Earlier this week, Falafel Nation author Yael Raviv questioned whether a shared cuisine can really bring about peace. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
When my daughters were young, their nursery school hosted a potluck dinner each year. Parents were encouraged to bring a dish that spoke to their home tradition and culture. Being in New York City meant these potluck dinners typically included a wonderful range of cuisines from a multitude of foreign countries and American regions.
I have to admit, it never even occurred to me to bring hummus or falafel to these gatherings. I would typically prepare cheese bourekas (a savory, filled pastry of Balkan origin). I chose these pastries because when I was growing up in Israel — and to this day — my father would make them often when we had company. They also happen to be popular Israel in general, a common street food, available frozen in supermarkets or prepared at home with a variety of fillings. They seemed to me a perfect representation of our family’s home cooking, while also being conveniently child-friendly.
I always think of these potlucks when I’m asked if there is such a thing as Israeli cuisine. It reminds me that a cuisine is not comprised of national icons; it is rather what people cook and eat. Which is a complicated idea to begin with, since how can you speak about Chinese cuisine, for example, when each region’s food products and dishes are so distinct? What about class differences? Can you speak of a single national cuisine when the aristocracy consumes something completely different from the working classes?
Israel, by contrast, is fairly uniform as far as region and class are concerned. It is, however, comprised of multiple ethnic groups, each one bringing a unique culinary tradition to the table. It is also impacted greatly by the local, Palestinian cuisine.
Over the past few decades, many chefs, food writers, restaurateurs, bloggers and potluck-bound mothers have been trying to articulate and define Israeli cuisine. If we look beyond a list of foodstuffs, we see typical characteristics, like a great deal of fresh produce and dairy, the popularity of fried foods and baked goods, or the lack of leafy greens. But what stands out to me mostly is an openness to outside influences, a flexibility and adaptability. You can say every cuisine changes, embraces new influences and rejects others, but to me Israeli cuisine is defined by it.
In the early years of Zionism there was an active campaign to unify eating habits and create a uniform national diet. Over the years this melting-pot philosophy was replaced with greater openness and acceptance. Granted, for years the dominant Eastern and Central European cultural traditions ruled supreme, but that has changed over time to embrace North African and Middle Easter culinary traditions. More recently, post-Soviet immigration left its own mark on the Israeli culinary scene as well. Looking beyond ethnic influences, Israelis are well-traveled, and bring back knowledge and passion for a variety of global cuisines: Italian espresso, American Hamburgers, and sushi are among the many dishes embraced wholeheartedly in Israel, not to mention hummus and falafel.
These dishes are often transformed in some way, like the ubiquitous Israeli chicken schnitzel, inspired by the Viennese recipe but replacing veal with chicken cutlets, now a typical Israeli everyday meal.
Asian condiments, Italian grains and South American cooking utensils have become Israeli kitchen standards, used in a range of dishes and circumstances, combined with local ingredients and flavors. Trends may come and go, but, in my mind, there is something about this openness of the Israeli kitchen, the combination of worldliness with brash local adaptation that is perhaps the most profound characteristic of Israeli cuisine.
Amiram’s Cheese Bourekas:
1 package good quality puff pastry, thawed overnight in the fridge.
2 ½ packages (around 20 ounces) farmer’s cheese
½ cup grated feta cheese
½ cup grated Monterey Jack or similar cheese.
A dash of salt (remember the cheese is already salty) and pepper.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Roll out a sheet of puff pastry until very thin.
Mix all other ingredients except for 1 egg, and spread evenly on the pastry using a spatula.
Roll the puff pastry jelly-roll fashion until you have formed a log.
You can freeze the log at this point until ready to use.
Slice the log into individual circles, like small cookies, about ¼ inch thick, using a serrated knife. Arrange on a parchment paper covered baking sheet.
Whisk the remaining egg lightly and brush the tops.
Bake for 20 – 25 minutes. Serve warm.
Yael Raviv is the director of the Umami food and art festival in New York City. Her book, Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel, is out from the University of Nebraska Press.
- Elana Benjamin: Four Generations of Lunch, from India to Australia
- Lisa Silver: A Guide for the Perplexed Knish-ophile
- Essays on Israel
Yael Raviv is the director of the Umami food and art festival in New York City. She has a PhD in performance studies from New York University and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU. Her work has appeared in Women and Performance, Gastronomica, and elsewhere.