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Israeli Chefs Bring a New Spin on Middle Eastern Food to America

Shakshuka is on menus all over the country, and za’atar appears in Rachael Ray’s recipes. Can America love Israeli cuisine more?

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Einat Admony at Balaboosta, Aug. 2, 2013. (Tablet Magazine)
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Einat Admony is gearing up for a busy autumn. The Tel Aviv native and longtime New York-based chef already runs two bustling eateries: Taïm, a celebrated Greenwich Village falafel restaurant with a partner food truck, and a Middle Eastern trattoria in SoHo called Balaboosta, which does wonderful things like top-grilled lamb chops with Persian lime sauce, and nestle-fried olives in a pool of creamy labneh.

But next month, Admony’s life will kick into warp speed. That’s when her cookbook, also called Balaboosta, drops—a vibrant and inviting collection of personal stories and recipes designed, as the book puts it, “to feed people you love.” Shortly after that, Admony will add a new restaurant to her mini-empire, Bar Bolonat in Greenwich Village. As is the case with Taïm and Balaboosta, its menu will center around the Israeli flavors that Admony has said “are my comfort zone, my heart and core.” But it will be the most playful of the three restaurants, deconstructing familiar Israeli flavors and liberally incorporating ingredients from other ethnic cuisines. Case in point: a dessert of tahini cookies that she will serve alongside green-tea gelato. “I want to put the gelato in those gold-rimmed Moroccan tea glasses, which will look beautiful without being gimmicky,” she said.

Admony is an established champion of “new Israeli cuisine,” a term that refers to Israel’s emerging food scene and vigorous recent embracing of its many overlapping food cultures. And she is far from alone. Over the last decade, a new crop of wandering Israeli chefs and food purveyors has begun to make a significant mark on the way Americans cook and eat. The vision of Israeli food that they are bringing moves far beyond falafel or the Sabra brand hummus that sell like gangbusters across the country; it is fine dining—elevated and innovative.

Consider the following: Admony’s first restaurant, Taïm, opened in 2005. Three years later, the Israeli-born, Pittsburgh-raised chef Michael Solomonov launched his restaurant Zahav in the heart of Philadelphia. Within months, his inspiring take on new Israeli cuisine—dishes like fried haloumi cheese with carrots and pine nuts, grilled ground lamb served with pickled ramps, and halvah mousse with chickpea praline—was being lauded on must-eat lists in Philadelphia and beyond.

The trend has only accelerated over the past two years. There’s Zizi Limona, an inventive Middle Eastern-inspired Brooklyn eatery launched in late 2012 by a trio of Israelis, two of whom are also behind New York’s popular chain Hummus Place. Not far away in Manhattan, two bakeries opened by Israeli pastry smiths—Zucker in 2011 by a chef named Zohar Zohar, and a New York outpost of baker Uri Scheft’s successful Tel Aviv bakery Breads earlier this year—are turning customers on with clove rugelach and multiseeded challah, respectively. The Wall Street Journal recently described the “cult following” forming around Breads’ brioche-light, syrup-painted, chocolate babka.

Across the country in Portland, Ore., the city’s thriving food-cart scene has welcomed two businesses selling elevated Israeli street food. There’s Wolf and Bear’s, which has sold its grilled eggplant sandwich with labneh, caramelized walnuts, and kalamata tapenade, among other dishes, since 2009; and Gonzo, which launched a locavore’s take on falafel and shawarma in 2012. In 2011, chef Micah Wexler opened Mezze in Los Angeles, garnering a “Chef of the Year” title from Los Angeles Magazine for his imaginative riffs on Mediterranean classics: dishes like tabbouleh with fava beans and green garlic, and braised Moroccan chicken wings with olives and golden raisins. (Despite the rave reviews, Mezze closed a year later, ostensibly over a dispute with a noisy construction site next door.)

