Israeli Chefs Go Back to Their Roots To Find Inspiration in the Kitchen
Old family recipes—from Morocco, Iraq, or Poland—in a new context offer a new range of options for Israeli restaurants
Chef Avi Biton launched a new menu this summer at his Tel Aviv restaurant Adora: dishes from Andalusia. “Andalusia is a part of Spain that boasts food highly influenced by Moroccan cooking”—it was ruled centuries ago by the Moors—“and that is part of my DNA,” said Biton. He traces his family’s origins on his father’s side to Fes, a Moroccan city that saw an influx of Jews from Andalusia after their 15th-century expulsion from Spain. To this day the influence of Andalusian cuisine can be detected in the cooking of the Jews from Fes. “Some of the dishes in the new menu, such as veal meatballs, are dishes I ate at home,” said Biton, whose special offerings also include such regional specialties as calamari migas, salmorejo, and flamenquín.
Biton’s next special menu will reflect “Ottoman cuisine,” a nod to his mother’s side of the family, which is Turkish. “As a cook I’m interested in researching every kind of cooking, and after being immersed in the French and Italian cuisines for many years, I felt a need to go home,” he said. “For me, returning to my own culinary roots is a personal journey.”
Biton is just one of many Israeli chefs going back to their roots. Since Israel has no national history of haute-cuisine, the chefs who are overseeing the country’s top restaurants are inventing and reinventing “New Israeli Cuisine” as they go along—often by looking at the foods from their familial pasts. When this trend first began in the mid-to-late 1990s, it seemed like a bold, unconventional step, but today no respectable chef in Israel can ignore the dishes his grandmother used to make. Recreating those dishes, with a modern twist, is perceived these days as a badge of honor.
“Going back to your roots is one of the main characteristics of the New Israeli Cuisine,” said Janna Gur, editor in chief of Al Hashulchan—meaning “On the Table”—Israel’s top gastronomic magazine. “It’s the most natural thing for Israeli chefs to do, since Israeli cuisine is based on two things: on Palestinian cooking and on ethnic cooking. We are an immigrant society, which means that we have more than 70 variations of Jewish cooking in Israel. Wherever Jews lived around the world, they created their own version of the local food, which differed from what their neighbors ate because of kashrut laws, holidays, etc. All these different cooking traditions arrived in Israel, which is in fact the only place where all of them still exist, since some of the countries Jews came from don’t have a Jewish population anymore. Over the years many ethnic dishes, like shakshouka, bourekas, or jachnun, became staples of Israeli cooking and stopped being regarded as ethnic.”
The first time ethnic food was incorporated in local haute-cuisine was in the 1990s, when celebrity chef Haim Cohen served shakshouka with foie gras at Keren, which opened in the 1980s as a French restaurant, before it gradually morphed into the spearhead of what is known as New Israeli Cuisine and eventually closed in 2002.
Before the ’90s—the decade that marked a change in perception of Israeli society from a melting pot to a more multicultural salad bowl—Israelis pretty much believed that elite food meant French food, and you wouldn’t expect to find anything remotely ethnic in a high-end restaurant. Chefs like Haim Cohen and Ezra Kedem, who connects with his Iraqi roots at Arcadia in Jerusalem since 1995, changed all that. Later on chef Raffi Cohen took this a step forward: While he apprenticed at esteemed establishments such as Alain Passard’s L’Arpège in Paris, London’s The Oak Room, and New York’s Nobu, he still chose to base the menu at his Tel Aviv restaurant Raphael on recipes he learned from his Moroccan grandmother Aziza, whom he turned into a household name among foodies.
Raffi Cohen’s biography on Raphael’s website states that he “acquired his passion for food in the kitchen of his Grandmother Aziza—his maternal grandmother, and a divine cook. The couscous, stuffed sardines, and other items on the menu are rooted in the legendary heritage of the Moroccan kitchen, which Cohen absorbed in childhood.” And while Raphael’s menu contains many dishes that have nothing to do with the chef’s upbringing, knowing where his heart lies, one is tempted to opt for the lamb shoulder couscous with whole chickpeas, market vegetables, and spices from the Maghreb, or Moroccan cigars with milk-fed-veal offal and tahini.
Another celebrity chef who never strays far from his ethnic roots is Meir Adoni. His cooking treads a fine line between the European and the Middle Eastern, but his North African roots are always somewhere to be found. In the new summer menu of his gourmet restaurant Catit, which moved in 2006 from the village of Kfar Ruth to Tel Aviv, you can find North African influences next to Provençal, Thai, and Italian ones. Adoni’s less-expensive restaurant Mizlala, which opened in 2011, offers the exquisite boulangerie croissant, with calf-brain, tomato tabgha (of Libyan origin), smoked peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and Adoni’s grandmother’s harissa.
