Culinary traditions

History

 

 

Israel’s culinary traditions comprise foods and cooking methods that span three thousand years of history. Over that time, these traditions have been shaped by influences from Asia, Africa and Europe, and religious and ethnic influences. 

The food of the ancient Israelites was based on several products that still play important roles in modern Israeli cuisine. These were known as the seven species: olives, figs, dates, pomegranates, wheat, barley and grapes. The diet, based on locally grown produce, was enhanced by imported spices, readily available due to the country’s position at the crossroads of east-west trade routes.

The Jewish community that lived in Ottoman Syria prior to immigration that began in 1881 was known as the Old Yishuv. The cooking style of the community was Sephardi cuisine, which developed among the Jews of Spain before their expulsion in 1492, and in the areas to which they migrated thereafter, particularly the Balkans and Ottoman Empire. Sephardim also established communities in the Old Yishuv. Particularly in Jerusalem, they continued to develop their culinary style, influenced by Ottoman cuisine, creating a style that became known as Jerusalem Sephardi cuisine. This cuisine included pies like sambousak, pastels and burekas, vegetable gratins and stuffed vegetables, and rice and bulgur pilafs, which are now considered to be Jerusalem classics.

Groups of Hasidic Jews from Eastern Europe began establishing communities in the late 18th century, and brought with them their traditional Ashkenazi cuisine, developing, however, distinct local variations, notably a peppery, caramelized noodle pudding known as kugel yerushalmi.

 

Beginning with the First Aliyah in 1881, Jews began immigrating to the area from Eastern Europe in larger numbers, particularly from Poland and Russia, they use local produce, especially vegetables such as zucchini, peppers, eggplant, artichoke and chickpeas. The first Hebrew cookbook, written by Erna Meyer, and published in the early 1930s by the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO), exhorted cooks to use Mediterranean herbs and Middle Eastern spices and local vegetables in their cooking. The bread, olives, cheese and raw vegetables they adopted became the basis for the kibbutz breakfast, which in more abundant forms is served in Israeli hotels, and in various forms in most Israeli homes today.

Tel Aviv residents in the period from 1948 to 1958 was a time of food rationing and austerity, known as tzena. In this decade, over one million Jewish immigrants, mainly from Arab countries, but also including European Holocaust survivors, inundated the new state. They arrived when only basic foods were available and ethnic dishes had to be modified with a range of mock or simulated foods, such as chopped “liver” from eggplant, and turkey as a substitute for veal schnitzel for Ashkenazim, kubbeh made from frozen fish instead of ground meat for Iraqi Jews, and turkey in place of the lamb kebabs of the Mizrahi Jews. These adaptations remain as a legacy of that time.

Khubeza, a local variety of the mallow plant, is high in iron and vitamins. In the past decade, food writers in Israel have encouraged the population to prepare khubeza. Local chefs have begun to serve khubeza and other wild plants gathered from the fields in upscale restaurants. The dish called Ktzitzot Khubeza is still eaten by Israelis today.

Immigrants arriving from central Europe brought foods such as schnitzel and strudels, while Russian Jews brought borsht and herring dishes, such as schmaltz herring and vorschmack.

Ashkenazi dishes include chicken soup, schnitzel, lox, chopped liver, gefilte fish, knishes, kishka and kugel. The first Israeli patisseries were opened by Ashkenazi Jews, who popularized cakes and pastries from central and Eastern Europe, such as yeast cakes (babka), nut spirals (schnecken), chocolate rolls and layered pastries.

There was a large migration of Jews from Turkey, Iraq, Kurdistan and Yemen, and Mizrahi Jews from North Africa, particularly Morocco. Mizrahi cuisine, the cuisine of Jews from North Africa, features grilled meats, sweet and savory puff pastries, rice dishes, stuffed vegetables, pita breads and salads, and shares many similarities with Arab cuisine. Other North African dishes popular in Israel include couscous, shakshouka, matbucha, carrot salad and chraime. Sephardic dishes, with Balkan and Turkish influences incorporated in Israeli cuisine include burekas, yogurt and taramosalata. Yemenite Jewish foods include jachnun, malawach, skhug and kubane. Iraqi dishes popular in Israel include amba, various types of kubba, stuffed vegetables (mhasha), kebab, sambusac, sabich and pickled.

The 1980s were a formative decade:  privately owned dairies began to produce handmade cheeses from goat, sheep and cow’s milk, which quickly became very popular both among chefs and the general public. New attention was paid to the making of handmade breads and the production of high quality olive oil. Ethnic heritage cooking, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi, has made a comeback. Apart from home cooking, many ethnic foods are now available in street markets, supermarkets and restaurants, or are served at weddings and bar mitzvahs, and people increasingly eat foods from ethnic backgrounds other than their own. Overlap and combinations of foods from different ethnic groups is becoming standard as a multi-ethnic food culture develops.

In the 2000s, the trend of “eating healthy” with an emphasis on organic and whole grain foods has become prominent, and medical research has led many Israelis to re-embrace the Mediterranean diet, with its touted health benefits.

