writer, Jewish and Israeli cuisine
Janna is an Israeli food writer, editor, an expert on Israeli, Jewish cuisine and the author of The Book of New Israeli Food. Gur was born in the Latvian capital Riga in the then Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel in 1974 when she was 16. She did her military service as an Officer in the Israeli Navy, where she taught technical English to future naval officers. Gur worked as an El Al flight attendant to help finance her MA (Master of Arts) studies in literary translation at Tel Aviv University. The work with EL Al gave her the opportunity to travel the world and sparked early interest in gastronomy.
In 1991 Janna and her husband Ilan founded Al Hashulchan, a popular Israeli food and wine magazine. Today it is considered the premier culinary Hebrew speaking magazine and is widely read by amateurs and professionals alike.
In 2001, Al Hashulchan Media Group was established - as a specialized cook book publishing house. Janna Gur, as the chief editor, was involved in editing of over 40 Hebrew cookbooks, among them Sheshet - The Kitchen Helper series, which offered an innovative approach to understanding recipes and cooking techniques. Between 2000-2002 Gur hosted a regular food segment on Israeli Television's Good Morning Israel show. She continues to frequently appear on TV and radio, talking about food and wine and local culinary culture.
Tel Aviv, September 2011
Could you talk about the hummus war, how you see it, and the kind of hummus war between particularly Lebanon and Israel? I started with the idea of Fadi Abboud, the Minister for Tourism, saying 'The Israelis have stolen our land, they've stolen our culture, and they've stolen our hummus'.
Well, it's one of those things that, you know, politicians do. And I mean, I don't even know how to start attacking it. I think it's so silly, because first of all, throughout history of food, everywhere, recipes and dishes move from place to place, from the country to the country.
And that's how culinary culture...that's how food culture works. And for me, this is the beauty of it. And so hummus, which even though I know there are people who believe that hummus is locally invented...but vast majority of Israelis, and certainly, you know, all the people in the food world in Israel, will tell you that hummus is Middle-Eastern Arabic famous dish.
But we Israelis love hummus. I think what makes it...I mean the unique part of, of, of, you know, hummus culture in Israel, is the way we treat it. I believe that nowhere in the Arab world, hummus enjoys such status as it does in Israel. In fact I met a Lebanese chef in New York, and I asked him about you know, the status of hummus.
And he said, 'It's...'...he said two things. First of all it's a very good test, to test the ability of the chef, how he makes his tabouleh, and he makes his hummus, because these are very two basic dishes that you can really make well, or not.
And it is a part of the mezza table, along with tabouleh, and labane, and cigars, and stuffed vine leaves. You know, there are lots of variation, whereas in Israel, it is like a destination food. You go out to have hummus.
You...there are hummus blogs, and hummus websites, and books written about hummus, and hummus fans who would argue for hours which is better than the other. We have...we're fascinated with hummus.
And that's the reason, I guess, that there is so much hummus available, including commercial hummus. Every supermarket carries, you know, scores of different brands and flavours.
And I know that Israelis are quite successful exporting this commercial hummus to the world, which I guess what...and I mean...meant would caused Mr Fadi Abboud to, to, you know, to start this whole thing.
So is that how you really see it? That's it's a market war?
Well I think it's a market war, and I think it's an opportunity to, you know, to grab some headlines for everybody...for Mr Abboud, and for those who are rebutting Mr Abboud. It's one of those situation where everybody has h-his 15 minutes for glory.
You know, even me. I was, I was requested to write the rebuttal about the whole thing, and it was published in Mark Bittman food blog, which is a very, very prestigious thing. So, I mean, I don't take it too seriously. It's...for me it's just silly and funny.
But if it got you to start, you know, looking into hummus phenomenon, and you know, researching it, and doing a documentary about it, so it's a good thing for me, because it's for me, as a food writer, as a editor of a food magazine, somebody who, who, who looks at Israeli food culture, it's one of the most fascinating aspects of our food culture.
But it doesn't mean it's 'ours'. I mean what's 'ours'? If you look at the Israeli food, you see dishes coming from very different places. Some of them are Eastern European. Other are North African. Others are Iraqi, or Persian, or Tunisian. And some of them are local, you know...Middle-Eastern Palestinian food.
And the combination of all these influences is what makes this cuisine so interesting, and so varied, and so happening. And hummus is part of it.
You wrote about sushi being Japanese, and that being a food that the world has taken on. But does that mean that the world can't eat it because it's Japanese?
Well, I don't think...everything that Mr Abboud said, that we can't eat hummus, we can present it as Israeli food...but...I don't know if, you know, if hummus exporters, you know, these big companies that export hummus to the United States, presented it as Israeli food.
They just marketed it very successfully. Any parenthesis, what I might say...but Mr Abboud, maybe he can, you know, so look at it in another way and say, 'Well, they opened up a niche. They opened up a market. And we can now explore it, and you take advantage of that', because if...because what I 'can' say...and now we're talking purely food, not politics at all...that what they sell for example, in United States in supermarket as hummus, is not hummus. And even though I'm not a big fan of commercial hummus, the Israeli version, which is really more closer to the authentic hummus, is better.
