L’chaim: Cheers to Israeli cuisine

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Over varieties of local bread and the ubiquitous hummus, ANURAG MALLICK finds the pulse of the Israeli platter

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As I raised my Taybeh Golden – ‘Taybeh’ is Arabic for delicious – the steward pointed out that it’s not technically Israeli craft beer but one made in Palestine. “L’chaim,” he said with a smile (pronounced ‘la haim’, Hebrew for ‘cheers/to life’). The political undertone was ironical. I was drinking a Palestinian interpretation of a German style lager in Jerusalem, a city that has jostled over shared legacies for over two millennia. Israel’s unique geographic location at the crossroads of culture as it straddles Africa, Asia and Europe has a lot to do with its hybrid cuisine.

Celebrity chef Moshe Darran was giving us an intimate experience of what he described as ‘Biblical Israeli cuisine’ at his award-winning restaurant The Eucalyptus. He clutched a bunch of assorted herbs reverentially and brought it to his nose to take a deep whiff. He was an Iraqi Jew who grew and harvested his own herbs and the dishes mirrored his rich cultural legacy. The Soup Trio (Jerusalem artichoke, red lentil, Iraqi tomato) was followed by fire-roasted eggplant with tahini (roasted sesame dip) and aged pomegranate syrup, then roasted cauliflower with tahini and lemon-tomato cream. Quick to follow was macaroon filled with chicken liver paté, red wine and wild berry sauce besides figs stuffed with chicken served with sweet and sour tamarind sauce.

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Chef Moshe challenged us to tell him the origin of the word ‘tamarind’. I cleared my throat and began, “When the humble imli was exported from India, it was usually deseeded and pressed into blocks for ease of transport. When it landed on Arabian shores, it looked just like dates. Local traders called it ‘dates from India’ or Tamr-i-Hind, hence the name.” Moshe’s jaw dropped and he stared incredulously as if I had snatched his punch line. Impressed, he asked me to grab an apron and share the spotlight to help him lay out his pièce de résistance.

In the middle of the restaurant a large platter covered by an overturned vessel lay in waiting to be uncovered like a hidden treasure. It contained maklubah, a slow-cooked dish like biryani made of chicken, rice, vegetables, saffron, almond yoghurt and tomato relish. “Wave your hand seven times over it, hold the vessel from the edges and lift it”. I willingly played the apprentice to Chef Moshe’s conjuror and to slow claps of the diners the dish was presented with great flourish.

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“The best part is the crunchy layer of rice that gets stuck at the base,” he confided! “Mothers would secretly give the ‘scratching’ to their favourite son. Iraqi Jews even have a special name for it ‘Hkaka.’ And so do other cultures! The Spanish call it socarrat, Colombians La pega (literally ‘glue’), Puerto Ricans pegao, Filipinos tutong, Koreans nurungji, Chinese guoba, Senegalese xoon and Dominicans con con. Is there a name for it in India?” Not wanting India to lag behind in the unofficial global competition for burnt rice, I dug deep into my culinary knowhow and replied, “Umm, in Kashmiri it’s ‘fuhur’.

Moist-eyed, the chef clasped my hand after he jotted it down, and introduced more local specialties like Ingeria – a beef and eggplant stew in sweet & sour tamarind sauce from his mother’s kitchen, Kube-niya – Syrian style beef tartar with mint, red onion, lemon zest and kube wrapping and Jerusalem Siniya – minced lamb and beef, slow roasted garden vegetables, tahini and pita bread to mop up all the goodness!

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In a region where Jesus had performed miracles with bread, the humble bread had been elevated to divinity by its people. Jerusalem’s streets heave with a wide assortment of baked goodies – challah (braided bread used at Shabath), Jerusalem bagels or Ka’ek Al-Quds (ring-shaped sesame bread) and pita bread topped with zaatar – an oregano-like spice of dried hyssop with thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt.