Tabbouleh is a Levantine vegan dish traditionally made of tomatoes, finely chopped parsley, mint, bulgur and onion, and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. Some Israeli variations of the salad use pomegranate seeds instead of tomatoes.
Kubba is a dish made of rice/semolina/burghul, onions and ground lean beef, lamb or chicken. The best-known variety is a torpedo-shaped fried croquette stuffed with minced beef, chicken or lamb. It was brought to Israel by Jews of Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian origin.
Sigarim are soft minced meat with onions and spices or mashed patato filling wrapped in phyllo-dough, and deep fried in oil or oven baked. They are commonly served at weddings and other celebrations..
Hamusim are pickled vege-tables made by soaking in water and salt  in a pot and withdrawing them from air. They can include: cucumber, cabbage, eggplant, carrot, turnip, radish, onion, caper, lemon, olives, cauliflower, tomatoes, chili pepper, bell pepper, garlic and beans.
Tahina is often used as a dressing for falafel, serves as a cooking sauce for meat and fish, and forms the basis of sweets such as halva.
Salat avocado is an Israeli-style avocado salad, with lemon juice and chopped scallions, was introduced by farmers who planted avo-cado trees on the coastal plain. Avocados are a winter delicacy into salads as well as being spread on bread.
Memula’im, stuffed vegeta-bles are prepared with many varying flavors, such as spicy or sweet, with bell peppers, chili peppers, figs, onion, artichoke bottoms, Swiss chard, beet, dried fruits, tomato, vine leaves, potatoes, mallow, eggplants and zucchini squash.
Shakshuka, a North-African (Tunisian) dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, is a national favorite. It is traditionally served up in a cast iron pan with bread to mop up the sauce. Variations are cooked with eggplant, chili peppers, hot paprika, spinach, cheese.
 Mujadara is a popular rice and lentil dish, adopted from Arab cuisine, consists of cooked lentils together with groats, generally rice, and garnished with sautéed onions.
Sabich salad is a variation of the well known Israeli dish Sabich, the ingredients of the salad are eggplant, boiled eggs/hard boiled eggs, tahini, Israeli salad, potato, parsley and amba.
Sambusak is a semi-circular pocket of dough filled with mashed chickpeas, fried onions and spices. There is another variety filled with meat, fried onions, parsley, spices and pine nuts, which is mixed with chickpeas and breakfast version with feta or tzfat cheese and za'atar. 

Roasted vegetables includes bell peppers, chili peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplants and also sometimes potatoes and zucchini. Usually served with grilled meat.
Baba ghanoush, called salat ḥatzilim in Israel, is made with tahina and garlic, lemon juice, onions, herbs and spices. The eggplant is grilled over an open flame so that the pulp has a smoky taste. A Israeli variation of the salad is made with mayon-naise.
Hummus is a cornerstone of Israeli cuisine, in pita is a common lunch for childrens, and is a popular addition to many meals. Some Israelis will go out of their way for fresh hummus prepared at a hummusia, an establishment devoted exclusively to selling hummus.
Turkish salad (a piquant salad of finely chopped onions, tomatoes, herbs and spices), tabbouleh, carrot salad, marinated roasted red and green peppers, deep fried cauliflower florets, matbucha, torshi (pickled vegetables) and various eggplant salads.
Turks introduced stuffed vine leaves in the 16th century and vine leaves are commonly stuffed with a combination of meat and rice, although other fillings, such as lentils, have evolved among the various communities.
Falafel are fried balls or patties of spiced, mashed chickpeas or fava beans. Falafel is most often served in a pita, with pickles, tahina, hummus, cut vegetable salad and often, harif, a hot sauce, the type used depending on the origin of the falafel maker.
Orez Shu'it is an Israeli dish consisting of white beans cooked in a tomato paste and served on white rice. The dish was developed by Sephardic Jews in the old city of Jerusalem. Modern variations include adding meat (beef, lamb, chicken) and fried onions.

Jewish cuisine is a diverse collection of cooking traditions of the Jewish people worldwide. It has evolved over many centuries, shaped by Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), Jewish Festival and Shabbat (Sabbath) traditions. Jewish cuisine is influenced by the economics, agriculture and culinary traditions of the many countries where Jewish communities have settled and varies widely throughout the whole world.

The distinctive styles in Jewish cuisine are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Persian, Yemenite, from Jewish communities from Ethiopia, Indian and Latin-American. Israeli Jewish cuisine is both authentically Jewish and distinctively local "Israeli", yet thoroughly hybridised from its multicultural diasporas Jewish origins.

The laws of keeping kosher (kashrut) have influenced Jewish cooking by prescribing what foods are permitted and how food must be prepared. The word kosher is usually translated as "proper." Certain foods, notably pork and shellfish, are forbidden; meat and dairy may not be combined and meat must be ritually slaughtered and salted to remove all traces of blood.

Observant Jews will eat only meat or poultry that is certified kosher. The meat must have been slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in accordance with Jewish law and is entirely drained of blood. Before it is cooked, it is soaked in water for half an hour, then placed on a perforated board, sprinkled with coarse salt (which draws out the blood) and left to sit for one hour. At the end of this time, the salt is washed off and the meat is ready for cooking. Today, kosher meats purchased from a butcher or supermarket are usually already koshered as described above and no additional soaking or salting is required.

According to kashrut, meat and poultry may not be combined with dairy products, nor may they touch plates or utensils that have been touched by dairy products. Therefore, Jews who strictly observe kashrut divide their kitchens into different sections for meat and for dairy, with separate ovens, plates and utensils (or as much as is reasonable, given financial and space constraints; there are procedures to kasher utensils that have touched dairy to allow their use for meat).

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