So probably that's why they're more successful. But as far as I'm concerned, none of commercial hummus is real hummus. Hummus is something you eat at a specialised hummus place, where it's freshly made, and not refrigerated, and not loaded with, you know, all kinds of, of chemicals.
I'm saying that there are national ethnic dishes that become, you know, world-wide favourite. And what does it mean? Does it mean that only Japanese can make sushi? Or make great sushi? Or, only Hungarians can make goulash? Or, you know, etcetera, etcetera...and you see sometimes, you know, a curry for example.
Indian curry became like, the most popular, or the most recognised British food. And it's all a question of, you know, it's, it's moving around all the time. So, yeah, I mean there are products like feta cheese, like parmesan, like champagne, that are protected by different laws, in order to prevent them from being imitated by other countries.
But again, it's always, there is some commercial motive behind it. For example, if you take the example of feta cheese, which I think was one of the precedents that Mr Abboud relied upon, as far as I remember, the reason that the whole feta s-scandal started, is because Danish producers had this amazing feta that was doing really well.
And Greeks said, 'Wait a second, that's ours, so they, they cannot call it feta. Feta 'only' has to come from, from Greece'. So it boils down eventually, all of these wars and, you know, it boils down, for me, to money, to markets, to, you know, to trying to protect your product.
But again, the difference between feta cheese and hummus is that hummus is a recipe. There is no one recipe. There is no one way to make hummus. You can...sure, that they all have chickpeas and, and tahini. But everything else is...you know, the ratio between the two, the thickening, the other seasonings, the toppings, the extra...the mystique.It changes from hummus place to hummus place. So, how can you protect that?
The Book of New Israeli Food
There's also the question of it being an ancient food?
Yeah, well it's interesting. Well, what we know for sure, and we don't know that much about what exactly, you know, biblical Jews ate, or people who lived in the land of Israel. We know that chickpeas were available. We know from our cooking experience that the best way...I mean the only way to eat dry chickpeas is to, of course to cook them, and they have to be very soft.
So from here to mashing the chickpeas, and then adding maybe some olive oil to chickpeas, it's very natural transition. So there were definitely mashed chickpeas in the biblical diet. I don't think there was tahini, to make it proper hummus. But yes, chickpeas were very much part of biblical food.
So we might say that they have their roots in, in, you know, in the biblical times, as any...many other local dishes, for example, majadra. You know, lentils with rice. Or lentil cakes, or flat breads. And you find them usually...and there've been research done about that...in local Arabic cuisine, because they stayed on in these areas, and they used local ingredients.
And obviously they became...they preserved some of that. And we, we can see very interesting examples of, of foods mentioned in the Bible, still common in, in modern day Arabic cuisine.
This is all really interesting because it goes back to the question of who was here first. When you start talking about foods going back to the time of the Bible, you start to ask questions, 'Well, there were Jews here, they were Arabs here'. So the origins...
It's, it's not even Arabs. There are all these peoples you know. I don't...I'm not...I don't want to mention the names because I'm not sure, Edomites, and people from Moab, and people from Egypt. It's, it's a crossing road.
I mean, land of Israel, when you look at it, it's between...it's on this African-Syrian rift. It's the crossroads between the north and the south. It's the hub for commerce.
So there was so many conquerors, and peoples coming, going away, and obviously so many influences and, you know, mish mash going on, also on a culinary level.
Another connection between, you know, the Asian times and modern times in terms of hummus, is not the actual...even not the actual dish, but the way it's eaten, because that's the way food was eaten in those times. There were no knives and forks. Maybe some spoons.
But what people basically did, most of breads were flatbreads. And food was actually...you would dip your bread in some kind of porridge, gruel, spread, soup, and you would mop it up, and eat it. You'd dip. I mean, dipping bread into something is the quintessential way of eating in the Bible.
And so that's the way we, all of us eat, everybody eats hummus. So if you like, there is another connection that you can make, to do biblical examples highlight.
And that wiping the plate, can you talk about that as being important to the modern day ritual, 'cause it 'is' like a ritual, isn't it?
Well it's part of it. I mean, it's like you eat noodles with chopsticks. I mean, you can eat it with a fork. You can eat hummus with knife and fork. But the whole thing is of eating it with a piece of bread, because it also works on, on a culinary level. It tastes good with pita.
We know that hummus is something that goes really well with pita. When, when we have all these, you know, falafel and shawarma, and other stuff we like to eat in pita, even a schnitzel, we usually line it up with some hummus before. So the combination between hummus and bread is really wonderful.
Also on, you know, on a dietary level, this is the complete protein, when you have hummus with pita. You have both...all the amino acids you need, because it's grain with lentils, with beans. So it's really...you know, it makes sense any way you look at it.
