More Than Just Food: Shaping a National Identity Through Cuisine

Edited by Ronit Vered
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Movie Clips


On the eve of 30 March 1909, a celebratory dinner party was hosted, marking Hayim Nahman Bialik’s inaugural visit to Palestine. The renowned poet had only just disembarked at Jaffa Port the previous day. And before he had even set foot on Holy Land soil, groups of his adoring fans had managed to sneak into the small boats accompanying his ship to shore. The masses awaiting his arrival on land, swept him off his feet and carried him through the Old City streets of Jaffa (the Achuzat Bayit [‘homestead’] land lot draw – the first step towards the birth of Tel Aviv – was still 10 days away.) An exhausted Bialik, who only managed to pry himself away from his many well-wishers in the wee hours of the night, was covered in cold sweat and in a letter written to his wife, Mania, he described the panic that had overcome him.

The feast in his honour, held the following day, was hosted by the Hebrew Teachers’ Society. It was held at the Bella Vista Hotel’s dining and ballroom – by far and wide Jaffa and Palestine’s poshest hotel of the time. Bialik was in two minds as to whether he ought to accept the invitation – all this pomp and circumstance and standing on ceremony was so far removed from everything he was about – but ultimately, he didn’t have the heart to say no.

The diners, comprising an assortment of authors and intellectuals, were given a special menu printed in an exceptionally large font. Each of the dishes was named after a poem or story penned by the guest of honour. “Fish” was the sole explanation provided by the author of the menu next to a dish titled, Wandering the Distance (‘mishut bamerhakim’), with no further details available as to the type of fish or how it had been prepared. The Pool (‘ha-berekhah’) was a soup dish; (Ode) to the Bird (‘el hatzipor) – a chicken dish; the meat dish was dubbed, Aryeh of the Body (‘aryeh [lion] baal guf’) and so forth, including a full range of puddings and desserts. “It was a most extraordinary feast: stately, Hebrew, and ever so tasteful,” daily paper HaZvi (‘the deer’) concluded with delight.

Nowadays, well into the third decade of the 21st century when it seems as though every last dish and morsel we are served on our plate is shared and immortalised across all social media, it seems almost inconceivable that a dinner party so important and carefully curated would not have been meticulously documented down to the finest crumb. However in those days, the daily papers could not have cared less about the minutiae of dish ingredients, flavour, consistency, and all that. The only reason the menu made the papers in the first place was because of the exceptional circumstances behind it, and the ‘highbrow cultural’ air the titles of Bialik’s works lent to what on any other day was “just food.”


These days, when discussing the contemporary Israeli cuisine revolution, the conversation usually focuses on trends that were taking place back in the 1980s and ‘90s: young chefs who, for the most part, were third generation Israelis, started mixing together the West’s haute cuisine cooking techniques with two main sources of influence: local Middle Eastern cuisine, and the cuisines of various Jewish communities from all over the world. This trend which, at the turn of the 21st century gave Israeli cuisine its international reputation is a product of the country’s then-stabilising political and financial climate. After nearly a century during which public attention was almost entirely devoted to the most burning existential issues, the relative stability of the period led to a growing exploration of leisure and pastime culture, of which culinary discourse is certainly a part.

In the years before the establishing of the State of Israel and the early decades of its existence, dining was rarely mentioned in the context of leisure, nor was food considered an integral part of “high society”. And yet, even then Israelis could not keep their fingers out of the food pie. Granted, in those days, food was primarily seen as a biological necessity; the substance required to feed and maintain the bodies of those toiling away at building the land and resurrecting the Jewish people – nevertheless, at the same time food, eating, and consumption habits all played a pivotal role in the attempt to shape and define a new national identity.

A collection of rare footage stored at the Israeli Film Archive including newsreels, propaganda films, and adverts shot between the 1920s and ‘70s brings viewers the story of the local culinary scene. It joins a breadth of still images and written sources, all of which attest to the local cuisine’s invaluable contribution to the establishing of Israelis’ national identity.

