Beyond Hummus & Halva

Navigating the politics and pleasures of Israeli cuisine.

In October 2008, a Lebanese businessman named Fadi Abboud accused the State of Israel of stealing traditional Middle Eastern dishes like hummus and falafel by claiming them as Israeli. Abboud’s intent to stick the Lebanese flag in a plate of baba ghannouj is clearly symptomatic of larger strife in the region. But it also indicates the intensely prideful connections we as individuals and societies so often make between “our” food and our identities. Amidst this cross-cultural food fight, Janna Gur’s cookbook, The Book of New Israeli Food (Schocken, $35), comes as a welcome taste of relief.

Gur, who founded and edits Israel’s leading food and wine magazine, Al Hashulchan Gastronomic Monthly, views the culinary overlap between Israel and its neighbors (not to mention Diaspora Jewish culture) as a source of potential connection, not conflict. Her introduction traces Israel’s gastronomic history back to biblical roots, but suggests that defining the national cuisine for a 60- year old country is “clearly premature.” Instead, Gur is more interested in trying to capture a snapshot of the many tastes and traditions that make up Israel’s thriving and diverse food culture right now.

The Book of New Israeli Food is filled with Eilon Paz’s spectacular color photographs of food and the people who make and consume it — with friends at home, on Shabbat, and in the many cafes that dot Israel’s map like poppy seeds on a bagel. Anecdotes about regional classics like olive oil, cheese, and wine add historical richness and contemporary context to the collection of recipes. For example, Gur explains how Israel’s cheese culture, once confined to three categories — “white, yellow, and salty” — has grown over the last few decades to include world-renowned artisanal varieties made by family-owned, boutique dairies.

Recipes for falafel, which Gur describes with sensitive nuance, as “a common Middle Eastern street food [now] synonymous with Israeli cuisine,” sit next to other popular Middle Eastern foods like couscous and roasted vegetable salad and shakshuka, as well as beloved dishes that made their way to the Holy Land from Eastern Europe: gefilte fish, potato latkes, and classic Jewish chicken soup. The holiday food section includes recipes for fresh Passover chrain (horseradish sauce) and Israeli cheesecake (prepared with gvina levana, a soft white cheese) as well as traditional Ramadan foods like makroud (date and sesame cookies) and mansaf (lamb casserole), which she gracefully and unapologetically includes as an integral part of Israel’s food landscape.

Ultimately, Gur’s cookbook — and whole culinary philosophy — is a celebration of “Israeli food” that transcends the political and culinary tensions that usually dominate the Middle East. Like all cultural definitions, Gur believes that the boundaries of food culture should not always be clearly staked. Instead, they should be fluid — blending together, playing off each other, and continuing to build the “gastronomic haven” that makes Israel and its neighboring lands the most sacred, savored place on Earth.

Figs Stuffed with Bulgur and Cranberry Salad

Serves 10
10 fresh figs
Pomegranate concentrate, for serving

The Salad:
100 g (3 1/2 oz) bulgur wheat
1/2 cup dried cranberries, chopped
1 cup carrots, grated coarsely
2-3 tablespoons fresh coriander (cilantro),
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, roasted
3 tablespoons pecans, chopped
2 tablespoons pomegranate concentrate

1. Soak the bulgur wheat in water for 4-5 hours, until it swells up and softens. Or, add half a cup of water to the wheat and cook in a microwave oven for 3-4 minutes until the bulgur softens and absorbs the water. Allow to cool.

2. Mix the bulgur with the other salad ingredients. The preparation up to this point may be done in advance and the salad kept in the refrigerator.

3. Halve the figs and scoop out some of the flesh, which you can add to the salad. Place two fig halves on each plate, heap on the salad, sprinkle with pomegranate concentrate and serve.

Leah Koenig edits Hazon’s blog, The Jew & The Carrot. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Gastronomica, and elsewhere.