Let's Eat

Need Divine inspiration?

With Israeli and Palestinian dishes impressing from here to Haifa, a beautiful new book sheds light on the story behind the menus


Israel's surprisingly wide range of gastronomical traditions relative to its size is well documented. Less well known is the regionality of the country's food scene.

"Distinct areas with geographical, cultural and culinary singularities are slowly emerging," explains David Haliva, creator of the recently published Divine Food: Israeli and Palestinian Food Culture and Recipes.

"I've tried to capture a unique history of the native Israeli and Palestinian farm-to-table culture that has been cultivated for hundreds of years," says the 47-year old creative director with a passion for food, who has previously published a book about Israeli patisseries. It was a slow start, with the arrival of immigrants from various countries who, he says, "had little in common apart from the laws governing kosher food, and a small number of dishes served on the Sabbath and on Jewish holidays".

His aim with Divine Food was not only to show off the food of his homeland, but also as a way of connecting Arabs and Jews. "I came up with the idea two years ago during the last conflict, as a way of connecting Israelis and Arabs. We have a lot in common although there is suspicion on both sides, but when you sit next to an Arab family in a restaurant, you speak only about the food and yourself and not of politics.

"I've lived and worked in Jaffa for many years and Jews and Arabs live here together happily. If we could sit down and eat together we may find out how little actually separates us. Food can heal and dismantle boundaries."

Jaffa, he says, is unlike central Tel Aviv, it has a more mixed Jewish and Arab population. "Friends who don't live in Jaffa are always asking how it is living there, but I've never felt any animosity or tension." Haliva's Jewish parents were born in Egypt and Lebanon, but neither spoke Arabic nor did they share any Arab culture at home - something Haliva now regrets and is attempting to rectify by taking lessons in Arabic.

Haliva , who produced the book with the help of a team including journalist Ronit Vered, chef Avner Laskin, food stylist Nurit Kariv and photographer Dan Perez, divides the country into four areas, which, he says, reflect four distinct landscapes and local cuisines: "The northern region, Galilee, is cooler with green hills overgrown with herbs; the southern region is largely desert. Jerusalem, in the Judean hills characterises the mountain region and Tel Aviv is located on the coast."

It was no easy task to single out the recipes required: "We could have written two books. We left some out as the ingredients meant they would be hard to make outside Israel. We also wanted to keep the recipes simple."

Northern Israel, which includes seaport city Acre, Galilee and the stark Golan Heights is the only region that has anything approaching a temperate and seasonal climate.

There's a strong Syrian influence with a heritage of ingredients like olive oil - olives are grown and pressed in the region - lamb and a culture of meze, served with the aniseed-based spirit, arak. "What was eaten in Nazareth and Acre, and still is, was eaten in Beirut and Damascus."

Sumac, the deep red berries, dried and ground to a powder, is a local delicacy as well as ataif - a sweet Arabic pancake served with coffee.

The dry south, sitting between Egypt, Jordan and the Red Sea, is culturally diverse and more lush than you would expect with extensive irrigation and greenhouses producing grapes, olives, peppers and even strawberries.

"Ashdod and Ashkelon are home to a large population of North African Jews from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya who came to Israel in the 1950s and 60s. They still eat many traditional foods like shakshuka, fish with a spicy tomato and pepper sauce, Tunisian sandwiches and festive couscous dishes."

Jerusalem is the biggest foodie melting pot but with some surprising shared favourites. Haliva says: "Every Jerusalemite adores stuffed dishes and it's a love that crosses religious and ethnic borders. They stuff fruits, vegetables, pastries and make meat dishes and sweetmeats like baklava. Muslim, Christian and Jewish homes make countless variations of stuffed foods and Jerusalem has a place of honour for the kubbeh - filled semolina dumplings."

No surprise that Tel Aviv, the most metropolitan of Israel's cities, is labelled as the centre for culinary innovation. According to Haliva, the food revolution began when "young chefs, the grandchildren of immigrants, went abroad to study professionally, serving as apprentices in famous restaurants across Europe and the United States". When they returned, they merged ancestral cooking traditions with current trends and methods. It's all about fresh ingredients with as little as possible done to them and local techniques like charcoal grilling or baking in a tabun (traditional clay) oven. Jaffa is famed for its many hummus bars and, as a busy fishing centre, for its fish.

"Over time there has been a blurring of borders but we've tried to give each region the recipes that represent it," says Haliva.

If you're still choosing your menu, this book could provide the perfect place for last-minute Yom Tov recipes.

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