Whether or not a “true Israeli cuisine” exists is open for debate, however there is no doubt Israel enjoys an eclectic cuisine rooted in the uniqueness of Israeli society itself. Coming from over 80 countries, Jews have returned to their ancient land, bringing with them the foods and recipes they developed during their wanderings over many centuries. These traditions have combined with the native ingredients of the land of Israel, as well as custom Middle Eastern cuisine to create a new “fusion cuisine.” Let’s take at some of the main influences:
While distinctive styles or cuisines in their own right may be often discerned in Israeli cuisine, in general the influences on Jewish food can be divided into two different cuisines: Ashkenazic and Sephardic. Ashkenazic (European) refers to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Due to the harsh winters, as well as the poverty of the shtetl, Polish and Russian Jews ate a lot of simple grains, fruits, root vegetables, and stews. Perhaps the most famous “Jewish” food of all, bagels, originated in Poland, as did the famous Shabbas dish, gefilte fish and the beet-sweetened horseradish, chrain, to name a few. A number of soups are also characteristically Ashkenazi, including the famous chicken soup, traditionally served on Shabbat, holidays, and special occasions with noodles, rice, or “soup almonds”. Other popular ingredients are kreplach (dumplings) and kneidlach (matzo balls) – a mixture of matzo meal, eggs, water, melted fat, pepper and salt.
Sephardic (Eastern), on the other hand, refers to the Jewish people from originating from the Middle Eastern countries. This food tends to be spicier and are characterized by the use of aromatic herbs and spices. Sephardi cuisine emphasizes salads, stuffed vegetables, olive oil, lentils, fresh and dried fruits, herbs and nuts, and chickpeas, with meat dishes often using lamb or ground beef. The impact of these different cultures has fluctuated over time, however now it would be fair to say that the culinary culture in Israel is a mix of the two.
Many popular foods that are typically considered “Israeli” actually originated from somewhere else in the Middle East, including the popular falafel (deep-fried chickpea balls in pita) which is rooted in Egypt, couscous, which originated in Northern Africa, hummus, a spread made from cooked, mashed chickpeas, which is used throughout the Arab world, and the Mediterranean “Israeli salad”, a dish of finely chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, which is common to much of the Mediterranean and Arab world. Shawarma, ( meaning “rotating” in Turkish) is also very popular Israeli fast food, usually made with turkey or lamb fat. The shawarma meat is roasted on a huge rotating skewer, then shaved off and stuffed into a pita with additional trimming.
Can’t make it to Israel anytime soon to indulge? Don’t worry, today there is likely plenty of classic Israeli food in your local supermarket, and on-line as well!