Food is a rather convenient reference by which to define identity – whether it be individual, familial, communal, religious, and national – seeing as it evokes the most intense feelings of relatability and belonginess in us. Its presence is a constant in just about all areas of life. Food is one of the first things we experience as we come into this world, through bonding with the mother and the nuclear family; as such, it provides a multisensory experience – through touch, sight, taste, and smell – all of which the brain associates with particular events and objects which it then translates into memories.

In the first half of the 20th century, Jewish immigrants sought to express their bond with the old-new fatherland through the fruits of the earth. Almost a hundred years before ‘locally sourced’ became the buzzword-in-chief at the heart of trendy culinary discourse, nutrition consultants on behalf of all the Zionist organisations around at the time published the first-ever Hebrew cook books, so as to encourage the use of locally sourced fruit and veg amongst new immigrants, to whom many of which were completely and utterly alien. The newsreels captured the Jewish pioneers’ work in the orchards and dairy farms, and the early days of industrialisation in the areas of agriculture and food manufacturing which, for many years were a tremendous source of pride, nourishing the Israeli ethos.

In the 1950s, within a staggeringly short period of time, the nascent country took in hundreds of thousands of immigrants, which also meant having to take on the many financial challenges that came with the territory by introducing food austerity measures and implementing equal rationing protocols on all citizens. Films of that period chronicle the search for production avenues and raw ingredients in line with the spirit of the time (including raring poultry for food), and the human struggle to live under the country’s harsh food austerity and rationing measures. In the sixties and seventies, after austerity had been abolished – and especially in the aftermath of 1967’s Six-Day War – cameras were there to capture the post-austerity euphoria as restaurants and street diners started opening up, and the constant quest for a common denominator – that distinctive national cuisine that will unite all the various cultures and ethnicities.

Israel is a young country located on ancient land that is rich with history and rife with geopolitical and cultural conflicts. Contrary to other, much older countries, Israel itself has yet to develop its own distinct culinary tradition. Any attempts thus far to steer it in that direction as part of the active construction of a national identity, have revealed a set of conflicts with which Israeli society continues to grapple to this day: from the Jewish-Arab conflict and the Ashkenazis vs. Sephardis ethnic conflict, to the religious conflict between secular and orthodox Jews, to name but a few. Israel has a diverse migrant society made up of a wide range of ethnicities, nationalities, and religions; however the search for a national cuisine is by no means unique to it. In a modern world that has, over time, become an all-encompassing global village, most individuals seek to define their own identity and differentiate themselves from others through streamlined circles of association which also include a national identity and cuisine.


The camera lens isn’t always objective. More often than not, the point of view belongs to those with vested interests or deep-seated truths which they seek to voice through it. That said, beyond the biased angle – and at times, even thanks to it – the camera is able to deliver a rare documentation of people, places, and events. In 1962, director David Perlov shot a short documentary about Jaffa Port’s small boat fishermen. The film, commissioned by the government and Jewish Agency for Israel as part of its monthly news magazine for new immigrants, captured moments of rare co-existence between Arab and Jewish fishermen (the latter of whom were of Balkan-Turkish descent), and also featured footage of the rich diversity of local fish (fishermen are seen returning from the sea with their boats packed to the brim with all their daily catches) that have since vanished forever, in no small part due to lack of legislation, controls, and enforcement on the subject. In an age when it is now painstakingly obvious that the future of the planet is directly tied to the modern-day food industry that seems to stop for no one, one would do well also to bear that in mind when approaching this rare footage.

