Many Mouthfuls in Israel
From Laura Di Lembo
While preparing for my trip to Israel in April 2018, I happily discovered that there are people from more than 185 different ethnicities currently living there, and that many of these cultural groups are represented in the country’s diverse and vibrant food scene. Given that the region is a cauldron of complex, boiling passions and conflicts, food was the lens through which I wanted to experience and appreciate this fascinating place. Walk. Eat. Repeat. The politics are challenging to unravel, but the food, I could understand!
The foods appear as you wander, in street markets, where people literally elbow their way to the stacks of fresh simit (sesame bread rings), still warm from the oven. We were offered homemade Arabic date cookies at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, crisp and sesame-coated; we sampled Uzbeki pickled whole baby eggplants, the size of my thumb, deep magenta in colour, intriguingly sweet and sour and unforgettable. Halvah candy appears in 40 varieties — including pistachio, coffee, cardamom, rose petal — made from top-grade Ethiopian seeds, melting like butter on the tongue. Falafel is served hot and crisp, along with fiery zhoug, a Yemenite condiment marrying cilantro, hot peppers and cumin. Turkish coffee arrives dark and muddy, aromatic with cardamom, the flavour amplified into an explosion.
Where you find cohesion in this multi-ethnic place is the way people of all backgrounds love to come together over food and drink. Meals are typically multi-hued, generous and tantalizing. I took away not a singular vision of what Israeli cuisine is, but, instead, mouthfuls of diversity and inspiration. Vegetables reign the mightiest here; often, tables are laden with more than a dozen salads. An Israeli feast features nibbles first: olives, little cubes of pickled beets, Moroccan grated carrot salad, hummus — always hummus and pillowy, soft pita bread. Afterwards, platters of whole fire-roasted eggplant, split open and slathered
with organic raw tahini, fresh lemon juice and parsley. There are stewed tomatoes, vibrant and perky and endowed with peppery heat. Then, some grilled meat or fish, not an afterthought, but one of the acts in the play, with substance and style, but not taking centre stage. This is the Mediterranean diet in living colour, the food pyramid, where pulses, grains and vegetables have the highest status.
Can you say shakshuka? Rugelach? Khachapuri? It turns out that what is at once foreign is also familiar. Shakshuka is Libyan in origin and consists of eggs baked in a spicy tomato sauce. Rugelach are crescent-shaped cookies, miniature flaky pastries rolled around nuts and cinnamon. Khachapuri: a savoury Georgian cheese bread that bakes up not unlike a personal pizza. But really, we must talk about falafel, perhaps Israel’s most iconic food. Many Middle Eastern
countries claim falafel as theirs, and Israel is no exception. Putting its provenance aside, it is vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free. I challenge you to find a more widely appealing main course. The best of the best falafel are redolent of green herbs and plenty of garlic. This is how it’s done, more of a description than a recipe, as falafelmaking is very touchy-feely.
Recipe based on a description from a falafel shop in the old Arab quarter of Haifa.
Cover 2 c. of dried chickpeas and 1 t. baking soda in plenty of cold water in a large bowl and let soak overnight. The next day, drain the chickpeas well. They should have doubled in size. Place the drained chickpeas in the bowl of a food processor and add
- 4 large garlic cloves
- 1 c. of flat-leaf parsley leaves1-1/2 c. of cilantro leaves
- 1-1/2 t. of kosher salt
- 2 t. of ground cumin
- 1 t. of baking powder
- 2 t. of ground coriander seed
- 1 jalapeño pepper, stem removed
- 4 green onions
Pulse until all the ingredients in the mixture are finely chopped. You do not want a smooth paste, but a textured, pebbly mass. Empty the contents of the food processor bowl into another large bowl. (If your food processor bowl is not large enough for everything at once, pulse the mixture in batches, transferring the chopped stuff into a large bowl as you go.) Once you have everything blitzed and in the large bowl, add about 3 T. of chickpea flour and mix well with a large wooden spoon or with your hands. Pinch the mixture together with your thumb and forefinger. It should hold together. If it is too loose, add more chickpea flour as needed until you have a cohesive, sticky mass. Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and leave it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes and up to 12 hours.
When ready to cook, with dampened hands, form balls about 1-inch in diameter, the size of whole walnuts, and place them on a baking sheet until you are ready for frying.
