Say the words “Balkan food” in Israel, and Israelis might look at you cockeyed. Not because Balkan food is so foreign to them, but rather, quite the opposite—because it, with its bourekas, stuffed vegetables, rice-filled grape leaves, olives and cheese and the like, is so familiar.
Today the countries known collectively as “the Balkans” consist of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, the Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia and the European part of Turkey. In Israel, Balkan food is primarily the food of the Jews who arrived from Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and found a hospitable home in the Ottoman-ruled Balkan lands, where they flourished and kept their traditions for the better part of 450 years. (In the early part of the twentieth century, for example, the Jews in Salonika—now Thessaloniki—numbered 80,000 in a city of 157,000.)
The aliyah (immigration to Israel or the British Mandate of Palestine) of Balkan Jews began in the 1920s, increasing during World War II and peaking when Israel became a state in 1948 and those first few years thereafter. Many Balkan Jews perished in the Holocaust, and, today, of the Balkan countries, Turkey is the only one with a real Jewish community to speak of, numbering just over 15,000.
“Balkan food, effectively Ottoman or Turkish food, was completely at home here in Israel, as this was once part of the Ottoman Empire,” explains Janna Gur, founder and editor of Israel’s preeminent food magazine Al Hashulchan (On the Table) and an expert on Jewish and Israeli food. “It came with the Balkan Jews and became completely mainstream.”
The ingredients were perfect for Israel as well: “Lots of vegetables—eggplant, tomatoes, okra, light green peppers, spinach and leeks; olive oil, garlic, not much more seasoning than salt, pepper and, very occasionally, dried oregano; lots of fish and lamb; yogurt, feta and kashkaval; flakey types of dough, like filo and yufka,” offers Israeli cookbook author and food TV personality Shaily Lipa.
The daughter of a Greek father and a Turkish mother, Lipa shares in her most recent book, My Balkan Kitchen (currently available in Hebrew only), what it was like to grow up in a home where Ladino was spoken and food was pushed all day long, something she thought was exclusive to her family, but later discovered was characteristic of Balkan Jewish homes.
Lipa recalls Saturdays at her Greek grandparents’ house: a table full of eggs, cheese, bourekas and “lots and lots and lots of [other] food,” sneaking homemade marzipan from its hiding spot in the sideboard, joyful Greek music playing in the background.
With such fond memories of food and family, I asked Lipa, how could it be that My Balkan Kitchen was her eighth book and not her first? She laughed bemusedly, paused and then commented that the book, a six-month process involving close work with Gur, her editor and publisher, as well as interviews and testing with her Greek grandmother and many other Balkan grandparents and cooks, was perhaps her journey home. Lucky us—yes, even the most bourekas-addicted Israelis—that we get to tag along.
Two members of our community, Avital Ingber, chief development officer of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and managing director of the United Jewish Endowment Fund, and Nancy Franco Blum, sister of Melanie Nussdorf of the Jewish Food Experience® leadership team, recently traveled to the Balkans where they encountered fascinating Jewish history and enjoyed delicious culinary experiences. Some of Nancy’s photos can be found below.