Let's Eat

Going up in smoke, Sabra style

Yom Ha’atzmaut is one big Israeli nosh up. Three chefs share their food traditions for Israel’s Independence Day


Next week Israel will be celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut — Independence Day.

We pay lip service here, but in the land of milk and honey it’s a huge day of feasting.

Janna Gur, founder and chief editor of Israel’s largest food magazine, Al Hashulchan Gastronomic monthly says the day is all about the grill.

“On Yom Ha’atzmaut, it looks like the whole country goes up in smoke,” she laughs.

In The Book of New Israeli Food, Gur writes: “What Israelis love the most is to make their own barbecues. Locally called mangal or al ha’esh (over the fire) they have become the country’s leading participant sport, taking place in the backyard, on the balcony or on a picnic.

“On Independence Day, Hayarkon Park in the centre of Tel Aviv is filled with people. Every public space is covered with people barbecuing or picnicking. If you’re sick of barbecues you head to the beach — where every last inch is packed with people barbecuing or picnicking!”

Eran Tibi of Zest restaurant at JW3 agrees: “People set up grills anywhere — even on the tiny patch of grass in the middle of the road.”

Gur explains that Israeli-style barbecues do not comprise great lumps of meat but instead smaller cuts.
“Pargiyot, which are deboned chicken thighs, are popular cubed and skewered, as are chicken wings, as well as lamb or beef koftas, which are eaten with lots and lots of salads. This basically is the Yom Ha’atzmaut menu. You are either invited to a barbecue or you are making one.”

Gur herself will not be at home celebrating this year, but ordinarily would be grilling up a storm in the garden of her cottage.

“I marinate chicken and make lamb kofta with a lot of salads and plenty of the soft, fluffy white pitta bread we have here. We keep it very simple with grilled vegetables and then fruits to finish.”

Tibi explains that it’s such an important day that people want to celebrate in style.

“It comes immediately after Yom Hazikaron, the memorial day for the fallen soldiers which is a sad day. There’s the transition to celebration and then we celebrate hard. You take the best wine or bottle of Arak and the best food you can afford. My family cooks the king of the sea — a grouper. It has so much flesh, one fish feeds six to eight people. We grill it and set it on a table with pitta, salads and dips. There’s no need for plates — you just stuff everything into your bread.”

But chef-proprietor of Jerusalem’s Eucalyptus restaurant, Moshe Basson, will be serving an ingredient rather less familiar to most of us.

“People come to my restaurant to celebrate by eating mallow,” shares the 60-something Iraqi-born chef, well known for his expertise on biblical and foraged foods.

Not the sticky sweet, puffy white confection, but a wide, green leaf from the mallow plant — also called hubeza. Egyptians would squeeze out the sap from the roots and sweeten it. Basson uses the leaves in various dishes, but on Yom Ha’atzmaut it is the main ingredient in vegan “meatballs”.

“During the battle for Jerusalem in 1948, when the city was under siege, food was scarce and recipes were published on how to use mallow. It was the idea of Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, the wife of the second President of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, as mallow grows everywhere, even on abandoned pieces of ground,” says Basson.
According to Basson, mallow — which is referred to in the Bible as chalamut because its fruits look like tiny loaves of challah — became a lifesaver. There were, however, concerns over broadcasting the recipe ideas.
“If the Jordanians knew we were resorting to eating mallow, they would have known how desperately short of food we were.”

The mallow was used like spinach, to make soups, and stuffed, like vine leaves. They even used them to make meatballs without any meat — with bread and eggs. They were nutritious as mallow is filled with B12.” Basson is responsible for a resurgence in popularity of this leaf, which he serves in his restaurant in dishes like warm salad of sautéed mallow leaves with onions, garlic and olive oil to soups or as stuffed leaves or as “meatballs”.

“It has become like a tradition — a memorial. Barbecue is the most popular thing for Yom Ha’atzmaut but people still like to come and eat these the mallow “meatballs”.”

But do Israelis living overseas still celebrate?

“Oh it’s the full Monty,” laughs Tibi. “I lost a few friends when I was in the army and they would have wanted us to live life to the full in their honour. It’s a personal liberation. We crack open the Arak, play Mizrahi music and dance on the tables!”

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