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 2025 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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