbook Jewish Cooking in America) does it justice in this exceptional and comprehensive examination of its diverse cultural lineage. Israeli flavors include those of the Middle East like Classic Israeli Eggplant Dip, new inventions such as Israeli Revisionist Haroset and imported traditions like Judith Tihany's Transylvanian Green Bean Soup. Nathan collects recipes from both ordinary Israelis including 97-year-old Shoshana Kleiner, whose instruction for her Fourth Aliyah Vegetable Soup is "Cook until cooked!" and popular restaurants, such as Jerusalem's Eucalyptus. Nor are local Arabic traditions given short shrift, spotlighting dishes like Zucchini with Yogurt. The book also offers information ranging from the best places to eat falafel and notes on Israeli wine to a good-sized glossary. Nathan, who spent more than two years working for Teddy Kollek when he was mayor of Jerusalem, generously sprinkles the pages with her personal memories as well as descriptions of the pioneering spirit of early Israelis: in the days when a home oven was a luxury, they often made a dessert "salami" of crushed cookies, wine, cocoa and nuts. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Nathan is the author of Jewish Cooking in America and an authority on the subject. In her ambitious new work, she explores the food and culinary traditions of modern Israel, which she describes as not a melting pot but rather a multicultural "mosaic." Most of the more than 300 recipes she collected come from home cooks, and their stories make this title almost as much a cultural history as cookbook. The bread chapter, for example, includes Pita Spinach Turnovers from a Bedouin family, Yemenite Pancakes, Sesame Bread from the Armenian community in Jerusalem, Ethiopian Shabbat Bread, and Pan de Casa from a Moroccan grandmother. The extensively researched text provides background on the many immigrant groups that make up Israel's population; there are also photographs of many of the people she encountered, literary and biblical quotations, and even a brief Guide to Good Eating in Israel. Although Israeli recipes appear in other Middle Eastern and Jewish cookbooks, Nathan's impressive work is unique. Highly recommended. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780679451075
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/28/2001
Pages:
448
Sales rank:
902,927
Product dimensions:
8.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.35(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Breakfast and Brunch Fare

I remember so clearly my first breakfast when I was volunteering on a kibbutz in the 1970s. Before the sun was up we started working, and at 7:30-breakfast time-all of us volunteers ran to a pump, splashed water on our faces and hands, and sat down in a huge shed in the middle of a field, hungry for breakfast. There was something so satisfying about a bowl of figs or pears picked that morning, with the dew still on them, and a basket of kibbutz cucumbers, tomatoes, and green peppers. We could choose our own white cheese, or cottage cheese, yogurt, sour cream called shemenet, and kibbutz-baked rye bread or rolls, to craft our own meal. "I'll trade my tomato for your egg" was a typical barter between us hungry volunteers and kibbutzniks. We learned how to chop tomatoes and eggs in various ways to make the food seem different. The kibbutz breakfast was, and still is, a testament to what Israelis have done with the land.

According to Schmuel Federmann, one of the co-founders with his brother Yekutiel of Dan Hotels Corporation, the hotel dairy breakfast sprang from competition with small hotels in Safed and Tiberias, where three meals were included in a full pension. "Putting out a spread in the morning called the 'Israeli buffet breakfast,' which was included in the room price, made us able to compete with the small hotels," he said. "We started out with oranges, then apples, then pears, then prunes. We added more and more when we had more and more. Israel was, after all, the land of milk and honey."

The vast buffets were an instant hit. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the early guests at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv, kept remarking about the breakfasts in Israel. "Although food didn't seem important when you were with Mrs. Roosevelt, she was amazed and pleased by the breakfasts we were served, the hard-boiled eggs, the herring, all kinds of breads, sliced and pickled cucumbers, since it was so unlike any breakfast we had ever seen," recalled her traveling companion, Trude Lash.