Most Israeli chefs who are returning to their culinary roots have those roots in the Middle East and North Africa. “Someone once told me: If you want to succeed in Israeli cooking you better have a Moroccan grandmother, and if you don’t—you better invent one,” Gur said, remembering an inside-joke known in local culinary circles. “Middle Eastern and North African food is much more popular in Israel, and there are many reasons for that. First of all, food has a very important role in the life of those ethnic groups. In Middle Eastern cultures food is much more alive, interesting, and hedonistic, there is much more culinary action. Another reason for its popularity in Israel is, of course, geography. These cuisines are much closer to Israel geographically so they feel more natural to Israelis. The ingredients and spices belong here more than Eastern European ingredients and obviously Middle Eastern food suits the climate and temperament of Israel more than Ashkenazi food.”
Omer Miller, a chef of Polish descent, is well aware of this: “There is no doubt that many more restaurants in Israel serve Middle Eastern and North African dishes than Ashkenazi ones,” he said. “This might stem from cultural reasons, and obviously it suits the local style, weather, and materials. But taste is personal, and I believe you can learn from both Middle Eastern and Ashkenazi cooking, and you can enjoy both hummus and chopped liver.” Indeed, at Miller’s The Dining Hall—an Israeli multicultural restaurant at the Performing Arts Center in Tel Aviv—one can taste his interpretation of Sephardi, Arab, and Jerusalem-style dishes, as well as of his own Ashkenazi specialties. The same goes for his other establishment Shulchan, which opened on Rothschild Boulevard last year.
Chopped liver with fried onions and pickle—one of Miller’s popular starters—is a perfect marker of his origins: “This is a dish that reminds me of home,” he said. “Many times I don’t make the exact dishes I know from home, I just get my inspiration from them. For example, I like using ptitim or making meatballs. Israeli society is made up of many different cultures, so it’s difficult to define what exactly Israeli cuisine is, but my personal Eastern European roots are part of me and my cooking style. I don’t use my roots in order to consciously define what Israeli cuisine is, it’s just part of who I am. I feel very connected to the simplicity of Eastern European cooking, that manifests itself in unpretentious dishes like potatoes or chicken soup.”
While Israel’s Mizrahi chefs would probably never consider making something like gefilte fish, Ashkenazi chefs tend to be influenced by Eastern flavors as well as by their own. Miller, for instance, is a good example of an Ashkenazi chef who seems like he’s inviting an imaginary Moroccan grandmother to cook with his own Polish one: “I like to make my own interpretation of the dishes I know from home, using different materials and spices than the ones we used at home,” he said. “For example, I recently made a dish I called Kibbutz-Galuyot cholent, which is based on the cholent I know from home but has characteristics from other versions of the Jewish Shabbat stew. It has the sweetness of the Polish cholent, it is hot like the Moroccan s’hina, it has rice like the Iraqi tebit, and it has Tunisian-inspired seasoning.”
Another example of this ethnic blending is German-born chef Daniel Zach, who opened a new restaurant called Trumpeldor 10 in Ramat Hasharon last year, after closing his Carmella Bistro in Tel Aviv. On Trumpeldor 10’s menu you can find manifestations of Zach’s ethnic background, like pickled herring, pretzels, and Wiener schnitzel, as well as Middle Eastern dishes like labneh and chraime.
Although many Israeli chefs are incorporating their ethnicity into their cooking, Miller doesn’t regard this as a mere trend: “I see it as a natural step in building a personal local cuisine,” he said. “The moment a chef is ripe and mature enough to make his own creations, the tastes he absorbed as a child naturally come into play.”
And no matter where each chef’s roots lie, the ethnic influence is here to stay on Israeli menus, said Gur. “Returning to one’s roots is part of a general process in which Israeli chefs stopped looking only to France and Italy for inspiration, and started looking at what we have here,” she said. “And what we have here is local ingredients, Palestinian cooking, and ethnic cooking, be it from your own personal grandmother or somebody else’s grandmother. Nowadays calling back to your culinary roots is both obvious and widespread. This is an ongoing process, and it just keeps escalating.”
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We tend to overlook the gentiles who keep synagogues running. As we begin the Torah anew, let’s acknowledge our debt to them.