The ProsenPeople

Israeli Fare: A Multitudinous Cuisine

Wednesday, November 04, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Falafel Nation author Yael Raviv questioned whether a shared cuisine can really bring about peace. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

When my daughters were young, their nursery school hosted a potluck dinner each year. Parents were encouraged to bring a dish that spoke to their home tradition and culture. Being in New York City meant these potluck dinners typically included a wonderful range of cuisines from a multitude of foreign countries and American regions.

I have to admit, it never even occurred to me to bring hummus or falafel to these gatherings. I would typically prepare cheese bourekas (a savory, filled pastry of Balkan origin). I chose these pastries because when I was growing up in Israel—and to this day—my father would make them often when we had company. They also happen to be popular Israel in general, a common street food, available frozen in supermarkets or prepared at home with a variety of fillings. They seemed to me a perfect representation of our family’s home cooking, while also being conveniently child-friendly.

I always think of these potlucks when I’m asked if there is such a thing as Israeli cuisine. It reminds me that a cuisine is not comprised of national icons; it is rather what people cook and eat. Which is a complicated idea to begin with, since how can you speak about Chinese cuisine, for example, when each region’s food products and dishes are so distinct? What about class differences? Can you speak of a single national cuisine when the aristocracy consumes something completely different from the working classes?

Israel, by contrast, is fairly uniform as far as region and class are concerned. It is, however, comprised of multiple ethnic groups, each one bringing a unique culinary tradition to the table. It is also impacted greatly by the local, Palestinian cuisine.

Over the past few decades, many chefs, food writers, restaurateurs, bloggers and potluck-bound mothers have been trying to articulate and define Israeli cuisine. If we look beyond a list of foodstuffs, we see typical characteristics, like a great deal of fresh produce and dairy, the popularity of fried foods and baked goods, or the lack of leafy greens. But what stands out to me mostly is an openness to outside influences, a flexibility and adaptability. You can say every cuisine changes, embraces new influences and rejects others, but to me Israeli cuisine is defined by it.

In the early years of Zionism there was an active campaign to unify eating habits and create a uniform national diet. Over the years this melting-pot philosophy was replaced with greater openness and acceptance. Granted, for years the dominant Eastern and Central European cultural traditions ruled supreme, but that has changed over time to embrace North African and Middle Easter culinary traditions. More recently, post-Soviet immigration left its own mark on the Israeli culinary scene as well. Looking beyond ethnic influences, Israelis are well-traveled, and bring back knowledge and passion for a variety of global cuisines: Italian espresso, American Hamburgers, and sushi are among the many dishes embraced wholeheartedly in Israel, not to mention hummus and falafel.

These dishes are often transformed in some way, like the ubiquitous Israeli chicken schnitzel, inspired by the Viennese recipe but replacing veal with chicken cutlets, now a typical Israeli everyday meal.

Asian condiments, Italian grains and South American cooking utensils have become Israeli kitchen standards, used in a range of dishes and circumstances, combined with local ingredients and flavors. Trends may come and go, but, in my mind, there is something about this openness of the Israeli kitchen, the combination of worldliness with brash local adaptation that is perhaps the most profound characteristic of Israeli cuisine.

Amiram’s Cheese Bourekas:

1 package good quality puff pastry, thawed overnight in the fridge.
2 ½ packages (around 20 ounces) farmer’s cheese
½ cup grated feta cheese
½ cup grated Monterey Jack or similar cheese.
2 eggs
A dash of salt (remember the cheese is already salty) and pepper.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Roll out a sheet of puff pastry until very thin.

Mix all other ingredients except for 1 egg, and spread evenly on the pastry using a spatula.

Roll the puff pastry jelly-roll fashion until you have formed a log.

You can freeze the log at this point until ready to use.

Slice the log into individual circles, like small cookies, about ¼ inch thick, using a serrated knife. Arrange on a parchment paper covered baking sheet.

Whisk the remaining egg lightly and brush the tops.

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes. Serve warm.

Yael Raviv is the director of the Umami food and art festival in New York City. Her book, Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel, is out from the University of Nebraska Press.

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Can Peace Really Be Achieved Through a Shared Cuisine?

Monday, November 02, 2015 | Permalink

Yael Raviv is the author of Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel. She will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

A word about food and politics in Israel:

When I started writing about food and nation in Israel in the late 1990s, I rather naively thought that I could avoid writing about the political situation. Isn’t food an instrument of commensality, after all? But food is intimately linked to identity (personal, communal, national), impacted by economics, religion and culture; it is impossible to talk about food products and dishes in the context of Israeli nationalism without talking about politics.

Food is often held up as a key to peace and greater understanding: if we could all just share a meal together we can bridge our differences. But, in fact, food seems to be more affective at articulating differences (i.e. we do not eat pork, but they do). The current political situation in the Middle East, with recurring eruptions of violence in the region and particularly the boycott of joint Israeli-Palestinian projects as promoting a “normalization” of the current situation, offers a constant reminder of the complexities inherent in this struggle. It is a rather impossible task to tease out true ownership of foodstuffs and dishes that are a result of commerce, exchange and travel. Deciding who created the first falafel or whose hummus is better is a thankless, unattainable task, but understanding the processes that brought these products to the position they hold today reflects a complex and complicated journey. This is not to say that food cannot serve as an instrument of peace, but rather that it occurs not through finding superficial similarities or staking a claim of ownership but in serving as a tool for posing more complex questions, opening a door to greater mutual understanding and respect.

Certain food products become as familiar, layered with meanings and associations as any flag, and as such, become powerful symbols that can be appropriated by artists and reshaped. Their appearance in a work of art alludes to a wealth of meanings and enables both direct and ironic messages with a simple, recognizable object. Many Israeli and Palestinian artists use food products like oranges, olive trees, hummus and falafel, to comment on the absurd reality through manipulating these everyday products. Ran Morin’s Orange Suspendu (1993), hanging in the center of Jaffa, detached from the earth, or Larissa Sansour’s Olive Tree (2011), a photograph showing an olive tree incongruously growing out of a high-rise building’s concrete floor, are but two examples of artists who use food products and their accumulated layers of meanings to present the absurdity of the present state of affairs in the Middle East. Their work reminds us that food—and art—can be effective tools for posing difficult questions and for highlighting the complexity and, therefore, the real tragedy of the current situation.

Yael Raviv is the director of the Umami food and art festival in New York City. Her book, Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel, is out from the University of Nebraska Press.

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