In the average Israeli home during the week, however, breakfast runs the gamut from a simple pita bread sprinkled with olive oil and za'atar, the ubiquitous Middle Eastern spice combination, to elaborate vegetable dips, milk and cheese products, and preserves spread over many kinds of bakery bread.

Although every kind of prepared cereal is available in supermarkets, Israel is not a major cereal-eating country. Some ethnic varieties like jerisheh, a cracked wheat turned into porridge, are often eaten in Arab villages. But Russian immigrants did not easily adapt to oatmeal and other hot cereals.

Sabbath breakfasts, however, are different. Iraqi Jews eat sabikh, a pita with fried eggplant, a hard-boiled egg, parsley, tahina, and mango pickle. Turkish Jews enjoy burekas (see page 28), those flaky finger pastries traditionally eaten on Shabbat after returning from the synagogue, or Yemenite mahlouach (see page 100). Central Europeans often make coffee cakes, or puffy pancakes like the Austrian kaiserschmarrn (see page 40) while Arabs, both Christian and Moslem, eat kataif (see page 38), pancakes filled with nuts or cream and bathed in a sugar syrup.

Today, Israelis buy most salads, milk products, and even ethnic breads ready-made in the supermarkets. Meals reflect the bounty of the land, with an amazing variety of yogurts, sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and goat cheeses, as well as spreads with chunks of olives and more than a dozen versions of the fruit preserves which are the pride of Israel.

Although this chapter features breakfast or brunch items, they can be prepared, as in Israel, for dinner as well. I have included some of my favorites, such as the North African shakshuka, a marvelous egg dish with tomatoes; figs stuffed with cheese; and a panoply of preserves. Israel has great jams, pulpier and less sweet than they are in the United States: date, pumpkin, star fruit, eggplant, sweet potato, orange, apricot, onion, beet-you name it, and all are legacies of the many immigrations to this new country.

Shakshuka a la Doktor Shakshuka

In 1930, Simon Agranat, the chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, wrote to his aunt and uncle in Chicago: "I had my eighth successive egg meal during my three-day journey through the Emek (the valley)." Eggs have always been a main protein for people in Israel. When I lived in Jerusalem, I would make for my breakfast-or even for dinner-scrambled eggs with sauteed spring onions, fresh herbs, and dollops of cream cheese melted into the eggs as they were cooking. Probably the most popular egg dish in Israel is shakshuka, one of those onomatopoeic Hebrew and North African words, meaning "all mixed up." The most famous rendition of this tomato dish, which is sometimes mixed with meat but more often made in Israel with scrambled or poached eggs, is served at the Tripolitana Doktor Shakshuka Restaurant in old Jaffa.

Doktor Shakshuka, owned by a large Libyan family, is located near the antique market in an old stone-arched building with colorful Arab-tiled floors. "When I was a young girl at the age of ten I liked to cook," said Sarah Gambsor, the main cook of the restaurant and wife of one of the owners. "My mother told me that I should marry someone who has a restaurant." And she did just that.

Mrs. Gambsor, a large woman who clearly enjoys eating what she cooks, demonstrated that the dish starts with a heavy frying pan and tomato sauce. Then eggs are carefully broken in and left to set or, if the diner prefers, scrambled in as they cook. The shakshuka is then served in the frying pan at the table.

Yield: 6 servings

1. Place the tomatoes, garlic, salt, paprika, tomato paste, and vegetable oil in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, over low heat until thick, for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Ladle the tomato sauce into a greased 12-inch frying pan. Bring to a simmer and break the eggs over the tomatoes. Gently break the yolks with a fork. Cover and continue to cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, until the eggs are set. Bring the frying pan directly to the table. Set it on a trivet and spoon out the shakshuka.

note Alternatively, you can make individual portions, as they do at Doktor Shakshuka, by ladling some of the sauce into a very small pan and poaching one egg in it.