And besides that, it's fun. I mean that's, I mean that's so central, the, the connection between the, you know, the food...that's how, for example, Indian people eat. They would eat...use their hands. They wouldn't use metal to...that divides between you and the food.
Actually I think Israel is happy to wipe up almost anything, I mean. My husband sometimes wipes up jam with a piece of bread, instead of using the knife, because it feels so natural. And it makes sense, I think.
You talked previously about, from village to village, from town to town, in Israel, you find a different style of hummus. And that seems to be part of the ethos and the craze, if you like?
Yeah. That's, that's what makes it so unique. For example, a couple of years ago, we were...I was travelling with a group of American food writers. And we...I brought them to, to Abu-Hassan, to this famous place...Ali Karavan in Jaffa. We were having there, legendary masabacha, you know, with all this...with this acidic lemony, cuminy sauce, and all the flavours, and the chunky bits.
And it was...and then the next day, we went to Acre, to Sayid. And it was the olive picking season. And we had hummus. It was completely plain. Wonderful. Fluffy and creamy, but no toppings. The only thing they added was freshly pressed olive oil, that was green, and herby, and that's all.
There was no lemon, no, you know, chickpeas on top. Nothing. And this is...and, you know, and we had this very nice discussion, which went like, better. And of course we divided. There were two camps. And that's what's so nice about it. So there is Jerusalem hummus that is fluffier and lighter, and there is Galilean that is chunkier. And there is Jaffa, which I think is spicier.
But then again, yesterday, I had hummus at some place in Jerusalem, and they added a load of garlic. I don't know why. I didn't like it that much. But he said, 'That's the way I make hummus for, for years'. I mean, that's his right, obviously. Everybody, everybody makes it a little bit different.
How old were you when you first ate hummus, and what was your response to it?
Well I was 16. I'd just arrived in Israel. I emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, from Riga, Latvia. Obviously, we'd never heard about hummus there. And we were going on our annual outing, you know, annual trip with my high school class. And we were shopping, you know. Everything was sort of...it was...we were camping. So we'd bought all these preserved foods.
And one of them was a very small can of preserved hummus. And I'd never heard about it, and I asked what it is. They told me, that's hummus. I had a bite. It was awful [background noise]. And I immediately decided that I don't like hummus, because...well, anybody who tasted that, couldn't understand what I mean.
A year passed. We were on another annual outing, this time, to the Golan Heights up north [background noise]. And I remember, we went to this restaurant in Banias Nature Reserve. And I remember myself looking at this big dining room filled with people, sitting in front of plates with some whitish paste on them, going like that, doing these circle of movements.
And I asked, 'What are they eating?' And somebody told me, 'Hummus, duh, I mean, what kind of question is that?' And I thought to myself, they are crazy. I mean why would they spend money eating this terrible thing, because for me, hummus was something that I tried a year before, in this...from this canned version.
And I think another year passed, until I really had a taste of real hummus. It was in Jerusalem. I was a [stutters] university student. And we went out with some friends. I didn't want to go in the beginning, because I hate hummus. And then we had a taste of real hummus. It was Ta'ami, this legendary place, known for wonderful hummus, and a very rude owner.
But the hummus was a revelation. And since then, I, I'm hooked. I love hummus. And so, that's it.
Maybe you can tell us about the rude owner?
Well it was like, there was the whole...I mean his bad manners were part of, of the, you know, the appeal of the place, obviously. There were little signs on the walls, con-, 'Be considerate to other customers and finish up quickly', something like that. Or if you order, if you dare to order coffee, he would just give you a look, a dirty look.
Or, there would...he would stand in the middle and say, 'Don't eat! Swallow.' And it was all built on fact there was line [sic] waiting outside.
And then I heard this story. I don't know if it's true, but I heard it from good source that at some point, his sons told him, 'Listen, we have a shop being vacated next door. Let's expand the operation, and then nobody will wait in line, and we'll be able to serve everybody a...you won't have to shout any more'.
And they did. And the lines were gone. And some of the appeal was gone. That's what I heard. But this is maybe just legend. I don't know. But hummus is, as I understand, still wonderful.
Why do you think hummus has become so popular in Israel?
Ah, well, I mean, I, I always tend to say the obvious thing. It's, it's utterly delicious. And, and it's - I don't know how it didn't become popular everywhere [laughs]. I think it's, it's one of those foods. It's like, you know, sushi or pizza, or things that once you get a really good quality hummus, you're hooked.
That's what I believe. You, you...look at what happens in New York now. You know, they're all over the place. Once people get exposed to really good hummus...and we have really good hummus in Israel now...they just en-,...it's, it's filling. It's very cheap. I think that's one of the...you can really fill up.
I mean originally, hummus is, is morning food for people who work really hard. And if you have hummus with a piece of pita, and maybe hardboiled egg, you can...you won't get hungry for hours. You can skip lunch easily.
So it's, it's healthy, it's natural, it's delicious. I've heard about researchers that, that claim that eating hummus releases some kind of serotonins in your brain. I don't know about that. But it certainly is very, very satisfying, and nice, and filling, and nutritious.
