Love, Peace and a Full Belly
This Year in Jerusalem
The great thing about being in Israel is EVERYTHING. Faces, places and tastes that you can’t imagine. You have to see it with your own eyes, hear it with your own ears, touch it with your own hands, and taste with your own tongue. You fall in love over and over and over again.
Landing at Ben Gurion Airport is emotional for many. After seven years away from my second home, it was a long-overdue refresh on the culinary scene, and a catch-up with my people, while making new friends along the way. The best way to explain Israel to those who have never been is ‘balagan,’ meaning ‘chaos.’ Living in Israel is a struggle, but Israelis live life to the fullest, every day. It was recharging and invigorating for me to make this culinary, cultural pilgrimage.
The experience is different each time, and during this 5th visit, I delved deeper into being in this special place. Connecting with Sabras (people who are born Israeli), and hearing their stories fascinates me, almost viscerally. In terms of food, as I am sure you know is my modus operandi, Jerusalem is one of the most special places on earth. The intersection of two thousand years of cross-cultural experiments and interactions is what makes this city, and this country’s cuisine unique. People from many, many countries and ethnicities, all fusing together. Yet, defining this food culture is near impossible. Even to its most senior chefs and culinary icons, it is still being defined and explored.
The ingredients are local, and fusion is their technique. Of interest during a conversation with Chef Tali Friedman (who runs a cooking school and tours of the Machane Yehuda Market) was learning about using the intensity of long cooking as a fresh flavour, expressed through a chraime vinaigrette, as an example. Chraime is a Sephardic fish stew, with a smoked paprika and cumin tomato base, infused with lots of other spices – imagine those flavours in a dressing!
This country flexes its strong flavor memory in a diverse restaurant scene with a tremendous focus on fresh ingredients. As a result, the chefs work with phenomenal products. It gets hot here, so less cooking is often more, but there is also a lot of slow cooking and braising, due to limitations of the religious community.
But, understand that this country is also very secular, and often divided, demonstrated while I was in Jerusalem, by an upset election, when the progressive incumbent was unsuccessful in his campaign. There were smiles from the Jerusalemites whom I met that day, but you felt their utter, deflated disappointment.
The focus of this trip was to experience Open Restaurants Jerusalem, celebrating the culinary scene through dining, hands-on experiences, and unique events that combine food and culture. At one event, I caught up with Israeli food scene icon, Assaf Granit, who recently branched out with restaurants in London and Paris, as a part of his Machneyuda Group. Chef Granit shared a lot of great insight, and also, offered validation to the conversations I had during my time in Jerusalem. “In our kitchens, the soup that’s boiling is the melting pot of Israel, and we are cooking the dishes you would eat in a grandmother’s kitchen,” says Assaf. He explained further: “We focus on cooking [in] our habitat, with ancient recipes, to create modern dishes, our takes on classics.”
We talked about a non-traditional kubbeh soup, with mussels. Not a classic preparation of this Iraqi dish, but it makes sense in Jerusalem, when you understand the undercurrent of diverse culinary influence.
My 2008 visit to Assaf’s first restaurant, Machneyuda, resulted in my best meal that year. I still talk about it to this day; when I close my eyes, I can still taste it. In Jerusalem, and throughout Israel, there is more to the food experience than taste; you are impacted by the smells and sounds, too. Hospitality is as focused as if you were in someone’s home, and as Assaf put it, “I want to attack my customer in a good way. I want to know what he wants before he thinks about it. The customer is to fall in love with the hospitality.” The kind of restaurant I want to eat at, at all times.
You want to hear about some of the food before I sign off, right? How silly of me. On this trip I ate Middle Eastern, Georgian, Turkish, Italian, Spanish, Kurdish…Two standout experiences: eating at Jersualem’s Primitivo, and Tel Aviv’s Ha’achim. A visit to Primitivo is best-spent sitting at the bar in front of Chef Diane Eitan, perusing the extensive Israeli wine list (Israel is also the Wild West of wine; some good juice is being made, from the Judean Hills to The Galilee), searching for that hidden gem that you will fall in love with, as well as with Chef and her ingredient-focused, Italian-influenced cuisine.
Ha’achim, on the other hand, is a true expression of Tel Aviv’s food scene – a comfortably loud space, with lots of action, beautiful people, and even more beautiful food, indeed some of the most memorable on the trip. I will long-pine for the coal-cooked kohlrabi with local goat cheese, fresh thyme, chili and poppy seed –phenomenal!
Do yourself, and me, a favour – visit Israel. I promise, you will come back with a full belly and heart.