Israeli society is composed of people whose roots are to be found in dozens of countries, with a huge variety of cultural backgrounds that come together to create the culture of modern Israel. An important part of every culture is its food and Israel is no different. At 65, the country is still trying to define its own particular cuisine. Forty years ago, a visitor would have been hard pressed to find 10 gourmet restaurants in all of Israel. Thirty years ago, most Israelis still considered a couple of meat skewers and a plate of fries as the best kind of dinner when going out. That fare was invariably accompanied by a bottle of cola. Food was a matter of subsistence and more a physical requirement than a source of joy or a cultural statement. Locally produced wine was slightly better than vinegar and Israelis didn't understand why they should pay for imported wine. But Israel, along with its cuisine, is constantly evolving.
Today, Israel is a gastronomic heaven for locals as well as tourists, with hundreds of new restaurants opening annually and dozens of restaurants rated as good as any restaurant in Europe or in the US. Whether looking for Italian, French, Latin American or Asian cuisine, anyone looking for a fine food experience in Israel will have a wide choice to select from. But is there a truly Israeli cuisine?
Jews making aliyah have always brought their recipes with them-it was the easiest thing to carry. The first waves of immigrants from Europe brought their gefilte fish, chicken soup, matzoh ball soup, kneidelach, rugelach, and an assortment of other traditional foods. Jews from the Orient brought their own food, heavily spiced, usually hot, with a strong Arabic influence. Immigrants from North Africa brought Moroccan and Tunisian dishes, of which the unbeatable king was couscous. Jews from Greece brought mussaka, Jews from Italy brought antipasti and Jews from America brought-well, McDavid, the Israeli version of a popular American hamburger chain. The real McDonald's only made aliyah in the mid-1990's, offering a traditional as well as a kosher (no cheese) version of the Big Mac. So what is the typical Israeli
Is it the ubiquitous falafel, served in pocket "pita" bread with salad, hummus, and tahini, which always runs down the front of one's shirt? Most tourists would remember that as their most memorable Israeli dish, but the falafel is actually not Israeli at all-it is classic Arab food. How about the shawarma as our national dish? Actually, it is Turkish street food, also vastly popular in Greece (where it is called "gyros"). A look at the famously rich breakfast buffet served in Israeli hotels (the source of those extra pounds taken back with tourists going home) will not help in understanding what Israel's national dish is, either. In fact, hotel breakfasts serve a mix of almost every ethnic dish brought by immigrants to Israel throughout the past century, from shakshuka to pickled herring.
Maybe we do not have a national dish because there is no single national Israeli character, either. After all, what is a typical Israeli like? Ashkenazi? Sephardi? Ultra-Orthodox? Conservative? Reform? Secular? How about a mixture of some (or all) of the above? We have many traits, some of which are not only varied but downright contradictory. We respect hierarchy and function well within a structured organization-but we always question our superiors, in the army and in the private market, looking for a better way to do things. We celebrate our Nobel laureates but use the term "professor" as a characterization of someone deemed to be somewhat less than cool. We are proud of our democracy and its rights, including the freedom of expression, but often argue so loudly that we forget to listen to each other's different opinions. We are a society defining itself constantly, and the search for a truly Israeli dish is as elusive as the search for a definitive
As we sit with our families at Rosh Hashanah dinner, we will be dining on a huge variety of dishes, representing Israelis' one hundred countries of origin. All those dishes have one thing in common: they are part of our people's heritage. Maybe one of those dishes will, one day, become part of our Israeli heritage.
Shana tova, whatever your cuisine.
Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.