Movie clips

The Orchard Industry in Eretz Israel

Jaffa oranges were Palestine’s (and later, Israel’s) first-ever, modern-day commercial brand. Also known as ‘Shamouti’ oranges, this variety of sweet oranges that have become synonymous with the brand was first discovered in mid-19th century Jaffa’s orchards – a spontaneous mutation of another local, seed-heavy, and commercially worthless variety dubbed ‘Baladi’ oranges. Between its oval shape, balanced sweet-and-sour taste, user-friendly peel, and relative lack of seeds, Jaffa oranges soon became the dominant variety in Jewish and Arab farmers’ orchards. The first crate of Shamouti oranges was sent to Queen Victoria all the way back in the 19th century. A later one would also be sent to King George III in the 1930s. The delicious oranges that graced the dining tables of monarchs and aristocrats became a highly sought-after commodity overseas, turning citrus-growing into a major pillar of the region’s economy. The oranges were packed individually and manually on extra thin sheets of paper, then placed in wooden crates. The pink sheets brandishing the company logo emitted a sweet, thick smell of Depinol – an insect repellent substance. The fear of one rotten orange spoiling the whole crate is what led to the meticulous, individual packaging of each and every orange in a time when the fruit still had quite the journey ahead of them – on camels’ backs and later, in ships’ bellies – before arriving at their final destination.Newsreel footage shot between the 1930s and ‘70s and stored in the Israeli Film Archive shows the annual great citrus export, and its major financial and cultural significance in Israel’s early years. During the 1980s, the citrus-growing field was hit by a major crisis that saw many of the old orchards felled. In the 21st century, local farmers resumed planting citrus orchards; in no small part, thanks to the proliferation of new clementine varieties developed by Israeli researchers that are, once more, enjoying great popularity overseas. Ironically, the State of Israel has since sold off the Jaffa oranges brand and nowadays, it can also be found on oranges grown in Southern Europe and South America.

Kibbutz Degania Members Gather for Dinner in the Local Dining Room

The communal dining room where kibbutz members would assemble at least three times a day was used as the collective’s main gathering hub. The dining room complex which, in most cases, was located in the heart of the kibbutz and was by far the largest, most impressive building, was more than just a culinary port of call. The dining room played host to kibbutz assemblies and spirited ideological exchanges; it was home to many entertainment shows and gigs, and in a time when radios and TV sets were hardly a household commodity, the dining room became the place where those rare appliances were available for residents’ enjoyment, who would gather together to watch or listen to the hourly news programme.In secular kibbutz society, established by the movement’s founding members, the dining room stepped in – both communally and culturally – for the house of worship. Despite eating being taboo for any other reason but to nourish the body of the Jewish pioneer building the country, kibbutz members – ever loyal to their values of self-sufficiency – were entrusted with all things cooking and baking related and as such, in every kibbutz, based on members’ backgrounds and the local produce available, certain cuisines became staples and symbols of this communal society. Towards the end of the 20th century, at the height of the kibbutz privatisation wave, these now-abandoned buildings – some of which were designed by the most prominent local architects of the day – became the symbol of the kibbutz dream’s demise. And whilst some still maintain a limited tradition of communal eating, these surviving communal dining halls are now run by external caterers who charge for every meal served. But when all is said and done, the kibbutz’s communal dining room and the dishes served there still became an integral part of Israeli cuisine’s culinary range and imagery: from sparkling water on tap and the endless stream of fizzy drink pints, through the food trays, metal rubbish collection stations on the tables (aka the ‘kolboinik’), and the colourful melamine serving dishes, to the DIY salad every member would chop up for themselves using whole vegetables, and the iconic kibbutz breakfast (made up of salad, egg, wholemeal bread, and Greek strained yoghurt) which, over time, became synonymous with the quintessential Israeli breakfast.