Last month, a company called Brooklyn Sesame launched at The Brooklyn Flea—an established hotbed of emerging food trends. There, Israeli native Shahar Shamir sells his deconstructed halvah, a sultry spread of tahini and honey studded with roasted sesame seeds or pistachios, raw almonds, or toasted coconut. At The Flea, he joined other Israeli and Middle Eastern-inspired vendors like upscale schnitzel makers Schnitz NYC and an artisanal couscous vendor, NY Shuk. Appetizing legend Russ & Daughters also recently started selling Brooklyn Sesame’s halvah spread, which, for a food purveyor, is equivalent to being knighted by the queen.

Then, of course, there’s Yotam Ottolenghi—the charismatic and immensely talented Israeli-British chef who has captured the imagination of this country’s food lovers. He’s the author, along with his Palestinian collaborator Sami Tamimi, of Jerusalem: A Cookbook—a book that chronicles the chefs’ shared love of their holy city and its “tapestry of cuisines.”

Since being published in the United States in late 2012 as a follow up to Ottolenghi’s similarly Middle Eastern-influenced book, Plenty, Jerusalem has solidified his status as a one-name culinary icon. More important, it marks a tipping point in Americans’ cultural awareness of new Israeli cuisine—and their wholesale embrace of the complex palette of flavors and ingredients that come from the country and region. “More than anyone, Ottolenghi has opened the doors to Israeli and Middle Eastern foods to so many people,” Admony said.

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Like Admony and Ottolenghi, nearly all the chefs mentioned above were born or raised in Israel, and could ostensibly be sharing their talents there. That is particularly true now, as Israel’s food scene comes into its own as a dense melting pot of Iraqi, Persian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Tunisian, Yemenite, Eastern European, Ethiopian, and a number of other cuisines. “Israeli cuisine has matured [in Israel] over the last couple of years,” said Naama Shefi, a food writer and founder of the wildly successful New York pop-up restaurant The Kubbeh Project. “It’s only a recent thing for Israeli chefs to be proud of their own Jewish ethnic foods or interested in exploring the country’s terroir and the foods of their Palestinian neighbors.”

But Admony explained that there are compelling reasons for chefs to leave. “Finding a good space to rent is impossible,” she said, an impressive statement considering she has battled New York’s real-estate hell three times over. More to the point, she said that Israel is a small country and does not yet have a robust dining-out culture that can adequately support its chefs’ passions.

Shefi also explained that distance in itself can offer reason enough for some of Israel’s culinary finest to head abroad: “Cooking outside of Israel allows chefs the freedom to define Israeli cuisine in playful ways, without the pressure to stay overly traditional,” she said. That is certainly true for Admony, who writes in Balaboosta how she felt a “slight twinge of shame” opening Taïm, which at the end of the day was merely a falafel joint. Balaboosta, and now Bar Bolonat, allow her to fully flex the innovation muscle found in all good chefs.

Whatever the reason, the American palate has benefited enormously from these Israeli arrivals—and not just the name-brand stars. “There are so many Israelis working in restaurants all over the country as sous chefs and line cooks right now,” Shefi said. They may not be calling the shots, she added, but they “absolutely influence what is happening in those kitchens.”

Amid all the recent hype around Ottolenghi, and the increasing attention from national magazines on Israel’s food—like a spread in Saveur this past May on the cuisine of the Galilee—it’s easy to forget that this country’s Middle Eastern food consciousness actually goes back decades. “By the time we opened Taïm, falafel had been around for two decades,” said Admony. As a child of the 1980s, I am old enough to remember the time before falafel, as well as hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush. Back then, those foods could be found in Middle Eastern eateries, and were touted by health-food advocates as nutritious alternatives to the meat-and-potatoes status quo. But they were hardly mainstream.

Today you’re as likely to find hummus and pita on a random bar menu as mozzarella sticks, and Israelis are a large part of the reason why. None of these foods is explicitly Israeli in origin, but Israelis’ love for them, and America and Israel’s close relationship helped facilitate their widespread recognition here. As Gil Marks writes in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, “it was Jews returning from Israel, along with wandering Israelis, who initially popularized hummus [and many Middle Eastern foods] in the West.”

