How did Israel’s Mizrahi food become mainstream?

Mizrahi influences have now made Israeli haute cuisine mainstream and Israeli restaurants among the trendiest. Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, Claudia Roden, who played her part in popularising Sephardi and Mizrahi cuisine, traces the rise and rise of foods once considered low-class and backward.

While Turkish, Lebanese and other Middle Eastern restaurants serve
the same traditional standard menus, that never vary, of grills and
mezze, Israeli chefs feel free to pick elements from all the cuisines of
Mizrahi and Sephardi communities and to do their own personal take on
tradition. Their cooking is pan-Mediterranean because it spans the
entire Mediterranean basin all the way to Spain.

How did Israel,
where visitors always complained about the food and only praised Arab
restaurants, most of which were kiosks at the back of petrol stations,
get to be a food destination? I first went to Israel in the 70s when my Book of Middle Eastern Food
came out in Hebrew. The publishers said they didn’t expect it to sell
because the food of Mizrahi Jews was not appreciated. I realized only
recently that they had changed the Hebrew title to A Book of Mediterranean Food.

    Nor
was Ashkenazi food appreciated. The Diaspora and its foods was then
something to be forgotten and left behind. Ashkenazi dishes smelt of
persecution, Mizrahi and Sephardi foods were seen as low class poor food
from backward cultures. Food itself was a matter of embarrassment, was
not something to talk about.

When I told people I was researching
the food they said things like. “Please don’t write anything bad’. They
joked about chopped liver made from aubergines, apple sauce from
courgettes, semolina pudding simulating whipped cream – the fake foods
from the time of austerity and rationing that lived on. They described
the unidentifiable compressed fish mixture called ‘fish fillet’ imported
from Norway and the non-descript cheese called “white”.

A few
years later at a gastronomic conference in Jerusalem, I was in the
kitchen with cooks from Poland, Georgia, Bukhara, Morocco, Iraq, and
other countries. We were preparing our cooking demonstrations and
tastings of Jewish festive dishes from our communities.

The first
discussion, in Hebrew, was whether there was such a thing as Jewish
food? Eastern European food was considered “Jewish”, the food of all
those who were not Ashkenazi was labelled ethnic, and the local foods
such as falafel, hummus, babaghanoush, and shakshouka
were considered street foods. The only food identified as purely Israeli
– not shared with neighbouring countries – was turkey schnitzel. Food
writers talked of creating a distinctive national cuisine using biblical
ingredients such as honey, figs and pomegranates, indiginous
ingredients like prickly pears, chickpeas and herbs that grew wild on
the hills, and new Israeli products such as avocado, citrus and cream
cheese that the government was promoting.

The kitchens of the
land, from the army, schools and hospitals to restaurants and hotels,
recruited their staff from the working class population of Mizrahi Jews
from countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Iraq, Kurdistan and Yemen,
as well as Israeli Arabs. All young men who went into cooking, went in
through the army, and trained in the army catering school, Tadmor. A
catering contractor who had taught at Tadmor told me: “The cooks
rejected their mothers’ cooking because they saw it as part of a
humiliating backward culture. But after learning the basics, they fell
back on what they vaguely remembered from home. They were given
ingredients that the nutritionists decided soldiers should eat and
together they concocted a mishmash.”

Top
restaurants served French cuisine and there were also Chinese and
Italian restaurants. The big hotels that catered for tourists, where the
executive chefs came from Switzerland, Austria and Germany, offered
chicken soup with kneidlach, gefilte fish, pickled herring, chopped
liver, tzimmes and lockshen pudding. Since the 1960s a few restaurants
opened that did what Syrian, Bukharan or Iraqi Jews cooked at home, but
they quickly closed because of lack of custom.

Moshe Basson, chef
owner of the famous Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem was one of the
first to open a Mizrahi restaurant. He had Arabs from a nearby village
to bring their own home cooking, and the village bakery to send local
specialities. When I was there he had a young Syrian woman
making fried kibbeh. My friend Ella told him I was a food writer and he
brought out my book and showed me the recipes he was using, including
the pudding we were eating – balouza made with corn flour and water, to which he had added his own rose petal jam.

His
story is like that of many first generation chefs. His family came from
Iraq and his early years were spent in a refugee transit camp in
Talpiot until his father was able to buy a small house with a piece of
land near the camp close to the Arab neighbourhood of Baka. When the
family moved, they left their first home, an enlarged shack, to
Basson and his brother who turned it into a restaurant.

When
Basson served at the Suez canal, most of the cooks were Sephardi or
Mizrahi from Arab lands. There was a kitchen book with recipes written
in Hebrew which the head cook could not read so he telephoned his
Moroccan mother and asked her for recipes. The lowest grades in the army
were cooks. Whilst being in the army was greatly admired, Basson said
the stigma of being a cook in the army continued outside. Being a chef
was the lowest thing to be.

Ronit Vered, who has a prestigious
food column in Haaretz, says that things began to change in the 1980s. A
mini revolution took off in the upmarket Israeli kitchen when the
economy and the security situation made it possible to enjoy eating out.
At that time intensive attempts were being made by the government to
restore the lost pride of ethnic communities by reviving and
disseminating their cultural heritage. Womens’ magazines and radio
presenters asked people to send in family recipes.

A
third generation of immigrants, who didn’t have the complexes of their
parents and grandparents about culture and identity wanted to rediscover
the tastes of their ancestral cuisines. Chefs, mostly of Mizrahi
origin, went to train in top restaurants in Europe and America and
returned to develop a modern Israeli haute cuisine with the techniques
they had learned, and inspired by ideas of innovation.

Read article in full 

From Jerusalem ma’abara to trendy restaurant

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