Friday morning is the busiest time at Shuk Ha’Carmel, the market in southern Tel Aviv. Since 1920, the colorful, crowded, noisy market has offered Israeli produce staples – tomatoes, eggplants, figs and oranges, small cucumbers, Swiss chard, colorful peppers, yellow onions and the sabra fruit, just to mention a few. These vegetables and fruit have always been, and still are, the building blocks of traditional Israeli cuisine, used in chopped vegetable salads, simple stews and anything stuffed: onions, tomatoes, peppers or Swiss chard leaves.
Much has changed, however, in the produce scene in Israel in the past two decades. Many new veggies and fruits were added to Israeli markets, even more so with the rise of the farmers markets all over the country in recent years – from asparagus to blueberries, purple carrots to exotic mushrooms, endive to lychee, papaya to basil. Artisan bakers sell breads and pastries, local olive oil producers bring their bottled goods and cheese makers sell goat, sheep and buffalo milk products.
The availability of new produce, cheese, oils and excellent local wine has helped change the culinary scene in Israel in the last two decades. And much like their colleagues around the world, many Israeli chefs can afford to start with the finest ingredients available when designing menus for their restaurants. In fact, many small restaurants, tapas joints and artisanal ice cream shops have opened right there at the Ha’Carmel Market or in the nearby streets. Olia Tapas Bar, in the middle of bustling market, offers crostini with roast beef and orange-garlic confit and a sorbet of citrus and olive oil. Basta, just off the market, serves butternut squash with gorgonzola, pickled sardines and their own version of Jerusalem mixed grill. Alongside the local produce, they also serve oysters from France and black truffles from Umbria. Yes, Israeli chefs can’t resist some of the finest ingredients the world has to offer.
There are other reasons for the evolution Israel’s culinary scene has gone through in the last two decades. The economic boom that allowed Israelis to travel more and experience cuisines from around the world contributed to a more diverse palette. Young men and women, just released from their military service, travel for months to exotic places in Asia and South America, bringing new flavors when they return home. The large Russian immigration wave that opened a whole world of new tastes and flavors also started the trend of non-kosher ingredients, from pork sausages to caviar. Asian grocery stores opened to cater to foreign workers who seek a better life in Israel. All these changed the way Israeli chefs cook. Dishes like salmon ceviche with mango, tapioca and dark quinoa or ox tail tortellini with white roots crème, veal stock and truffles have become a natural part of the lively Tel Aviv food scene.
Contemporary Israeli food is fresh and uses local ingredients with foreign inspiration. But at its best, Israeli food will always reference to its roots, to local Palestinian cuisine and to Jewish traditions, whatever and whatever they may be – from Jewish Moroccan cuisine to Iraqi cooking, from Poland to Hungary, Yemen to France. Moroccan-style fish balls in chickpeas and peppers, chicken livers in Yemenite spices over buttered French fries, fish fillet in pickled lemons and Moroccan paprika, baby calamari over tabulleh salad with tahini sauce. These are all real dishes served today in Israeli restaurants.
There’s a lot of inspiration in the Holy Land, and Israeli chefs are open to include it all in their dishes.