In some ways, then, the food world’s current preoccupation with new Israeli cuisine is just an extension of what came before. But there are important differences. More so than in the past, it’s not just particular dishes that are being embraced, but a whole philosophy of eating. “Americans love the Israeli-style dining experience,” said Shefi. “People get excited about straightforward meals where everyone shares plates across the table and where dining is more communal.”

They also love the vast array of new flavors these chefs have introduced. “We use nigella seeds and sumac in our chopped salad and pomegranate molasses in our dressings,” said Jeremy Garb, a Ra’anana native who runs Wolf and Bear’s with his partner Tanna Dolinsky. By doing so, these and other ingredients that never had an audience in the United States before—za’atar, labneh, silan (date syrup), and harissa (Tunisian chili sauce), among others—are slowly entering our country’s culinary lexicon.

Subtler still is Lior Lev Sercarz’s work. The kibbutz-born, French-trained spice monger sells custom spice blends—a number of which, like the “Tangier” (rose petals, cumin, cardamom) and the “Mishmish” (crystallized honey, saffron, lemon) feature Middle Eastern flavors—to many of America’s most influential chefs. Regardless of how Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, or Sercarz’s other clients use them, their essence infuses the food and opens up opportunities for creativity and fusion.

According to Shefi, who until 2012 worked as a cultural ambassador for the Israeli Consulate, in recent years Israel’s government and tourism boards have begun to understand the PR power behind their dense culinary heritage and now actively promote Israel’s food scene abroad. “When I first started my job in 2006 and suggested that we show the world our amazing cuisine, everyone looked at me like I was crazy,” she said.

These days, largely thanks to Shefi’s work, the tourism boards often sponsor guest-cooking spots for Israel’s best chefs at restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. They also work in the opposite direction, inviting writers, bloggers, and other influential taste-makers, including none other than Martha Stewart, to take culinary tours of the country.

I attended one of these trips in the spring of 2010. Sponsored by the American-Israel Friendship League and hosted by the inimitable Joan Nathan, our culinary delegation spent the week dining in Tel Aviv’s and Jerusalem’s most boundary-pushing restaurants, touring the Galilee’s verdant farms, and hearing the country’s food luminaries share their take on new Israeli cuisine.

We ate many wonderful meals during the week, and a few superb ones. But what struck me most, and what has stuck with me since, was the dizzying number of new region-specific flavors we experienced: green almonds with their peach-fuzz skin and lemony flavor, geranium leaf-infused syrup drenching a semolina cake; the nutty, roasted young wheat called freekeh; and bundles of fresh za’atar laid out at the Arab market in Nazareth. I came home inspired, with bags of toasted sesame seeds and spices in my suitcase and, just as the trip’s hosts undoubtedly hoped, with stories to share.

With za’atar appearing in Rachael Ray’s recipes, and shakshuka popping up as a brunch option at restaurants around the country, the only question is, how big can America’s love of new Israeli cuisine grow? A recent article in New York magazine suggested that it is “unlikely that modern Israeli cooking will ever bump New Nordic or Asian Hipster” from their current zeitgeist-y reigns. Shefi disagrees. “Look at Denmark’s government and what they have done for Danish food here,” she said. “I went to a dinner several years ago where Ruth Reichl [then of Gourmet] interviewed René Redzepi of Noma and was blown away.” Shefi believes that all the pieces are in place—the creative chefs, the rich mix of historical and contemporary culinary influences, and the diverse regional bounty—for new Israeli cuisine to have a similarly powerful impact. “If we would invest a little bit more funds and energy, it could be the most exciting thing of our time.”

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Israeli Chefs Bring a New Spin on Middle Eastern Food to America

Shakshuka is on menus all over the country, and za’atar appears in Rachael Ray’s recipes. Can America love Israeli cuisine more?