Fill a deep medium saucepan with enough canola oil to come up the sides of the pot about 3 inches. Heat the oil to 350 F. Use a thermometer as the oil temperature is the single most vital factor in ensuring a crisp, non-oily result. Fry the falafel in batches of 5 or 6, depending on the size of your pot, for about 7 minutes, until they are well-browned. Use a wooden chopstick to gently push the falafel balls around in the hot oil as they fry, to help them brown evenly on all sides. Make sure to not crowd your pot, as this lowers the temperature of the oil. Remove the cooked falafel balls with a spider tool or slotted spoon and place them on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Continue frying until all the falafel balls are done. Serve immediately. These can be frozen and reheated in a 350 F. oven
if necessary, but are best when fresh. Falafel need this kind of love: serve in a pita pocket bread with diced tomatoes and cucumbers, red onion, sliced dill pickles and zhoug.
Herby, hot and heady, adapted from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi.
- 1 bunch of cilantro, leaves and stems, about 2 c., washed and dried
- ½ bunch flat-leaf Italian parsley, leaves and stems, about 1 c., washed and dried
- 2 jalapeño peppers, stems removed, coarsely
- chopped (use the seeds for heat; remove if you want a milder version)
- ½ t. ground cumin
- ¼ t. cardamom seeds
- ¼ t. granulated sugar
- ¾ t. kosher salt
- 2 large garlic cloves, crushed
- 2 T. extra virgin olive oil
- 2 T. cold water
Place all of the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until you have a coarse paste. Be careful not to overmix, as you want to simulate the texture you would get from a grinding stone. Taste for seasoning and adjust to your taste. Store in the fridge for up to three weeks. Yields about 1 cup.
Next up, for your baking enjoyment: RUGELACH, miniature, flaky crescent cookies, the darling dessert of European Jewish kitchens. I am fond of the cinnamon walnut varietal, old school. Israelis are big on a Nutella rendition, new school. I offer you my family favourite, the former. Start with an easy cream cheese pastry
dough, simple to assemble in a food processor.
CREAM CHEESE PASTRY
From The Pleasures of Your Food Processor by Norene Gilletz
- ½ pound unsalted butter, cut into chunks
- ½ pound full fat cream cheese, cut into chunks
- 2 c. all-purpose flour
- 4 T. granulated sugar
Combine all the ingredients in a large food processor bowl and process until the dough forms a ball on the blades, about 20 – 30 seconds. Carefully remove the dough, divide it into two pieces and form each piece into a ball. It can be used right away or wrapped well in plastic wrap until you are ready. Refrigerate wrapped
dough if you are not using it immediately.
CINNAMON WALNUT RUGELACH COOKIES
From The Pleasures of Your Food Processor by Norene Gilletz
- 1 ball of cream cheese dough (½ of the recipe above; the other half can be frozen and used later for pie)
- 2/3 c. walnut pieces
- 1/3 c. granulated sugar
- 1 t. ground cinnamon
- 1 egg white, lightly beaten
- Preheat your oven to 375 F.
Process walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a food processor until fairly fine, about 12 – 15 seconds. Set aside.
Divide your ball of dough further into 2 balls. Roll out the first portion of dough on a floured surface into a circle about 1/16” thick. Sprinkle dough with about
¼ c. of the cinnamon/nut mixture. With your fingers, gently press the mixture down into the dough to help it adhere. Cut into the dough with a sharp knife
to form 12 equal triangles. Roll each triangle from the outside edge towards the centre. Repeat with all the triangles. Then repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
Dip each cookie first in egg white, then in the remaining cinnamon/nut mixture. Place cookies on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, leaving at least 1 inch between the cookies. Bake cookies for 18 – 20 minutes, until browned. Yields 2 dozen cookies. They freeze well.
Georgian Khachapuri bread
Simit breads from the Carmel market in Tel Aviv
Falafel and hummus from the old city of Jerusalem
Israel is many things, full of contradictions: old and new, ancient and modern, Jewish and Palestinian, religious and secular. There are high mountains to hike in, and the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea, to float in. I went to Israel not to unravel its challenges, not even to understand them, but to taste it and feel it. And that, I did.
Laura Di Lembo loves to travel the world with her mouth open.