Ask five chefs what defines Israeli cuisine today and you are likely to get five completely different answers. And there’s a good reason for that.
“Israeli cuisine has still not reached its final definition,” says Israeli-born spice baron Lior Lev Sercarz, whose potent pods and fiery combinations at New York spice market La Boîte á Epice often takes inspiration from his travels to his homeland. “It’s a blend of different things because it’s a very diverse culture.”
As such, he explains to me, Israeli cuisine is influenced by a variety of places — from Eastern Europe to North Africa, in much the same way that American cuisine has been shaped by its immigrants.
The wonderful news is that this makes for a bounty of intense flavors. So says chef Micah Wexler of Mezze in Los Angeles, whose Middle Eastern small plates range from hashweh risotto, made with lamb, burnt onion and lemon, to spring tabbouleh — a mound of chopped parsley, green garlic and fava beans, with slabs of chicken liver paté and of shavings of black truffles mixing up the menu in between.
“It’s only in the last decade that Israel is really discovering its own cuisine by drawing upon these various cultures, the fertile land surrounding it, and the Jewish and biblical influence,” Wexler says.
And why now? One reason Israeli cuisine is taking off is that, at its heart, it’s comfort food. And as well know from the burger and mac and cheese crazes that have swept the country, people really dig a plate of comfort food. “One thing that has long unified, and simultaneously held back, Israeli cuisine is that it’s based on a lot of home cooking,” says Sercarz. “That’s been the challenge — how do you justify it in a restaurant?”
Much the same way Italian peasant food has been elevated to culinary heights over the years, it turns out the translation comes down to one thing: Refinement.
“There’s a sort of movement in Israel happening where people are getting really proud of the Israeli terroir,” agrees Michael Solomonov, whose restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia is often credited with leading the movement of new Israeli cuisine in the U.S. “They’re using ingredients that are found [in Israel], but maybe the chef has spent some time in Paris or Italy. So they’re interpreting those flavors with different culinary techniques.”
Examples of that fusion appear as often abroad — as with Restaurant Katit in Southern Tel Aviv, whose chef is an Alinea alum — as in the States, where New York pastry chef Zohar Zohar opened Zucker Bakery, whose confections are inspired by the homey kitchens of her Israeli family, but crafted using methods honed alongside Daniel Boulud, David Bouley and Johnny Iuzzini.
From Wexler in Los Angeles to Ana Sortun’s Oleana in Cambridge, Mass. and Efraim Naon at Barbounia in New York, restaurants producing exciting Israeli cuisine in America are as varied as they are valid interpretations.
Citron & Rose, Solomonov’s newest effort due to open this summer in Philadelphia, will expand upon his own journey by focusing on the Jewish cuisines of Eastern Europe, using cooking techniques from places like Bucharest and managing to remain completely glatt kosher, all at the same time.
“What’s most exciting to me about Citron & Rose is that it gives us an opportunity to explore things that have been forgotten,” says Solomonov, who rejects describing himself as educator of Israeli traditions.
“Maybe a conduit,” he concedes.
But despite the chef’s personal modesty, his friends are quick to revere his pioneering spirit.
“He understood that there was an interest and a need to show people that Israeli cuisine is more than falafel,” says Sercarz. “And to prove that, he doesn’t even serve falafel on the menu at Zahav — and thank God.”
“People are exposed to a lot more flavors these days,” he adds, citing travel and television as channels for broadening the international palate. “The first time I served tahini to my mentor in France years ago, he politely asked me if it was used to glue down tiles the street,” Sercarz recalls, laughing. “But it’s like eating kimchi for the first time or sour prunes.” Before long, you’ll crave it.
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