By Steven Rothfeld
I must begin with a confession. I adored/obsessed over this cookbook so much that I hesitated to write about it. You know that feeling when you encounter something or someone so great that you are left to fall silent? I felt a bit unworthy. Thankfully, I moved past my insecurities and decided it was more important to introduce readers to the brilliance of this book.
Equal parts revelatory memoir, insightful travel guide, expedient cookbook and sumptuous coffee table book, Israel Eats by Steven Rothfeld is an eye-opening experience of Israel’s food culture today.
Rothfeld initially resisted the urge to travel to Israel, which I found quite intriguing.
“I had been so focused on the suffering of the Jews that the idea of the Israelis pursuing pleasure and eating great food never entered my mind. In the short time I spent wandering around this small country notorious for sorrow and conflict, I discovered joy, humour, celebration, endless holidays, and a vibrant cuisine,” he writes.
Rothfeld, a world-class photographer, spent several months travelling through Israel to explore the vibrant food scene, talking with Israeli farmers, cooks, chefs and artisans. From north to south, and in major cities like Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the locals guided him from one great restaurant to another; and to growers and producers of fine foods as well.
The author details his walks through the local markets “finding fresh squeezed pomegranate juice flowing wherever I turned; mountains of marbled halvah flavoured with chocolate, cilantro coffee and pesto; fresh dates from farms near the Dead Sea; steamy, flat, round and twisted breads; dazzling displays of freshly caught Mediterranean fish and entering stacks of cauliflower orbs.”
In an age of information overload and decreased attention spans, Israel Eats gives you a reason to linger. You will salivate over the book’s sumptuous photographs containing impressive views of Israel and the people who inhabit it. The chapters make their way through the history, culture and cuisine of the various regions.
The book revels in the details and offers tips and suggested accompaniments and alternatives at every turn. Can’t find mallow? Use wild spinach instead. Unable to locate fresh sardines? Use fresh mackerel. Fresh, torn herbs with a sprinkling of zhug (a Middle Eastern hot sauce) and za’atar (a condiment made from dried herbs) bring brightness to any dish.
Most of the ingredients in the book can be found at the local grocery store or farmers’ market, but you may need to stock up on often used components such as tahini, Greek yogurt, bulgur, feta, pine nuts, fresh mint and ground cumin.
“I encountered a world I had never imagined existed in Israel,” Rothfeld writes. “People were experiencing the joy of eating well in small hummuserias, seaside restaurants, market stalls and chic dining rooms in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and I was reminded of something I had once overheard an Italian mother say to her small child who was shoving a forkful of pasta into his mouth: ‘Buona, eh? Che viola di mangier (Good, isn’t it? What a joy it is to eat).’”
Marc Bazinet blogs about food at www.coolfooddude.com.