FOOD IN EXILE – THE JOURNEY OF ISRAELI CUISINE
Updated: Apr 6
by Joshua Trott
Israel is located at the crossroads of the east and the west. For several years, it has had numerous people groups occupying the nation as its homeland and getting scattered during the diasporic period. Thus, Israel has this cultural plurality which results in an olio of delicacies the country has to offer. Basically, there’s a lot of food to eat!
Let us take a little history lesson for some context. A Diaspora is an exiled and scattered group of people who share a common geographical origin. To put it in simpler terms, they’re refugees. Israelites have been refugees several times in history, two notable instances being in the 8th Century BCE and 6th Century BCE. When the Israelites came back from these exiles, they brought back new elements of culture and cuisine with them, which mixed with the traditional elements.
Israeli cuisine is a fusion between diaspora Jewish cuisine, particularly Mizrahi, Sephardic and Ashkenazi styles of cooking and traditional Israeli ingredients like the seven species, seven food items traditionally considered sacred according to the Hebrew Bible, olives, figs, dates, pomegranates, wheat, barley and grapes.
Mizrahi means Eastern or Oriental in Hebrew. Thus, Mizrahi Jews migrated from eastern nations and brought their foods with them. Their food has a primary focus on usage of fresh ingredients. Meats are considered celebratory dishes for Sabbath, Passover and other occasions. The main element of Mizrahi cuisine is Vegetables, baked, stuffed or simply cooked. Other ingredients used are chickpeas, beans, lentils and burghul (cracked wheat). Flatbreads are the staple bread used in Mizrahi Cuisine.
For seasoning, cumin, sesame seeds and pepper are primarily used. Saffron also finds its way in many dishes. Many pastes and sauces are also used for seasoning, like Skhug (a hot pepper sauce), Hawaij, Hilbe (a spice made from fenugreek seeds and hot peppers), Adeni Hawaij, Adeni Tea Black Tea Spice, Kama and Zahtar.
For dessert, Mizrahi cuisine offers hot Sahlab, which is a fluid cornstarch pudding served as a drink. It is garnished with cinnamon, nuts, coconut and raisin. Rosewater is commonly used in sweets and desserts. Anak is the preferred alcoholic beverage. Kadaif is a sweet pastry consisting of shredded dough, covering crushed nuts, which is baked and then soaked in syrup. This is a festive dessert.
Mizrahi dishes mainly rely on slow cooking techniques. Overnight baking on low temperature is very common.
Sephardic Jews hail from a variety of places like Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Greece and other Arab countries. In the early days, Sephardic cuisine was influenced by the local cuisines of Spain and Portugal, both under Catholic and Islamic regimes. A particular affinity to exotic foods from outside of Spain became apparent under Muslim rule, as evidenced even today with ingredients brought in by the Muslims.
Sephardi cuisine, much like Mizrahi Cuisine, has an emphasis on baked vegetables. But it also offers salads, vine leaves, olive oil, dried fruits, lentils, chickpeas, herbs and nuts. Meats are, again, celebratory but ground beef and lamb are common. Pine nuts are used for garnishing. Many dried fruits like apricot, raisins and prunes are used in meat and rice dishes. Fresh lemon juice is used as a soup or sauce.
Cilantro, parsley, turmeric and cumin are common ingredients used for seasoning. Cardamom is used to flavor coffee. Chopped mint is often added to cooked dishes while fresh mint leaves are served with tea. Cinnamon is used to flavor meat. Saffron may also be used in Sephardic cooking.
Sahlab and Malabi, both being different types of cornstarch puddings, are the most common desserts in Sephardic cuisine. Tiny cups of Turkish Coffee are also served along with pastries. Arak is the most popular alcoholic beverage.
Pickled vegetables like cucumbers, carrots, cauliflower are usually served along with meals. So are olives. Amba is a pickled mango sauce served often.
Ashkenazi Cuisine developed increasingly after the Germans grew averse to the Jews in the 13th Century. The Ashkenazi Jews shifted towards Eastern European nations like Poland and Russia. They brought Russian foods like Horseradish, Rye Bread, and various pickles.
Due to harsh weather conditions in eastern Europe, Ashkenazi cuisine shifted more towards grains, root vegetables and stews. Ashkenazi cuisine uses a lot of fruits because at the time, they were readily available.
Ashkenazi cooking has an emphasis on sweet and sour flavor, which sets it apart from Sephardic and Mizrahi cooking. Sweet flavors are added to soups even. Dishes like Sweet gefilte fish with beet-sweetened horseradish are Ashkenazi dishes.
Ashkenazi cuisine also includes dishes like sweet and sour fish, chopped goose liver, pickled meat and kugel (a sweet noodle pudding). Braided challah bread is served as well. Cholent, a slow-cooked meal made from meats, grains, and beans, is served along with cold leftovers from the night before.
Over the years, Ashkenazi cuisine has become more refined and is no longer a peasant cuisine. It has some of the best doughy products and pastries to offer.
Israeli food has a complex denomination and offers a variety of options from the simple yet elegant Mizrahi dishes to the fancier Sephardic dishes and also the extravagant sweet Ashkenazi dishes. Israeli cuisine sincerely represents Pan-Middle Eastern cuisine due to its diversity and adoption of cuisine. It is definitely an experience worth grasping!