The world cannot get enough of Israeli food. Its chefs and their books are all the rage.
Leading the diaspora are Yotam Ottolenghi and business partner Sami Tamimi — now household names. Husband and wife team Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer, are also attracting huge critical acclaim at their small London restaurant Honey & Co, and Stateside, New York’s Balaboosta, Einat Admony, is part of a wave of Sabra chefs winning plaudits.
One name many of us may not yet be familiar with is Gil Hovav. According to Haaretz, Hovav is Tel Aviv’s favourite foodie. Hovav is concerned we might not be getting the right impression of his country’s cuisine.
Although keen not to do his countrymen cooking abroad a disservice — “many of them are friends and I think very highly of them” — he does not believe their food mirrors what you would find in local restaurants.
“The food we actually eat here is much rougher, ruder and tastier than that served in some of the restaurants and many of the cookery books outside Israel,” he explains.
He describes Israeli food as a mish mash of food from various ethnic groups. He believes the home grown Israeli cuisine as still developing, but essentially “Eastern Mediterranean – a cross between Arabia and Italy; spicy and sophisticated.”
Hovav was born and raised in Jerusalem, and now lives in Tel Aviv with his male partner of more than 20 years and their daughter. He knows about his country’s fare.
He has worked for 25 years as a restaurant critic for newspapers — including Time Out Tel Aviv, and Israel’s biggest daily, Yedioth Aharonot, and presenting a show on IDF-owned radio station, Galei Tzahal.
A series of popular television food shows — Pepper, Garlic and Olive Oil, Going to Market and restaurant review programme Captain Cook — spawned best-selling cookbooks and have made him a household name in Israel.
Hovav’s passion for food was ignited in his grandmother’s kitchen as a child.
“Traditionally, Sephardi men were not allowed in the kitchen as they brought bad luck — or dirt — but Grandma let me, as I was a skinny little child with glasses and not good at football. I clung to her,” he laughs.
He also recalls eating out once or twice a week with his family.
“This was not common in the late ‘60’s and early ’70’s in socialist Israel” he explains. “But it was good experience for me to be a restaurant critic.”
Despite his background, he is modest about his own professional food know-how and cooking abilities:
“I never went to culinary school – the only time I worked in restaurants, I was a fairly lousy waiter and not the best bartender.”
“I cook like an elderly aunt” he laughs wryly. “I detest molecular cooking — all this new food is not for me. I make simple food. Food from a pot, with some sauce.”
It is this sort of food that he wrote about when penning the only cookery book he has written in English language, his Confessions of a Kitchen Rebbetzin, published in 2012. His previous cookery books were written in his native Hebrew and, despite running his own publishing company Toad Publishing, he has no aspirations to translate them.
“There is no point. It is the first rule of publishing — cookery books do not travel well. And people in New York, Paris, London do not need an Israeli cookbook”.
In Confessions, his only kosher book, he took on the persona of a devout Orthodox woman — Rebbetzin G H Halpern, starting each chapter with a confession from the fictional Rebbetzin. The last revelation was that ‘she’ was not actually a Rebbetzin at all, nor even a woman, but in fact Hovav - a gay man.
When asked why he decided to assume this identity he laughs. “I had always wanted to be a kitchen goddess since I saw Nigella Lawson cooking; but she has two assets I can never compete with. So I decided I would become a different sort of goddess — the Rabbi’s wife.”
He says his book was aimed at foreigners — “for those shopping in Ben Gurion airport. It was written for them to understand Israeli food. It needs an Israeli to write about what people really eat.”
When not cooking, writing or eating, Hovav works with the Israeli Foreign Office, travelling to foreign countries to share his insights, lectureing on Israel.
“I speak about three things — the Hebrew language — [his great-grandfather Eliezer Ben Yehuda, revived modern Hebrew] Israeli food and my insights on gay and lesbian life in Israel.”
This brings him to London at least once a year and in June will allow him to attend the 2014 Gefiltefest festival, where he will be sharing his recipes for Israeli salads — and no doubt, some more of Israel’s real food secrets.
Gil Hovav will be appearing at 2014 Gefiltefest festival. Visit www.gefiltefest.org for more information