I mean, only good things can be said about real hummus. All of this applies to the real stuff, not the thing you buy in a supermarket, which is something completely different.
I've had lots of guys tell me it's good for their sex life.
Well, good for them! What can I say? Good for them!
Yeah. And yeah. But, you know, interesting thing about hummus is that it's like, you eat it, and at some point, you'll feel like, that's it. You can't have another bite. It just...you...fills you up, and it turns from being the, mostly the craved thing that you can't stand anymore, because it's so powerful.
Janna Gur with Trevor Graham
Is that what happens to you?
Yeah. That's what happens to me. It happened to me when we were filming a documentary about Israeli food, and I was, I was very hungry. So I had a, you know, portion of hummus. And then I had to pose eating hummus. And they would do it...you know, more takes, and I couldn't touch it any more.
It was like...I think...they didn't use it in the, in the documentary in the end. I can see why. I didn't look very convinced. But that whole thing, I mean it fills you up. You don't need much. You, you really...I mean, in term of poor man's food, this is it.
How does the passion for hummus live itself out in Israel? I'm thinking about that constant talk about it, the articles, the websites. Can you talk about all of that, like as a culture?
Well it's, it's been very much part of our culture for, for decades, even before, you know, we had this big food revolution. I think people, even though Israelis ate hummus as early as the '30s...I know that for example, vegans would go to Jaffa to have hummus...but I think it became really, really popular after the Six Days War, when people started travelling to the West Bank, and to Eastern Jerusalem.
There were some legendary hummus places. And it's a very Israeli thing, to go out for hummus. It's...and then you can...I mean everybody has his own hummus place that he likes the most, or maybe a couple of favourite places. And the simpler it is, the shabbier it is, the better or the more authentic it is perceived.
For a while we had this very short trend of upscale hummus places that served hummus with all kinds of, you know, fancy toppings like ragύ bolognese, and the places were really neat, and clean, and, and des-, well designed. And it didn't catch.
I mean, hummus has to be served in a simple, basic place. It doesn't have to be dirty. But it has to be very simple. And so I think it's also a very male thing for me, even though there are a lot of women who love hummus. But it's...there is something very sort of, Israeli macho thing. You go out and you have hummus. It's very sort of, you know...
Why do you think that is?
I don't know. It's like eating steaks. It's, it's boys food, somehow, even though, you know, women love it as well. But maybe the way it's...there is something a little bit, how should I say it, not brutal but...it's, it feels male to 'me'. I can't explain it. I, I believe I'm not the only one.
I think if you, if you are to do a survey, you would go, like, to five, ten famous hummus place, and you would count men and women, I think there will be more men than women, in almost any hummus place.
For example, for more men would tend to go out, like if they're in a [sic] office, and they're looking for a place to go out for lunch. I wouldn't think about hummus as an option, maybe because it's fattening. I don't know, somehow I'd think about some, you know, salad and soup, stuff like that...girls food.
I think men would go out for hummus. That's how it feels to me. I don't have a scientific explanation for that.
What is it that makes a good hummus? Is it the maker? Is it the ingredients? Is it...
Look it's...there are, there are a few things. First of all, the tahini has to be great. Good quality. Luckily we have plenty of that now. It has to be how to spot a good tahini. You taste it straight from the jar. It should have this nice nutty flavour. It shouldn't be bitter. That's number one.
Number two is the quality of the chickpeas, which is as important, because even though chickpeas, you know, dried chickpeas are...feel like dry food, but they're actually living food. And some of them are fresh and nice, and other aren't. And had many cases where I would ch-, cook chickpeas at home, and they would smell like dirty socks, and I will throw out the whole thing. They never get really soft.
They...the texture is wrong, the flavour is wrong. They have to be fresh. You have to buy them at a place where there is, you know, a big turnover. Usually organic chickpeas are better in my opinion. And hummus experts believe that small chickpeas...we call them Hadas...are better for hummus, whereas the big ones are better for cooking.
Now that's as far as the ingredients...and of course, for me, only fresh lemon juice, and maybe some salt and pepper. Well the seasoning is a question of taste, of course. And now the actual process...traditionally you have to use this big pestle and mortar. That's the percussive sound you sound [sic]...you hear in most hummus places.
But many of us, I mean those who make hummus at home, use food processor, and it's fine. There are little...you know, for example, some use only ice cold water, which makes it...gives it lighter colour.
The ratio between the ingredients of course, is very important. The more tahini you add, the creamier it becomes, the richer that it becomes, with less pronounced chickpea flavour. It's a question of taste.
And then the most important thing. You serve it fresh. You do not keep it in the refrigerator. You don't keep it if you're having a party, and you leave your hummus plate on the table, like for an hour or two. It develops a crust, which is not very appetising.
So far for the, you know, for the actual...for the spread, for the basic hummus paste, then what goes on hummus...you know, the nice drizzle of olive oil, lemon juice, some boiled chickpeas, the wonderful and secret acidic lemony sauce that they use at Ali Karavan, and nobody knows exactly what's in there.
