Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

Lebanese Food Restaurant, Abu Gosh, Israel

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

I guess it’s easy to write about conflict in the middle east. After all, there’s so much of it. Without getting too political, it’s my belief that if we could send all the extremists on ANY side to Elba, then the folks remaining would live together in relative peace. And the amazing thing is, though you may not hear about it on the news, there are plenty of examples of normal folks living together in peace and just wanting to experience life uninterrupted. The Arab village of Abu Gosh outside Jerusalem is a place where commerce and hospitality trump politics. On weekends, Jews from the city and nearby settlement crowd the Arab restaurants in Abu Gosh, and with good reason — the food rocks.

One of the restaurants is the straightforwardly named Lebanese Food Restaurant. The food is fresh, strongly flavored, and served family style at a large scale. The restaurant is a machine in terms of serving large quantities of great food to many many hungry diners. It’s hard sometime to even conceive of ordering a ton of food or big dishes when the standard starters fill you up so well.

Soon after we arrived we were joined by a basket piled high with hot fresh pitas, bunches of Middle Eastern style pickles, a bowl of crispy falafel balls with little sparks of flavor, thick and hearty chummus, and the tomato based slightly spicy matbucha salad. Positively enjoyable. You really don’t need much more than this (other than possibly the pitcher of lemonade we got) to stuff yourself silly. But we weren’t done.

I like eating at Arab restaurants because a) they offer delicious food, and b) the food is a great point of comparison for the Israeli food that has been so influenced by the culinary culture of its neighbors. Falafel is a great case in point as the Lebanese falafel, while extra tasty, it was different than the standard Jewish falafel. Likely it was made with a mix of chickpeas and fava beans instead of chickpeas alone.

Even more interesting was the Chicken in Tahina. Normally tahina, a sesame seed-based sauce, is a condiment. (And a damn fine one.) Even though there is an almost undertone of the paste, when done right it’s creamy with a unique tangy spike of flavor. But this dish was made up of wonderfully grilled chicken swimming in tahina. I couldn’t even fathom it, but once I took my first bite it all made sense. A little tahina is good. A lot? Great! The kebabs that came were also juicy and savory. I admit to dipping them in the tahina as well. The flavor of the grill inundated the meat and it was better for it.

Dessert was no slouch either. Chocolate Mousse came accompanied by Sachlab, a regional specialty is a thickened milk custard-like dessert. We didn’t really know what it was but next to the item on the English version of the menu it said “orchards”. Eventually we realized that we were victims of poor translation services… what they meant was orchids. Sachlab is thickened and flavored with the crushed bulb of an orchid — orchis mascula to be specific. Very subtle and sweet. The super fresh slabs of watermelon weren’t bad either. Especially complementary after all that meat and spice.

If you’re in Jerusalem on a Saturday you’ll find that the city is closed down for the sabbath. If you don’t mind hopping in your car I highly recommend a trip to Abu Gosh and one of it’s many good restaurants. Go to the Lebanese Food Restaurant and you won’t be disappointed.

Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem, Israel

Monday, February 4th, 2008

I don’t know how it is in other countries that have a more religious population, but even in Israel, with a highly secular population, Friday night is something special. It’s the beginning of the Sabbath, but even among the folks who don’t celebrate the Sabbath per se, Friday night is more than just the beginning of the weekend.

And as such, the hours leading up to Friday evening, are a flurry of preparations. Chief among them is heading to the market for groceries for the weekend, and ingredients for the Friday night meal. The most famous market in the country is the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s large religious population adds an extra bit of heightened focus and pressure to the preparations as when sundown hits all preparations must cease according to Jewish law.

The vegetables, fruit, fish, and meat are certainly big attractions. But so are the spices, nuts, flowers, glistening pastries, steaming fresh breads, amazing freshly made salads, tiny restaurants/street stalls, and household goods shops. All in all, there’s basically everything you need (all carried in ubiquitous plastic bags) for a warm and wonderful home cooked weekend. All those people preparing for a weekend with their families, and the iconic status of the market itself also makes it a target for suicide bombers. And Friday day is prime time for that type of activity. We went anyway. The border police at the entrances to the markets help make you feel safer, but mostly it’s a sense that you can’t stop living your life.