Burekas- My Favorite Breakfast Pastries

I remember with pleasure the Turkish spinach burekas we ate every Friday morning when I worked in the Jerusalem municipality. The ritual was as follows: Simontov, the guard at the front door downstairs, would appear carrying a bronze tray with Turkish coffee and the heavenly, flaky pastries filled with spinach or cheese, called filikas in Ladino. It is rare today to have such delicious burekas in Jerusalem or anywhere else in Israel. Most of the dough is commercially produced puff pastry, much thicker and less flaky than the homemade phyllo used to be. A few places, like Burekas Penzo in Tel Aviv (near Levinsky Street), which has been making the pastries by hand in the Turkish style for more than thirty years, produce a close second to those I remember from my days in Jerusalem. Various Ladino names like bulemas and boyos differentiate fillings and distinguish a Jewish bureka from a Turkish one. If you can find the thick phyllo dough, that works well. Otherwise, try this. My fifteen-year-old makes and sells them for fifty cents apiece. They are great!

Yield: about 60 bureka triangles

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Using a pastry brush, coat the bottom of a cookie sheet with some of the melted butter.

3. Take a sheet of phyllo and cut lengthwise in strips, 41\2 inches wide. Butter the strips, fold over lengthwise, butter again, and place a tablespoon of filling on the end. Then fold up right to left as you would a flag, so that the end result is a plump triangle, buttering the outside at the end. Repeat with the remaining filling and dough. Beat the egg, brush the burekas with it, and sprinkle sesame seeds over the tops.

4. Place on the cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes or until golden in color.

note You can also mold and freeze the burekas after forming. Defrost for 2 hours and then bake. You can fill any leftover phyllo with chocolate chips or Nutella and make triangular treats.

Three Ways to Fill a Bureka

Spinach Filling

Yield: about 2 cups, enough filling for about 20 burekas

1. Place the fresh spinach or Swiss chard leaves in a frying pan with only the water that clings to the leaves, and cook briefly until they wilt. (If using frozen spinach, simply defrost.) Drain very well, squeezing out as much of the water as possible. Cool and chop.

2. Mix together the eggs, feta and cheddar cheeses, parsley, dill, and scallions. Add the spinach and salt and pepper to taste; mix well.

3. Use about 1 tablespoon of filling for each bureka.

Eggplant Filling

Yield: about 2 cups, enough filling for about 20 burekas

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Prick the skin of the eggplants all over and roast on an oiled cookie sheet for 25 minutes, turning occasionally.

2. Remove the pulp from the skin, discarding the seeds and draining off any extra liquid. Cool slightly, then pat dry and coarsely chop. Combine the eggplant pulp, cheeses, and cilantro or parsley and mash well with a fork; add salt if needed.

3. Use about 1 tablespoon of filling for each bureka.

Cheese Filling

Yield: about 2 cups, enough filling for about 20 burekas

1. Beat the eggs in a small bowl. Add the cheddar and feta cheeses and pepper to taste. Mix well.

2. Use about 1 tablespoon of filling for each bureka.

Paula Ben-Gurion's Kutch Mutch

Beneath the olive, sabra, and pomegranate trees near Kibbutz Sde Boker is David and Paula Ben-Gurion's "hut," the home to which Israel's first prime minister moved when he retired briefly in 1953. On December 30th of that year, Ben-Gurion wrote his daughter Geula a letter about the kibbutz. "Mother, of course, bought canned goods and bottles of wine. For the time being the wine just sits and only an occasional can is opened. There is a communal kitchen, of course, but mother is not keen on it. She neither likes the cleanliness of the tables nor the quality of the food nor the cooking. She hardly eats either in the kitchen or at home. How she manages, I don't know. I get used to nearly all the dishes and eat far more than I used to in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv."

Everyone has a story about Ben-Gurion's American-born wife, Paula. "The most important thing for Paula was David Ben-Gurion," said their grandson Elon Ben-Gurion. "She protected him like a child. I remember one day in Sde Boker. I walked in the house and he was sitting inside talking with Zalman Shazar, then the president of Israel. Paula walked in and told Shazar to sit outside so that Ben-Gurion could eat. He waited like a little kid until David Ben-Gurion had finished eating."

