Israeli chefs spoon meatball stew into bowls of bread, serving it out of a food truck in an old Jerusalem neighborhood as nouveau-cuisine culture hits the streets in a summer art festival.
“We’re serving hummus in Baka’a, just like my grandmother used to make on the Sabbath,” says Tomer Balas, the day’s Foodtrip guest, who owns five bakeries in Jerusalem. Balas worked alongside Assaf Granit, the chef whose restaurant Machneyuda won a certificate of excellence from Trip Advisor this year.
The food Granit makes daily in the truck mimics an old-time ice-cream vendor and is at the request of guests like Tomer.
“It’s often traditional, food memories from childhood homes, and we make a little change that turns it into restaurant food,” says Granit, whose flagship eatery lies on the outskirts of Jerusalem’s fruit and vegetable market.
The market, Machane Yehuda, was built in an empty lot in the 19th century. Like Ballas’s grandmother’s stew, it has undergone several makeovers.
The latest gentrification has turned the sometimes teeming souk into a chic, see-and-be-seen place for foodies from home and abroad, reflecting the revolution in the Israeli cuisine once dependent solely on salads, bread and yogurt.
The souk today boasts delicatessens offering more than 1,000 types of cheese, fresh fish cut thin for sushi, boutique wines and bars selling specialty beers that send young merrymakers spilling into market alleyways on the weekends.
Restaurant food ranges from ethnic dishes like Iraqi kubeh soup cooked over low flames to Granit’s fish tartar, sashimi and sirloin carpaccio made with pumpkin, caramel and butter.
“It’s amazing how many people still have the impression that food in Israel is hummus, cut-up tomatoes and cucumbers,” says Debra Moser, who with her husband runs the Central Farm Markets in Bethesda, Maryland. “It is a surprise when we bring people here and show them the quality of the food and wines and that the depth of the chefs’ knowledge is so expansive.”
More than half of Israel is desert -- making the country not an easy place to grow food. In ancient times, grains and legumes were often the dietary mainstay. Even in more modern times, when Jerusalem was under siege in 1948, the slightly sour hubezeh weed grew in abundance and was served for dinner.
Adding to the richness of the new Israeli kitchen is the melting pot of cultures. Moroccan, Libyan, Ethiopian, Russian, Polish and Palestinian methods add an endless variety.
“We take the traditions, and we give them a twist,” says chef Tali Friedman as she leads a group of American tourists through the market to taste and shop before cooking up their own gourmet Israeli meal under her instruction.
“Take hubezeh, for instance,” Friedman says. “It used to be the only thing people could find to eat and now I take those leaves and bake them in the oven with sea bass and serve it up in a Mediterranean sauce with olive oil. It is amazing!”
The food in Israel has come such a long way that the Jewish National Fund now offers tours that focus on food and drink.
Israel, which recovered from the global slump faster than most advanced countries, is forecast to grow 3.9 percent in 2013, compared with 1.9 percent in the U.S. and a contraction of 0.6 percent in the Euro area, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said in a May report. Israeli stocks have risen 9.7 percent in the past 12 months.
The Tourism Ministry today offers three travel itineraries for food and wine and says culinary tourism has growing importance. The government is investing to improve professional training and levels of service.
Food has become such an important part of the local culture that a Hebrew version of the program Master Chef was almost consistently the top-rated show during its running season, with the top contenders the talk of almost any Israeli get-together.
Yet the cuisine hasn’t been immune to the regional conflict. The country’s claim to fame on the hummus map has led to complaints from Lebanon, whose Association of Lebanese Industrialists sought in the past to have the dip declared a traditional Lebanese dish.
The industrialists sought to prevent companies in Israel and other countries from marketing the popular chickpea-and-olive-oil spread as their own.
At the market, Friedman’s guests eat bureks, a pasty made of crusty filo dough filled with spinach and cheese. They also try homemade muesli and halva, which is sold in a shop that offers so many different kinds of the sesame treat that it could rival a jelly bean factory in variety.
Nearby, waiters at one of the most popular cafes serve a soup based on chestnuts, while across the street a spice vendor makes rice cakes. Tourists and Israelis line up for traditional falafel just down the alley from a fish-and-chips newcomer.
At Granit’s four-year-old restaurant, it’s nearly impossible to get a reservation. Now he’s working on opening a sister place in London, where Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the Jewish and Palestinian authors of “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” have a well-acclaimed chain of restaurants.
Moser’s husband, Mitch Berliner, said the food revolution in Israel mirrors what happened in America, where he says “food was pretty weak in the 1950s and 60s.”
“Then people started traveling and they saw different cuisines in different places, just like in Israel,” says Berliner, who has been running farmer’s markets outside Washington D.C. for more than 40 years.
He and his wife helped the JNF organize the cuisine tour after being asked to advise an Israeli kibbutz on how to open a farm market on the central road to the Red Sea resort of Eilat.
“I want to try and tell other people that ‘Israel is past the hummus stage, folks,’” Berliner says. “Take my word.”
Muse highlights include Mark Beech on books, Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.
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