What is Israeli cuisine?
This was the question asked of me for my most recent feature in Plate, an industry magazine for chefs whose March/April issue focuses on the breadth of food in Israel.
I’ve never been there. I’m not Jewish, though I have a weird love of traditional Jewish holiday food and spent countless hours for my former employers making brisket, kugel, and Shabbat-appropriate dinners on Fridays. I’d known little more about Israeli cuisine than the next non-Jewish person, my mind jumping to hummus and tahini and roasted eggplant and not making it much further.
Fortunately, article writing requires research, and speaking with the source.
Chef Norman Nimrod heads up Yudale, the younger sister to the wildly popular Machneyuda restaurant in Jerusalem. This dinner-only / late-night bar serves the surrounding kosher clientele as well as those unrestricted by kosher limitations, and their menu phases between the two. With every chef I interviewed for the piece (check it out here), I could sense a great deal of pride when discussing what they cook, and why. But even more so, there is an enthusiasm just for cooking and a drive to create and identity that urges me to get to Israel, to speak, and to eat.
Here’s what Chef Nimrod had to say about what Israeli cuisine means to him.
Chef Norman Nimrod of Yudale
On Defining Israeli Cuisine
“Food was always a big part of my life; whether it was going to the market with my father on Fridays, eating traditional Jewish Iraqi food at my grandmother’s on Saturdays, helping my mother bake, or skipping school to watch cooking shows. I finished my army service in 2007, and was looking for a job. A friend was already a chef de partie, and he told me the restaurant had an opening in the pastry department. I was hooked after two years, but didn’t think of it as a profession until a few years later, when I’d graduated from college as a pharmacist. As a pharmacology student, I have a natural affinity to science; a lot of what I love about cooking is looking at what goes into the pot or pan from an educated standpoint.
At the time, chefs were focusing on fusing French and Asian cooking with Mediterranean ingredients. A new wave of foreign ingredients had just started to be imported into Israel, and chefs were taking full advantage of them.
There is a maturation process: in the beginning, you want to put everything you can find on a plate, and the ideas tend to be less refined, and more about the wow factor than flavor. Now, I like complex cooking techniques, but not for the sake of complexity; if it isn’t essential it won’t be on the plate, and I prefer fewer elements than more. I can never tell where the next idea will come from and I look for inspiration where I can find it; refining something traditional my grandmother cooked for me as a child, or taking a more modern, educated approach to classic cooking. I’m also more connected with my Sephardic roots and traditional cooking, something that my bosses pushed me to look at and embrace.
A great example of that would be my version of my grandmother’s “Tbit”, which is a braised chicken and rice dish cooked together with margarine and cardamom. Jewish Iraqis eat this dish during the Sabbath. It’s cooked on Friday and then put on a hot plate until Saturday when it served after temple. The finished dish is very aromatic; the rice becomes crispy at the edges of the pot while the rest of the rice takes a more pudding-like texture, and the chicken becomes melt-in-your-mouth tender.
At the restaurant I wanted to make a more refined version using risotto as the base. We start off by searing and braising chicken thighs in butter (instead of the margarine since we are not constrained by kosher limitations) and a little bit of chicken stock for 8 hours in a low-temperature oven. We then cool the chicken and pull it from the bones. We use classic Arborio rice for the risotto, but also deep fry basmati rice for an element of texture. During service we start the risotto with butter, an Italian sofrito and chicken stock (instead of vegetable stock). The pulled chicken thighs are then added and the dish is cooked until finished with cardamom-infused butter and minced herbs. The finished dish is garnished with crispy chicken skin, deep fried basmati rice and a bit of Parmesan for good measure. It’s my take on a dish I grew up loving and still carries the essence of my grandmothers “Tbit”.
Israel today is a melting pot of modern thinking, and it’s hard to define our cuisine because we are a young country, but one with a very long and diverse history. We combine traditional Jewish cooking from all corners of the earth with professional techniques. New Israeli cuisine is much, much more than hummus and falafel; we have amazing talent and amazing produce, and chefs are taking full advantage of local ingredients. A misconception, too, is that everything in Israel is kosher and dull, but there are chefs doing amazingly creative things with kosher food. Add to the fact that we have fresh, local seafood, and many other non-kosher ingredients are default in almost any non-kosher restaurant pantry.
Our cuisine is a lot of things, but it sure as hell ain’t dull.”