A Region's Tastes Commingle in Israel

Published: July 20, 1994

IT'S as if some mystical wind from Israel were rustling through the collective unconscious of America's chefs: Terrance Brennan of Picholine, near Lincoln Center, is slipping nuggets of halvah into his coffee ice cream; Donna Insalaco, at Fama in Santa Monica, Calif., is offering lamb ragout with cumin and feta cheese, and Andrew Nathan, of Frontiere in SoHo, grinds a batch of incendiary harissa every day to serve with merguez-and-couscous salad.

These chefs, and dozens like them, are experimenting with a big, inclusive style of cooking from the collision of cultures that is Israel. Some call it Med-rim cooking. Others prefer Pan-Mediterranean cuisine. Or Levantine fusion cooking.

This healthful cuisine is not to be confused with the humorously maligned "Jewish" food of Eastern Europe and the Borscht Belt. Nor is it the food that most tourists routinely encounter. This cooking is based loosely on foods of the Bible: wheat, barley, olive oil, figs, honey, pomegranates and wine.

These flavors from Israel are finding a ready reception in the United States for at least two reasons:

First, the food includes hot chilies, cumin, fresh coriander and basil, familiar components of other cuisines that are increasingly popular here, including Southeast Asian cooking and Tex-Mex, which gave Americans their appetite for salsa.

Second, chefs are always looking for new tastes, and after mining France, Italy and Greece, they are moving down the coast of the Mediterranean. With its reliance on olives, sour-salty sumac seasoning, grains and legumes, this olive-oil-enriched cuisine has health benefits that are well documented. The ingredients are becoming much easier to find here, too, because Arab immigrants are creating a demand for their products.

By accident of history and geography, Israel has become the culinary crossroads of the disparate people who hug the Mediterranean coast.

Propelled by constant conflict since the 1940's, Jews living in Arab states of North Africa and the Levant (a term that includes Israel, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt) moved in great numbers to Israel, taking their native cooking with them. Now, diverse recipes from this vast region are concentrated in only a few square miles.

Ehud Yonay, a food importer in Santa Monica, Calif., said the table at his family's olive farm in Israel, between Jewish Haifa and Arab Nazareth, includes peppery Yemenite soups, hearty Moroccan tagines enlivened with harissa, and goat's milk yogurt cheese sprinkled with za'atar, an intoxicating spice blend of hyssop, sumac and sesame seeds.

In Israel, Shalom Kadosh, the executive chef of the Sheraton Plaza in Jerusalem, fuses local ingredients with the flavors of his native Morocco. He brings together the disparate elements of the region with loin of lamb in a crust of bulgur and sumac, and white and red varieties of the flat sweet-fleshed St. Peter's fish from the Sea of Galilee served with quail eggs, hand-rolled couscous and confit of onions in pomegranate syrup.

Increasingly, chefs from the United States are borrowing these ingredients. Todd English, the chef and owner of two Boston restaurants whose very names, Olives and Figs, conjure up visions of the Mediterranean, says he is committed to what he calls Pan-Mediterranean influences. At Olives, in Charlestown, wood-grilled lahmejune, an Armenian flat bread, is topped with goat cheese and tomatoes and served with leg of lamb and Syrian cucumber salad. A kind of "fusion tabbouleh" of cracked wheat and fresh tuna has become popular. And inspired by a recent trip to Israel, he plans to add a grand mezze platter (an assemblage of first courses) to the menu at Figs two block away.

At Picholine, Mr. Brennan employs eastern Mediterranean "flavor enhancers."

He uses sumac as a rub for meats, sprinkles licorice powder into savory sauces and splashes orange and rose-flower essence into desserts. He even makes his own pomegranate molasses by cooking down the juice, adds it to vinaigrettes, puts it in sparkling wine for a house aperitif and spoons it into a grain salad tossed with chunks of foie gras.

Joyce Goldstein could be called the mother of Med-rim in the west. At her restaurant, Square One, in San Francisco, she serves lentil-and cracked-wheat pilaf; spinach and beets with mint and walnuts, and a brochette marinated in pomegranate, honey and black pepper.

As Med-rim taste catches on, Ms. Goldstein fears that these ingredients may soon wind up in trendy enchiladas, where many a Maine lobster or Norwegian smoked salmon has found a fashionable but incongruous place.

