Sushi? It's the new hummus

We investigate why Israelis have fallen in love with the Japanese delicacy.

By Anthea Gerrie, November 28, 2011
There are more than 130 sushi restaurants in Tel Aviv

There are more than 130 sushi restaurants in Tel Aviv

What is it about Israelis and sushi? The Middle East and Japan are many miles apart, and you would think the Israeli appetite for hearty, spicy fare with plenty of dairy would be at odds with a cuisine composed of dainty portions of fish, rice and seaweed.

But think again - sushi is becoming the favourite dish of cosmopolitan Israelis in the same way Brits have embraced chicken tikka masala, rather than roast beef, as our most popular national dish.

In Tel Aviv and Eilat, particularly, they cannot get enough of it. Both cities are packed with sushi restaurants (more than 130 in Tel Aviv alone), provoking the memorable newspaper headline, "Israelis fear sushi shortage after quake", referring to how the Japanese disaster earlier this year interrupted exports of essential supplies.

The raw fish delicacy, which has been raised to an edible art form in its homeland, has invaded even the most traditional aspects of Israeli life. The smartest weddings have long had a sushi stand at the pre-dinner reception, and hotels have also jumped on the bandwagon.

"The Friday night sushi buffet at Dan Eilat is very popular," says Su Newman, spokesman for Dan Hotels in Israel. "Our food and beverage director believes that Israelis like sushi because it is considered to be trendy, American and healthy."

Chef Hili Sharabani

Chef Hili Sharabani

American? Possibly that idea spread when Tel Aviv got its own branch of the Manhattan-born Japanese fusion restaurant, Sushi Samba. Or it may simply be because when Israelis visit the USA, they find neighbourhood sushi restaurants a deeply-embedded part of their hosts' culture.

Is it really a desire for light, healthy food, which is behind the sushi craze? The macrobiotic principles to which sushi loosely adheres have certainly been credited with rebalancing acidity within the body. But Ben Maharovsky of
Mul Yam, Israel's fine seafood restaurant which is a principal supplier of fish to the country's sushi bars, believes the craze is linked more to a sociable way of eating.

"In Israel, sushi is more about the fun of eating at a bar," he suggests. "It's the scene, the hype, the music, feeling young.

"As for the fish, for a lot of Israeli aficionados the sushi is as much about the spicy mayo as the raw ingredients. What I do know is that it's becoming like hummus in Israel - you see a sushi bar on almost every street corner, and I see kids as young as four or five tucking in."

The nearest thing we have to an expert on the phenomenon in the UK is Israeli-born chef Hili Sharabani who owns of a Japanese restaurant. She thinks shushi holds a hidden meaning for a nation which has battled decades of hard economic times.

"There's something prestigious about sushi which appeals to Israelis, who like to live well, as though it's their last day," she explains. "Besides, sushi is light but also filling and comforting."

Sharabani, who studied philosophy before she went into catering in Israel, now presides with her husband Peter over the kitchen at Watatsumi, a new Japanese restaurant off Trafalgar Square. "I don't make the sushi - Japanese sushi chefs study for years, and our sushi master came to us from Nobu," she says.

It was at Nobu in London, where Sharabani was employed after impressing the head chef, that she met Peter and got a crack at preparing Japanese food.

"I've loved it since we started getting really good sushi in Tel Aviv 10 years ago, and it's been as popular there ever since," she says.

Last updated: 11:21am, November 28 2011