How Israel went from a culinary desert to gourmet destination

From desolate desert to hipster haven, the country’s transformed food scene is a culinary triumph.

Written by Sona Bahadur | Updated: January 3, 2016 4:30 pm
Fresh is good. (Photo: Thinkstock) Fresh is good. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Biblical Israel was no place for a foodie. In The Book of New Israeli Food, Jewish culinary writer Janna Gur points out that the “land overflowing with milk and honey” was, in fact, a harsh place to grow food, with poor soil and unpredictable rainfall that often resulted in drought and famine. It remained so for the 2,000 years when ancient Palestine was occupied by Arab peasants and shepherds.

When the modern state of Israel was founded in 1948, the availability of produce was limited and meals were rationed. As recently as two decades ago, no one really thought of food when they came to Israel.

Today, it’s a country of a burgeoning, modern culinary revolution. Chic restaurants with open kitchens, too-cool-for-school vegan cafes, beautiful, boutique olive oil and wine, bustling farmers markets laden with fresh produce. The whole shebang.

So how did Israel go from culinary desert to gourmet destination in such little time? This is what intrigues me the most as I find myself in the country, as part of a delegation of food writers and critics, hoping to get a taste of Israel. Most of our trip is centred in and around Tel Aviv, with a day in Jerusalem, and a drive up to the Dead Sea.

To a first-time visitor like me, the plentitude of Israel seems almost surreal. Think of what they’re working with — a geography not conducive to agriculture; and Kosher dietary laws that call for a total separation of meat and dairy and forbids several foods. Lastly, a deep internal divide between the citizenry where Jews and Arabs can agree to disagree about just everything, and daily existence is a matter of survival.

“Pressure is good. It makes you creative and intuitive,” says Amir Ilan, director of Dan Gourmet culinary school in Tel Aviv, as he talks about Israel’s transformation. In 1948, only 20 per cent of Israel’s land was naturally arable. “Agriculture had to be not just developed but reimagined,” he says.

Shakshouka; the Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. (Photo: Sona Bahadur) Shakshouka; the Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. (Photo: Sona Bahadur)

Giving up was not an option. The famed Israeli technological ingenuity coupled with an almost incurable optimism won the day. Overnight, scientists set in place revolutionary irrigation systems and identified crop varieties suited to grow on the land. Beets, carrots and lettuce, which need a cool climate to grow, were raised in hydrophonic systems. Citrus varieties were cultivated with great success so much so that exports like the Jaffa Sweetie became world leaders.

The growth of agriculture went hand in hand with the creation of kibbutzim — large egalitarian settlements largely based on agriculture. Life in a kibbutz hummed with a communal force. It was common for the residents to work in the fields for several hours before returning to eat a large breakfast in a large dining hall.

While not many kibbutzim remain today, in the 1950s, Israeli luxury hotels adapted their hearty breakfast tradition and converted it into a lavish buffet spread. I get a taste of the famous “Israeli breakfast” at Jerusalem’s Dan Panorama Hotel. Over 50 dishes jostle for space at the table — shakshouka or Middle Eastern spiced eggs, house-made hummus, labneh crowned with herbs, hard and soft cheese, fresh baked focaccia, smoked and spiced fish, various salads, olives, coffee, tea, pitchers of fresh-pressed juice. Meat is absent — a requirement of kosher law — but dairy and vegetables are everywhere.

Thanks to early breakthroughs in agriculture, veggies rule not just breakfast but every meal in Israel. The Israeli salad, a simple assembly of diced tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers with lemon juice and olive oil, is the local favourite. But there’s a gazillion other options: tabouleh made with parsley, bulgur and tomatoes, matbucha made with roasted peppers and tomatoes, and fattoush made with mixed vegetables, greens and broken pieces of toasted pita.

The eclecticism of Israeli cooking derives from the multi-faith fabric of the country. Over successive waves of immigration, Jews returning from over 80 countries brought their native cuisines with them. Sephardic Jews dispersed in the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire brought stuffed vegetables and bourekas. Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe brought bagels and rugelach; and Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa brought spicy dishes like shakshouka. Their cooking styles co-mingled with the Arabic dishes of the Middle East — falafel, Israeli salad, hummus, pita — to create a true melting pot.

I meet culinary writer Gur for breakfast at Manta Ray, Tel Aviv’s trendy seaside restaurant. She believes that an important component of the ongoing food revolution in Israel is reconnecting with Jewish ethnic cooking. “We are an immigrant society like Australia and the US, but Israel has so many ethnic communities in such a tiny area. That is what makes it such a great place for food,” she says. Her most recent book, Jewish Soul Food From Minsk to Marrakesh, documents over 100 Jewish ethnic dishes from the diaspora, many of which are on the verge of being lost forever.

Gur credits Israel’s homegrown chefs, many of whom boast of stints in France and the US, with playing a key role in shaping modern Israeli cuisine. Led by their belief that a country’s true culinary culture is rooted in its terroir, they are applying their newfound skills and ideas by working with native ingredients and techniques.

Chef Moshe Basson, whose knowledge of local edible plants and seeds of the region is legendary, invites us for a meal at his Biblical-themed restaurant, Eucalyptus, in Jerusalem. Basson’s gnocchi incorporates chubeiza, an indigenous wild herb. His famous maglubeh, a native Palestinian casserole made with chicken, rice and sliced potatoes, is cooked in a huge pot that is turned upside-down rather dramatically in the dining room before serving.

At Tel Aviv’s chic, white-themed restaurant Messa, chef Aviv Moshe offers brilliant fusion dishes, many of which feature local ingredients. My starter of soft polenta with portobello relish, croutons and thyme comes drizzled with date honey, or silan. This treacle-coloured syrup made with date molasses has a deep, rich flavour and is unique to Israel.

A day before I leave Israel, I visit the Levinsky market, the epicentre of hipster Tel Aviv. Looking at the open burlap sacks of dried fruit, exotic spice blends and legumes that line this five-block stretch of shops, it becomes abundantly clear that young Israelis want to eat and drink as locavores. I buy boxes of fleshy Medjool dates and green Souri olives to take back home, along with packets of sumac, za’atar and cardamom-flavoured Arabic coffee.

Later, I step into the open-air Carmel Market, where I get a bottle of silan and treat myself to some pistachio halva. I gnash my teeth in frustration at not being able to carry back some white cheese. This soft, quark-like local cheese, which I adore, is highly perishable.

At the end of my 10-day visit, the culinary mosaic of Israel remains an enigma. What is Israeli cuisine? I haven’t quite figured it out. But as I head to Ben Gurion Airport, bags bursting with dates and spices and salt-brined olives, I can vouch that the land of milk and honey is a great place for a foodie.

Sona Bahadur is an independent food writer and photographer based in Mumbai. She is the former editor of BBC Good Food Magazine India.