Food, the unifier

Food, the unifier
As I raised my Taybeh Golden — ‘taybeh’ is Arabic for delicious — the steward pointed out that it’s not technically Israeli craft beer but one made in Palestine. “L’chaim,” he said, with a smile (pronounced ‘la haim’, Hebrew for ‘cheers to life’).
The political undertone was ironical. I was drinking a Palestinian interpretation of a German-style lager in Jerusalem, a city that has jostled over shared legacies for over two millennia. Israel’s unique geographic location at the crossroads of culture as it straddles Africa, Asia and Europe has a lot to do with its hybrid cuisine.

Celebrity chef Moshe Darran was giving us an intimate experience of what he described as ‘Biblical Israeli cuisine’ at his award-winning restaurant, The Eucalyptus. He clutched a bunch of assorted herbs reverentially and brought it to his nose to take a whiff. He was an Iraqi Jew who grew and harvested his own herbs, and the dishes mirrored his cultural legacy.

Hold my beer...

He challenged us to tell him the origin of the word ‘tamarind’. I cleared my throat and began, “When the humble imli was exported from India, it was usually deseeded and pressed into blocks for ease of transport. When it landed on Arabian shores, it looked just like dates. Local traders called it ‘dates from India’ or ‘tamr-i-hind’, hence the name.” Impressed, he asked me to grab an apron and share the spotlight to help him lay out his pièce de résistance.

In the middle of the restaurant, a large platter covered by an overturned vessel lay in waiting to be uncovered like a hidden treasure. It contained maklubah, a slow-cooked dish like biryani made of chicken, rice, vegetables, saffron, almond yoghurt and tomato relish. “Wave your hand seven times over it, hold the vessel from the edges and lift it.” I willingly played the apprentice to Chef Moshe’s conjuror, and to slow claps of the diners the dish was presented with great flourish.

“The best part is the crunchy layer of rice that gets stuck at the base,” he confided! “Mothers would secretly give the ‘scratching’ to their favourite son. Iraqi Jews even have a special name for it, hkaka. Is there a name for it in India?” I dug deep into my culinary knowhow and said, “In Kashmiri it’s called ‘fuhur’.

In a region where Jesus had performed miracles with bread, the humble bread had been elevated to divinity by its people. Jerusalem’s streets heave with an assortment of baked goodies — challah (braided bread used at Shabath), Jerusalem bagels or Ka’ek Al-Quds (ring-shaped sesame bread) and pita bread topped with zaatar — an oregano-like spice of dried hyssop with thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt.

We stopped at Ikermawi near Damascus Gate, the purveyor of great hummus since 1952, and grabbed assorted falafels. Walking through the Arab quarter, we got a sugar rush at Jaffar Sweets with their excellent baklava, kanafeh (Arab sweet pastry of noodles and goat cheese), mutabak (folded pastry) and borma (pistachio-filled sweet). There was a feeling of déjà vu — the labneh, tahini and hummus were reminiscent of Oman, the shawarma, ubiquitous across India, was typically Middle East, nougat was Turkish, and baklava Greek. But it was heartening to learn that beyond the shared Mediterranean legacy of hummus and falafel, there was a thing called Israeli cuisine! Whether it was the beachside Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv, the cliff-top Dan Panorama Hotel in Haifa, a city hotel like Prima Royale in Jerusalem or lakeside at Rimonim Hotel in Tiberias, the buffet spreads were extensive — various breads, sour creams, cheese, olives, a colourful assortment of vegetables, some pickled like fish.

Much of the local cuisine is the sum total of Jewish migrations from various parts of the world — be it Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe or Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean or Iberian Peninsula – Spain, Portugal, Middle East.

Shakshuka, literally ‘mixture’, the quintessential Israeli staple of eggs poached in a red spicy onion-tomato sauce, is of African origin and was introduced by Libyan and Tunisian Jews when they migrated to Israel in the 1950s. Zahara, fried cauliflower with tahini, curry and tomato salsa, is believed to be of Syrian parentage.

Another classic Levantine or East Mediterranean dish is kibbeh or kubbeh, literally ‘ball’, a deep-fried shell of bulgur (cracked wheat) filled with minced onions and ground lean beef, lamb or goat meat spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and Middle Eastern spices.

In Migdal, the Biblical town of Mary Magdalene, Magdalena Restaurant is hailed as the best Arab restaurant in Israel for good reason. The kubbeh here was a veg variant stuffed with chickpeas, onions and garlic, served with black lentil salad, drizzled black tahini sauce and homemade pickles. The house bread with dips was divine, as was the shishbrak, dumplings stuffed with lamb and pine nuts, cooked in goat yoghurt, besides desserts like halawet elgeben (semolina dough filled with sweet Arabic cheese) and Nuts Kadaif in cream and Amarone cherries. The highlight was frikeh — a crunchy salad of fire-roasted tender-green wheat.

Man has always wandered far for food and water. And the quest for good hummus is no different. We chased the ‘hummus trail’ from Café Ziad in Jerusalem ­— with its no-frills version — to Osul (literally ‘genuine’) at Yesud HaMa’ala, where owner Shahar served it with a mind-boggling array of side dishes and pickled vegetables. At Abu Hassan in Jaffa, it came in a variation called msabaha — mushy chickpeas with hummus and tahini, garnished with paprika, fresh parsley and chopped onion. In some places, it came with ful (fava beans), at others alongside baba ghanoush — a Levantine dish of cooked eggplant mixed with tahini, olive oil and seasonings.

Old food, new space

Humus Magen David, an old synagogue with painted glass interiors, lies half-hidden in the crammed bylanes of Shuk HaCarmel – Tel Aviv’s only Arabian style market. Jews, Arabs, tourists, all queue up to devour the creamy hummus on seats that once chaired congregation members. Bar Ochel has local street food, starters and chimichurri (sauce) serving shakshuka, salads and ‘the best beef kebabs in Tel Aviv.’ Rani of Beer Bazaar is quite a character and gives a lowdown on the Israeli craft beer scene. The Carmel market offers a great food tour, giving a ‘bite card’ with coupons and a map.

Puaa in Jaffa has furniture sourced from the Jaffa Flea Market, and every item at the restaurant is for sale. It dishes out traditional but stylishly plated fare like mansaf — ground beef with rice served with yoghurt and majadra — white and wild rice, green and orange lentils and vegetables, topped with yoghurt. The grilled eggplant with crème fresh, red tahini, goat labneh and fried cauliflower is to die for, as is the kadaif — mascarpone, cream and raspberries. At the legendary Jaffa sweet shop Abouelafia, people queue up for bourekas (stuffed pastries), which they dish out proudly by sporting ‘Abouelafia’s Co-existence Association’ T-shirts: ‘Jews & Arabs Refuse to be Enemies’. Definitely not over a plate of hummus.


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