Israeli cuisine is fruit of 3000 years of history, 100 cultures and a good dose of chutzpah, the audacity of nonconformists. What with its gourmet pita bread, new Arab cuisine and biblical beers, many are willing to bet that Israel will be the new destination of gourmet tourism.
From the Ethiopian desert to the Russian glaciers, all the Jewish cultures and cuisines in the world have come together in Israel: however, rather than being a mere aggregation, this has resulted in the search for a new identity.
Israeli cuisine is certainly made up of couscous, borsch, hummus and herrings but, above all, it is a way of life, a way of sharing food around one table and of conceiving flavours, ingredients and influences.
This wealth of influences and the strive for innovation now makes Israel a unique gourmet destination in which millenary traditions, religious dogma and international trends cohabit harmoniously, without barriers or prejudices – quite happy to break every rule in the book.
To fully understand how far Israeli cuisine has come today, it is necessary to visit Tel Aviv, the city that never sleeps and eats at all hours, all around the clock, in the restaurants of Haifa serving new Arab Cuisine and at the Jerusalem market, which becomes one of the coolest places in town during the night.
GOURMET PITA BREAD
If falafels stand as a metaphor for the entire nation, pita bread reflects the times we live in. Eyal Shani is a celebrity chef, a Masterchef presenter and a restaurateur who has made a name for himself as the ‘vegetable whisperer’.
In Tel Aviv, to flank his gourmet restaurant Ha’Salon, he has also opened the Miznon, a venue serving creative pita bread (so you can choose from Arab bread with ratatouille, fish&chips, chicken livers...).
Besides which, he has already opened two restaurants in Paris and Vienna and his roast cauliflower is known worldwide: it is served up nicely browned, in a piece of greaseproof paper with some forks. No plates, it’s for sharing.
BREAKFAST 24 HOURS A DAY, 364 DAYS A YEAR
Israeli breakfast is the country’s most deeply rooted tradition. It consists of pita bread, tomato and cucumber salad, hummus and tahini, Lebanese cream cheese, yogurt, aubergine baba ganoush, egg and tomato shakshuka.
This complete and filling meal of vegetarian dishes used to be consumed in the kibbutz after labouring in the fields. Today, it has become a great Saturday and Sunday brunch and is served everywhere. In Tel Aviv, you can order it 24h a day, 364 days a year at Benedict.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON… IN THE KITCHEN
This venue is famous for its food and noisy atmosphere. Machne Yuda is the Jerusalem restaurant run by the three chefs Assaf Granit, Yossy Elad and Uri Navon.
They cook creative dishes in front of the guests, accompanied by loud music and an authentic show when it comes to the dessert – which is assembled at the table to the rhythm of singing and dancing.
On Friday evening, the dining room is turned into a proper dance floor and, even then, it will seem quiet compared to the night life of Jerusalem’s huge market.
At the Mahane Yehuda, once the market stalls piled high with fruit and vegetables close down for the night, the rolling shutters of venues and restaurants go up for a 24h turnover of fine dining experiences.
BEERS AND COCKTAILS
Like anywhere else in the world, here too premium quality cocktail bars and micro breweries are making their appearance.
With its colonial speakeasy style, the Imperial in Tel Aviv has entered the charts of the World’s 50 Best Bars and, in 2016, it opened a spin-off of Mexican inspiration called La Otra.
The first Israeli micro brewery, The Dancing Camel, opened in the centre of Tel Aviv in 2005 and today, just over ten years later, the scene is teeming with names like Alexander, LiBira and Haifa which, along with traditional varieties, also produce Israeli beers using local ingredients such as pomegranate, grapefruit, dates…
NEW ARAB CUISINE
Haifa, the country’s third largest city and an international university campus, is also the most sparkling and contemporary cultural hub of northern Israel.
In Haifa, where the focus is on New Arab Cuisine, chefs like Omar Alelam in his restaurant, Ale Gefen, apply modern-day techniques to granny’s traditional recipes and every year in December the a-Sham festival is staged, in which chefs from Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan cook side by side to preserve traditions and to experiment folk recipes in a contemporary key.
ISRAELI HAUTE CUISINE
Catit is one of the few gourmet addresses of international standing in the country. It is the restaurant of Moroccan-born chef Meir Adoni whose cuisine melds East and West, past and present with his own personal touch. Catit has a seating capacity of 22, plus those of BlueSky, Lumina and the Mizlala bistro.
His icon-dishes include a Palestinian tartare with raw meat, tahini, pine nuts and baba ganoush – a dish that has nothing to do with kosher food, and this can now be said of most chefs – and the Croissant with calf’s brain, tomato and smoked peppers.
Other names worth remembering are Haim Cohen, who blazed the trail of gourmet cuisine in Tel Aviv with his Israeli-Ashkenazi venue Yaffo TLV, and Tomer Niv, the chef who trained under Heston Blumenthal of Rama’s Kitchen, at less than twenty km north west of Jerusalem who used to forage for ingredients in the desert and dusted off thousand year-old recipes (unfortunately the restaurant was destroyed by fire in 2016 and is still closed – but he deserves a mention).
“I want to lead Israeli cuisine to compete with the best food in the world” declared film director Roger Sherman, author of the documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine, which was presented in 2016 and has already been shown at over 90 festivals. It is only a question of time before it creates a lot of buzz.