Walking through the Mahane Yehuda market of Jerusalem is a delightful journey for the senses. The bold aroma of spices, the bright colors of locally grown produce, the sweetness of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, and the sound of kofta kebabs crackling on the grill come together in a foodie experience that many travelers who visit Israel want to bring back to their home kitchens. And with cookbooks like Jerusalem and Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking being thrust into the culinary spotlight, Israeli food is beginning to spread quickly. But for a country as young as Israel, is there a defined cuisine, and if so what would it be?
“Israeli cuisine is a combination of around 100 cultures that have either ended up in Israel, or have been in Israel for the past thousand years,” explains Michael Solomonov, co-author of Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, the James Beard award-winner for Cookbook of the Year in 2016. Solomonov is also the James Beard award-winning chef behind Zahav and several other Israeli restaurants in Philadelphia, and for nearly a decade, he has set out to define what Israeli cuisine really is. His work has earned him praise as “the genius of modern Jewish cooking” and an “ambassador for Israeli cuisine.”
It is difficult to summarize the vast array of foods found in Israeli cuisine. A typical Israeli meal might consist of upwards of 12 different small plates, each with roots from a different country, and each with its own mix of spices, vegetables, tahini sauces and grilled meats.
But there are several foundational ingredients that reverberate through most of these dishes.
One of the most essential ingredients would be tahini, which is the heart of hummus, one of Israel’s most celebrated foods. Tahini is made by grounding down sesame seeds until it becomes a smooth paste. It is also a major component in baba ghanoush and halva, and can be turned into a variety of sauces that can be enjoyed with roasted eggplant, cauliflower and other vegetables.
Solomonov also recommends having lemon in your kitchen. “It’s the acid you need in Israeli cuisine,” he explains. Lemon is mixed thoroughly into tahini when making hummus and other sauces.
Another one of Solomonov’s recommended ingredients is labneh, a creamy, yogurt-like cheese. Like tahini, labneh is the base for a variety of dishes, as well as dips. Labneh can even be baked and served as a dessert or eaten as is with olive oil and spices. If you can’t find labneh, you can buy regular Greek yogurt and strain it for a day using a cheesecloth. The longer you strain, the thicker the labneh will become.
Having a well-stocked spice cabinet is also a necessity when cooking in an Israeli kitchen. Spice has been part of the region’s heritage since the existence of the Incense Route, which flourished from the 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. The Nabateans transported spice from the Arabian Peninsula through the Negev desert (now part of southern Israel), and to the ports of the Mediterranean, leaving a trail of earthy and aromatic spices that have weaved their way into Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisines.
The variety of spices can be overwhelming. Not only are there the individual spices, but spice blends are essential in Israeli cooking. The most common spice blend is za’atar, a combination of herbs that varies from the Middle East to the Mediterranean. Za’atar can contain oregano, thyme, marjoram, sumac, sesame seeds, salt and cumin.
Other spice blends
Another spice blend that Solomonov recommends is hawaij, “which is a Yemenite spice blend that is great for soups,” he explains. Hawaij contains cumin, cardamom, turmeric, coriander and black pepper. Baharat, which is very common in Middle Eastern cooking, is another common spice blend, and is a mixture of black pepper, coriander, paprika, cardamom, nutmeg, cumin, cloves, paprika, and cinnamon. Baharat is especially popular in rice, lentil and pilaf dishes, and can be used for marinating meats such as lamb chops and ground beef.
Sumac and cardamom appear often in spice blends, but are also excellent to have on their own. “I love having cardamom around,” says Solomonov. “It’s great on lamb and in coffee.” Cardamom is the key to Arabic coffee, which is popular in Israel, especially within the Arabic communities throughout the country.
Your Israeli kitchen cannot be complete without making sure you have ingredients to make salatim. Salatim translates to “salad,” and refers to the multitude of small plates that are served with an Israeli meal.
“I love salatim that are bright with high acid, very herbaceous, and have good salinity,” says Solomonov. The most common salatim dishes consist of tomatoes, cucumbers, red cabbage, carrots and cauliflower, all brought to life by steaming, grilling, pickling, and stir frying in a multitude of spices.
“For salatim, I’d have a few key herbs on hand – cilantro, which can be interchangeable with parsley if you prefer, and dill,” explains Solomonov. “There can never be too much dill.”
Israeli cuisine may not be firmly defined, but its identity is a flexible blend of cultures steeped in more than 1,000 years of heritage, and it’s still evolving.