How we went from two cheese to 900

By Eric Silver, April 18, 2008
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60 years of Israeli food

Amos Oz wrote in his haunting memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness that the first time he went to France as a young author, his hosts refused to believe him when he said that Israel had only two kinds of cheese: white cheese and yellow cheese.

Four decades later, Basher the Cheese King’s stall in Jerusalem’s Machaneh Yehuda market stocks 900 different cheeses from eight European countries and Israel. His English imports include blue Stilton, vintage Cheddar and sage Derby. Israel itself boasts 150 goat farms making cheese of every shape, size and pungency, as well as about 200 wineries, which aspire to compete with the world’s best.

Israeli cuisine has gone global, although kebabs and falafel remain staples, Arabic dishes are making inroads, and kosher is staging a comeback. Pasta competes with tapas, sushi with rogan josh, Thai stir-fry with boeuf bourguignon.

Shalom Macharovsky, the chef of the Moul Yam restaurant in the old Tel Aviv port, flies in lobsters, oysters and exotic seafood daily from as far away as Sri Lanka, South Africa and Nova Scotia. Half-a-dozen others have followed suit. “Israelis are willing to try things,” he says. “There’s a big curiosity, a big openness. Israelis are globetrotters by nature. They see what other people are eating and they want to have it here too.”

Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel recently advertised a business lunch of salmon carpaccio with beetroot in ginger marinade, steamed fillet of trout with cherry tomatoes and capers in white wine sauce, followed by ginger ice-cream with zabaglione. Even 20 years ago, you would more likely have been offered avocado vinaigrette, schnitzel and stewed fruit.

Ra’anan Sivan, a government official in the days of the British mandate and the first 30 years of the Jewish state, recalls Norwegian fish fillets as the height of 1950s luxury. “Meat was only available if you paid black-market prices. Eggs were rationed. There was more poultry than meat, but even that was not plentiful.”

In Jerusalem, if you wanted a night out, says the 87-year-old retired ambassador, you went to Hess’s, whose owner had been a chef on German cruise ships. “You paid 12 piasters, which was a lot of money. For something cheaper, you went to Mitbach Hapoalim [the Workers’ Kitchen], where you could get a three-course meal for two-and-a-half piasters, a few pence.

“If you wanted a really good meal, there were a few decent restaurants, though they looked pretty miserable. They gave you a plate of rice. If you looked under the rice, you could find a piece of meat. You didn’t ask where it came from.”

In later, less austere years, Israelis tended to eat the kind of ethnic foods they had brought with them, from couscous to goulash, gefilte fish to kubeh. “They used to be the most popular foods in restaurants,” recalls Daniel Rogov, Ha’aretz’s food and wine critic, “but today we’re going in a more international direction.”

In the heady 1990s, some of the more pretentious restaurants commanded Mayfair prices. A tourist once complained to the Jerusalem Post that he had been charged hundreds of shekels for a mixed salad. “Yes,” mine host replied, “but look how many different kinds of leaves there are.”

Happily, those days are passing, Rogov says. “We’re going to high-quality, very adventurous food at more reasonable prices in more reasonable settings.”

    Last updated: 4:38pm, May 13 2008