Chef's Blog

September 18, 2018

Flavors of the Middle East: Israeli Cuisine

from Chef Kevin Wassler

Silky hummus, pungent olives, tangy yogurt, fragrant za’atar spice mix. Ancient grains and fresh vegetables and colorful salads. Inviting mezze, the dips and spreads and bite-size foods that are a staple of daily life in the Eastern Mediterranean. These are the hallmarks of Israeli cuisine, and part of a craving for more regionally authentic food here in the United States.

Israeli cuisine is distinctive and exciting, healthy and plant-focused, and loaded with bold flavors. It shares a market basket of ingredients and specialties with the larger Middle Eastern region. And it takes the huge popularity of the more familiar Mediterranean cuisine and stamps it with the authenticity of a specific place. This is a trend with broad appeal for today’s consumer.

• Menu callouts for Boureka (+18.4%), Shakshouka (+13.3%), Shawarma (+6.7%), Baba Ganoush (+6.0%), Kafta (+4.9%), Falafel (+4.3%), Lentil Soup (+3.0%) increased over the past year

As a nation, Israel has only existed since 1948, but the land that falls within its borders has a rich history that dates from pre-Biblical times. One of the true original fusion cuisines, the food of Israel and neighbors like Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt was influenced by the temperate Mediterranean climate and the extensive trading routes of the old Ottoman empire—which once encompassed the entire region from modern-day Algeria to the gates of Vienna.

Modern Israeli cuisine reflects elements of traditional Jewish cuisine (such as Sephardic and Ashkenazi), but it also incorporates many foods eaten throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean, including falafel, hummus, shakshuka, za’atar, chermoula and couscous. It’s getting on the radar thanks to some big love from high-profile chefs like cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi and Michael Solomonov of Zahav, in Philadelphia, and Dizengoff , a mini-empire based on hummus and roast chicken rubbed with za’atar.

Get Started with a snapshot report on what’s driving the growth of Israeli cuisine

At Zahav, the food is soulful yet sophisticated, centered around traditional laffa (a puffy, pita-like flatbread, which is made to order) with housemade salati (pickled vegetables) and several kinds of hummus, plus charcoal-grilled meats and elevated mezze such as veal carpaccio and haloumi cheese with strawberry, rose and pinenuts.

But the Middle Eastern market basket works just as well in a fast-casual setting. I recently had a phenomenal meal in Chicago at Naf Naf Grill , which has more than a dozen locations in the area. The customizable menu platform starts with a pita or bowl (built on a choice of basmati rice, romaine lettuce, hummus or couscous) topped with spit-roasted chicken shawarma, steak or falafel and finished off with one of six signature sauces (tahini, garlic, pickled mango amba, spicy harissa, or the hot sauce known as s’khug) and crisp veggie garnishes. It was fresh, delicious, healthy, and very approachable.

Another Israeli specialty with widespread menu potential is shakshuka, a breakfast or brunch dish of eggs baked in a thick, flavorful sauce of tomatoes, onion, garlic and red peppers spiced with cumin, paprika and cayenne.

Sauces, condiments and spice mixes are a great way in to Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine. Tahini is the staple sesame butter that forms the backbone of hummus, both of which can be used in dressings, on sandwiches, grilled meats and vegetables, and in many other applications. Harissa is a versatile North African and Middle Eastern condiment which has many regional variations, but usually includes hot chile peppers (which are often smoked), garlic, olive oil and spices like cumin, coriander, caraway and mint. Za’atar, which also varies throughout the Middle East, is a combination of ground dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, and/or lemony sumac, mixed with toasted sesame seeds and salt.

One of my favorites is chermoula, a marinade and sauce that gets its character from cilantro, parsley, mint, lemon, cumin, olive oil and red pepper. Chermoula is one of a long list of global green sauces that also includes chimichurri, salsa verde, and pesto, and its variations from cook to cook and country to country illustrates one of the things that’s so wonderful about the region. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that 70% of the ingredients used in Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine come from the same market basket, and the other 30% are personal to a specific homeland or chef.

Make the Israeli Cuisine Food Trend Work
• Use Minor’s GreenLeaf™ Cilantro Pesto as the starting point for chermoula, or stirred into couscous, pilafs or tabbouleh to introduce the flavor or this distinctive herb. GreenLeaf Basil Pesto adds more familiar Mediterranean nuances to a variety of foods
Minor’s Roasted Garlic Flavor Concentrate is a boon for making harissa and other garlic-forward Israeli and Middle Eastern specialties
• Stir a bit of Minor’s Sun Dried Tomato Pesto Flavor Concentrate into shakshuka sauce
• Hummus is a natural entry point for Israeli cuisine on mainstream menus. Try these recipes for Roasted Garlic Hummus and Jalapeno Hummus, or whisk a Minor’s Flavor Concentrate such as Herb de Provence or Chipotle into your favorite prepared hummus

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