In 1955 the Israeli Ministry of Education and Culture’s nutrition department published a proposed menu for celebrating the nation’s Independence Day at home. It was an attempt to formalize a national ethos and establish common traditions. The menu included a first course of mallow fritters in tomato sauce; Ashkenazi-style kreplach; Mizrahi-style stuffed chicken with a side of summer squash; and a cake made of the seven species (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates) mentioned in the Bible as growing in the Land of Israel.
While this initiative never took off (Israelis preferred to celebrate their country’s independence at BBQs on any available piece of grass), the idea that a menu could serve as a representation of the Jewish state was an intriguing one. In honor of Israel’s 75th birthday I created a menu that serves as a culinary representation of the newborn State of Israel in 1948, with dishes demonstrating the nascent nation’s human diversity: Sephardi and Ashkenazi; urbanites and kibbutzniks; Moroccan, Iraqi, Dutch, Yemeni and Kurdish; energetic young socialists and tired parents; survivors who came after the Holocaust, and those who had been living in the land for generations.
But back in 1948, such a meal could never have been served. While the dishes were all common in Israel at the time, each was prepared by a different community. Culinarily speaking, the melting pot was still far from simmering, although pressure was already building to create a new, unified Israeli cuisine—building a nation from the kitchen up.
BACK IN 1948, SUCH A MEAL COULD NEVER HAVE BEEN SERVED. ALL THE DISHES WERE COMMON IN ISRAEL AT THE TIME, BUT EACH WAS PREPARED BY A DIFFERENT COMMUNITY.
For Ashkenazi Jews, it would not have been unusual for a meal to start with some European rye bread. Each month citizens were given government-supplied rye bread rations, the bread of choice of the Ashkenazi-dominated establishment (although by the 1950s, half of Israel’s population preferred pita).
Another typical item to appear on a plate of 1948 forshpeis (appetizers) was eggplant. For Ashkenazi Jews coming from cold Europe to the hot Levant, produce such as eggplants, zucchini, olives and tomatoes (which they called “treyf apples” and considered unkosher) were mysterious and unknown. Those who arrived in the First Aliyah, the wave of mostly Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1880s, learned how to use these local ingredients from the Palestinians who worked in their households or on their farms, says Yael Raviv, author of Falafel Nation and chief operating officer of the Jewish Food Society. Nutritionists from the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), trying to familiarize Zionist women with these unfamiliar foods, came up with recipes that would remind Ashkenazi cooks of their home. Thus came eggplant “chopped liver” made of ground fried eggplant and hard-boiled eggs. There were also recipes for mock herring and meatballs, goulash and schnitzel—all made of eggplant. “WIZO not only taught them how to cook in the most efficient, the healthiest and the most economical way, but also in the most Hebrew way. The idea was to use food as a tool to connect people to a place, to the land and to each other,” says Raviv.
The War of 1948 put Jerusalem under long weeks of siege, with no food supplies reaching the city’s Jewish population. The starving Jews of Jerusalem thus turned to local herbs to nourish their families, especially khubeisa, which grew wild all over the city. Khubeisa, the Arab name for mallow, is rich in iron and vitamins and was abundantly available. Its stemmed leaves, mixed with an egg and a little flour, were used to make mallow fritters, fried and then cooked in a simple lemon sauce.
Meals on kibbutzim were prepared in a communal kitchen and in the early years were often not very tasty, but members used to make their own salad, which would sometimes become the most interesting dish in their culinary desert. The salad always included tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce and, at times, green onions, olives, radishes and carrots. Some claimed that kibbutz members preferred to spend their time making salad rather than working under the glaring sun. Either way, this salad is now the most common one in every Israeli household. It’s dubbed the Land-of-Israel salad in WIZO’s cookbook.
Meat was scarce in the new nation. “We ate meatballs all the time,” recalls Ora Amir, a Holocaust orphan who moved to Kibbutz Ein Shemer in Northern Israel in 1944. “They told us these were liver meatballs, but in fact they were made of a lot of onion and squash. Once a week we had chicken, usually sick chickens who could no longer lay eggs.” But in households of Polish origin, chicken soup, made with chicken feet, combs and whatever other scraps were available, was a regular
offering—sometimes served with lokshen or egg noodles.
Yemeni families, on the other hand, made meat and bone marrow soup served with pita and fenugreek paste. “A good pita bread, good hilbeh (fenugreek paste) and a good Yemeni soup—I would not replace this meal for anything in the world,” says Pini Amir, whose family moved from Yemen to Tel Aviv in 1930. His father used a cow’s tail for the soup, with special Yemeni spices. “We had a taboun (a traditional Arab portable clay oven) on the roof where my two grandmothers would bake pita for the weekend.” During the week they’d eat Yemeni soup with European rye bread—the beginning of the Israeli mixing bowl.
Around the country, immigrant families from east to west tried to keep their own culinary traditions. For Sephardi Jews in Jerusalem and Safed that meant baking their many pastries—borekitas, boyos, calsonas and pastelikos—stuffed with minced meat and pine nuts.
For Ashkenazi Jews, it was kugel, a dish they originally made with egg noodles, plenty of eggs for binding, and berries for flavor. But with berries nowhere to be found, and eggs in scarce supply, Ashkenazi cooks settled for wheat noodles and caramelized sugar, which resulted in the now-famous Jerusalem kugel.
Dessert was not a common occurrence in the early days of statehood, and while children may have craved sweets, most had to settle for jams made from every fruit available, including oranges, apples and, of course, eggplants.
Today the period of austerity is long over, but these foods remain popular choices among all segments of Israeli society. Seventy-five years after statehood, Israeli national cuisine remains a work in progress.
European rye bread with a side of bitter olives
Eggplant-based mock chopped liver
Mallow leaf fritters in lemon sauce
Land-of-Israel salad made of tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles, radishes and onions
Choice of Soup
Chicken with lokshen
Yemeni bone marrow
Served with freshly baked pita and fenugreek paste
Pastelikos pastry with meat and pine nuts
Jerusalem kugel *
A variety of homemade orange, apple and eggplant jams
* Recipe by Chef Vered Guttman momentmag.com/jerusalemkugel