Author calls Israeli food exciting hodgepodge

When food writer and cookbook author Joan Nathan lived in Israel during the `70s, "typical" fare, she recalls, consisted of simply prepared fresh fruits and vegetables, falafel and lots of hummus. Locals were more apt to go out for a quick bite of fast food than dine in a restaurant, and they'd save their lingering for the cafe, enjoying a slice of cake, maybe, alone with a cup of thick, strong coffee.

"In fact, the cooking was so bad that Henry Kissinger moaned, `Why can't a country with 2-1/2 million Jewish mothers have better food?'" Nathan wrote in a recent article on Israeli cuisine for Food and Wine magazine.

These days, however, Israel's largest cities offer "new" foods such as pizza and bagels. And expensive, upscale restaurants serve up many delicious twists on some very old themes.

And yes, hummus is still plentiful, the Washington, D.C., resident said in a phone interview. "But now you're getting fava-bean hummus" and other exciting variations of popular favorites.

Nathan, who worked for former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek during her three years in Israel, has returned for many visits in the years since. She has written several cookbooks based on Jewish cuisine and expects Knopf to publish her next one, "The Foods of Modern Israel," sometime next year. To get a good taste of modern Israeli cooking, Nathan traveled to Israel four times last year alone, and expects to return this fall.

Because it is a melting pot for Jews from all over the world, and because of its populous Arab neighborhoods, Israel's cuisine is a hodgepodge, with shades of Mediterranean, Central and Eastern European, Russian, Middle Eastern, even American.

"There's all kinds of Israeli cuisine," says Nathan. "As in the United States, ethnic foods are brought to Israel from all over the world."

That makes for an interesting mix. Today, a typical Israeli main meal, as outlined in the "Israel Defense Force Cookbook," might include a Middle Eastern hummus, a Central European schnitzel made with chicken breast or turkey, a Turkish eggplant salad or a Hungarian goulash-type stew, with fresh fruit for dessert.

And while "there are the fruits of the land that go back to the biblical period," such as dates and olives, there are newcomers as well, such as Carmel tomatoes.

With pioneering efforts in Israeli agriculture, some of this new produce is making its way to the table in restaurants and homes. In a bid to expand and broaden their markets, especially for export, Israeli farmers are planting new varieties of fruits and vegetables. They are having mixed success, in Nathan's opinion.

"I think maybe the quality has gone down," she comments.

In elegant Israeli restaurants — themselves a fairly new phenomenon, with growing national prosperity — innovative chefs are "adapting what's in the land to [what they've discovered during] their travel around the world, and bringing it back to Israel," Nathan says.

"That's the cutting edge."

Another beneficial change in the Israeli food scene is the increasing awareness of and appreciation for ethnic foods, Nathan says. Not only are Israelis "eating more Arab foods," but Arabs are broadening their palates as well. For example, she says, "I was in Nazareth recently and went to a Muslim bakery that's now making kosher baklava."

"There's a lot of cross-ethnicity."

In the world of food and cooking, Israel "is a very exciting place, I think," she says.

"And if there were peace, it would really be quite exciting."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.