We know there is shipka peppers and cumin, lemon juice, and sort of brings the flavours...you know, wakes them up. But the thing is, make it and serve it. Don't refrigerate it, because the...maybe just for a little while, but the best way to do it, is to cook it and serve it.
That's why, by the way, because you...it's...there is a lot of...you know, you have to soak the chickpeas, and you have to cook them, and its smell is not so great. That's why...I realised in Arabic families, they rarely make hummus at home on a regular basis.
If you go for example to Ali Karavan, and you stay there long enough, you'll see families coming with their pans and bowls, and they fill it up with hummus, and they go home, and they have hummus, because it's, it's like a specialised food. You go to an expert...unless they're having a big party, or a big, you know, gathering, and it makes sense to make a large amount.
I like making hummus at home. And my technique is well...didn't invent it obviously...I cook a large amount of, of chickpeas, and I freeze them with the cooking liquid, because that's part of the process. And then I warm them up. I defrost them, and I warm them up, and mix them with tahini, in small batches, small amount, just, you know, for the meal I'm cooking.
And I serve them at once, and it's not...I mean, doesn't...it's not at the level of really, you know, famous hummus place. But it's not half bad. It's really nice hummus.
What about the maker? Is the experience of the maker important? The Arabs, for instance, talk about Nafas, the spirit.
Well, it's what all chefs talk about, all cooks. They have, I mean, they have the...you can speak about spirit. I can speak...I mean, if I, you know, bring it down on a more practical level, experience little tricks. Ratio between the ingredients. Basically, this is it.
I mean okay, you can...Nafas is...Nafas, by the way, in Hebrew, you know what is Nafas? In, in Israel it's, it's hashish, by the way [laughs], okay, which has to do with spirit in a way.
But basically, every good cook has his, you know, little...it's all here in, in the fingers, in the, in the s-,...you know, he gives a taste because when you cook hummus paste...when I make hummus, I taste it as I go. And I would eat, add a little bit more lemon juice, or I would do something differently.
And I guess there are a lot of secrets that I 'don't' know, because the fact is, I've never been able to recreate masabacha at home, just the way it is served in Ali Karavan, even though I 'do' have the recipe. But it's true for every good cook, and every important dish.
Pasta, cooks have it definitely. Sushi cooks, sushi masters have all these little...that's know-how. That's the professionals among the chef. You want to call it spirits? Fine with me.
I'm interested in you telling me a bit of what the old foods of Eastern Europe were, and how the Israeli diet has really changed. Is it a result of immigration?
First of all, when we say, you know, when people say Jewish food, they automatically mean Eastern European Jewish food, which is of course a big mix understandably, because any kind of food eaten by Jews in the...wherever they lived, could be considered Jewish food.
You must imagine Israel in the beginning of, you know, the Zionist highlight era. We're talking about late 19th century, early 20th century.
The immigrants were coming from Russia and Poland, Eastern Europe. And they obviously grew up eating what you called old Jewish food. Yiddish food, such as gefilte fish, and chopped liver, and chicken soup, etcetera, etcetera.
But these people, they wanted to break away with a diaspora. They didn't want anything to do with their heritage.
So they grew up eating gefilte fish, and cholent, and, and chopped liver. But once they came to Israel, part of their ideology and their ethos was to break away from the diaspora.
So they had very little use for, you know, old country...old Yiddish food. They wouldn't even speak Yiddish. They insisted on speaking Hebrew. And they wanted more than anything else to become local...to reconnect with their biblical roots.
They were actually imitating Arab way of eating. That's where our fascination, I guess, with chopped salad, and even maybe hummus, started. So...and besides, I think most of them were quite young [background noise]. I don't think they even knew 'how' to cook.
So I don't think in the beginning...there was very, very little of what you call, Yiddish-Jewish food. I guess with later waves from immigration in '20s and in '30s where masses arrived from these areas...from Poland, from Eastern Europe, you saw more Yiddish-Jewish food.
But then again, this still doesn't really fit Israeli eastern Mediterranean sunny, warm climate. This is very northern heavy, brown food. So gradually you see less and less of that.
The only place we can really find it in all its glory...and I'm not being cynical...I think it's...this is great food...is in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities and Jewish towns in Israel, such as Bnei Brak and Jerusalem...like, the-these are time capsules that preserves the way of living of Eastern European shtetl, including the food. And there you actually find this kind of food. In the rest of Israel, it's not very common.
What we 'do' have, and a lot, and this is actually part of our f-, Israeli food culture, are traditions coming from 'other' Jewish communities, because everywhere Jews lived, they...because they existed in...because they were isolated in a way, because of the kosher laws, because of different holidays, they always created some kind of cuisine within a cuisine...within their neighbour's cuisine.