Falafel Shuki, Jerusalem, Israel

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

One thing I’ve learned is never to underestimate the human capacity for focus and specialization. And from my perspective, it’s generally a great thing.

When it comes to food, there are two ways this can go. The first is where a restaurateur or a producer focuses like a laser on producing one thing… perfectly. They just get great at it. And once-in-awhile their neighbors, (hopefully in an ever-widening circle) recognize that effort and patronize the producer.

But sometimes, the producer doesn’t always choose what they’re good at. Sometimes, they do their thing and it turns out that one thing they do stands out among the rest. They might know why or they might not. But it doesn’t matter. The customers learn what to order by word of mouth. And the restaurateur learns over time (from their customers) what they’re doing well. In the case of Jerusalem’s Falafel Shuki, that one thing is Falafel balls.

While in some of the neighboring Arab countries (Egypt especially) the falafel is made with fava beans, the Israeli Jews stick with chickpeas exclusively. If you’ve eaten falafel in the United States it’s probably been some chunky, over-cooked, under-flavored affair. Adopted by the vegetarians of the country, falafel has gotten lost amid alfalfa and Tofurkey (just like chummus has been marginalized and misinterpreted in this country). (Veggies send your hate mail… 3-2-1… now!) In the middle east its hot, greasy, street food. And the folks at Falafel Shuki make it well.

A super crisp and gently textured thinner than average shell, and an almost creamy and soft inside makes each ball a little treasure. They’re perfectly deep fried. And in this case burying these beauties is not an insult but a compliment. They’re buried in pita getting chummy with chummus, tahina, pickles, and various salads (the onions with sumach being among my favorite).

Falafel Shuki is located downtown on one of the main thoroughfares (Jaffa street). It’s patronized by many Americans and tourists but don’t hold that against it. My sister, who’s currently a soldier in the Israeli army, told me this was the place to go for great falafel, and she was absolutely right. And their shwarma was quite good as well. So… even if falafel isn’t your thing, you’ll be all set.

Armenian Tavern, Jerusalem, Israel

Monday, January 28th, 2008

There’s not much like the old city in Jerusalem. The fact that there’s been a city (almost) continuously operating on (basically) the same spot for millenia combined with the importance to three of the world’s religions is especially compelling when combined with the day-to-dayness of the city. There are portions that are religious in significance, places that are super touristy, and most impactful, quiet spots where people go about their every day lives.

It’s on the edge of one of these touristy spots (the entrance to Jaffa gate) in the oft-overlooked Armenian quarter (the Arab, Jewish, and Christian quarters typically dominate) that you find the Armenian Tavern. It’s basically geared towards tourists but it’s buried, literally. You head down the steps in the ornately decorated restaurant and have some absolutely delicious Lahmejoun. Lahmejoun is basically a thin half pita spread with minced lamb and veggies and seasoned generously. They’re not very large, but they’re super delicious. I could eat a thousand of them.

The chummus, tahina, salad, and kebabs were quite delicious as well.

When I lived in Boston I used to be able to head to the small Armenian district on Mass. Ave. in Somerville and pick up a whole box full of Lahmejoun. It would always be a race to see whether the Lahmejoun would be gone before I made it home. I’ll admit that the Armenian Tavern is special to me because my parents used to take me there when I was a kid. It always seemed so cool heading underground to eat. But as far as I can tell, fond memories or not, the Lahmejoun are still savory, light, and quite tasty.

Chummus (and Hummus)

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

chummus

If you have any experience with eating a favorite dish in another country and seeing it butchered, you will understand the following. While I could certainly use broader global culinary perspective and expertise, even with my admittedly narrow scope, I can think of no better example of the disparity between a local favorite and its horrid representative in North America than chummus (often spelled hummus). (I use the “ch” to signify the phlegmy sound the actual word begins with.)

Chummus is basically mashed cooked garbanzo beans (chickpeas), lemon juice, garlic, and tachina (a paste of roasted sesame seeds, also spelled tahini). There are variations, including the most common where thick, rich (and most importantly — flavorful) olive oil from the middle east is drizzled across the chummus before it’s served and scooped up in warm torn off pieces of pita. Chummus is a magical concoction. Smooth but with some modest texture that gives it a hold, but not a roughness. It’s thick but not heavy. It’s savory, a touch nutty, and best served warm. In short, it’s complex and delicious.

