I was born in Jerusalem, and although I never really lived in Israel, I have an Israeli passport, not to mention an instantly identifiable Israeli name. My parents now live in Israel, as do most of my father’s family, and I have spent a lot of time there, not just as a kid but as a teenager and adult as well. I guess that means I am at least partly Israeli.
Except, that is, when I travel. Then I try to be as non-Israeli as I can be.
Why? Well, firstly, waving an Israeli passport around is not all that useful, especially when I also hold a much more universally accepted Australian passport. Indeed, the only time being part-Israeli has helped while travelling was when I arrived in the Ukraine without a visa, only to discover that it is one of the few countries on earth that Australians need a visa to visit. Faced with the prospect of a night in a cell at Kiev International and then deportation, in pure desperation I whipped out my Israeli passport. What do you know? Unlike Aussies, it appears Israelis don’t need a visa to enter the Ukraine. Shalom, spasibo, and thank God for that.
Secondly, much as it pains me to say this, Israelis have a pretty bad reputation on the international travel trail, where they are generally considered to be pushy, rude, and cheap. This might have something to do with the simple fact that Israelis like to travel, a lot. So they cast a far bigger shadow than you’d otherwise expect. For example, I was once hiking in the Himalayas and stopped for the night at a remote village on the Nepal-Tibet border. I got chatting to the guesthouse owner who in between cups of tea told me that Israelis made up over thirty percent of her business. On this basis she’d concluded that Israel must be a really big country. I asked her how many people she thought lived there, and she replied – “oh, I guess around two hundred million?” (It is more like seven million).
It may also have something to do with the Israeli “personality”. In Israel everyone has an opinion about everything. Whether it is the grocery store owner, the cab driver, the vet, or even your friend’s ten year old son, no-one will hesitate to loudly and passionately tell you exactly what they think about the Middle-East peace process, global warming, the grilled kebab you are eating, or your choice of shirt. Like at dinner at a friend’s house in Tel Aviv once, when the complete stranger sitting next to me casually asked: “so, how much do you earn?”, and then thought I was being a bit precious when I declined to answer. Or like the last time I saw one of my aunts, who took one look at me and said: “my goodness you’ve got so fat”. There is an openness and lack of pretension that is one of the more endearing aspects of Israeli society once you understand it, but if you don’t then Israelis can seem quite in-your-face and pretty unpleasant at times.
Or it might be just that the sub-set of Israeli travellers you’re most likely to meet are the younger, cheaper backpacker crowd. Most secular Israelis head off to the army for compulsory national service after high school (three years for boys, two years for girls), and once done they often set off on an extended overseas trip, to somewhere third-world with a good beach and where their shekels will last longer. Before going they might work a stint in a first-world country to save up for the trip, picking up itinerant jobs like selling dead-sea soap products in malls, or crappy bracelets and hair-braids at the seaside. Then when they eventually get to their final destination – be it India or Thailand or South America – they most typically can be found lounging about by day in a haze of smoke, and partying by night. Not that you can really blame them for cutting loose. I mean, where else are eighteen year olds required to give up their prime teenage years to assume a demanding, sometimes life-threatening national responsibility? But it does mean that Israelis as a whole are often identified with this drug-fuelled, beach-party backpacker set.
The stereotypes have even made it to Hollywood. Take Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Adam Sandler’s slapstick about an Israeli master-spy who fakes his own death and runs away to America, to become a hairdresser. I can safely say this film will never win any Academy Awards, but it is telling in how it represents your average Israeli: a pushy, aggressive and argumentative shyster prone to selling dodgy electronics; someone with a good heart but interested in little more than discos and hummus.
Bringing me to the point of today’s blog – food, and how of late this has been doing wonders to rehabilitate the image of Israel and Israelis around the world.