Sometimes it was quite different from that of their neighbours. For example, Iraqi-Jewish cuisine is completely different from from Muslim-Iraqi cuisine. And on the other hand, quite similar to Persian cuisine, and to Indian cuisine.
Jewish-Iraqi cuisine for example, is based on sweet and sour combination. It has something called amba, which is unripe mango chutney, in fact.
Very Indian. You cannot find it in non-Jewish homes. And there are very many other examples like that of, you know, of Jewish cuisines, of Jewish foods. And all of this variety arrived in Israel throughout the 20th century. And many of the dishes, not all, but many of the dishes became all Israeli favourites, such as Tunisian shakshuka, North African hummu-,...excuse me...couscous, chraime.
There is a lot of Turkish and Balkan influence, for example, bourekas that came from Bulgaria, with Bulgarian Jews. In Bulgaria, bourekas was very much home food. Bourekas of course is puff pastry, of filled pastry, filled with cheese or spinach, or spinach 'and' cheese, or mushrooms.
Extremely popular in Israel...arrived with Bulgarian Jews. And there are many, many more examples like that, of foods that arrived with the immigrants, with Jewish immigrants, to Israel, and became part of local food culture.
Where does hummus fit into that?
Well hummus is completely local hummus is from here. It's not even from, you know, larger...Middle East at large. It is from 'this' area. It is, Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian...not even Egyptian I think. And even though you find some hummus in Istanbul, it's...it really...it's, it's very, very, very local.
And it blended with other foods that are, as I said, immigrant foods that arrived here. Sometimes they...it is so difficult to differentiate between different, you know, origins, because...for example in Jaffa, we have Bulgarian Jews, and of course we have local Arabic population. And we have both cuisines co-existing. And they blend very harmoniously.
And one of the reasons is, that they have a common denominator...common denominator of both local Palestinian cuisine and let's say, Bulgarian or Turkish cuisine, is Ottoman Empire, that ruled this area for, for centuries, and influenced both Arabs and Bulgarians, Greeks, etcetera.
So bourekas comes from Bulgaria. But it feels right at home in the Middle East. Chraime, on the other hand, comes from...chraime, which is the spicy fish stew from North Africa...comes from Tunisia and Tripoli. And it feels right at home here.
Couscous is not local staple...rice is. But it fits right in.
On the other hand, gefilte fish, even though many people love it...I'm crazy about gefilte fish, frankly...but it feels less at home here. Very heavy, you know, Eastern European cooking feels less at home. So it's a natural selection that makes certain dishes relevant, and thus popular, and other less so.
What were the most popular foods from Eastern Europe in those days?
You mean...in when? In, in Israel?
Yeah, in the early days of Israel?
I think chopped liver and you know, the, the, the basic stuff. Chopped liver, gefilte fish, chicken soup...cholent, you know, the famous Shabbat casserole.
By the way, I would say there are two Eastern European Jewish dishes that are still very popular, and are all Israeli favourites. One is chopped liver, and the other is chicken soup. Chopped liver is the only Eastern European dish or speciality in the salad section of a supermarket, where of course, hummus has a very prominent position.
And then there is aubergine salads, and pepper salads, you know. All the deli salads that we like so much. And chopped liver is right there, which proves their part of, you know, of the pantheon of, of Israeli favourites.
And chicken soup, everybody loves chicken soup. But chicken soup interestingly, even though it's considered, you know, the 'Jewish penicillin', it's very much part of Eastern European cu-, food culture, the...chicken soup, we eat here. Is not anymore...not exactly classic Polish chicken soup.
It is also a product of fusion, because for example, we...when I make chicken soup, I add pumpkin, and zucchini, and leeks, and sometimes even cabbage, and a, and a whole tomato. It is not classically Eastern European.
It is influenced by Moroccan couscous soup, and maybe by Romanian chorba soup, and by Yemenite chicken soup. Somehow...and even maybe by Persian gondi soup...somehow, chicken soups are...I don't know...Jews have affinity for chicken soup for some reason.
So it's...and that's the beauty for me, of Israeli food culture, because we, we are such a small country, with so many ethnic groups, so many Jewish ethnic groups coming together, and mixed it...everything's mixed up. It is great for making beautiful babies. That's why, you know, Israeli kids are so good looking.
It is great for music. It's great for food. It's one of the greatest...if you look at the big food culture, if you look at what happened in Australia for example, or what happened in London, or what happened in New York, immigrants are great for, for cuisine.
Here in Israel, it's even more unique, first of all, because the country is so small, because there is such huge variety...we're talking about few dozens of cuisines. And number three, because cross-marriage is actually...it's not the exception to the rule. This is the rule, and this is the ideal. Most of Israelis come from somewhere from mixed origin.
And when there is, you know...one wife comes from Iraq, and husband from Hungary, the cross- [stutters] -fertilisation, the cross over, the melting pot, happens on the plate...happens o-, you know, on a lunch plate, where you have schnitzel with couscous, and Israeli chopped salad, and maybe some hummus on the side.