Paula's quirkiness is apparent today in the sparsely equipped kitchen of the Ben-Gurion home on the kibbutz, now a museum. There stands a table with an Osterizer, a bottle of fruit squash, which was diluted with water to make juice, and a few pots on the tiny stove. On the wall is a listing of the pills Ben-Gurion was to take, and a recipe for Paula's healthy and hated invention of kutch mutch, which she made him promise to eat every day for breakfast. This much-joked-about concoction included yogurt, white cheese, semolina, strawberry syrup, milk, and raw eggs. "When Paula passed away, Ben-Gurion, for whom food was a means to live, not an experience, made a commitment that he would eat it every day in her memory," said their grandson. "In my grandmother's mind it was a very healthy dish. I think his commitment to her was fabulous."

I have eaten versions of this much more palatable and equally healthy kutch mutch throughout Israel. Here is my adaptation with pecans, which I was surprised to taste in this dish in Israel since the nuts seemed so American to me.

Yield: 4 servings

1. Put the yogurt in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the bran, grated apples, brown sugar, honey, and nuts over and mix well.

2. Serve as a breakfast dish, snack, or dessert.

note You can replace the apples with 2 cups of sliced fresh strawberries or other fruit of your choice.

Figs Stuffed with Cheese and Served on an Apricot-Mint Coulis with a Confit of Onions

With such a short season for fresh figs, Shiri sometimes substitutes poached dried figs or, in midsummer, fresh apricots. Shiri uses four kinds of cheese for this dish, including the famous variety from Safed (see page 242), and serves it over a confit of onions with fresh mint and her mom's apricot jam. This is a perfect brunch dish.

If you cannot find Safed cheese, use a Bulgarian feta. You can, of course, substitute store-bought apricot jam for the homemade variety, but chances are it will not have the same chunkiness or rich flavor.

Yield: 6 servings

1. Put the cheeses, garlic, thyme, and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a food processor equipped with a steel blade. Puree and then refrigerate for a few hours.

2. Heat a frying pan and add the remaining oil with the onions; reduce the heat to low. Cook, uncovered, very, very slowly, stirring occasionally, until the onions become a rich golden brown, adding a little water if necessary. This may take up to 30 minutes. The longer you cook them, the more flavor your onions will have. This is called a "confit."

3. Trim the stems from the figs and cut crosses in the tops of the fruit, slicing almost to the bottom so that the fig will open like a flower.

4. Take a heaping tablespoon of the cheese mixture and place it inside one of the figs. Repeat with the remaining cheese and figs. This can be done several hours before serving and refrigerated.

5. To serve, mix the onion confit with the apricot jam and a tablespoon of fresh mint. Spoon a dollop of this confit on a small plate. Top with the cheese-stuffed fig.

note You can substitute dried figs for fresh, or even, if you prefer, dried pears. Merely remove the stems, place fruit in enough water to cover, and simmer, uncovered, for about 20 minutes or until soft. Drain, wipe dry, and use as above.

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What People are saying about this

Lynne Rossetto Kasper
I have been waiting a long time for this book. The years Joan Nathan has taken to 'get it right' show on every page. No one has dealt with Israel with this combination of scholarship, good storytelling, and the pure joy of a gifted cook. This is one of those books that softens and opens the 'otherness' of a complex country. Thank you, Joan, for a masterful piece of work and for building a much-needed bridge. It goes on my short shelf of classics.
Daniel Boulud
Joan Nathan's cookbook is an intensely individual one, full of personal anecdotes and excerpts of relevant stories by various authors. I read this cookbook like a novel and really enjoyed learning more about the culture and cuisine of Israel. I also had the most incredible urge to try every recipe while I was reading the cookbook-a sure sign that a cookbook will be a hit.

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