Jerusalem’s hottest restaurant is combining the traditions of Israel’s many immigrant groups into a new fusion cuisineby Wendell Steavenson / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Cooking up a storm: the open-plan kitchen at Machneyuda, in West Jerusalem
The funny thing about Israel is that you can’t find Jewish food anywhere. At least not Jewish food as I knew it: matzo ball soup, chopped liver, knish, pastrami on rye, blintzes, potato pancakes with apple sauce. This turns out to be American Jewish deli food, an inauthentic ethnic hybrid like spaghetti and meatballs (not to be found on the Italian peninsular) or chicken tikka masala (unknown on the subcontinent).
Instead, as I found on moving to Jerusalem, there is everything else. The Jewish market of West Jerusalem lies in the heart of Mahane Yehuda, a neighbourhood of alleys and balconies, squares and courtyards built by Zionist families in the late 19th century. There you can find 20 different kinds of soft white curd cheese next to tubs of marinating herring, violently pink cactus fruit and slender young asparagus, toothachingly sweet halva, pickled garlic and beetroot, mashed aubergine mezze, harissa, maple syrup, gloopy mayonnaisey potato-and-pea Russian salad, poppy-seed Danish pastries and French croissants. You can tell Israel is a nation of immigrants by the multitude of breads on sale: small puffed Lebanese-style pitta, Scandinavian toasts, fire-blistered Iraqi lavash, crusty sourdough loaves, dense black bread for Russians, sweet soft plaits of challah for the Sabbath and oval loops of white sesame bread known as Jerusalem bagels.
Ashkenazi Jews, from Europe, brought with them smoked fish and heavy one-pot goulashy stews; Sephardic Jews, from the Middle East and north Africa, cumin and tomato-sauced dishes. Although the two cuisines have rubbed up against each other for years, for the last few decades Israeli food has been not much more than borrowed Levantine food: chopped fresh salads zingy with mint and lemon, falafel and mixed grill. Hummus is the mortar; almost everyone agrees the Arabs make the best lemony smooth concoctions (often served with a little parsley stirred in, a great local addition). Fine dining was, for years, a bland reiteration of international cuisine: pasta, steak, tiramisu. Saul Bellow wrote in his 1976 book To Jerusalem and Back: “Institutional food in Israel can be got down if you shut your eyes and think of other things.”
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