Walk the streets of a market in Israel, and the enchantment is everywhere. Ancient spices, alluring aromas, local produce, millennia of history. Here in DC? Perhaps not as much—but there’s more than you’d think (especially since this post was first published here four years ago).
Israeli cuisine in the US is undergoing more than a renaissance. It’s a complete awakening. In a word, Israeli food is trendy. Zagat trumpeted that “Israeli food is having a moment in America,” and Restaurant Business Magazine noted its “eclectic blend” and “health halo.”
The rise of Israeli celebrity chefs who champion Israeli food perhaps proved a catalyst for this culinary explosion. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi published Jerusalem five years ago, and in 2016, Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook’s Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking won the James Beard Book of the Year and Best International Cookbook in 2016. Solomonov has a near-empire of restaurants in Philly, including a new falafel shop, Goldie, alongside his hummus shop, Dizengoff. People are now celebrating what we can genuinely call Israeli cuisine.
Of course, this begs the question: what is Israeli cuisine? Many authors and chefs have parsed this eternal query, a perfect one for Jews because there is no perfect answer.
“It’s an obvious question, but also confusing,” says Vered Guttman, a DC-based Israeli food writer for Haaretz and JFE® contributor. Israeli cuisine draws foremost from its environment, and therefore is quite similar to cuisines of other countries in the Levant, like Jordan and Egypt. Yet Israel is also an immigrant society. Israeli cuisine, therefore, “is really a fusion of all the cuisines from this diaspora,” Guttman shares. Families arrived from arrive from far across the Middle East and North Africa, but of course, from farther afield as well: Central and Eastern Europe, and even America.
In Israel today, as well as in Israeli restaurants here in the US, innovative ideas are permeating kitchens. “Israel was built on revolutionaries to make something new, and this translates to food [as well],” Guttman explains. “Israelis are playing with their food. They don’t keep strictly to exact recipes of tradition, but mix and test to create a fusion that’s something you can’t find in other area cuisines.”
In Tel Aviv, Guttman says with a smile, the cuisine may be getting even a bit subversive. You’ll not only find tahini ice cream, for example, but also tabbouleh salad topped with tahini sauce and roasted calamari.
Though smaller, the Israeli food scene is indeed experiencing growth in DC, with several eateries serving a range of Israeli dishes across the District.
One of the more traditional Israeli restaurants in the area is Al Ha’esh in Rockville. Drawing its name from the Hebrew that literally means “on the fire,” but is used to refer to grilling, Al Ha’esh brings home the barbecue. Prepared in an open kitchen so that customers can peek in on the festive cooking style, meats—chicken, steak, fish, lamb, shawarma—are cooked directly over a wood charcoal grill, using spices imported from Israel. Of course, there’s also the unlimited Israeli salad, fresh and bright to lighten the meat-heavy entrees, as well as hummus, tahini and other dips.
Guttman notes that other restaurants are picking up on newer Israeli food trends. In fact, she’s consulting for The Heights to assist with its new menu. Her influence means that it’ll include roasted eggplant with tahini sauce, cauliflower with dukkah (an Egyptian mix of spices and finely chopped nuts not unlike za’atar) and labneh cheesecake.
Shouk is one of the restaurants Guttman is talking about. Israeli-born and raised Ran Nussbacher opened Shouk in the Chinatown neighborhood last year. The restaurant takes its inspiration, and its name, from vibrant Israeli street markets.
Nussbacher says about the DC Israeli food scene, “I believe in the past, the Israeli food scene in DC has been grouped with Mediterranean cuisine, an all-encompassing label. Now we are starting to see individual cuisines step out with their own individual flavors like Lebanese, Iraqi and Turkish. We’re also starting to see a differentiation between Israeli food and Jewish-American staples. Israeli food is all about being playful. Israeli cuisine will continue to change as Shouk and others keep color outside the lines, using traditional techniques and flavors in unique ways.” Guttman agrees, noting that she sees it with “very playful salads, stuffing interesting things in pita” (see: pistachio pesto, fennel, arugula).
Little Sesame is likewise playing with traditional-yet-newfangled ingredients. Run in the snug downstairs section of DGS, it’s helmed by an Israeli chef, Ronen Tenne, who recently made DC his home. This city’s first hummusiya, it’s a fast-casual hummus-only spot with evocative flavors. Chef Tenne uses a house-made spice blend for his hummus, laid out in heaping bowls and then topped with innovative ingredient blends, like roasted beets with turmeric tahini and peanut or cauliflower, green onion and the sizzlingly popular “everything” spice (it’s even sold now at Trader Joe’s).
Nussbacher, of Shouk, is bullish on the growth of Israeli food in DC. “The dining scene in general is growing, and thanks to television shows featuring food as a means to experience culture, people are actively looking for things they have never tried before from places they have never visited.” And echoing the Restaurant Business Magazine article, Guttman explains, “Israeli food is popular as well because of its healthful aspects. People know how fresh and tasty it is, like the Mediterranean diet. And people continue to get more adventurous.”
“It’s just a matter of time until we see more here,” she says. “At least that’s my hope!”
Top photo: Shouk’s Israel-inspired spread (Photo courtesy of Shouk)