We stopped at Ikermawi near Damascus Gate, the purveyor of great hummus since 1952 and grabbed assorted falafels with onion, herbs and cheese. Walking through the Arab quarter, we got a sugar rush at Ja’far Sweets with their excellent baklava, knafeh (Arab sweet pastry of noodles and goat cheese), mutabak (folded pastry) and borma (pistachio-filled sweet). Spice stalls sold Bedouin tea, dried rose, apple cider and masalas for shakshuka, zataar, kebab, pesto, fish, meat, chicken and falafel.

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There was a feeling of déjà vu – the labneh, tahini and hummus were reminiscent of Oman, the shawarma, ubiquitous across India was typically Middle East, nougat was Turkish and baklava Greek. But it was heartening to learn that beyond the shared Mediterranean legacy of hummus and falafel, there was a thing called Israeli cuisine!

Whether it was the beachside Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv, the cliff-top Dan Panorama Hotel in Haifa, a city hotel like Prima Royale in Jerusalem or lakeside at Rimonim Hotel in Tiberias, the buffet spreads were extensive – various breads, sour creams, cheese, olives, a colourful assortment of vegetables, some pickled like fish.

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Much of the local cuisine is a sum total of Jewish migrations from various parts of the world – be it Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe or Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean or Iberian Peninsula – Spain, Portugal, Middle East.

Shakshuka, literally ‘mixture’, the quintessential Israeli staple of eggs poached in a red spicy onion-tomato sauce is of African origin and was introduced by Libyan and Tunisian Jews when they migrated to Israel in the 1950s. Zahara, fried cauliflower with tahini, curry and tomato salsa, is believed to be of Syrian parentage.

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Another classic Levantine or East Mediterranean dish is kibbeh or kubbeh, literally ‘ball’, a deep-fried shell of bulgur (cracked wheat) filled with minced onions and ground lean beef, lamb or goat meat spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and Middle Eastern spices. It is the national dish of several countries in the Middle East and the Syrian city of Aleppo is famous for over 17 varieties.

One variant, the oblong Kibbeh Raas or Nablusi kubbeh from the Palestinian city of Nablus, is shaped like a miniature rugby ball. British soldiers stationed in the Middle East during the Second World War nicknamed them ‘Syrian torpedoes!’

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In Migdal, the Biblical town of Mary Magdalene, Magdalena Restaurant is hailed as the best Arab restaurant in Israel for good reason. The kubbeh here was a veg variant stuffed with chickpeas, onions and garlic, served with black lentil salad, drizzled black tahini sauce and homemade pickles.

The house bread with dips was divine, as was the Shishbrak, dumplings stuffed with lamb and pine nuts, cooked in goat yoghurt, besides desserts like Halawet Elgeben, semolina dough filled with sweet Arabic cheese and Nuts Kadaif in cream and Amarone cherries. The highlight was frikeh – a crunchy salad of fire-roasted tender green wheat.

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Enough hummus has been spilt in the raging debate about its Arabic origins and its Jewish love and appropriation. But nowhere is Jewish-Arab coexistence more apparent than Haifa where Douzan restaurant is a living example of the secular ‘Haifa atmosphere.’ Located in a renovated old bungalow in German Colony, an avenue of bars and restaurants, its friendly open-air vibe is infectious. Owner Fadi grabbed a chair as he explained, “The art of fine-tuning the stringed instrument oud is called douzan; this is where people are fine-tuned so that they remain in harmony.”

Douzan’s furniture has been sourced from Lebanon, Syria, Germany and Italy. Every item is special and unique. Food too is a hybrid of Palestinian, Arab and Lebanese dishes with a bit of French and Italian. We had great tabouleh (parsley salad with bulgur, tomatoes and cucumber), fattoush (fresh garden salad with sumac, toasted bread and goat cheese) and malabi (milk pudding).