Dr. Liora Givon, an Israeli sociologist concerned with culture and food, said that in Israel, cross-cultural marriages are affecting what people cook at home. "If a Moroccan woman marries a Yemenite man, she begins to cook both cuisines," she said.

A stroll through the Supersol supermarket in a shopping center near Tel Aviv showed this Pan-Mediterranean mix: Turkish salad prepared with tomatoes and peppers; fiery red harissa from Tunisia; matbucha, a cooked Moroccan salad of tomatoes, red peppers and onions; spicy zhug, a Yemenite condiment of tiny hot peppers, coriander and garlic; fried eggplant in tahini, and hummus a half-dozen ways. All were prepackaged as convenience foods. Arranged on a single supermarket shelf, they illustrated how Israel can call itself the world's smallest melting pot.

Judging from Israel Food Week '94, a trade show held in Jerusalem in May, the Israeli trend toward culinary amalgamation is being exported. A number of the Israeli products are being imported into the United States, or will be, by Galilee Cheese Corporation in Tenafly, N.J., including ethnic spice blends like Yemenite khavagage (cumin, cardamom, black pepper, coriander, tumeric and salt); Iraqi baharat (nutmeg, black peppers, coriander, cumin, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, paprika and chilies), and Arab za'atar (hyssop, thyme, sumac, sesame seeds).

They smell like a bazaar-in-a-bottle.

Riding the wave of demand for olive-based products in Israel and the United States, Olivia Food Company, an Israeli concern, has developed an olive salt, a condiment that includes powdered olives and garlic; shaken onto pasta or chicken, it triggers an intense rush of olive flavor and bouquet. The same company is marketing olive-branch briquettes for barbecuing, the Levant's answer to mesquite. And Zeta Natural Oils, a two-year-old Israeli company, sells sun-dried souri and barnea olives. Like the more familiar sun-dried tomatoes, they come packed in oil.

Just as wars concentrated Middle Eastern Jews in Israel, recent political upheavals from Algeria to Egypt to Iraq have brought about Arab migrations to the United States, thereby creating demand here for these kinds of products and flavors.

The aromas are coming from small ethnic neighborhood restaurants and white-tablecloth establishments around the country.

In one case, in San Francsico, a small kebab house has been reborn as a larger place, called Yaya Cuisine, in the Sunset district. Yahya Salih, the chef and owner, describes his food as Mesopotamia-California, a blend of the varied cuisines of his native Iraq recreated in a fresh, California style.

A master of Med-rim imagination, he fills ravioli with dates; dresses grilled eggplant with pomegranate molasses and serves grilled trout with pomegranate aioli.

Don Pintabona, the executive chef of TriBeCa Grill, on Greenwich Street, has an Israeli cook prepare authentic salads and mezze for large parties. Inspired by a culinary expedition to Israel, Mr. Pintabona created a halvah parfait with warm cashew-chocolate cake; it is a popular addition to his dessert menu.

And Geoffrey Zakarian at Restaurant 44 at the Royalton Hotel in New York liberally borrows flavors and recipes from his Armenian mother. While the greater Mediterranean area informs his cooking, he prefers to call his food "second-generation French-American."

But he blends his own za'atar to season fish dishes and grilled Peking duck. Pita bread is grilled to order, accompanied by baba gannouj. Salmon gets a Med-rim treatment with cucumber, walnut and date salad.

"No matter what you call it," Mr. Zakarian said, "these are the hot flavors for the rest of the century." Do You Speak Med-Rim?

