Monday, 25 January 2010

Israeli cuisine meets red cabbage

Something is happening and cabbage on a plate just might be it.

Spending 12 months of food studies in Italy was an eye opening experience coming from Israel, a country with a budding gastronomical identity, still in its culinary diapers. Trying to define an Israeli cuisine is not an easy one. There are the European Jewish cuisines; Polish, German, Russian, Hungarian, and Romanian for example. Then there is the Mediterranean variety of Jewish cuisines such as Moroccan, Tunisian, Syrian, Iraqi, Persian, Libyan and Turkish. Ethiopian and Balkan cuisines also spring to mind, and there are MANY others that don’t. As if this was not complicated enough, the equation is still incomplete.

This cornucopia of cuisines joins an existing local food culture. Christian, Muslim, Samaritan, Galilean, Druze, Jewish, Armenian and Bedouin communities have co-existed on this land for centuries, each with its particular food culture based on religion, locality, tradition and seasonality; fascinating considering the small scale of the terroir.

A short recount of the local food map since the early 20th century: in the beginning each ethnic group kept to its own food culture, steering clear from the suspicious unfamiliar, and associating food with identity. The fragrant tomato, addictive cottage cheese and Jaffa oranges became quintessential symbols of Israeli food, as did the falafel and now controversial Hummus. This was not only a far cry from a local cuisine, but, as per the ongoing and current hummus battle, their origins are unclear and have likely been adopted from elsewhere considering the ungraspable variety of possible sources.

During the 80s and 90s Israel was introduced to the pleasures of fine dining by a selection of classically trained and well traveled local chefs keen on creating a classic food experience with a taste of old Europe, mainly that of French cuisine, to this day fondly remembered for the explicit use of butter, and previously unheard of high quality ingredients flown from a far. This was novel and it tasted good, but it was anything but Israeli. Then everything went quiet. A period of hibernation commenced in which those classically trained chefs, each on their own, reconnected with their gastronomical roots and their mothers’ cooking, as well as embracing local ingredients and the readily available resource of local cuisines, traditions and recipes.

Metaphorically speaking, the ingredients were added to the pot decades ago, commencing a culinary meltdown and the emergence of a new Israeli cuisine that is based on the land, seasons, and the culinary treasures accumulated over centuries of endless roaming.

An excellent example is a red cabbage I recently enjoyed as a main course at a highly rated restaurant in Tel Aviv. Looking at the menu, one might have been fooled into thinking this was a canteen at the market, or a snack bar at a gas station. The recently opened ‘Abraxas Tzafon’ prides itself on simple food made from the freshest, (mostly) local ingredients. Literally.

This is fast food with a twist, as it is not fast and it is real food.

The tables here are dressed in brown recycled paper Instead of tablecloths. Advance preparation is kept to a minimum and the food is prepared to order. Only then will the pita bread be baked, the ripe tomatoes sliced, the kebabs chopped and the in house ketchup blended.

An entire cauliflower seasoned only with crushed salt arrived at the table, wrapped in parchment paper like a flower bouquet, all steaming and buttery. A Ruben sandwich tied like a small bundle was filled with a thrice- cooked corned beef, encased in toasted sourdough bread baked from a unique blend of 3 flours.

Only one dish can be crowned as a piece de resistance and much has been written about this one; a round glistening red cabbage shared the plate with no one, as it proudly stood alone in its entirety with no distractions or obstructions. Cooked for 6 hours in a ‘specific stock of root vegetables and 2 bones from a lamb’ the result was a rich, smoky, crumbling cabbage, succulent, rich and unapologetic as if to say ‘It is what it is’. And what a beautiful ‘is’ it was.

Who would have thought that a cabbage could prove a culinary experience so intense? This just might be the symbol of the zeitgeist in the Israeli food map; high quality seasonal ingredients celebrated for what they are with no noise and no frills. Their voice can now be heard in all its honesty.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Sweet n' Spicy Banana

Several weeks ago I decided I needed to get my hands on some vintage cookbooks for a good read of recipes from another era, some psychedelic color schemes, and seizure inducing food styling. Turns out, not quite easy with a limited budget and less then helpful 2nd hand bookshop keepers.

After a long and unsuccessful day scouting dusty and sometimes moldy cardboard boxes I was ready to give up. But, as goes with these things, I need’nt have looked far. An entire shelf of vintage cookbooks at my parents’ house was gathering dust, having gone unused for the past few decades, most of which date back to the 60’s and 70’s. That’s another dimension in cookbook universe time. There were books of all kinds; an ambitious thin paperback that aims to capture ALL of Asian cuisine, from Japanese, to India via Korea, Burma and Hawaii, another lists all possible American pie recipes, a Hungarian cookbook that calls for beef dripping in most of the dessert recipes, candy making, bread making, pasta making… There were the cookbooks that come with space- age appliances, like the electric non stick crepe pan my father bought when I was wee, newspaper clippings and community project cookbooks.

