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Israel’s Melting Pot

written by Karanja Nzisa 30th November 2017

A fortuitous encounter in the Jerusalem souk, leads Karanja Nzisa to a culinary discovery and the excuse to indulge in some local wine.

When recently, through the tremendous support of my loved ones, I managed to win free airline tickets to Tel Aviv, Israel, I was chuffed. The kind of joy that soon made me a source of great irritation for the very people who got me there in the first place. Because I am obsessed with Levantine cooking, I knew that if nothing else, the trip was going to be the culinary adventure to end all adventures.

The Levant is a transcontinental area East of the Mediterranean Sea which is a cultural melting pot of North African, West Asian and the Mediterranean cultures. This, together with the Zionist principle of Aliyah which encourages Jewish people in the diaspora –including Ashkenazis (from East and Central Europe) and Ethiopians – to return, makes Israel’s foodscape quite the colourful one.

Eggplants, tomatoes, chickpeas dips, breads are all characteristic of Israel’s cuisine; chicken is the most popular meat choice and one would be forgiven for thinking wheat is tax-free because of how ubiquitous bread is. In keeping with kosher traditions, pork and shellfish are not often found in restaurants but are easily available in the stores. Markets in many cities are something to behold: stalls brimming with grapefruits, pomegranates and oranges the size of my head, are flanked by all manner of dates and olives.

It is in one such Jerusalem souk that the most unexpected thing happened. My mother – self appointed travel companion – and I, were browsing over a baked goods stall, when from the corner of my eye I saw this tall woman bearing down on us. In a sea of white faces, hers was the only black one besides ours, and I recognised her as a recent Facebook acquaintance. A tower of positively African conviviality, she gave us bear hugs and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, we were breaking bread together.

Manou ba Shouk is a family run, hole-in-the-wall Lebanese restaurant smack-dab in the centre of Jerusalem’s famous Machane Yehuda market. After consulting with the proprietor, I became sold on  the stuffed eggplant. It arrived steaming from a traditional wood-fired clay oven called a taboon, the hollowed-out cavity of the eggplant serving as a vessel for a rich garlicky beef and pine nut mixture topped in lashings of rich tahini sauce.

After lunch, our now inseparable trio went to a store to grab a few bottles of Yarden Syrah, a wine from the Golan Heights Winery, to the North East of the country. While located in one of the oldest wine regions on the planet, Israel’s wine production industry never achieved the same international recognition as its Mediterranean counterparts. Left underdeveloped for centuries, the wine production business was only rejuvenated in the 1880s by one Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of the famous Château Lafite winery in France. This intervention, however, did little for the reputation of Israeli wine, which for decades was mostly consumed by Jewish communities in the diaspora. This began to change around 30 years ago and Israeli wine today, is big business both at home and abroad.

Many of my nights in Israel were spent throwing back glasses of the sumptuous red grape varieties from the ‘Holy Land’. I am hard-pressed to remember a time I had so much fun discovering the tastes of a country I have visited. My hope is that the Israelis continue to spread the goodness of their kitchen magic, an act of culinary diplomacy to inspire more people across the globe to enjoy and appreciate the food of their lands and of the many cultures that lie therein.

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