The chummus sold here in the U.S. is, well, honestly I’m not sure exactly what it is. It’s some sort of flavorless gruel with chunks. Yuck. In the middle east the chummus is so good there are restaurants whose sole purpose is to serve chummus. Everything else is secondary. Here, I can’t believe any of it sells. The closest thing you can find nationally is from a company called Sabra. It’s not horrible. It’s like a weak impression of what’s available in Israel. There’s a local company here in Seattle called Dreamland (QFC in University Village carries it). This stuff is probably the best retail chummus I’ve tasted in North America and it’s not as good as the worst I’ve had abroad.

The funny thing is that the worst chummus in Israel, what’s available in the supermarket, mass produced by Israeli food conglomerates is better than the best stuff here. I can’t imagine it costs much more (or any more) to do it right. So why not do it right here. The answer of course here is to make it myself (or go to The Hummus Place in New York city). Unfortunately neither is a viable option given the time commitment involved.

Just like there was a wine revolution here in the U.S. I want a chummus revolution. Where the local producers rise up and say, we can make quality too! Americans will be the better for it.

Cheese and Dairy, Jerusalem, Israel

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

Labne

In a country (and a region) so culinarily rich, and so agriculturally focused, it’s pretty amazing how lame Israel seems when it comes to cheese and dairy. The classic iconic representation of this problem is that when you ask for cheese in Israel you only have two options: “white or yellow”. White cheese is liquidy but thick like a cross between sour cream and cream cheese. Yellow is kind of like thin slices of provolone but with less flavor. Not exactly a cheese lover’s paradise.

It’s true that in recent years Israel is starting to develop a properly diverse cheese culture (no pun intended). But as that develops it’s more interesting than one would realize at first glance what has been in place for decades. Beneath the “white or yellow” lies a narrow but deep set of diverse cheese offerings (the bulk of them being in liquid or at least spreadable form).

Here are some of the mainstays of Israeli dairy consumption that you may not be familiar with:

  • Leben. This is kind of a drinkable yogurt. It’s tart, and thick. Not a super smooth consistency, but the texture adds to the deliciousness.
  • White cheese. As mentioned above, it’s like you mixed yogurt and cream cheese together. Relatively smooth consistency with only a slight “grain”. It comes with different fat content comes in 3%, 5% and 9%. I like to mix together white cheese and leben and then combine with some israeli salad, a chopped up hard boiled egg, salt, and pepper. Sounds gross (kind of looks gross) but trust me. It’s scrumptious.
  • Labne. This is basically a cream cheese made of yogurt. Similar to white cheese, but comes from the Arab cooking traditions (to the best of my understanding). The best labne I ever had was on my recent trip to Israel. Labne can be anywhere from creamy to hard enough to form into balls (covered with zatar of course). The labne I had was made from goat milk and had an incredible acidic component. But the best part was that the consistency was somewhere between the silkiest butter you’ve ever had and whipped cream. (I hate to mention the dreaded Cool Whip, but the consistency of this labne was like what you imagine Cool Whip’s consistency to be like by looking at the package before you taste it and realize it’s an unholy creation spawned by the devil). The combination of the silky texture and the incredible sharp taste blew me away. There was nothing I didn’t want to spread it on. (That’s labne pictured above drowned in super flavorful olive oil and zatar. Yum yum.
  • Butter. I think by default the butter in Israel has higher fat content than its North American cousin. And that’s a good thing.

There aren’t huge choices in Israel quite yet when it comes to cheese, but this tiny slice of the liquidy/yogurty/spready cheese spectrum is rich enough to distract you for some time until you realize almost nobody there has ever heard of Epoisse.

Bread, Jerusalem, Israel

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

As we give context on eating in the “Holy Land” the bread deserves its own post. This one to be specific. Here in the U.S. some of us are lucky to have a handy source for fresh bread on a daily basis. (Perhaps they’re even baking it — nah, nobody has that kind of free time.) But more likely folks here buy it in plastic bags where it sits for a few days to a couple of weeks until the uniform slices run out and someone needs to get more bread at the super market. Maybe some folks go buy baguettes and actually get them fresh every 2-3 days. But in general the bread we most often consume is a sad affair.