BAGELE Puffy-dough bread that looks like a large oval bagel and is sprinkled with sesame seeds. Sold in the streets of Jerusalem with little packets of za'atar wrapped in newspaper. CHELBA Yemenite orange-red hot-pepper sauce. DUKKAH Egyptian spice mixture of toasted and ground hazelnuts, cumin, coriander and sesame seeds. FATTOUSH Bread salad made with tomatoes, cucumber, radishes, toasted pita and sumac. HALVAH Grainy Middle Eastern sweet made from roasted sesame seeds and boiled sugar. HARISSA Fiery red-pepper paste from Tunisia, also used by Moroccans and Algerians. HILBEH Yemenite dip made from fenugreek seeds. HUMMUS Dip or spread of pureed chickpeas, tahini, garlic and lemon juice. HYSSOP A biblical herb, similar to wild marjoram, used fresh in salads and dried in za'atar. LABANEH Thick yogurt cheese. MATBUCHA Cooked Moroccan salad of tomatoes, red peppers and onions. "MED-RIM BREAD BASKET" Lafah (Iraqi pita); lachuch (spongy Yemenite bread); Druze bread (soft and parchment thin); malahwach (Yemenite multi-layered fried bread); Lahmejune (Armenian flat bread). POMEGRANATE MOLASSES Thick piquant syrup or concentrate made from reduced pomegranate juice, sugar and lemon, used for salads and in cooked foods. SABRA A sweet desert prickly pear with thorny, thin skin; available in summer. SHARON FRUIT Sweet and aromatic tomato-shaped fruit developed in Israel from the persimmon. It is edible even when hard, and its season is from November to January. ST. PETER'S FISH Also called tilapia, and mousht in Arabic. Originally from the Sea of Galilee, now farmed, it is mild and sweet fleshed. SUMAC Dried and ground red berry that imparts a strong salty citrus flavor to salads and cooked foods. TAHINI Seasame-seed paste. The condiment of choice in Israel and used as a dip, spread and sauce for falafel, fish, poutry and meats. TURKISH SALAD Puree of red pepper, tomato and spices. ZA'ATAR Blend of dried hyssop, sumac and sesame seeds. ZHUG Spicy Yemenite condiment of tiny hot peppers, fresh coriander and garlic. Can be green or red. Also spelled zhoug. Sources for Israeli Foods

The following stores carry a good selection of Israeli products, olive oil, Mediterranean spices and condiments. WHOLE FOODS MARKET 2421 Broadway, near 89th Street, (212) 874-4000. LIKITSAKOS 1174 Lexington Avenue, near 80th Street, (212) 535-4300. NATURA 615 Ninth Avenue, near 43d Street, (212) 397-4700. FESTIVAL OF FOOD 41B Main Street, Port Washington, L.I., (516) 883-6037. INTERNATIONAL TASTE 150 Seventh Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn, (718) 768-7217. GREATER GALILEE GOURMET INC. Santa Monica, Calif., will ship by mail, (800) 290-1391. The following stores sell Israeli cheeses, sheep's milk camembert, labaneh (yogurt cheese) and goat's milk feta. DEAN & DELUCA 560 Broadway, near Prince Street, (212) 431-1691. SARA'S MARKET 1466 Second Avenue, near 76th Street, (212) 737-3900. ZABAR'S 2245 Broadway, near 80th Street, (212) 787-2000. MILLER'S FAMOUS CHEESES 2192 Broadway, at 78th Street, (212) 496-8855. GALILEE CHEESE CORPORATION Tenafly, N.J., will ship by mail, (201) 569-3175. Recipes From the Levant, With Biblical Ingredients Frontiere's Grouper With Za'atar and Tomato Total time: 45 minutes 10 large plum tomatoes 2 tablespoons olive oil 4 large cloves garlic, sliced 1 1/4 cups finely diced onion 1 1/2 tablespoons za'atar, a spice mix available at Middle Eastern food shops 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 4 6-ounce grouper fillets Salt and pepper to taste 20 asparagus spears, lightly steamed 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice.

1. Cut tomatoes in large pieces.

2. In medium nonstick skillet, heat one tablespoon of the olive oil.

3. Saute garlic and onion until soft. Add tomatoes and cook 10 to 15 minutes, until very soft but still chunky. Stir in za'atar, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Cook one minute. Keep warm.

4. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper. Heat one tablespoon olive oil in large nonstick skillet. Saute fish over high heat for 3 to 4 minutes on each side.

5. To serve, spoon sauce on bottom of 4 plates. Put fish on top. Garnish with asparagus arranged like spokes of a wheel and sprinkle with lemon juice.

Yield: 4 servings.

Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 290 calories, 9 grams fat, 60 milligrams cholesterol, 215 milligrams sodium, 35 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrate. Frontiere's Harissa Total time: 45 minutes 4 to 5 medium dried red chili peppers, stems removed 1/4 cup red-wine vinegar Juice of 1 lemon (3 tablespoons) 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind 6 cloves garlic, chopped fine 1/4 cup full-flavored olive oil 1 teaspoon coriander seeds 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1/4 teaspoon allspice 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/3cup tomato paste.

1. Soak chili peppers in vinegar for 30 minutes until soft. Put chilies and vinegar in food processor with lemon juice, grated lemon rind, garlic and olive oil. Process until smooth.

