Flavours from the Middle East and North Africa are flowing into the UK, as previously unknown ingredients like pomegranate molasses, zhoug and dukkah begin to suffuse restaurant menus and even appear on supermarket shelves.
A big part of that has been down to the influx of chefs cooking Israeli food, including Yotam Ottolenghi and his acolytes. But what exactly does ‘Israeli food’ mean?
It’s a question that people are asking not just in the UK and the US, but also, apparently, in Israel itself.
The Tel Aviv-based L28 Culinary Platform was launched last year in part to try and find an answer. The initiative gives aspiring Israeli chefs who have never created their own restaurant concept before the chance to experience first-hand what it’s like running a start-up business, the brief being to bring to life their country’s produce and help to define Israel’s modern culinary culture.
“It’s a journey and we’re still trying to investigate it,” Moran Agasi, the general manager of L28, tells Food Spark. “Israel is very young. In 70 years, the food culture has developed a lot here. But we don’t have, like French cuisine, things that are strictly Israeli.
“Israel is a melting pot, all kinds of nationalities have arrived here from all over the world and each one of them brought its own techniques, its own ingredients, and we’re mixing everything together and creating new Israeli cuisine.”
Bringing Israel to the world
Each participating chef in the L28 programme is given a six-month residency to realise their cooking dreams, aided by an experienced kitchen crew and restaurant manager, as well as marketing support and mentoring by “some of Israel’s leading restaurateurs.” Pop-ups from established chefs also feature.
The scheme is part of Start-Up Nation Central (SNC), an NGO whose mission is connect the world to Israeli innovation, with specialisms in agritech (agricultural technology) as well as other, non-food-related sectors.
On the roof of the SNC is an urban garden with herbs and vegetables, which chefs are encouraged to use for their recipes at L28.
“We have everything from zucchini and cucumber flowers to kohlrabi, tomatoes, all kinds of different lettuce, cabbage and, of course, all the herbs you can think of,” says Agasi. “Israel is known for its beautiful vegetables and fruits.”
This abundant produce and warming spices are key to the national cuisine, she adds, noting that the focus on Israeli goods at L28 extends to the wine, cocktails (made with local herbs) and even the staff uniforms.
Carrot confit and fish cigars
Tel Aviv now has an established presence on the global food scene – last year, Bloomberg called it the “world’s new dining hot spot” – as increasing numbers of home-grown chefs go abroad and come back, bringing their experiences in kitchens in the US and the UK to bear on their culinary roots.
The inaugural L28 chef was Shuli Wimer, a River Cafe alumna who previously had a 10-day residency at Carousel in London’s Marylebone area. According to Agasi, she’s since been offered investment to start her own restaurant.
In May, Gabriel Israel took the reins, bringing a bit of New York (he formerly cooked at modern Israeli restaurant The Green Fig in NYC) to Tel Aviv.
His menu is around 80% vegetables and fish, drawing upon Israeli abundance but also seasonality.
Highlights include the cured tuna and beet tartare, topped with pickled mustard seeds and served with Jerusalem bagel toast and crème fraiche. Demonstrating the influence of international cuisines on modern Israeli, the dish draws on Russian curing techniques, explains Agasi. The fish is cut like prosciutto or bresaola and offset with chopped beetroot that has been smoked for 72 hours.
Carrot confit is a tour around regional spices and sauces: different textures and colours of carrots are cooked at 150 degrees into a confit, then served with a crumble of dukkah (Egyptian nut spice), fresh za’atar leaves, tahini paste, zhoug (a spicy sauce normally made with herbs and chilli but created here with carrots) and ricotta.
The most popular selection so far with punters, however, is the fish cigar. The variety of fish used is dependent on the catch of the day; no matter what comes out of the ocean, it is seasoned with shallots, ginger, herbs, green chilli, curry spice, labaneh (yoghurt-like cheese) and honey, then stuffed inside a cigar-shaped filo tube.
Exposing Israeli cuisine to the world is one aspect of the project, but it’s also about providing an evolving guest experience and nurturing talent.
“We want to make a difference with our pioneering project in Israel,” comments Agasi. “In today’s reality it’s very hard for young cooks to open their own restaurants.”