My first memory of Israeli bread (and more accurately, Israeli bread culture) was in fifth grade when I lived there for the better part of a schoolyear. Every morning my parents gave me some change to head down to the local corner store and buy fresh rolls for breakfast. The choices were either plain rolls or braided ones. And some variations had sesame seeds sprinkled on top. There was also pita. It was all freshly baked early that morning (I was already buying it by 7am) and delivered to the average corner store in a garbage bag. The bag was unceremoniously ripped open by the shopkeeper and sat on the floor of the store for customers to scrounge through to purchase their rolls.

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that the bread cost less than my parents thought and I spent the bulk of the change on candy which I would hide for consumption later in the day (clearly preparing me for the life of crime I lead now). The fact that the bread was so cheap, fresh daily, available at EVERY corner store in EVERY neighborhood, and came in small portions (i.e. rolls) created the perfect environment in which a culture could truly appreciate fresh bread and demand that it be a part of their existence. We are nowhere close to this happening in the United States. Our bread is optimized for the minimum number of visits to the supermarket per month. It comes in large loaves, pre-sliced, and preserved. And the truth is, who would want more than a slice. The Israeli rolls don’t just eschew slicing cause they’re small, it’s also because they’re so delicious that it’s hard to just eat one much less eat a portion of one.

During our recent month in Israel I suddenly reacquired an old habit. Each morning I would try to purchase just the bread we needed for the upcoming day. But, sometimes I would misjudge and buy a little too much. I really do hate wasting food. I think it’s insulting and ungrateful. That said, the next morning, even if there were enough leftover rolls to cover breakfast, and relieve me of going to the market for fresh, I invariably threw them out. Life is short, and as bad as the waste was, I felt that not eating fresh bread which cost pennies and was sitting 60 seconds from our apartment was the far greater crime. It wasn’t all decadence. The pitas usually lasted at least 2 days. At least I think they did as we usually gobbled them up before the 48 hours was up. Kind of like a middle eastern Tootsie Pop challenge. No one will ever know.

Perhaps the single greatest expression of Israeli bread perfection is the generally Arab produced “baygeleh”. This elongated ovular ring of bread coated to the extreme [the previous three words said in Monster Truck Announcer Voice(tm) ] in sesame seeds and served with an optional side of zatar is an actual piece of heaven. Sold to the Israeli public typically outside of Arab villages on the highway, and most iconically off of carts by the Jaffa gate in Jerusalem’s old city. These creations are filled with a slightly chewy, not-too-airy, not-too-dense, filling and surrounded by a satisfyingly chewy with sparse regions of crunchy shell coated by an impossibly luxurious number of sesame seeds. The flavor is incredibly clean, and the sesame chewiness, slight oiliness, and flavor are super concentrated.

I have to admit to sometimes being relieved that we don’t have Israeli bread here in the U.S. or I think I’d weigh a lot more. That said, if you’re going to have a culinary tradition with a huge emphasis on fresh vegetables, having hugely available, properly portioned, delicious, freshly-baked bread is a foundational component. Israel has it, and a lot of what makes Israeli food great wouldn’t exist without this incredible bread.

Israeli Salads and the Vegetables That Populate Them

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

Israeli salad
From a geography perspective Israel can seem like a pretty terrible place. Hot desert, rainy rocky mountains, not a great place for agriculture. However, for years, the Israeli’s have “made the desert bloom”. This is not to say that there wasn’t agriculture before the state existed. But there’s no denying the Israeli’s brought a level of quality and productivity to the region that hadn’t been seen before. This is especially impressive given the general lack of water in the region. Much of the progress has been through technological advances.

Productivity alone would have been enough, but that’s not the best part. The vegetables in Israel are not just plentiful, they are among the best I’ve ever tasted. No Wholefoods in the U.S. carries vegetables that are as good on average as those found in the crappiest supermarket in Israel. The only time I’ve ever tasted vegetables in the U.S. as good was for a brief few weeks at a farmer’s market near Santa Cruz California. I’m sure that there are other examples like this but they are the exceptions here. In Israel they are the rule. The single best example of this is the Israeli tomato. It’s unlike just about any tomato you’ve ever eaten. You take one bite and suddenly remember that tomatoes are technically fruits. So aromatic, so juicy, so crisp, no mealiness, and tart almost savory flavor that is so strong it needs no accompaniment.