2. Lightly toast coriander and fennel seeds. Pulverize in spice grinder. Add to food processor with pepper, allspice, nutmeg, salt and tomato paste. Process until smooth. If too thick, adjust with olive oil.

Yield: 1 cup.

Approximate nutritional analysis per tablespoon:: 40 calories, 3grams fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 70 milligrams sodium, 0 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrate. Todd English's Tuna Tabbouleh Total time: 1 hour 1 cup bulgur 8 ounces sushi-grade tuna, ground or minced with a sharp knife 1 small bunch cilantro, chopped 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley Juice and zest of one lemon 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint 1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger 1 cup peeled fresh horseradish, passed through a juicer to make 1/3 cup horseradish juice 1/2 cup full-flavored olive oil Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted 1 large seedless cucumber, peeled and cut into ribbons.

1. In a casserole, boil bulgur in 4 cups water until the wheat is soft but still has some bite.

2. Drain, then spread on flat surface to cool.

3. In a large bowl, mix cooled bulgur, tuna, cilantro and parsley.

4. In another bowl, place lemon juice and zest, mint, ginger, horseradish juice and olive oil. Whisk until well blended.

5. Pour dressing over bulgur-tuna mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste and stir. Top with toasted cumin seeds and surround with cucumber.

Yield: 6 servings.

Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 310 calories, 20 grams fat, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 25 milligrams sodium (before salting), 13 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrate. Tahini Sauce (Adapted from "Popular Food From Israel" by Ruth Sirkis, R. Sirkis Publishers Ltd., 1993) Total time: 20 minutes 1 1/2 cups tahini 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice 2 cloves garlic, pushed through garlic press 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/2teaspoon paprika 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley.

1. If tahini paste has separated, stir.

2. Put tahini in large bowl. Add one cup water in slow stream, stirring constantly with wooden spoon. Add lemon juice and garlic and stir until sauce is smooth.

3. Add salt, paprika and pepper. Stir. Before serving, sprinkle with parsley.

Yield: 6 servings.

Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 345 calories, 30 grams fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 555 milligrams sodium, 10 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrate. Med-Rim Bulgur Salad (Adapted from "Middle Eastern Food" by George Lassalle, Kyle Cathie Ltd., 1991) Total time: 45 minutes, plus 2 hours chilling 1 1/2 cups coarse bulgur 3 tablespoon olive oil 1 cup finely diced onion 2/3 cup finely chopped parsley 1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro 6 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 1 1/2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses 1 tablespoons ground cumin 1 1/2 teaspoons Mediterranean oregano 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice Salt to taste 2 teaspoons sumac, if desired.

1. Soak bulgur in 4 cups of boiling water for 30 minutes. Squeeze dry. Reserve.

2. Heat oil in medium skillet. Saute onion over low heat until soft but not brown, about 8 minutes. Reserve with oil.

3. Put soaked bulgur in large bowl and add cooked onion with oil. Mix with fork. Add remaining ingredients except sumac, and mix. Chill several hours. Sprinkle with sumac before serving.

Yield: 6 servings.

Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 265 calories, 12 grams fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 15 milligrams sodium (before salting), 7 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrate. Halvah Souffle (Adapted from "Taste of Israel: A Mediterranean Feast" by Avi Ganor and Ron Maiberg, Galahad, 1993) Total time: 55 minutes Softened butter and sugar to prepare souffle dish 6 lady fingers 7 ounces halvah 2 tablespoons cornstarch 2 tablespoons sugar Pinch of salt 5 egg yolks 2 tablespoons brandy 1 cup milk 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 5 egg whites.

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter inside of 5-cup souffle dish and sprinkle with sugar. Line bottom with lady fingers.

2. Crumble halvah and mix to smooth paste with a little water. Add cornstarch, one tablespoon sugar, pinch of salt, egg yolks, brandy and mix.

3. Heat milk almost to boiling, then pour into halvah mixture, beating nonstop with fork. Sift in the flour, mix gently and let cool.

4. Beat egg whites to stiff peaks with one tablespoon sugar. Stir a third into halvah mixture, then fold in the rest. Pour into souffle dish and place a round, buttered piece of foil on top. Bake 25 minutes (do not open door until finished). Serve immediately.

Yield: 6 servings.

Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 360 calories, 20 grams fat, 225 milligrams cholesterol, 160 milligrams sodium, 11 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrate.

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