The Milk Processing in the Dairies of Palestine

Featuring on the Tnuva diner’s 1934 Orient Fair menu – alongside staples such as salad, omelette, sandwiches, and strawberry – is a range of dairy products: milk, two types of buttermilk, two types of Greek strained yoghurt (made of cows’ and sheep’s milk), Kefir (fermented yoghurt), two types of cream, and a portion of butter. Dairy, and its range of products, played an integral role in building up and sustaining the Zionist-pioneering ethos and ultimately, also in the novel tradition of Israeli cuisine. Human attraction to the colour white – which stands for cleanliness, purity, and the simple life – was supplemented by the pride of local production, both pre- and post-Israel’s creation: first, in the pioneers’ manual labour who were milking the cows with their bare hands; and shortly thereafter with the cutting-edge technology of industrial-sized milking facilities and all the latest pasteurisation machinery which also became bestsellers overseas. The land, the vast majority of which comprises desert terrain, is traditionally considered best suited for livestock farming (sheep, goat, etc.) In modern-day Israel, livestock rearing has become the dairy industry’s largest-growing branch – a product of Ashkenazi Jews’ culinary preferences who came from Eastern and Central Europe, and of intensive industrial-scale farming practices (feeding processed food at cowsheds instead of free grazing and roaming.) There is growing criticism nowadays over livestock’s living conditions under the modern-day dairy and meat industry, and of the quality of local milk. Ironically, Tnuva – the company that has become the most synonymous with all the dairy products that are now in the very DNA of Israeli identity – has since been sold off to the Chinese. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the company in its ad campaigns from plucking at every nostalgic heartstring, and rousing that sense of national pride stirred by dairy products like a pot of Tnuva cottage cheese (or the massive house, the logo of its flagship cheese which the company, at one point, had erected at Ben Gurion International Airport’s arrivals terminal.)

End of the Austerity Announced

Shortly after the creation of the State of Israel, the nascent country found itself having to take in hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants who came from all over the world. The state of the local economy that had taken a severe beating during the War of Independence, coupled with the shortage of foreign currency prompted Ben Gurion’s government to announce a series of austerity and rationing measures; however, the main impetus was the need to help and support new immigrants who had arrived penniless and destitute, and the fear of starvation and class inequalities. Austerity, the common name given to the rationing measures implemented by the government between 1949 and 1959 meant equal consumption and nutrition for all citizens. The daily menu was made up of wholemeal bread, 60g of corn, 58g of sugar, 60g of flour, 17g of rice, 20g of pulses, 20g of margarine, 8g of noodles, 200g of skimmed yoghurt, 600g of onion, and 5g of biscuits. Meat was rationed at a monthly 75g per person. “Special” populations, e.g. pregnant women or the poorly were given additional meat or cheese. The provisions were purchased in exchange for points handed out in food stamp booklets and indeed, everyone of that generation will forever recall the endless queues, the black market that emerged despite the aim for equality and above all else, the craving for what there was so little of, if that – meat, butter, eggs, and chocolate. Austerity, whose ghost continues to haunt Israeli society despite it now being the age of alleged affluence, is rooted in the Zionist-pioneering movement. In the first two decades of Israel’s existence, any culinary discourse was borderline taboo. According to the Israeli ethos, food – perish the thought – was not meant for pleasure or multisensory delight, but strictly for the nourishing of the Hebrew pioneer’s body as he embarks on building the new land. In the absence of many basic provisions, new immigrants struggled during austerity to recreate a lot of the traditional dishes they grew up on in their native countries. Indeed, many of the dishes we have come to know today as traditional family staples of yore had to go through major revisions during austerity: refined butter, olive oil, and sesame oil were replaced with margarine and low-grade plant oil. Even cooking techniques took a beating as a result of austerity. One of the finest examples of that are the kerosene burners which, to this day, are still used to make kibbeh soup and other traditional Iraqi and Kurdistani Jewish dishes. The German-made burners were given out to new immigrants in the 1950s by the Jewish Agency for Israel – and though other heating sources may have been used in the old country – they have nonetheless become a symbol of Jerusalemite Kurdish-Iraqi cuisine.