So you have, you know, Eastern Europe, Middle East, Balkans, North Africa, all mixed up in one lunch dish, that nobody really makes big deal of. It's completely natural for us. That's the way we eat.
I'm just wondering whether hummus provides a sense of national cohesion for Israelis? We talked about this last time...it's a food of a national identity, like for people to sit down and...of people from everywhere, from different parts of the world, to have one thing in common, one thing that they love.
Oh, I think there were many things that many Israelis love. I mean it's, it's not like...one of the things that I think...if, if I look at what happen, what happening during the last, let's say, three or four years, even, you know, since I wrote the book, there are q-, a whole bunch of ethnic dishes that making a lot of buzz.
It's not just hummus. For, for example, I think shakshuka is as, as prominent, you know, and important in the local food market as, as hummus. So I'm not sure about cohesion. It's definitely very social food. One of the sadder thing [sic] imaginable is somebody sitting up by his own, and you know, mopping up his hummus. It's, it's, it's, food to have with, with friends.
I mean, the fact that everybody in Israel have hummus, yeah, that's true. But everybody...I think almost everybody loves shakshuka, and almost everybody loves chicken soup, and everybody definitely loves schnitzel, and we all crazy about couscous. So...and yeah, and hummus as well.
When food revolution started in early '90s...late '80s, early '90s, the first thing that Israeli chefs did, was to look at the Palestinian cuisine and the local cuisine. So that's where we have to draw our inspiration for [sic]. That's...that were...these are the ingredients. So you saw a lot of tahini and hummus, and, and chickpeas and, and pine nuts, and stuff like that.
Later on, there were more layers added to that. Mainly, these chefs started to relate to their parents' cuisine, and it could be Iraqi, or Moroccan, or Yemenites, or know-, you know, known...and even Eastern European sometimes. And they started to blend in all these traditions together.
So it's a layer of local Palestinian cuisine, and layers and layers of Jewish ethnic...or call it immigrant cuisines, and even some traditions that were born here. For example, the famous Israeli couscous, which is a local invention, and is very popular...you know, becoming more and more popular in restaurants.
Or something called g-gvina levana, you know, the famous Israeli white cheese. Very simple, light, low fat cheese that was actually developed here by German Templers, you know, in the early 20th century. And now is something that we all eat, all the time.
Or the fact that we eat salad three times a day. Now again, the salad itself...and that may be...explains, I mean, how, how the dynamics work, because salad, what we call Israeli salad, is of course, Arabic Middle Eastern chopped salad.
But Arabs, as far as I know, don't eat it for breakfast, whereas we do, which doesn't make it ours as opposed to theirs, but which shows how you adopt a dish, and it changes because of the way of life of certain, you know, society.
In Israel, this whole...you know, Israeli breakfast thing started on the kibbutz, where they ate basically whatever was available. And fresh vegetables were available, and the kibbutnik would take usually...historically, they even chopped up their salad by themselves. And of course the recipe came from their Arab neighbours.
But they adopted it and used it in a slightly different way. So my favourite breakfast today is Israeli salad with tahini sauce. And then I might put...add some salad to the pita with schnitzel or, or and have some Israeli salad with maybe white cheese, or cottage cheese in the evening.
And I mean, that's very Israeli way to eat, even though the actual recipe comes from the...somewhere else. Or, you could see for example, in a dining hall in a kibbutz or in a, you know, army base, or at school, people would put on their plate, a schnitzel, which comes from Central Europe. But in Israel we make it with chicken as opposed to original schnitzel, which is made from veal.
And they would add some rice, or couscous, or whatever is available, or French fries, or chips. And then they would, you know, add some hummus as a condiment...as, as a dressing, or as a spread, with some zhug on top, which is Yemenite spicy condiment, for example, okay, or maybe tahini. So it's, it's just there.
Can you talk a bit more about the Chalutzim and what they ate, because that's possibly the transition point, isn't it, where...that's possibly where...
I imagine they ate hummus as well. The Chalutzim, the Chalutzim, the pioneers, the first settlers, as I said, they were young, they were idealistic, and they very much wanted to reconnect with the land of Israel, to be farmers, to be physically strong and fit, to eat what they grow, and break away from whatever reeked of their past, of humiliation, of subservience, of diaspora.
And so naturally, I mean they, they, they learned from Arab neighbours to eat pita with olive oil, and olives, and probably hummus, and definitely chopped salad, which then became part of our breakfast, and other things, which were available in the area.
So Chalutzim in a way, were those who, who embraced local Middle Eastern culture...foo-food culture. And again, adopted it to suit their needs. Maybe it was their spicing. Maybe they'd used different condiments.
But, you know, there is one thing you must remember, and it's true about Chalutzim, and it's true about Israeli society, let's say, up until late '70s. Food wasn't taken too seriously, or should I say, we were busy surviving, you know, building the country, conquering the desert, or making it bloom.
Fine food, gourmet food, was considered almost decadent. So the discussion of food, you know, initially started only, in the...when the...when it became legitimate, let's say, in the '80s and the '90s. That's number one.