You see, Israeli food has traditionally also had a bad rap. Often it gets lumped in with generic Middle-Eastern cuisine, a sad medley of stale pita bread and day-old falafel common in so many low-grade neighbourhood restaurants. Or even worse, Israeli food is equated with kosher food (that is, food prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws). A tragedy, given that outside of Israel and New York kosher food is uniformly awful. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of eating at a kosher restaurant in Hong Kong or Singapore or Sydney, say, could be forgiven for thinking that to be kosher food must first be layered with salt, soaked in fat, then overcooked until rendered tasteless.
This is a shame, because Israel has always had many rich and diverse food traditions. Sephardic Jews, like my father’s family, brought with them to Israel the Mediterranean and North-African cooking they grew up on: couscous, chickpeas, stews and tagines. Ashkenazi Jews, like my mother’s family, brought their food to Israel too. Classic Eastern European artery busters, like chicken soup, borscht, dumplings and goulash. Other Jews, coming to Israel from places as far afield as India, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Argentina, all had something unique to contribute to this culinary hotpot. And along the way everyone seemed to adopt neighbouring Middle-Eastern staples like falafel and hummus, along with the few agricultural products that thrive in Israel’s desert climate, like oranges and artichokes, cucumbers, tomatoes, avocados and watermelons.
In the first thirty or so years of Israel’s existence, however, these different food traditions by and large remained distinct, so that for example Moroccan food in Israel was still, essentially, the same as Moroccan food in Morocco. Until about fifteen years ago, that is, when something amazing happened. Young Israelis began returning home from their travels abroad, where they had developed a taste for the flavours of the places they visited. Young Israeli chefs responded, picking up culinary influences from India and Asia, and throwing them into a giant blender alongside more “native” Israeli cuisines.
What emerged was something different, and totally unique. Israeli menus became a lot like little science experiments, where labneh (a strained type of Greek yoghurt), coriander, jumbo shrimps and pomegranate might come together on the one plate, happily co-existing alongside another of chopped liver and artisanal bread, or gnocchi done in the style of Iraqi kubbeh (dumplings). This was fusion food Tel Aviv style, where everything was given a uniquely Med-East sun-kissed twist. Being low-fat and loaded with fresh vegetables and grains, it was also a style of cooking totally in tune with the global culinary zeitgeist. Voila – “modern-Israeli cuisine” was born.
Roll forward to today, and as anyone who has been out and about in the Holy Land lately can tell you, the country is awash with a huge array of incredible, and totally delicious food choices, that defy any specific categorisation other than simply being “Israeli”. A trend, so it would seem, that is catching on around the world and spreading quickly.
Thus in Sydney recently a friend took me to a tiny hole-in-the-wall near Bondi, known simply as The Baker from Jaffa. Here every morning trays of fresh breads, borekas and bagels, exactly like those you’d find in any Israeli market, sell out in minutes. In New York a new breed of Israeli-inspired places are venturing beyond traditional Jewish-style deli food. Like Manhattan’s hip Eastwood bar, pioneer of the Israeli-Scotch egg, where instead of sausage an egg is coated in falafel, fried, and served with tahini (sesame paste). Or like in Miami recently, where Aroma on South Beach served up a breakfast of French toast, chopped Israeli salad and shakshouka (middle-eastern eggs baked with tomato and peppers).
Nowhere, however, is the rise of modern-Israeli cuisine more evident than in London, where I now live, and for which we can credit the work of two Israeli chefs in particular – Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.
In 1997, both men moved to London from Israel, and wound up working side by side at a bakery, where they became friends. Not long after they opened a cafe together, which they rather simply named: Ottolenghi. It was a tiny little space, comprised of a communal dining table and a serving table spread buffet-style, groaning under the weight of heaped platters of food. Things like butternut squash salad with red onion, tahini and za’atar (a traditional Arab spice mix based on dried thyme); harissa-roasted chicken with sumac-yoghurt and pomegranate seeds; char-grilled broccoli with chilli; luscious cakes and gigantic multi-coloured meringues.
