When asked what defines Israeli cuisine, Israeli food critic, TV personality, and author Gil Hovav replied: "It's a very, very, very happy mixture of all the different 60 or 65 ethnicities that we have in Israel."
Chicago foodies enjoyed a few of Hovav's favorite Israeli dishes at a private tasting organized by the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest at Chicago's Bloomingdale's store this past fall. Hovav's goal during these tastings was to convey that Israeli cuisine is not the chicken soup born in the Eastern European shtetls, which would actually be quite difficult to find in Israel. Eastern European cuisine, according to Hovav, belongs in Israel's past and is only found at restaurants stuck in the mid-60s.
Instead, he cooks up modest Yemenite dishes he jokingly refers to as "jail food" that his grandmother used to make for him before she passed away when he was 20.
"It's something that you cannot die without eating… so I go and make people see the light," said Hovav, who recently released a new book titled Candies From Heaven (Toad Publishing), a combination of storytelling and recipes.
The foodies noshed on homemade zchug , a Yemenite salsa, and zalabia, a Yemenite fried dough, which is used to dip in zchug. His mother-in-law's egg salad also made an appearance. "I'm very happy that her recipe traveled the seas," Hovav said.
During the last two years, Hovav has noticed Yemenite cuisine popping up in Israeli restaurants. One such dish is kubaneh. Though it's referred to as Yemenite brioche, Hovav claims it's much better than the French pastry. It has a rich flavor and multiple textures, which makes it a great vessel for sauces, he said. The lower portion of the kubaneh is crispy. The inner section melts in your mouth. And, the outer crust is a perfect combination of both textures.
"In one piece of bread you get everything. And then top it with Israeli spicy sauces and you're in heaven," Hovav said.
Vegan and vegetarian restaurants have also become very popular in Israel, chiefly in the hipster city of Tel Aviv, according to Hovav. This comes at little surprise when you learn that Israel has the highest vegan population per capita in the world, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Israel's climate combined with its sophisticated agricultural system creates a constant flow of fresh produce all year round, according to Hovav.
"It's not a compromise to be a vegan in Tel Aviv," he said. "It's very creative and really fun stuff." He added that he recommends visiting the vegan restaurants Zakaim and Bana in Tel Aviv.
Lovers of libations will cheers to the upscale cocktail bars that are, according to Hovav, becoming more and more prominent in Tel Aviv. During its 2014 World's 50 Best Bars ceremony, Drinks International , a beverage industry publication, awarded "Best Bar in Africa and the Middle East" to Tel Aviv's Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar. Another hot spot in Tel Aviv is Bellboy, which crafts creative cocktails that, according to Hovav, look like nothing you've seen before.
Though not a trend, Israeli culinary staples are the working-class Libyan, Bukharian, Iraqi, Persian, Kurdish, and Russian restaurants. According to Hovav, these restaurants are delicious and offer their patrons foods that are not what they're used to seeing in magazines or on TV. But, it's an educational experience that's sure to delight the palate.
One staple that comes to Hovav's mind is the Kurdish pastry restaurant Ishtabach in Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. Ishtabach means "A man who's called a chef," but it's also a homophone for "Blessed be the lord." The restaurant serves shamburak, a pastry traditionally filled with the leftovers from Shabbat. According to Hovav, the owner doesn't open the restaurant unless he dances in the middle of the market to "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees nine times in a row.
Though the restaurant scene in Israel is booming, for Hovav, "The best food is home food, preferably with a red sauce, served by an elderly lady."
We'll gladly take a seat at that table.
Carly Gerber is a freelance writer who writes about Jewish life, fashion, arts, and culture in Chicago.
Gil Hovav's recipe for Zchug, a Yeminite salsa:
2 bunches fresh cilantro
15 hot green peppers
1 bulb garlic
1 Tbsp. ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. ground cardamom
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 Tbsp. salt
1. Peel garlic cloves. Discard stems of green peppers. Put in food processor and make a rough paste.
2. Roughly chop cilantro and add to food processor together with the rest of the ingredients. Process until you get a shiny green paste.
3. Put in jars and store in fridge.