Primal Inspiration: The Palate’s Colour Palette in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv Spices

Cocktail of colours from Shuk Levinsky in Tel Aviv

Creativity is one of the hardest human abilities to understand and replicate. We have made great strides in comprehending the more basic brain functions, but even specialists admit that the work yet to be done is immense.

Famously, some neurologists attribute Shostakovitch’s creativity to a splinter of metal stuck in his brain. “Since the fragment had been there […] each time he leaned his head to one side he could hear music,” marvels Oliver Sacks, one of the most eminent figures in neurology.

As an author himself – the seminal The man who mistook his wife for a hat is a must-read for anyone curious about the mind’s inner workings – Sacks detailed his creative process as a dichotomy between making and birthing: the first is driven by association and memory when the latter grows from intuition and non-linearity.

Nowhere is this truer than in the culinary world in general, and Tel Aviv in particular. The Fertile Crescent’s signature for millennia has been to blend the influence of multiple civilisations into their own cuisine – Sacks’ “making” – and being at the cutting-edge of innovation – Sacks’ “birthing”.

Bridging the gap between art and food

For 5 years, Israeli food photographer Dan Lev and food stylist Ilit Engel have been the force behind Colorfood, an annual exhibition exploring the relation between fine art and haute-cuisine.

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“Picasso”, the ancient pink-inspired dessert of the Colorfood Festival’s tasting menu

The project started in Jaffa’s Hangar 2, one of the White City’s art nodes, and its success has resonated outside of the country’s borders, with exhibitions taking place as far as France, Spain, Denmark or Vietnam. But it’s in Israel that Lev’s vision truly takes shape.

Constantly on the look-out for new ways to create edible art, Lev’s Colorfood partnered for the first time with gastronomic kosher restaurant Aubergine, at InterContinental David Tel Aviv, to showcase this year’s creations accompanied by a tailored five-course tasting menu.

“Creating each interpretation was a fascinating process “, explains Head Chef Alon Hirtenstein of Aubergine. “It challenges the way we would normally come up with a new dish. As a Chef, it’s a way to tap into my inner inspiration to come up with the answer to the question: what would it feel like to eat red?”

The making of a colour-inspired tasting menu

The nascent discipline of gastrophysics explores the relation between our senses and our taste. Early findings indicate that the colour of a plate or the light in the restaurant can change our perception of how spicy or sweet a dish is.

“Colours are primordial, whether in the dish itself or in and around it,” agrees Chef Hirtenstein. “Having a constraint is a creative driver: it pushes you to think differently. How can I make something that’s entirely black & white, yet surprising and delicious?”

The deceptive simplicity of black and white

The menu starts with a simple introduction in black & white: crisp artisan bread with black olives tappenade and white garlic dill cream.

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Black & white apéritif: a crisp loaf of bread with black olives tappenade & white garlic dill cream

“Black & white required a bit of an inspiration reset,” says Hirtenstein. Expressing the two simplest colours in the palette somehow called for a return to the basics. Which, for the Chef, meant a dish with a focus on humble ingredients: bread, dill and olives.

“Olives have been part of the culture in the Levant for thousands of years,” says Hirtenstein, “and they are an integral part of Mediterranean cuisines.”

The natural resilience of olive trees made it one of the earliest domesticated cultures. Yet, a few new entrepreneurs in the country have been breathing new life into the industry thanks to cutting-edge research. Using brackish, purified wastewater to irrigate olive trees, for instance, helps to bring the necessary nutriments while reducing the environmental footprint. The 300 days of sun every year do the rest.

“Especially when cooking with few ingredients, it’s incredibly important to select the best. In a tappenade, there is nowhere to hide average olives,” explains the Chef of Aubergine. “Carmel Market, next door to the restaurant, is a great place to get great local ingredients and start interesting conversations with producers.”

Simple dishes are often the most difficult to reinvent. To paraphrase Schopenhauer, the main difficulty in cooking, as in philosophy is, “using common words to say uncommon things”.

The fiery passion of red and yellow

When looking for inspiration for red and yellow-inspired dishes, Hirtenstein’s first instinct was to look at another of Tel Aviv’s traditional markets. Levinsky Market, located in the southern district of Florentin, is the epicentre of spices in a city that has long elevated them to the rank of daily necessities.

“You get a whiff of the stalls of Shuk Levinsky long before seeing them,” starts the Chef. He cites the intoxicating aroma of spices as an invitation to travel to the home countries of the Greek, Turkish and Persian migrants who originally settled in the neighbourhood in the early 1920s.

On the other side, “Tel Aviv was first and foremost a fishing village, as a stroll in Old Jaffa will remind you. I wanted to bring this to the table, and show that the sea can have vibrant colours of its own.”

The second course’s crimson hues come from a three-pronged approach at serving tuna: sashimi, seared and tartare, complete with watermelon, peppers and tomatoes accompaniments.

It is followed by a celebration of the sunny side of the artist’s palette, with a yellow-inspired sea bass with coconut curry sauce accompanied by yellow carrot and saffron risotto, pineapple and tapioca tulle.

The impish serenity of green and ancient pink

“Green and ancient pink can appear more timid, compared to red and yellow,” explains Hirtenstein, “and it was interesting to explore what these colours evoked for me.”

If the green colour conjures up ideas of a balanced and healthy diet, it can also refer to the more decadent pistacchio, a favourite treat of the Levant. Nutcrackers for these nuts dating back 780,000 years ago were found recently in Israel’s Hula Valley.

Its potent flavour paired with a rare goose breast in a crust, along with creamed spinach and pea sauce and courgettes roulés, brings a Tel Aviv twist to a more traditional game dish.

“The dessert, inspired by ancient pink, was a bit of a creative interpretation,” admits the Chef with a smile. Presented very much like a painting, the banana panna cotta, meringues, coulis and praline creams make for a joyous and artful mess.

At the dawn of the Middle Ages, Renaissance masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael or Michelangelo Buonarrotti researched biology and mineralogy to further their creativity, for anatomy and finding new pigments were essential to their art.

The same way, modern Chefs push the boundaries of taste by looking into the unexpected for inspiration. “Making and birthing,” said Sacks, are at the heart of it all.

Discover more culinary experiences at InterContinental David Tel Aviv or follow the trail of the Senses of Tel Aviv.

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