The World on an Ever-Changing Plate in Tel Aviv

The World on an Ever-Changing Plate in Tel Aviv 1

Image Courtesy of Afik Gabay

“Israeli food is two things: the food that was eaten here before the nation existed, and the food of all the people who have come to Israel since the founding of the state,” says Inbal Baum, founder of the culinary tours company, Delicious Israel. “There’s no [single] cuisine here. It’s this blend of the region and its immigrant people, all taken together, that makes Israeli food.” Thus, Baum’s food tours always include two staples: chocolate babka and creamy hummus. Most people are aware of hummus, the omnipresent chickpea spread. It is so closely associated with this region that some foodies insist it was mentioned in the Bible.

True Israeli hummus is meant to be eaten warm, sans utensils, with hot pita bread and crisp vegetables. While many other dishes in Israel have peripatetic flavors informed by the continuous shift in population, hummus has remained unchanged. It is the simplest and purest of Israeli foods; the premier taste of the Israeli palate. Babka, on the other hand, is a sweet, twisted yeast cake with roots in the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe. The version Baum offers on her tours isn’t a traditional version, but rather a soft brioche iteration made by Dallal, an upscale bakery in the trendy Neve Tzedek neighborhood. Brioche was brought to Neve Tzedek by its French immigrants, who have been flocking to Tel Aviv over the past 10 years with traditional recipes in hand.

Like babka, many other “traditional” Israeli foods are products of cultural mixing. Because of its geographic location, the only constant in Israel is change. Situated at the nexus of Africa, Europe, and Asia, Israel has been the world’s crossroads since the time spice traders peddled cinnamon, cardamom, and the full spectrum of pepper more than 4,000 years ago.

After World War II, the region experienced a second wave of flavor injection when European, Syrian, Iraqi, and Yemenite Jews immigrated to the new Israeli state with recipes from their homelands. Thus, Israeli food casts a wide net that includes hummus as well as Iraqi sabich, Syrian mujaddara, and kugel from the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition.

According to Baum, every culinary adventurer should begin at the Carmel Market, a sprawling open-air cornucopia just minutes from the sea. Chaotic, crowded, and joyful, the market is a veritable maze of cheese stalls, fruit and vegetable vendors, mom-and-pop lunch counters, and mounds of rainbow-hued spices, dried fruits, and nuts. The Market sits on the fringes of Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter, a well-worn neighborhood of stone walkways and whispering jacaranda trees where Jewish refugees from Yemen settled some 50 years ago. Some of their most beloved dishes, including jachnun (flaky, slightly-sweet rolls that cook overnight), zchug (a fiery green chili sauce), and melawach (a fried dough that gives pancakes a run for the money) are now staples of the modern Israeli kitchen, enjoyed as both common street food and upscale restaurant favorites. Israeli food is a melting pot not only of different cultures, it’s represents a blend of the old and the new.

The World on an Ever-Changing Plate in Tel Aviv 2

Image Courtesy of Afik Gabay

Tel Aviv’s restaurants have enjoyed a Cinderella-level makeover over the past 10 years, and Israeli chefs are innovating by finding their own variations on classic Mediterranean themes. The most sought-after dishes are an equal mix of locally-sourced and itinerant dishes. At trendy Mizlala, Chef Meir Adoni has earned his reputation of one of Israel’s most innovative gourmands by elevating humble Jewish-immigrant staples like

Tunisian hraime and Yeminite kubana bread. Meanwhile, Chef Yotam Ottolenghi earned his place in the food scene by marrying the various flavours of Israel’s immigrant heritage and adding a gourmet spark. Dishes like roasted eggplant with turmeric yogurt and Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with hazelnut and spinach pesto are notable creations.

At Aubergine, the elegant flagship restaurant of InterContinental David Tel Aviv, the palate is a celebration of Mediterranean flavors with home-cured Amberjack fish and veal from the nearby Golan Heights.

Baum reiterates the depth and merging that represents Israel’s cuisine. “What we have—and what makes the food so interesting here—is a delicious mashup of the region itself, and all of all the people that were brought together here.”

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