Israeli Cuisine: A Crossroad of Flavors

Cookbook author Adeena Sussman spotlights Israel’s modern food movement

Israeli Cuisine: A Crossroad of Flavors
Adeena Sussman (© Dan Perez 2019)
From the Oct 15, 2022, issue

You need not fly to Tel Aviv to experience world-class Israeli dishes. The new excitement around Israel’s modern cuisine, flourishing in top restaurants and home kitchens around the globe, is easy to understand.

“The food of Israel is about sunshine and bright, fresh flavors—and imbued with a lot of tradition, passion and soul,” describes cookbook author Adeena Sussman.

The origin story of Israel’s culinary tradition is complex. “The cuisine born here is a mix of many cultures that have come together; it’s Jewish, Arabic, Ethiopian, Christian and Middle Eastern,” Sussman explains. Born in the United States, Sussman moved to Tel Aviv six years ago. Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen, her much-celebrated cookbook, is her meditation on cooking from the shuk (local market) and tells the complicated history of Israel through food.

Israel’s elevation to haute cuisine is fairly recent. “Back in the 1980s and 1990s, all the best restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were French and Italian—the mark of a great Israeli chef was how well [they] could copy the fine cuisines of the world,” says Sussman.

But as young chefs began to travel and work in Michelin-starred restaurants everywhere, they saw how the best of the best were coaxing flavors out of local ingredients. “A lightbulb went [on],” she says. “We live in a country with the best cheeses, tahini, unique spices and produce. Chefs came home and began to harness them into something new and elevated that still maintains the flavor and character of Israel.”

When pressed to trace a culinary throughline, Sussman points to olive oil, lemon and spice. “The reason hummus and [the cucumber- and tomato-based] Jerusalem salad taste so delicious here is because of our extraordinary olive oils,” she states.

Other cornerstones include tahina, the creamy tahini-based sauce sometimes referred to as “the mother sauce of Middle Eastern cuisine,” as well as salty, briny cheeses such as feta and lots of fresh dairy—especially the tangy strained yogurt labneh. “We’re not into aged cheeses here, which makes sense because of our climate,” Sussman adds.

Diaspora chefs have mainstreamed spices such as za’atar, which is both an herb and a spice blend of dried oregano, thyme, marjoram, sesame seeds and sometimes sumac. The popular Middle Eastern green sauce schug, a blend of hot peppers, garlic, lemon, spices and fresh herbs, is used liberally to add vibrancy and heat. Another staple is baharat, which typically includes black pepper, cardamom, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, coriander and paprika. Sussman is careful not to claim these as Israeli ingredients, as they’re shared with Levant neighbors such as Syria, Palestine and Lebanon, but they have become synonymous with Israeli cuisine.

Her upcoming cookbook Shabbat is a meditation on weekend cooking and entertaining, “a combination of traditional long-cooked stews for Jewish Sabbath and modern dips, fresh salad platters and grains,” Sussman notes. “Israel has such a vast array of immigrant and local influences, and combined with the Jewish tradition of always questioning, challenging convention and pushing boundaries, the result is a really unique cuisine that never stops evolving.”

 Three lamb chops on a plate with grilled red onions and lemon slices
These baby lamb chops get a special kick from cardamom-kissed schug. (© Dan Perez 2019; Prop Stylist: Nurit Kariv)

Schug-Marinated Baby Lamb Chops

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint
  • 3 tablespoons Cardamom-Kissed Schug (recipe follows), plus more for serving
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 8 to 10 baby lamb chops (about 2 pounds)
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced
  • 2 small red onions, each cut through the root into 6 wedges

1. Combine the olive oil, mint, schug, salt and pepper in a large resealable bag and smush the mixture around until combined. Add the lamb chops and move them around in the bag until they are coated in the marinade. Marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 8 (you can marinate on the counter if it’s only an hour; refrigerate if it’s longer than that).

2. Preheat a grill or grill pan over medium-high heat. Remove the chops from the marinade and remove as much of the mint and most of the schug from the chops.

3. Working in batches if using a grill pan and all at once if grilling, grill the chops, lemons and onions until the chops are medium-rare, the onions are charred and the lemons are slightly caramelized, 3 to 4 minutes per side (the lemons may be done earlier; if so, remove them from the grill). Serve the chops with the onions and lemons, with additional schug on the side. Serves 4

Cardamom-Kissed Schug

  • 2 cups tightly packed fresh cilantro, leaves and tender stems
  • 2 cups tightly packed fresh parsley, leaves and tender stems
  • 20 garlic cloves (about 2/3 cup)
  • 10 to 12 medium jalapeños (about 6 ounces) or 6 to 8 medium serrano peppers, stemmed and coarsely chopped but not seeded
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground cardamom
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to cover

1. In the bowl of a food processor combine all the ingredients, except the oil, and pulse 15 to 20 times, then process until smooth, about 1 minute, stopping and scraping down the bowl once if necessary. The mixture may seem a bit pulpy at first, but it will come together. If needed, add water by the tablespoonful to get the processor contents running. Drizzle in the olive oil and pulse very briefly.

2. Transfer the schug to a jar with a tight-fitting lid and cover with a very thin slick of olive oil. Stored in the refrigerator, schug lasts for up to 1 month. Makes 2 cups

Recipes excerpted from Sababa by Adeena Sussman, published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Adeena Sussman

Food cooking israel

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