Israeli Salad

The single best application of Israeli vegetables in my opinion is the Israeli salad. In its simplest form it’s finely chopped cucumbers (no waxy seed filled yuckiness in Israel), and tomatoes topped with local olive oil (full of flavor), fresh lemon juice, salt, and possibly pepper. In more advanced versions peppers, cabbage, scallions, and herbs are added. Sometimes even garlic slivers. I make it often here in the U.S. using cherry tomatoes (they’re the most flavorful I can find), english cucumbers (they’re the most crispy and least waxy and seed-filled), and Lebanese olive oil I buy from the market. In Israel however, the tomatoes are so incredibly flavorful I often skipped the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper altogether. The salad was already dressed from the tomato water. It’s often a competition to see who gets to drink the thin gazpacho-like “soup” that collects at the bottom of the salad bowl. It’s delicious.

Vegetables aren’t alone as fruit also shines in Israel. Of particular note is the citrus. All manner of Dr. Moreau like hybrid experiments find their way to the market in Israel. According to this article Jews come by their citrus cultivation honestly. It’s there I first tried Pomelos with their enormous thick skin protecting hundreds of little pearls of juicy grapefruitish goodness. The Israeli variety felt different to me than I’d seen elsewhere.

Strangely though blindspots do exist. Amidst all this citrus excellence there’s an odd lack of limes. They’ll sell you a green lemon and call it a lime but don’t be fooled. In years past Israeli’s were also particularly bad at producing a decent head of lettuce. Personally I avoid the average iceberg lettuce as it’s not much more than structured water from my perspective. That said, in years past, the Israeli’s appear to have mastered lettuce as well. Though I’m so busy eating tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, I never do get around to trying out the lettuce.

A Month In Israel

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

Damascus Gate

Now that the site is looking way better, it’s time to get back to writing about food (in theory the point of this blog — apparently mucking about with WordPress isn’t the main reason we’re here). I’m super lucky that we got to go to Israel for a month this summer and really live there. We were based out of Jerusalem and spent our time doing more living than touristing really. And of course, a major component of living is eating. Before you evaluate the food in the region it’s important to understand some context for how this young country’s history has shaped its culinary value system.

The modern state of Israel has only been around since 1948. The majority of its population is Jewish with significant percentages having come from Eastern Europe or North African and the Arab countries. There’s also a large Arab minority that’s both Muslim and Christian. The Eastern European Jews brought their culture and values, but if you look at Israeli culture today, especially when it comes to basic cultural elements like music and food, it feels like the region and Israel’s neighbors have influenced Israel’s population quite a bit. In fact, despite all the problems in the region, most people from outside the area can’t tell Jews and Arabs apart. And frankly, the food they like to eat doesn’t help much either in terms of distinguishing them from each other. Luckily, the food in the region is delicious. (Mental note: explore the possibility of middle east peace through some finding common culinary ground.)

In addition to the cultural mix, there are other key elements that dictate the menu. The regional ingredients are key of course. Olives and more importantly olive oil permeate almost every dish. The produce in the area is absolutely incredible and is foundational for food in Israel. The arab cheeses are key, as are the constant Israeli micro-experimenting with dairy products. Together they make an interesting dairy landscape. And finally, the geography itself makes itself felt.

Israel is hot. This past August hotter than hot (thank you global warming?). For centuries agriculture has been central to a large portion of the region’s society. And frankly, working the land in the region can be difficult. The middle of the day can be oppressively hot. Much like other areas of the planet with similar climates, lunch tends to be a big meal followed by a nap. Better to eat and sleep through the hottest part of the day than be out in a field braving the sun. And clearly a nap is required after a big meal. Of course this means that breakfast and dinner need to be lighter meals. Often breakfast and dinner can be indistinguishable from each other. However, the light meal is multi-faceted so it’s never boring. More on that in a later post.

Unfortunately much of Israeli society is moving closer to American eating habits. Proliferation of McDonalds’ and American breakfast cereals are the leading indicators for me of the local culinary habits getting diluted, but there’s still plenty pockets of goodness to find. We’ll spend my next several posts exploring some of the food in the area as well some of the great places we got to eat while we were there. Thanks for staying tuned.