Chicken Exhibition by Poultry Breeders Association in Netanya

In Central and Eastern Europe, schnitzel is a flattened, breadcrumb-fried fillet, made of either veal of pork. In Israel, schnitzel is made of chicken and nowadays, is often ate in pita bread as a popular street food dish, complemented by salad, pickles, and a range of dips such as tahini and harissa. In a country that is predominantly Jewish and Muslim, pork is not a popular commodity; as for the preference of poultry meat over beef and other livestock meats, that dates back all the way to the days of austerity and rationing. In Israel, beef and other livestock meats are exponentially more expensive than chicken meat and in the 1950s, the Israeli government sought to encourage the rearing and consumption of cheaper meats. Israel is one of the world’s leading countries in chicken consumption, per capita. Chicken schnitzel is one of the nation’s most beloved, popular dishes and indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a family today – be they Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, and of whichever socioeconomic background – whose menu does not feature schnitzel as a staple household dish. And despite both falafel and hummus having been crowned the country’s national dishes, yet another proof of schnitzel’s dominance of Israeli cuisine is its proliferation in institutional kitchens: the fact is chicken schnitzel is one of the most commonly found dishes on nursery, military, and hospital menus.

Coffee Plantations in Israel

When all is said and done, the clip before you is ultimately a trivial, inconsequential footnote in the history of Israeli food and drink; that being said, one can’t help but be in awe of the diehard zealots who will devote their entire lives to making their dreams come true. Dr. Israel Gindel was one such zealot who had envisioned dense coffee plantations covering the length and breadth of the land. As professed in the foreword to his 1959 book, Coffee Growing in Israel, his utopian Zionist vision was mocked and ridiculed by his colleagues and peers, both locally and internationally. But the devoted Polish-born (1908) scientist’s spirit – who studied at Warsaw’s Institute of Forestry Sciences – did not waver. In the early 1950s, Gindel started a trial plantation where he grew and cultivated a range of coffee varieties, hoping to get the plant to adapt to the local climate. At the same time, he also appealed to local farmers to pilot and plant experimental coffee lots in their fields. Gindel may have been successful in adapting a number of coffee varieties whose seeds were brough over from Brazil, Yemen, Indonesia, and other traditional coffee-growing countries – in fact, the first trees even yielded some rather impressive initial crops – however, it was in the transition to commercial growing that it all came crashing down. Whilst a tropical plant can be adapted to survive and thrive in subtropical conditions, in the country’s earliest years, finding a steady enough source of irrigation and manual labour ultimately proved too great a challenge. Interestingly, in recent years when quality coffee has become such a staple of Israeli consumption culture and the emphasis on local production that much greater, others are now trying to follow in the footsteps of the man who believed that “under the local climate conditions, the beverage [coffee] is hugely important, especially during the warm summer months when workers find themselves insanely tired and sometimes, depressed even. These feelings do lift, however marginally or considerably, after one has had a bit of the ‘brown elixir’ which some have dubbed, ‘brown gold.’”

Baking of Bread and Pita in Israel

“At daybreak,” the newscaster begins in a very much pre-PC era, “the modern bakery despatches the bread to the shops in a variety of modern ways, whereas the primitive Mizrahi bakery delivers it to you in this manner…”. The camera then follows a boy as he loads up a heap of large clay oven-baked (‘tabun’) pita bread onto a tricycle and cycles off on his way, against the backdrop of buildings with decorated facades. Today, pita bread – the one made at the “primitive Mizrahi bakery” – is the largest-selling bread variety in Israel, and at a considerable margin from other types. The Middle East, including the Greater Syria region and Israel, is one part of the world where flatbreads made of durum wheat were commonly baked. High-rising breads made of bread wheat were more indigenous to cooler climates where heating sources (such as wood for burning) were in no short supply. Ashkenazi immigrants may have brought European baking traditions with them to Israel but in the 21st century, not only has pita bread become the country’s bestselling bread, it is also a symbol of the local cuisine. Baking a puff pastry with a pocket requires shorter baking time in an oven that had been preheated to a very high temperature. The dough, which hasn’t been perforated which would have released any excess gasses, puffs up into the shape of a pocket whilst the steam created helps the edges to break away from each other, even when the pastry has cooled down. In contemporary home and professional ovens, it is much easier to achieve the ideal temperature and moisture levels needed to create a pocket. However, in premodern times and in pre-industrial ovens, the desired result was that much harder to accomplish; but that is not to say that pocket pita bread (aka ‘kmaj’) hadn’t already been a regional staple for centuries, albeit less common than other varieties of flatbread. Until the mid-twentieth century, extra large pocket pita bread was still commonly sold on city and village high streets across Israel. The contemporary pita, or ‘100g pita’ in industry lingo, was born sometime during the ‘60s or ‘70s as demand came from street food vendors to supply them with smaller-sized pita bread, suited for serving falafel and shawarma. In Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other countries in the region, those dishes are still regularly served in thin pita bread inside which the dish is wrapped.