Essentially this was just like what you’d find in many Tel Aviv restaurants these days, a combination of Israeli comfort foods spiked with flavours and techniques borrowed from across the Mediterranean, the Middle-East and Asia. But this was unlike anything ever seen in London before, and Ottolenghi was an instant smash. Pretty soon there was an hour-long queue snaking down the street outside.
More outlets soon followed (there are now three), then a restaurant called Nopi, which although more up-market still maintains the focus on Israeli-inspired food and still has a big communal table in the basement. Most conveniently Nopi is also located around the corner from where I live, so has become a bit like an extension of my dining room. The restaurant was followed in short order by an online store, a home delivery service, and a TV cooking show.
The there is a series of best-selling Ottolenghi cookery books. These more than anything have spread the gospel of modern-Israeli cuisine, far and wide. The most recent book in the series, Jerusalem, is a collection of recipes loosely inspired by the city where both Ottolenghi and Tamimi grew up, although all given a strong modern twist. Jerusalem has thus far sold more than 300,000 copies in hardback, making it something of a publishing sensation (by comparison, most blockbuster cookbooks, including those of brand name TV chefs, apparently sell fewer than 25,000). Jerusalem has been such a success that the book was named 2012’s Cookbook of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
As a result, housewives and home-cooks around the world are now becoming conversant with everyday Israeli and Middle-Eastern grocery items, like mograbieh (jumbo couscous, with grains somewhere on a scale between rice and pasta); freeka (a cereal made from green wheat); halva (a sweet sesame based dessert); and pomegranate and grape molasses.
Which to anyone brought up on a middle-eastern palate can only be considered a wonderful, wonderful thing.
It is more than the food, though. I’d say that the story of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi does as much, if not more, to improve the image of Israelis abroad.
Tom Robbins wrote a book in the early 1990s called Skinny Legs and All, a fable-like tale of a couple who drive across America in a caravan shaped like a turkey, seeking enlightenment. Along the way they meet various weird and whacky characters. One pair of such characters that always stuck in my mind was Spike Cohen and Roland Abu Hadee, a Jew and an Arab who decided to open a Middle-Eastern restaurant across the street from the United Nations in New York.
Sounds like the opening line of a bad joke, really, and whilst a very potent metaphor was pure fantasy: an imaginary thing that could only ever happen in the fictional ramblings of someone as nutty as Tom Robbins. That is, until the Ottolenghi-Tamimi duo came along.
You see, like me Yotam Ottolenghi was born in west Jerusalem. He is a first-generation Jewish-Israeli of German-Italian heritage (hence the name). Like all Israelis he did his time in the army, serving in the intelligence corps. More than most he understands the price of this national service, having lost a younger brother, who died during a military exercise. He then studied literature, before moving to London and enrolling in cooking school.
Yotam’s business partner, Sami Tamimi, is Muslim-Palestinian, also born and raised in Jerusalem, although in the eastern Arab section of the city. From the age of fifteen Sami worked in Jerusalem restaurants, first as a bus-boy and later as a kitchen hand and eventually as a chef, before finally making his way to London. Like Yotam he speaks the fluent unaccented Hebrew of a Jerusalem native, and like Yotam regards Jerusalem, and Israel, as his home.
So here we have two people from opposite sides of one the most fractious, persistent, debilitating political divides in the world. Two people, both from the same place, who by dint of history, religion and politics are quite simply not supposed to get on, much less build a thriving, successful business together.
And yet here they are today, a Jew and an Arab, two Israelis from Jerusalem, together in London, bringing Tom Robbins’ fiction to life. Instead of division the owners of Ottolenghi have created harmony and prosperity. They have done this by focusing on what they have in common, which in their case is food – shared eating traditions and childhood memories of Jerusalem, all infused with the same cardamom and fresh mint and rosewater.
I’ve said it before – what we put in our mouths can sometimes have so much more meaning than being mere sustenance. And when you see the example of people like Yotam and Sami, who through the simple act of cooking have defined a whole new, uniquely Israeli way, you can’t help but be a little inspired. And hopeful.
Kind of makes you think what else might be possible in the crazy Middle-East one day, doesn’t it?