The big falafel

By Elizabeth Summers / May 28, 2016 / No comments
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As our love affair with Middle Eastern cuisine continues, we check out the new food trends at Israel’s street-food stalls and buzzy restaurants

Four days into my trip to Israel, my notebook is full of scribbles: knafeh, jibneh, mujadara. I’ve eaten challah rolls stuffed with pulled duck, and lamb wraps laced with green, spicy zhoug. Each evening, my suitcase becomes a little heavier, weighed down by dried barberries and black limes, candied hibiscus and sesame halva.

Britain has been in the throes of a love affair with Middle Eastern cuisine for 15 years now, ever since Yotam Ottolenghi set up shop in England and first introduced us to sumac. And our love for all things za’atar is only getting stronger. Yet as I toured Israel and its fast-paced food scene, it became clear the familiar falafel and fattoush are just the start.

It’s in unexpected outposts that Israel’s chefs are pushing the boundaries. Down Jerusalem’s dusty market lanes is a pioneering restaurant: Machneyuda. There are bowls of velvet-thick tahini and puffed warm pita and chamshuka (chopped meat with hummus). Once the main course is cleared away, the table is covered in tinfoil and the mad ceremony of dessert begins as the first slice of semolina cake is flung across the table. It captures the chaos of an ancient bazaar. Laughter fills the room, punctuated by shouts of “l’chaim” as glasses of arak are knocked back. It’s fun, free, fluid. Waiters whip tea towels round their heads in time to Israeli folk music. The whole time, Yossi “Papi” Elad — my self-appointed “spiritual guide” for the trip — gently bobs in time to the beat. His grandfatherly face is lit up by smiling eyes. Machneyuda is, after all, his restaurant. Elad founded it with two other chefs in 2009. It quickly caught the attention of the London-based brother and sister Layo and Zoë Paskin, who realised it would travel well and persuaded the chefs to open a branch with them in Britain. The result is the Palomar, in Soho, which launched in 2014 to knock-out reviews and was followed by a cookbook and a sister site, the Barbary.

The chefs find inspiration in the future, not the past

For three years, Elad swapped the pomegranates at Machane Yehuda market for the hustle of Soho. Now, he’s heading back home. But his final move was to organise a trip for London chefs to travel to Israel. Fergus Henderson sits at one end of the table, next to Hawksmoor’s executive chef, Richard Turner, with other top chefs shoulder to shoulder down the length of the table. They’ve come to find out how much more there is to discover, how many more forms chickpeas can take.

Throughout Israel, street shacks sell wedges of hot, deep-fried aubergine with a fondant-like silky centre. Sweet challah and fluffy breads make Britain’s supermarket “pita” look like shoe soles. We feast on hay-smoked dates and wild pears poached in hibiscus, and wines made in the Golan Heights. We eat sweet baklava and sip treacle-thick coffee infused with cardamom.

Top: sweet cheese
Top: Rachel, centre, with Gisela Fernandez Moles of Barrafina and Jose Pizarro. Below: deep-fried aubergine in Tel Aviv

Part of the excitement is how new this is to Israel, too. It’s taken the young country decades to establish its culinary identity. When the state was founded in 1948, refugees from Russia, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere in Europe brought with them bagels, borscht and brisket. Delis stocked pickled gherkins and preserved meats, and restaurants with starched tablecloths tried to replicate the brasseries and bistros they left behind. “Music, food, art — the influences all came from Europe,” says a Tel Aviv resident standing beside me in a queue for harissa lamb in pita. “Not any more. The chefs in the city are getting their inspiration from closer to home.”

The following night, at the home of Ruti Broudo, whose empire of coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants has been at the forefront of the Tel Aviv food movement since the 1990s, we pile in for a feast that shows just how Israel’s cuisine has changed.

Top: Shai Seltzer at his goat farm. Below: baked vanilla peaches

The evening starts with European-inspired canapés: chopped liver on challah bread, and glasses of chicken broth with mini dumplings threaded on cocktail skewers. Then, spiced dishes from the Middle East and Northern Africa. There’s chermoula fish stew and slow-cooked lamb served with hot zhoug. We wrap the meat in lachuch, a Yemeni flatbread pocked like a crumpet so the meat juices flood into the holes. It’s a smorgasbord of Sephardi and Maghrebi influences, the melting pot of modern Israeli cuisine that now confidently celebrates its Middle Eastern roots.

“A chef in France or Italy is expected to respect a set of rules. There’s a particular way to make a sauce or a dressing, but in Israel that’s not the case,” says Broudo.

This lawless fusing of cuisines makes Israel an anything-goes playground for chefs. In the ancient port city of Acre, for example, chef Alaa Moussa is reimagining Arabic food, demonstrating that it’s “more than just canned salads and fried fish”. He serves pale fish tartare with herb tabbouleh, and studs plates of ceviche with pistachios, olives and labneh. Further south, in the Judean Hills, Shai Seltzer is also mixing things up. He lives on the slopes of Mount Eitan with his herd of Anglo-Nubian goats, and produces thick labneh and tangy cheeses, some of which are coated in coal dust and matured in limestone caves. Then there are the vineyards, such as Clos de Gat, where new vines have been planted by a 3,000-year-old wine press.

Top: sweet cheese knafeh in Acre. Below: en route to the Judean Hills

It’s a country of dichotomies. On Friday night, as Tel Aviv starts to shut down, we’re hosted by a family for a quiet Shabbat supper. But then the city comes to life again and soon the streets are buzzing with whispers about the best street food and tip-offs for the top tahini. Balmy evenings, Goldstar beers and homegrown spirits such as Tubi 60 fuel the parties.

When I arrive home, London is dark and cold. But then there’s the prospect of lunch from Laffa, a blue street van in Flat Iron Square, Southwark, serving grilled za’atar chicken in a warm pita with yoghurt zhoug. Or even Bala Baya, a new modern-Israeli restaurant nearby, where a pita-making machine imported from Israel dominates the kitchen. The bread is warm and fluffy, the tahini thick. In the middle of the British winter it tastes of Tel Aviv, a taste of exciting things to come.

The new trends

From challah french toast to challah burger buns, this sweet bread is set to become the next brioche.

A liquorice-flavoured spirit that comes into its own as a cocktail ingredient.

Pita stuffed with fried aubergine, hummus and hard-boiled eggs, then laced with fresh herbs and pickles.

A hot, Yemeni sauce made from coriander, parsley and green chillies. New to Belazu’s range (see Smorgabord).

A bready-caky showstopper, often rippled with chocolate and twisted into layers or studded with dried fruit.

Now has its own halva bar — check out Seed + Mill in New York. Coming your way soon.