An Advertisement for Hummus Produced by Thelma

Yemeni Jews, who came to Israel in the late 19th and early 20th century, were convenient intermediaries between east and west for Israeli society. Yemenis, who were considered the true Mizrahi Jews, suffered great discrimination and social disadvantage, yet on the flipside of all that condescension was adoration of the “noble savage’s” alleged ability to integrate into the modern Oriental world. The route to making indigenous Middle Eastern dishes like falafel, hummus, tahini, and charcoal-grilled meat skewers staples of Israeli national cuisine went through popular restaurants that had set up shop in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter, and in street wagons new immigrants were given (to help them make a living) which toured the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, regularly. To this day, falafel in Israel is synonymous with Yemeni Israelis; never mind the fact that Yemeni Jews’ traditional cuisine had nothing whatsoever to do with falafel (whether made of chickpeas or broad beans), or hummus in tahini.

A Dinner Marking the United Nations Day

In 1959, as Israel was celebrating its decennial, Dan Almagor wrote The Falafel Song (‘shir hafalafel’) which cemented falafel’s status as the capital ‘N’ national dish. Then, just three years later at an official meal commemorating United Nations’ Day, served out of a commercial mass-produced tin, hummus is promptly introduced as Israel’s national dish. What exactly happened in that three-year interval? And why is it that to this day – if you stopped and asked anyone in the street – they would still confirm that hummus is in fact the country’s national dish, with virtually everyone having religiously-held convictions as to where you can get the best hummus in town? Based on Dr. Dafna Hirsch’s studies, a scholar of hummus consumption history in Israel, prior to 1940 only a handful of Jews preferred hummus to falafel; the latter of which had already become hugely popular in the 1930s. The tide first started to turn in 1958 when Telma released the country’s first commercially-branded hummus. And whereas these days we are all out looking for the most authentic, organic hummus of the lot – the one that is manually crushed and served fresh, with nary a hint of preservatives in sight – hummus’s ascent to national dish stardom is directly linked to its industrial-scale commercialisation and introduction to virtually every Israeli household pantry and later, fridge. Even its labelling as ‘Israel’s national dish’ was most likely part of the ad campaign by the same company that first put it out it to the Israeli market.

Fishermen in Jaffa

David Perlov – one of Israel’s all-time greatest documentary filmmakers – provides a rare snapshot of Jaffa Port in the early 1960s, captured through his poetic point of view. Israel may be located on the Mediterranean coast, however, in the first decades of its existence fish were by no means a staple of local Israeli cuisine. Jewish immigrants who came from all corners of the world were not familiar with the local varieties of fish; and with so many Palestinian families who had lived in cities along the coast – including Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, and Gaza – having been made refugees, it became that much more difficult to trace their typical seafood staples. Perlov, in his indefatigable pursuit of beauty in everyday life, and extraordinary depictions of the complexity of human existence in the mundane, captured with a romanticised tint the lives of Jaffa Port’s small boat fishermen: the common denominator shared by all - Jews and Arabs of Balkan and Turkish descent – being their seafarers’ camaraderie. And whilst Jaffa Port, according to the narration written by Amos Ettinger (This is your Life), is the image of other more famous Mediterranean ports such as Piraeus and Marseille, reality, as always, was that much more complicated already in the early sixties. Among other things, Perlov’s camera captured real-time trawling onboard a fishing trawler: after drawing the fish to their torch lights, the fishermen then caught the vast schools in their nets. In the 1980s and ‘90s, small and medium-sized fishing boats at Jaffa port were joined by large trawlers. Between large-scale commercial fishing, climate change, and lack of legislation and enforcement in the area (like a fishing ban during mating season), the end result was a significant decline in the Eastern Mediterranean’s marine population. These days, the sight of small fishing boats returning to the port, packed to the brim with all varieties of fish, has become that much more uncommon than in the early sixties, whereas fishermen who have stuck to their trade now struggle to eke out a living. Many of the fish eaten in Israel today are imports from other parts of the Mediterranean (like North Africa and Egypt), whilst the majority consumed locally remain freshwater, pool-reared fish.

