Alon Shaya is a James Beard Award–winning chef who hails from Tel Aviv. His Israeli upbringing and time spent cooking with his grandmother are some of the influences for his restaurant, Shaya, in New Orleans. Shaya recently took a trip back to his homeland and shared what he saw and ate on Food Republic’s Instagram feed as part of a #FRTakeover.
What were some of your expectations about food going into the trip?
On this trip I tried to focus on a few particular dishes that I had on the menu at Shaya restaurant in hopes that I would find inspiration on how to make them better. Since this is the first time I have been to Israel since Shaya restaurant was open, I was able to focus on certain items that I knew I wanted to be inspired by. Techniques for cooking meats and fish on skewers over hot coals, searching out for the perfect kebab and getting a better idea of the Balkan influence on Israeli cuisine was my mission that I felt was accomplished. Naturally, that meant a lot of meals in the name of research, and there were so many memorable moments.
What were some of your most memorable meals?
I had a mind-blowing Bulgarian-style kebab at a restaurant called Shishko. I knew right away I was going to change my recipe the second I tasted it. It was plump and juicy and had just the right amount of spice. I dipped it in tahini, closed my eyes and I was in heaven. Another meal was a lunch at a restaurant called Azura in the Iraqi section of the Jerusalem market. It was a family-style restaurant that had about a dozen pots on the fire, each with a different broth and ingredients inside. One was a semolina kubbeh stuffed with meat in a turmeric sauce, another was a paprika and cumin broth with moussaka inside, another was a spiced lamb ragu they spooned over char-grilled eggplant with pine nuts that had been roasted in chicken fat. The flavors were so pronounced, and it reminded me of the way my grandmother cooked.
How was food treated within the culture? Did it seem like it had an important presence?
The best meals we ate throughout the trip were the ones that stayed truest to their culture. The family-run establishments that have been cooking the same food for years stood out to be the most memorable. Mizpe Hayamim in the Golan Heights is a resort that grows the majority of its fruits, herbs and vegetables. It has a full-scale bakery, a comprehensive dairy program and aging room, a farm that raises everything from pigeons to lamb and even a building that makes all the soap used on property. Agriculture is an important part of the Israeli culture, and this place takes an artisanal approach to agriculture, which shines through in the food they serve.
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How does the Israeli food compare to that in America?
Comparing it to how we eat in the U.S., there are way more vegetables eaten throughout each meal in Israel, especially during breakfast. Spices are also more pronounced in most of the food cooked there as well, mainly because they are fresher and more aromatic. Even fast food is vegetable-driven. It’s great to see people walking down the street at 1 a.m. eating shawarma and falafel stuffed with fresh pickled cabbage, ripe tomatoes, cucumbers and chopped herbs.
Did you bring anything home from the trip?
I was thrilled to bring back a bottle of black cumin-seed oil. It is very strong and particular in flavor but adds a complexity to vinaigrettes and sauces that nothing else can compare to. I also took home a selection of skin-care products for my wife made with the etrog fruit from vendor Uzi Eli at the Machne Yehuda market in Jerusalem — they make amazing all-natural products and also killer juices. All in all, it was a trip that far exceeded my expectations, and I’m already awaiting the next chance to go back.