Important historical, cultural and anthropological evidence set aside, this is an excellent resource for ideas. I cannot look to the future since I cannot afford any new cookbooks at the moment, so the past is just as good, and maybe even better...

Where else would i have stumbled upon a Hawaiian baked ham and bananas recipe, coconut and caramel included? I still need to give that one a go, but I also had plans of my own. After giving the recipe a facelift, a nip and a tuck, this is my version of a banana and ham dish. Sweet, savory and tangy you need to watch out, it bites. Oh, and it works...

Sweet n' Spicy Banana

(Serves 2 as a side dish)


2 Bananas

1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced

A handful diced smoked ham (optional!)

1 Tsp peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger

A handful of chopped fresh Coriander leaves (or substitute with chopped scallion)

1 red chili, seeded, cut into short strips and snipped into pieces

½ Tsp Sriracha sauce (optional)

2 Tbs lime juice

½ tsp caster sugar

2 Tbs Soy sauce

Olive oil

Roasted sesame seeds, roasted shelled peanuts, coconut flakes; either one or a mixture of.

in a medium salad bowl combine the red pepper, smoked ham (if using), ginger and chili. Slice and fold in the bananas, along with the coriander and the limejuice. Add the soy sauce, sugar and olive and toss gently. Adjust seasoning and sprinkle with the roasted sesame seeds, peanuts or coconut flakes, if using. Serve immediately.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Market day

I went to the market today. ‘This would be a day dedicated to making a vegetable stock’, I thought. I intend on making a lima bean and spinach soup in two days you see, and this calls for preprandial planning, my middle name.

I stopped by the coffee grinder’s shop. A lady came in looking for light bulbs, “bulbs! I’m looking for light bulbs!” she cried.


I told the coffee bean man that I was looking for coffee beans to make a strong coffee with just the right ratio between acidity and bitterness. “you want the Jamaica blend!” (the expensive blend, of course) he exclaimed. “Ok, can I have a 100 grams then?” I asked. “I only turn the machine on for 250 grams”. Oh. That’s quite a lot of coffee, can I taste it first?”

That tipped him of the edge. “you people! (any sentence that starts this way is a clear indication of bitterness, and not from the coffee) You go to the supermarket, you pick up a bag of anything for lots of money and wont spend 30 Shekels for coffee from me without tasting it”.

Did he just say that? Where did that come from?!?

Let us deconstruct:

“you people” tells me that I am not the first person to want to try the coffee, what with arriving at a specialist coffee shop and all.

You’d think it was run by a coffee fanatic enthusiastic about his high quality ingredients, keen on sharing them with the world. You’d think he’d have coffee brewing on premise. You’d think he’d be shaking from a caffeine OD. Alas, no.

Then there was the supermarket comment. A strange one considering I am not at a supermarket, but at the market. This is no coincidence but a clear statement of intentions; This is where I come to buy 4 avocados and get one for free, and where I can try an orange segment before I buy a kilo. This is not a supermarket.

So I walked off with a smile and we both knew it was all over. He wasn’t getting my money and I wasn’t getting coffee.

The moral of the story? I still need to find where the best place to buy coffee is. Until then I can justify cafes.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

In praise of a Kebab

I saw this and soon enough I headed down to the Butchers’ market in Jerusalem’s old city. It was Boxing Day, but you wouldn’t know it walking in the Muslim quarter. Clearly.

The old city is an intricate collection of holes in the walls. One square kilometer of hidden (culinary) treasures, with food cooked, eaten, and sold on every corner, nook and cranny; colorful, loud and fragrant. This autonomous island is removed from the modern and current. It was here first and will be here last.

Walking in and through the narrow alleys and cobbled passages we found the butchers' market. Innards in all shades of pinks and reds were hanging in shop fronts, alongside internal organs that had been removed as a complete unit connected by the esophagus, that hangs on hooks resembling plump grape vines. There were bladders, intestines, calves and crates of encased organs.

Right at the end of the alley is Shaheen's kebab shop serving the best kebabs. On the right side of the alley is the seating area. On the left is the kitchen, and so it happens that the butchers' alley passes through Shaheen, slices it in half and connects it back together. Passers by, butchers and hanging cadavers are all part of the restaurant.

We were first and we were early so we were served tahini, hummus and salads with tahini and hummus. These acted as the lining for the kebabs, and prepared us for what was to come. At some point the crown jewels were ready and the meat arrived. Lightly charred olive sized kebabs lay on a plate alongside the tomatoes and onions they only just shared a skewer with. Each kebab was a perfect bite; first the erupting juiciness, then there's mint and parsley, onion and pine nuts. The meat is chopped by hand and not too finely, so it retains its structure, flavor and texture. And it was all made right here, in real time, surrounded by butchers and cadavers. Yet another Saturday in the Old City, far away from here. Happy new year.