The Israeli Queen of Cuisine Awards

“This Miss Kitchen contest gave housewives their public dues for their role as doting, devoted homemakers. A healthy family is the cornerstone of a healthy nation and a healthy, devoted family” (Ora Namir, Israeli Delights, 1965). The Israeli Delights Chart, part of which was the Miss Kitchen contest, was first launched in 1962. The aims of this government-sponsored chart were published for all to see: instilling a sense of pride in those entrusted with cooking and housekeeping; encouraging the public to use local ingredients; mixing together Israelis of various ethnicities and backgrounds; and identifying distinct national dishes for the young country.In the chart’s first year, a total of 1,400 recipes were sent in, however organisers complained about the absence of locally-sourced ingredients in the submissions. The inaugural Miss Kitchen title went to Nazareth’s Mrs. Abla Mazzawi for her stuffed artichoke recipe. Her runners up – Matilda Alkalay and Blanche Cohen – served up an offering of Chicken a-la New Wave (‘new wave’ referring to a white wine, tomato, and orange source), and banana souffle. The statement of purpose and lingo are reminiscent of the jargon used amongst women’s Zionist organisations and WIZO mentors in pre-Israel times, as they too made it their mission to promote the use of local produce and to convince women that their place in the kitchen was every bit as important for building the nation as the pioneer’s toiling away in the fields.

French Chef Raymond Oliver Cooks Meal on ZIM Ship

ZIM’s commercial passenger ships that were given symbolic names such as the SS Zion, SS Jerusalem, and the SS Negev, to name but a few – were floating embassies of the young State of Israel. The ship names and imagery appearing on the posh menus served in their first-class cabins are snapshots of biblical Israel’s vistas and the lives of hardworking Jewish socialists populating the land. That said, the dishes themselves, including Beef Burgundy, Smoked Trout, and Spanish Olives are all borrowed from foreign cuisines. This tightrope-walking between the local and global will go on to define many more trends and chapters in the history of this young, traditionless nation. In order to give these floating restaurants an illustrious international air, a “renowned French cuisine master” was tasked with putting together their menus. Present at the menu’s launch was even one David Ben Gurion – a man whom anyone would be hard-pressed indeed to describe as a haute cuisine afficionado. Israel’s inaugural Prime Minister and the architect behind shaping its vision in its first few decades had to be reminded regularly to leave his desk for the dinner table. His favourite dish, known as ‘kooch mooch’ (a mix of Greek yoghurt and buttermilk with chopped up fruit and blackcurrant concentrate) – was light years away from the colossal French dishes served on the menu launch table next to the Eiffel Tower.

