Travelin' Chef: Hugh Acheson in Israel

Machane Yehuda Market

I knew Jewish meals before I went to Israel–at lowest I thought I did. Growing up inside Ottawa and living in Montreal gives you any kinship with the latkes, the smoked fish, the matzo meal. I was the brash, young, secular Anglican, nevertheless Lord did I love latkes covered with sour cream, used to smoke meats on piping hot rye, and lox with a schmear of lotion cheese. But Ottawa is also a village with a huge Lebanese population, and now we ate it all, reveling in shawarma, hummus, lamb, eggplant, and also warm flatbread. Good food on bargain prices, fueling younger beer-soaked shenanigans. Sometimes I ate meze as well as braised lamb with my dad and his close friends at the fancy spots, exactly where Dad would become enamored together with the belly dancer.

Two food cultures, proximate but essentially separate–that’s how it seemed. Then, last year, I went along to Israel. What I found stirred up issues of geography and traditions that have interested me considering that, as a chef, I found the adopted home in the Southerly. The flow of peoples and flavors, locals and immigrants, is profound in a very region as stirred up as the Middle East. Does food project from the population, or is this more a reflection of a region’s bounty? Here was a state rich with food tradition, whose cuisine abounds together with Middle Eastern flavors of pomegranate, peppers, tomatoes, parsley, peppermint, olive oil, and citrus, all under the influence of people–Jews and Arabs–who have been generally there for thousands of years and others who arrived just recently. I found it a stupendous cuisine and quickly shed interest in seeking anything near to a definition of “Israeli” food.

The food preparation is an intense product of Arab, Kurdish, Christian, and Judaism origins, influenced by waves associated with Jews who have come from Brazil, Brooklyn, Madeira, Spain, Yemen, and beyond. It’s really a mosaic, enhanced by a marvelous array of chefs, young and old, at this point pushing the boundaries of what can be done with local bounty.

We spanned much of the country and also saw complex fine dinner; young, independent community eating places; wonderfully stocked grocers; non-urban markets; quaint agriturismi; stellar bakeries; a fantastic truck stop Lebanese restaurant; shawarma holds; and festive, busy cafes in alleyways. Amid all the information and conflict, you seldom hear this: Israel is a nation with a rich, dynamic culinary soul.

The food just sings with acid from citrus fruit; bright herbaceous hits from parsley, , and purslane; pleasant bitterness via sumac; and richness from community olive oil. It’s food which is constantly fresh and nourishing, something that, to me, Southern foodstuff can also be.

Back home in Athens, Atlanta, immersed again in the cooking traditions I know and like, I realized that the South may easily borrow from the excitement I needed seen. Inspired, I added some of the light zest in addition to full flavors that be connected the Israeli mosaic to my familiar traditions. Here are a few quality recipes made in a Middle Far eastern style with staples via my own backyard.

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