Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Israeli Food -- More Than Manna

By Paul Ross

JANUARY 24, 2000:  I just flew back from Israel ... and boy, are my politics tired. Aside from politics, though, there is only one other subject you can't avoid over there: food. So, in the interest of peace, we'll talk about that. I'll take you on a whirlwind miniature culinary tour of Israel.

Because it is centrally located to most of the trade and invasion routes of the last two millennia, what is now Israel has been lucky to have a great bounty brought to it from far and wide: spices from Turkish conquerors, olive technology from the Greco-Roman incursions, and snooty waiters dating back to the time of the Crusades.

The latest interlopers reflect the worldwide tsunami of corporate culture, as Colonel Sanders' smiling mug can be seen looking down from above major city intersections like a modern Caesar. But there is hope. Efforts to appeal to tourists and appease the fast-growing yuppie market have resulted in a boom in international cuisines. Now even the fast food courts of omnipresent shopping malls (called "canyons") offer everything from Tex-Mex to Thai with backup menu items of falafel and shawarma (lamb marinated with herbs and spices.)

Tel Aviv is the heart of secular Israel; high-tech business and international trade fuel a plugged-in, young economy. (The David Intercontinental Hotel even has a cybercafe called the iMac@fé.) Here non-chain coffee shops dot the trade quarters of the city while neighboring Old Yaffa features both nightclubs and bistros amid ancient open air markets called souks. Breakfast is the give-away that you're in a different culture. American-style eggs and cereals are making in-roads at the major hotels but, largely to maintain the still necessary kosher rating, they do not serve bacon, ham, or sausage. Instead, typical Israeli breakfasts focus on yogurts, salads (including hummus, tahini, and lebni), and baked goods. "Turkish" coffee and strong teas are drunk throughout the day and act as the glue that binds social contacts -- from a visit to a friend's house to the purchase of souvenirs. Gueta, a Libyan restaurant, caps each meal with tea made in their own unique style: heavily-sweetened and topped with floating, burnt peanuts!

If Tel Aviv is the country's modern heart, then Jerusalem is its old soul. With so much to see and do, tourists on their treks are lucky to have a plethora of inviting street food available to sustain them. A perfect walk-around nosh is the Arabic toasted sesame cracker bread called bra'zit. Those with a sugar-craving should try knofi, a ground pistachio, honey, shredded wheat and cheese confection that's served hot off the grill. The myriad baklavas, halvahs, and other irresistible super-sweets are lethal in their profusion and availability. It's a mystery to me why the population isn't entirely tooth-less and obese.

If Israel has a "soul food," it's Yemenite. Yemen's cuisine has dominated the taste buds of the country for the last decade with its unique spin on such Middle Eastern staples as pita, soup and lamb dishes; are all given a different twist with the subtle addition of exotic spices and surprising textures. The Yemenite Step, in the bustling "restaurant row" of Ben Yehuda Street, is one of the top places to sample this cuisine at a very reasonable price.

It's not surprising that in a region obsessed with it, history becomes edible. In two amazing restaurants, the focus is Biblical (Eucalyptus, which will be the subject of an entire column in future weeks) and the other Roman. Off the Cardo (literally the "heart," in Latin), the old Roman center of Jerusalem, is one of the world's most charming tourist traps. Cardo Culinaria heralds you in with trumpets, seats you on reclining couches, plies you with wine and foods of the period, and entertains you with lyre-players, jugglers, and gladiator combat. It's kind-of "Pre-Medieval Times" theme dining and a lot of fun.

The opposite is the quiet elegance of Stanley's with its gourmet French fare -- as filtered through the culinary quirks of its South African owner. The Gallic origins of the dishes are intensified by the inclusion of an occasional dusting of z'atar (a popular Semitic spice blend) and local wines which are well on their way toward a world presence. An added attraction is that Stanley's is nestled in the Russian Compound which is nightlife central until the wee hours of the morning.

Foods of the Arabic world are well-represented both in Israel and in the intertwined Palestinian Territories. Taboun, in the West Bank, is a one-of-a-kind women's collective featuring unusual yet traditional home cooking. While not yet a "foodie" destination, Israel is certainly shaking off its old stereotypes when it comes to dining. Here at least, "Jewish food" no longer means "deli."

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