28 April 2009

Food & Culture: Israeli gastronomy

Family historians and genealogists are always interested in the clues presented in a family's favorite or traditional foods. Are the family favorites sweet, sour, salty or savory? How are vegetables prepared? Are stews sweet-and-sour? Is rice eaten at Passover?

Yesterday, I was on line at the meat department of my local supermarket (getting supplies for our barbecue), and waiting for my favorite butcher, Yakov, who is Kavkaz (Caucuses) and speaks a Farsi dialect (with a Russian overlay). We communicate in Farsi and occasionally, other customers will ask what we are speaking. I always saw "Parsit," and Yakov says "Kavkaz," which confuses people no end. One language, two completely different names?

There is actually a third dialect - Bukharan - to confuse the issue even more. While we basically all understand each other, some vocabulary is different which makes for occasional amusing situations.

The woman next to me in line, of definite Ashkenazi background, then began describing her love of gondi, the Persian version of the matzo ball, albeit made of ground roasted chickpea flour, ground meat or turkey, lots of cardamom, onion, turmeric, pepper and cooked in chicken soup. This dish is perhaps the best known of all Persian foods in Israel, having been introduced very early by Iranian immigrants.

Supposedly it was Ariel Sharon's favorite dish, or so I have been told.

I've told the story before of going to a Passover seder at our Persian family, and cousin Edna bringing her specialty, gefilte fish and fresh-ground chrein (horseradish) that could clear your sinuses at 20 feet.

It was a shock as this dish is not generally found anywhere near Persians.

When Edna and her husband picked us up to go to her sister's home. I kept smelling gefilte fish, but dismissed it as simply too outlandish a thought. My husband, who calls this dish "filthy fish" - he misheard the name decades ago when he arrived in the US - also kept nudging me. We were both surprised to see a huge container of gefilte fish unloaded from their car.

Edna explained that when her family immigrated very early, they lived in a mixed new immigrant neighborhood. Her mother was an excellent cook and she both learned Ashkenazi recipes from her neighbors and taught them Persian cuisine in exchange; the kids ate in each other's home and learned to appreciate each culture.

So that's how very Ashkenazi gefilte fish (made from scratch) winds up on a very Persian dinner table, and how gondi appears every Shabbat in a very Ashkenazi household.

I don't know the provenance of Edna's family recipe, but it is the best gefilte fish I have ever eaten!

Gastronomic fusion is evident in many Jewish communities, as families combine foods from many cultures and blend them into a sort of fusion cuisine.
Harvard University even offers a social analysis course called Food and Culture. Harvard Hillel students were given a crash course in Israeli cuisine and its evolution throughout history the other day by the course's teaching fellow, Naor Ben-Yehoyada, co-sponsored by the Harvard Culinary Society. It was just in time for tomorrow's Yom Haatzmaut - Israeli Independence Day - holiday.

Ben-Yehoyada described how the region's culinary identity was shaped following statehood.

The history of Jewish and Israeli food is largely intertwined with Israel’s turbulent history, but according to Ben-Yehoyada, “what we eat doesn’t travel along the same lines as our politics.”

The region’s culinary identity began to take shape in the decades following Israel’s formation.
“In the 1920s and ’30s, the food consisted of what was palatable to Jews coming from Europe,” Ben-Yehoyada said. Among the foods served at the talk were chips, a British side-dish that was originally popular in the coastal regions of Palestine but has since spread to much of Israel.

In its early years, Israel’s infant economy dictated the types of food consumed by its inhabitants. Ben-Yehoyada said that many foods that are considered staples come from this period, when Israel could not fund its own factories and needed monetary support from overseas businessmen.

“It was a recession state, a highly regulated production economy,” he said adding that Israel was largely unable to import goods so local products were primarily utilized in food production.

Couscous, another dish served at the dinner, and pita bread, a popular item in Israel, are both made of wheat, a crop that is abundant in the region.

“You were told what to grow,” Ben-Yehoyada said, noting that during this period, any food produced in surplus was used in cooking, occasionally to extremes. “If during a season you made too much lettuce, everybody ate lettuce,” he said.
In the 1990s, Israeli and Jewish ethnic food became very popular, but the most traditional Israeli foods actually had their origins in Europe and across the Middle East. Today, of course, name a cuisine and you are likely to find it in Tel Aviv. Well, everything except authentic Chinese food.

Shnitzel is one example of Israeli fusion food. A German chicken cutlet (originally pork in Germany) is eaten in a Middle Eastern pita. The ubiquitous felafel is Egyptian and its pita envelope is also filled with salad, tehina, humus and even french fries (called chips from the British Mandate era) .

Although Ben-Yehoyada says Israeli salad is Turkish, all Persians will disagree - we call it Salad-e-Shirazi after the beautiful city of the south famous for its wine, women and song. Fried eggplant is found in every Middle East culture. Some cultures say a girl is not ready for marriage until she can prepare eggplant in 100 different ways.

Okay, now I'm hungry!

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