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Man has always wandered far for food and water. And the quest for good hummus is no different. We chased the ‘hummus trail’ from Café Ziad in Jerusalem with its no-frills version to Osul (literally ‘Genuine’) at Yesud HaMa’ala, where owner Shahar served it with a mind-boggling array of side dishes and pickled vegetables.

At Abu Hassan in Jaffa, it came in a variation called Msabaha – mushy chickpeas with hummus and tahini, garnished with paprika, fresh parsley and chopped onion. In some places it came with ful (fava beans), at others alongside baba ghanoush – a Levantine dish of cooked eggplant mixed with tahini, olive oil and seasonings.

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Humus Magen David, an old synagogue with painted glass interiors, lies half-hidden in the crammed bylanes of Shuk HaCarmel – Tel Aviv’s only Arabian style market. Jews, Arabs, tourists, all queue up to devour the creamy hummus on seats that once chaired congregation members.

Bar Ochel has local street food, starters and chimichurri (sauce) serving shakshuka, salads and ‘the best beef kebabs in Tel Aviv.’ Rani of Beer Bazaar is quite a character and gives a lowdown on the Israeli craft beer scene. The Carmel market offers a great food tour, giving a ‘bite card’ with coupons and a map.

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Puaa in Jaffa has furniture sourced from the Jaffa Flea Market and every item at the restaurant is for sale. It dishes out traditional but stylishly plated fare like mansaf – ground beef with rice served with yoghurt and majadra – white and wild rice, green and orange lentils and vegetables, topped with yoghurt. The grilled eggplant with crème fresh, red tahini, goat labneh and fried cauliflower is to die for, as is the kadaif – mascarpone, cream and raspberries.

At the legendary Jaffa sweet shop Abouelafia, people queue up for bourekas (stuffed pastries), which they dish out proudly sporting ‘Abouelafia’s Co-existence Association’ t-shirts ‘Jews & Arabs refuse to be Enemies’. Definitely not over a plate of hummus…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Israel’s national carrier El-Al flies direct from Mumbai to Tel Aviv thrice a week and takes less than 8 hrs. A new connection from Delhi is in the pipeline. Turkish Airlines has daily flights to Tel Aviv via Istanbul – a journey of 11 hr 45 min while Ethiopian Air flies via Addis Ababa (12 hrs). Haifa is just over 90km north of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem 72 km.

Where to Stay

Carlton Hotel, Tel Aviv
Ph +972 3 5201818
www.carlton.co.il

Dan Panorama Hotel, Haifa
Ph +972 4 8352222
www.danhotels.com

Prima-Royale Hotel, Jerusalem
Ph +972 2 5607111
http://prima-royale-jerusalem.hotel-rn.com

Rimonim Galei Kinneret Hotel, Tiberias
Ph +972 4 6728555
www.rimonimhotels.com

The Scots Hotel, Tiberias
Ph +972 4 6710710
www.scotshotels.co.il

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Where to Eat

The Eucalyptus Restaurant
14 Khativat Yerushalayim, Jerusalem
Ph +972 2 6244331
www.the-eucalyptus.com

Magdalena Restaurant
90, Magala Centre, Migdal Junction
Ph +972 4 6730064
www.magdalena.co.il

Puaa Restaurant
Rabbi Yohanan St 8, Tel Aviv-Yafo
Ph +972 3 6823821

Douzan Restaurant
Sderot Ben Gurion 35, Haifa
Ph +972 539443301

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Cafeteria Ziad
65 Aqabet Al-Khanqa, Jerusalem
Ph +972 6283640

Abu Hasan/Ali Karavan
1 Ha’Dolfin Street, Jaffa
Ph +972 36820387

Osul Restaurant, Yesud HaMa’ala
Ph +972 525588881

Adir Winery & Dairy, Kerem Bin Zimra
Ph +972 4 6991039
www.adir-visit.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 24 September 2017 in Sunday Herald, the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald. 

 

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