In the May/June issue of Moment, food writer and chef Vered Guttman explored Israel’s 70-year history through the lens of its culinary traditions. But now, with Israeli Independence Day coming up on May 14, we wanted to know more. Guttman spoke with Moment about how to prepare for the holiday, the best foods to celebrate with—and which Israeli dishes she misses the most.
What do Israelis traditionally eat to celebrate Independence Day?
Most Israelis have a barbecue type of meal and celebration. People go out to the parks, take simple barbecue grills and they grill meats. That’s the basic celebration—but it’s Israel, so there’s always hummus and tahini and all type of dips, always some kind of eggplant dish and then the main style is the meat on the grill. Israelis’ favorite type of meat to grill is boneless chicken thigh. It’s the most expensive chicken part in Israel by far, and since it’s the most tender, it’s considered the best.
Looking back, have the foods eaten on Independence Day changed over the years?
In the first two decades or so, people were trying to figure out the best way to celebrate. The first women who wrote cookbooks in Israel—they were actually Canadian and American—were suggesting dishes like chubeza, a wild herb that grows everywhere in Israel. During the war, when people in Jerusalem couldn’t go out of the city and couldn’t get supplies, they would just pick it up and cook it. It’s very nutritious. Those cookbook authors, when trying to think of what would be symbolic and appropriate to celebrate Israeli Independence Day, were thinking of making cake with the seven species of the land of Israel: wheat, barley, pomegranate, grapes, figs, olives, dates.
I’m not sure exactly when going out for barbecues started. I can assume it was after the Six-Day War, after the occupation of the Palestinian territories, people discovered Arab ways of grilling meat, and they loved it. You started seeing types of restaurants that offered this type of food, and then it became most popular way to celebrate Independence Day
What are some of your personal favorite dishes?
Because I’m here in the United States and not in Israel, the one dish I miss the most is Israeli falafel. At least in Washington, DC, there’s still not a good place to get really good Israeli-style falafel. I’m always making falafel at home from scratch. I get Israeli pita bread, which is thicker than what you get in American supermarkets, and then I make an array of salads to put in the pita with the falafel. I make chopped vegetable salad, fried eggplant sauerkraut, Middle Eastern cucumber pickles, amba (which is a mango pickle condiment that Iraqi Jews are using). Of course there’s hummus and tahini sauce. All of it together in the pita bread—that’s the Israeli food that I miss the most.
Are you making falafel at home this year?
Of course! Always.
For American Jews looking to try something new or unexpected this year, what would you suggest?
One thing that’s very popular in Israel and not as much here is to grill a whole eggplant and serve it with tahini or yogurt—or both together. The best way to do it is to use Italian eggplants, which are smaller in size, and while you’re grilling your meat you can grill the eggplant at the same time until it is very tender. Press it until it doesn’t show any resistance; it needs to be soft. You can cut a slit in the skin and drizzle in tahini, lemon juice, salt, olive oil, minced garlic and then eat it with a spoon. You can also add Greek yogurt, and you can make one per person.
Another dish that’s becoming a favorite in Israel is really an Arab dish: It’s called arayes, It’s basically a beef kebab, though it can also be lamb. It can be mixed with chopped onions and parsley and some spices. You stuff pita bread with a raw beef mixture, grill it on a not-too-high temperature on both sides of the pita until the beef inside is cooked. You serve it with tahini and salad and pickles. It’s so delicious—and it’s nice to try it.
Are there any drinks that you’d recommend?
There’s arak, which is an Arab Lebanese anise-flavored liquor. You can just mix it with cold water, or some people like to add fresh mint into the drink. You can also add almond syrup and mix it together. It’s so good.
How about desserts?
The easiest one is—you can call it an Israeli sundae. You put a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a bowl and you drizzle it with tahini from the jar. On top of the tahini you drizzle date honey—you can also use just regular honey, but the date honey has a more earthy flavor—and on top of that crumble some halvah. It takes one minute to make, and it’s just delicious.