When academics, chefs, food writers and historians gathered at American University in mid November for a day-long conference focused on Israeli cuisine, “Israeli Cuisine as a Reflection of Israeli Society,” no one was aware that they were breaking new culinary ground. As the conference ended, however, many realized that they had participated in what seems to have been the first-ever gathering of nearly every scholar working in the field of food studies with a focus on various aspects of Israeli cuisine. Also unique was the involvement of the practitioners—the chefs—including Michael Solomonov, restaurant owner, author of the award-winning cookbook Zahav and the 2017 James Beard Foundation “Outstanding Chef.”
Sponsored by AU’s Center for Israel Studies, the conference explored the intersection of Israeli cuisine and society through the lens of history, nationhood, demographics, popular culture and other cultural influences. For nearly a year, I worked with Laura Cutler, managing director of AU’s Center for Israel Studies, and the center’s director, Michael Brenner, to design, develop and stage the conference.
We broke the presentations and discussion into panels focused on “Living Off the Land: from Biblical Times to Today,” “Cuisine as an Expression of Modern Israeli Culture” and “Israeli-Arab Food Politics.” In addition, the award-winning film In Search of Israeli Cuisine was screened, followed by discussion with writer/director/producer Roger Sherman and executive producer Dorothy Kalins.
More than 300 people attended the conference, which was free and open to the public. There was also a delicious Israeli lunch that reflected the cultural diversity of Israeli cuisine including Moroccan carrot salad, Turkish burekas and Middle Eastern hummus with pita bread.
In addition to Solomonov, conference presenters included Tom Franz, chef and winner of MasterChef Israel; Einat Admony, chef, owner of three Israeli restaurants in New York and cookbook author; Osama Dalal, chef and restaurateur from Tel Aviv; Lior Lev Sercarz, chef, spice blender and author of two books; Ronit Vered, food historian and journalist; and Mitchell Davis, cookbook author and executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, along with scholars from Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, University of California, Kingston University London and AU.
Davis, moderator of the session on cuisine and modern Israeli culture, explained that he spends much of his time thinking about food and culture. “We often confuse cuisine and food. Cuisine comes from the culture. It didn’t exist before there were nations which created and codified the idea of food character.” He also pointed out that while “food opens up connections, it can also keep people apart.”
Pursuing the connections between culture and cuisine, Admony used her own background—Iranian mother who grew up in Iraq and Yemenite father, along with a Moroccan neighbor with whom her family often exchanged food—as an example of Israeli’s “huge and beautiful melting pot.” Solomonov pointed out that there are nearly 100 different cultures and gastronomies in Israel in addition to indigenous food and people bringing back food and ideas from travels all over the world. The laws of kashrut (keeping kosher), Shabbat and holiday food, native agriculture and the historical spice route have all influenced Israeli cuisine as well.
Participants agreed that cuisine is dynamic, and that even 10 to 15 years ago, Israeli food “wasn’t an easy sell,” as Solomonov noted.
Yahil Zaban, a member of the faculty of Tel Aviv University, used the eggplant to illustrate the transformation of Israeli cuisine. “For decades the eggplant had been treated with disdain…a poor man’s meat,” he explained. Today, however, Israel is proud to be “the empire of eggplants” with dishes like sabich as popular today as falafel.
“It’s great to see that Israeli cuisine is finally getting recognized,” said spice blender Sercarz. “Through food we can bring a lot more conversation, so it gives me great joy to see such a conference.” He noted that academics and chefs need each other. “Academics and food historians are doing amazing research about food, but I am not sure how often they talk to chefs who actually work with the food, and the other way around. We chefs can learn a lot about science, history and technology from them.”
As a chef, Dalal, who grew up in Akko cooking with his grandmother, wanted to represent Arab-Palestinian philosophy and food beyond hummus and falafel in the two restaurants he has owned. “The new chef of today combines food from all over which makes the world smaller.” And like so many people around the world, Dalal learned from his mother that the most important thing is to sit around the table. “Don’t eat if you’re not hungry, but still sit and talk.” In the end, Dalal said, “it’s easier to solve problems [from] inside a plate.”
Top image from Zahav by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook. Copyrighted 2015 by Michael Persico. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.