Restaurants and Shawarma Stalls in Tel Aviv

Just look at the people’s deliriously enraptured faces as they eat, binge, drink, and gorge themselves. Look at them tear the chicken meat off the bone with gusto, eviscerating fried slabs of meat, and stuffing their faces with pita bread packed to the brim with street food galore. Of course, this graceful mass mastication orgy stands in stark contrast to the years of austerity that came before it. In the mid sixties and even more so, in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and the financial boom that followed, the streets of Tel Aviv were suddenly overrun with street diners and restaurants. Stepping in for the ‘Jewish’ (i.e. Ashkenazi) restaurants that were a staple of the first Hebrew city, both pre-Israel and in the 1950s, were the ‘Mizrahi’ (Middle Eastern) restaurants – i.e. kebab shops, steakhouses, and Middle Eastern street food stalls. The music underscoring the footage is notably Western jazz music (46th Street Stomp, Ralph Carmichael and his Ensemble), making the dissonance between soundtrack and image especially stark. Interestingly, you can already see how in the mid-1960s Israeli cuisine was settling into certain patterns and cultural preferences: a penchant for street food in pita bread – eaten whilst standing up, and the lust for fried meat. In his studies, anthropologist Prof. Nir Avieli highlighted the connection between barbecuing meat, especially on Independence Day [a sacrosanct Israeli tradition], and dominance of space and nationalism.

Traditional Palestinian Agriculture in the Judaean Mountains

In 1971, four years after the Six-Day War and the subsequent occupation of the West Bank, documentary filmmaker Yahin Hirsch (husband of artist Siona Shimshi, and father of Dr. Dafna Hirsch) captured traditional agriculture in Palestinian villages along the Judaean Desert border. The camera and soundtrack lend a lyrical-poetic air to the rare vistas that are practically reminiscent of a biblical lifestyle: stepped terraces going down mountains and hill slopes; a network of canals and pools to divert rainwater; and farmers (aka ‘fellahs’) wielding sickles and threshing boards in wheat fields. To this day, the double-edged treatment of the country’s indigenous Arab-Palestinian population continues to shadow the evolution of agriculture and the rise of Israeli cuisine. Jewish pioneers came to the land to build, establish, and exist, and brought along with them a range of European plant varieties and Western farming techniques; whereas Palestinian-Arabs were very much already settled there, and maintaining traditions that dated back to biblical times. For many years, all things Arab and Palestinian were considered primitive and backwards – but at the same time, also “local” and “authentic” – two highly sought-after labels in contemporary culinary culture. Nowadays, many chefs make a point of using locally sourced (aka ‘baladi’) fruit and veg varieties, all of which can be traced back to the Palestinian Authority and East Jerusalem Market. Palestinians have also made cultural appropriation accusations at Jewish-Israeli chefs, especially seeing as how nowadays dishes such as hummus in tahini, falafel, and knafeh have come to be known as part of Israeli cuisine around the world.

The Seven Species

This hilarious clip whose animation already looks a touch dated, is testimony to the never-ending attempt at reconciling the dream of returning to the biblical fatherland and the complex reality of modern-day Israel. In biblical times, the Seven Species were plants of great cultural importance whose fruits were easily preserved; as such, they were the fundamental food groups of the indigenous population. But what became of them in present-day Israel? Some completely vanished from people’s diets: barley, for instance, was used for bread baking in days of yore - and nowadays its only use in Israel is for fattening up livestock; other species meanwhile remained part of the scenery and culture, however they struggled to brave the transition to modern, full-scale agriculture and global market trends. Today, dates for instance are hardly ever commercially grown in Israel.One of the most fascinating stories is the story of wheat. For millennia, wheat was the region’s number one food source. Wheat seeds were not only used to make bread flour but were also ground down into porridge and processed to make freekeh (toasted green wheat), bulghur, barley, and semolina. The wheat plant adapted to the local climate and various growing terrains and at the turn of the 20th century, Palestine was still home to dozens of different wheat varieties. However, in modern times we import close to 90 percent of the wheat that we consume. What is more, all wheat consumed in Israel these days comes from contemporary single-origin varieties that have taken over for the traditional varieties, post-WWII.One of the most fascinating studies currently conducted in Israel aims to locate and restore to commercial growing levels all the unique, indigenous varieties. Project Wheatland [part of the Israel Plant Gene Bank] highlights the importance of biodiversity (seeing as how all modern wheat in the world has the same genetic makeup, one of humankind’s most crucial food sources is under constant extinction threat at the hands of pests and pestilence), whilst also bringing to the fore the cultural-culinary importance of these varieties that were almost forever lost.

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