|Food in Israel (Photo: World Travel Connector)
Bao Tram: Welcome, Professor Nir Avieli, to VOV’s Cultural Rendezvous! Israel is said to be a melting pot of cultures and peoples and their cuisines. So tell us what the “true Israeli cuisine” is!
Nir Avieli: When we think of cuisine, generally there's two ways to think about it - what people eat, and how people eat and also we have to remember that cuisine, even though we sometimes think of cuisine as something very stable, cuisine is very dynamic and changes all the time. I'll give you an example from your own culture. “Pho” is maybe 100 years old. So people outside and many people in Vietnam think “Pho” is a traditional Vietnamese food, but in fact, that is not exactly the case. It has some French connections, probably. So one way to talk about Israeli food is to talk about an immigrant cuisine. If you ask most food experts, chefs and gastronomists, they will tell you that Israeli cuisine is the outcome of the historical process of immigration.
Bao Tram: Give us some details about why Israeli cuisine is the cuisine of immigrants.
Nir Avieli: Because you know the Jews were expelled 2000 years ago. They were scattered all over the world. Jews live in many places. So everywhere they live, they have adapted the local cuisine to the religious minds of the Jewish culture. You know in the Jewish tradition, we don't eat pork; we don't mix meat and milk. We have several rules about how we are allowed to eat. It’s called kosher, the system of laws concerning food of the Jewish people. So wherever Jews live, of course, they have had to eat whatever was available to them. In Poland there were specific food ingredients and in Morocco there are different ingredient. So they adapted the local cuisine to the Jewish laws.
So if the Jews came from Russia - the first Jews came to Israel from Eastern Europe Russia, Poland, Ukraine - they brought the Jewish version of the poor Russian, Polish, and Ukraininan cuisines to Israel. Later, as more and more Jewish diasporas came - North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Egypt, central Europe Hungary, Germany, Austria, Iran - each one brought their foods to Israel. So Israel became a place where you have many, many, many different food of many, many different origins.
|Hummus is a traditional Levantine dip (Photo: greatbritishchefs.com)
Bao Tram: You said Jews adapted the local cuisine to the Jewish culture and religion. How did the Jews change their cuisine when they moved to Israel?
Nir Avieli: When they came here, there were a few changes. First of all, here we have very different weather. The weather here is not like Europe at all, and it's not exactly like North Africa or Egypt. It's more Mediterranean. So one change was what ingredients we had here, and what ingredients we didn't have. Another thing is that Israeli agriculture wasn’t very successful. So many new ingredients were developed here and introduced here, for example, milk and milk products. The third thing is political. If you are from the left wing, you would say that when the Jewish came here, they absorbed the Arab influence. They made Palestinian food. Of course they were influenced by and adopted Palestinian food. If you are from the right wing, you would deny that. Today in Israel, the food common eaten is a combination of Muslim food and food mainly from North Africa and the Middle East which, we call oriental cuisine.
Bao Tram: What is the most typical dish of Israel?
Nir Avieli: If you’re asking me what’s the most popular dish that everybody likes and wants to eat, it is pita. It’s like flat bread. But Israel’s pita is like a pocket and you can cut the pocket and put inside whatever you like. Inside the pita you can put hummus and schnitzel. That’s an Austrian dish - a piece of pork. In Israel we often substitute chicken. You take chicken breasts and deep fry them. So you take pita, which is Arab. You put in hummus, which is Arab. You add a spicy sauce, which is maybe from North Africa. And you put an Austrian meat dish in the center. That’s Israeli pita. It’s very popular and we always add to it what we call “vegetable salad” which is tomato, cucumber, and pepper cut into small pieces to put in the pita.
|Traditional sabich ingredients include hummus, Israeli salad, potatoes, tahini, pickles, and falafel, are often served on pita bread. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)
Bao Tram: What dishes does your family like most or most often eat?
Nir Avieli: First of all, I’m an anthropologist of food. So basically I eat almost everything. I’ll try almost anything. I’ll tell you what I haven’t tried - dog meat. Because I have a dog. Personally – and this is something I was hoping would come up in your broadcast - I think everybody should be vegan and we all should understand that we must decrease dramatically the amount of animal protein we consume. We can eat meat at Tet, once a year - or twice a year, or 3 times a year - and maybe eat fish once a week, but we should all “an chay” for many reasons, not just one reason: because of global warming, for our health, because of ethics, because of animal suffering. I can tell you many reasons, but there really is no choice, and everybody must get used to the idea.
Bao Tram: Thank you, Professor Nir Avieli, for joining us today to talk about Israeli cuisine.