And number two, I must say that people that actually brought food culture to Israel, those who really knew about, you know...I want to rephrase it...
What I'm trying to say is that the, the Mizrahi Jews, the Jews coming from Middle Eastern countries, from North African country [sic], the Sephardi Jews, had much more developed awareness of, of, hospitality, of cooking, of...and they connected better to local ingredients.
And so they were very instrumental in creating this amazing food culture we had. And Ashkenazi Jews very gladly [stutters] adopted Sephardi, Mizrahi Middle Eastern foods, because they were just so colourful and so suitable to this climate, and to this area.
So I don't think Chalutzim were very important in shaping the way we eat. They had other things on their mind. They had to, to drain the Hula Valley, and to, you know.
Can you talk about the way they dressed? I'm very fascinated by the way the Chalutzim dressed?
Yes. Well they dressed like...I mean they, they would...it was really funny combinations. Sometimes a Russian shirt, you know. Rubashka which is like, you know...and on the other hand they would have this kafia, and this is very Arabic.
So they, they definitely didn't want to look like they looked, when they were in Europe. And if you look at the pictures of, of Chalutzim, you actually see a lot of Arabic Middle Eastern, Bedouin even, motives there, which was part of...it was c-, it was very romantic for them. Bedouins, the Arabs were actually a continuation...direct descendants of biblical...of children of Israel.
And anyway, it is, it is, it is understandable because they lived in this area, in, in their ways, in, in their dress. And as we know today, at least some of their foods, they were indeed continuing biblical tradition, because the bible took place here, not in Poland and not in Russia, but in the Middle East.
I'm just wondering whether, just to continue on the Chalutzim theme and the sort of adoption of the new cuisine, whether there's a sort of rejection of the past as well?
Well, for them the most important thing was to create the...actually to force their new identity as locals. I...not even sure they called themself [sic] Israeli at that point. But they definitely didn't want to have anything to do with their past, which symbolised persecution, humiliation, life in a ghetto, isolation, subservience.
So they wanted to be strong, fit...work the land, eat whatever they grow, and certainly that...they did...have very little use for foods from the old country, even though, if you ask me, if I imagine a 19 year old Chalutz coming to Israel, living in this tent in the middle of Hula Valley, where it's so hot, and he works so hard, I'm sure, before he went to sleep, he dreamt about his mother's chicken soup.
I can guarantee you, because you always...I mean the food, this, this is what you...dreams, you know, and, and nostalgia is made of. But you never let on. You never told, so...I'm sure, because it was considered almost shameful. People wouldn't speak Yiddish, which was for many of them, their native tongue.
You know, for years it was forbidden to put on Yiddish shows in Israeli theatre. So the, the idea was...and of course, you had to speak Hebrew. You had to reinvent the language. One of the things, you know, that...one of the greatest phenomenons of, of Israeli culture, is how this dead language was recreated.
And I guess it is true about food as well. But again, they were not really into food. They were into food as...in so far as how to, how to s-, not to stay hungry. These people, their main, main question was, 'Where do we get the food, and will there be enough? What we grow, will it grow?'...because they were not very experienced farmers either.
So last thing on their mind was thinking about culinary heritage and, and, and trying to preserve or to reinvent something. But they definitely learned how to eat from their neighbours, which again makes sense, because that's what's available, okay.
And hummus probably was part of it, because...yeah, hummus, which is a breakfast food, definitely, was definitely one of the things they ate. But I don't think for example, on a kibbutz, that they cooked hummus on the, on the early kibbutz. As far as I know, they didn't.
So maybe they got it from the street vendors?
Could be. Could be. I'm not really sure about that.
Do you think hummus could be a food of peace?
I hope so. I hope so. You know, in...there were...used to be an expression, and then, 'There will be peace. We'll go to have some hummus in Damascus]'. It was like a symbol of, of this, you know, utopia of, of living in peace with our neighbours.
I think in general, it's, it's...of course, it's hummus, but food...I mean we might be [stutters], enemies...we're definitely enemies at this point. But we all love the same food. We all love the same food. We relate to the same flavours. This is hummus, and tahini, and olive oil, and olives, and ve-, fresh vegetables.
This is exactly the same. If this is not im-,...when we meet, when I meet, you know, people from Lebanon and, and even Syria and J-Jordan of course, in Egypt, abroad...and somehow, abroad, you know, you, you start talking.
And one of the first things we find in common, is food. We all like the same food. We come from the same area. So...and hummus, being such a strong symbol...you know, one day, Insha'Allah...God willing, it 'will' become the food of peace. We're going to have huge hummus festival. And then one day we'll know for sure who makes the best hummus.
And may the best hummus win. I don't mind if it's Lebanese, or Jordanian, or Syrian. It's fine with me.
Yes, when we dream of peace...many Israelis say that when we dream of peace, we dream of going...of mopping up hummus in Damascus. It's like a symbol of this utopia, of living in peace with our neighbours.