Janna Gur: Pita is a way of life here. You eat on the go.If you think that ‘Israeli food’ consists of Jaffa oranges, Manischewitz wine, and gefilte fish, then Janna Gur would like to set you straight.
The editor of Al Hashulhan (On the Table), the leading food and wine magazine in the country, Gur is on a mission to show the world that through its location and a confluence of cultural factors, there’s something special and exciting happening gastronomically in Israel.
“Food here is so… everything. It’s politics, culture, aesthetics, history and I just love the whole thing,” the vivacious Gur told ISRAEL21c, ahead of a briefing she gave to foreign correspondents in Jerusalem upon publication of her new coffee table book of recipes – The Book of New Israeli Food.
According to Gur, the fact that Israel is a Western society nestled in the heart of the eastern Mediterranean, and is a society of immigrants who have brought a diversity of traditions from places as far-flung as Hungary and Morocco, Yemen and Poland, India and North America, Argentina and Algeria, have all contributed to what she calls the ‘new Israeli food’.
“Israeli food has changed drastically over the last 15 years. One thing is the improvement in the raw materials to produce wine, cheese, bread – you name it – and the ability to obtain fresh herbs and spices which are now available in every market and supermarket,” says Gur.
That, combined with a virtual revolution of upscale Israeli eateries and world-class chefs, has, according to Gur, propelled Israeli food into a new sphere previously unthought of a couple decades ago when the culinary staples were basic and unimaginative.
“We should separate Israeli food from Israeli cuisine,” insists Gur. “When you’re taking about cuisine – like French or Italian cuisine – Israeli cuisine as such doesn’t exist yet. It’s too soon, and besides it’s changing all the time.”
“Israeli food is defined by the character of Israelis – we’re outgoing, impatient, the climate is warm and sunny and that all reflects on the way we eat. The climate also affects agriculture – there’s so much fresh produce all year round, it greatly influences the way we eat.”
And the way Israelis eat encompasses everything from couscous and stuffed vegetables, to unlimited variations on eggplant, lots of chicken and fish, loads of olive oil, and of course the staples falafel and shwarma.
Gur says, if pressed, a formula can be created to define Israeli food: salad, which accompanies almost every meal (“We’re probably the only people on the planet that eats vegetables for breakfast”); pita (“a way of life here. You eat on the go”); hummus (“nowhere in the world has hummus reached such an elevated state as in Israel – it’s almost a cult food”); and lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and grilled meats.
“Then you add in the Jewish traditions of holidays and Shabbat, and you basically have the chapters of my book,” she laughs.
The Book of New Israeli Food (in English) is a large format, full-color illustrated album brimming with more than 150 recipes – both traditional and innovative – stories and images of the nation and its unique landscapes and cityscapes, and plenty of advice on special ingredients, cooking techniques and serving suggestions.
The varied dishes and creations of talented local chefs are highlighted by snapshots from streets, markets, village and city life, restaurants, cafes, and home kitchens, creating what Gur hopes is a culinary and cultural voyage.
Born and raised in the former Soviet Union, Gur immigrated to Israel as a teenager in 1974, and worked as a translator, until entering the publishing business with her husband in the early 1990s. While she’s become known as an Israeli gastronomic expert through her connection with the 17-year-old Al Hashulchan, Gur’s decision to write a book on the subject was slow to percolate.
“I was sort of ‘cooking’ it for a while,” she says with a smile. “I like the concept of estrangement – to write about something you know so well for somebody who comes from the outside. I believed strongly that there was a story to tell here, both in terms of Israeli food’s uniqueness and its quality.”
It was a visit to a New York City bookshop that specialized only in cookbooks that proved to be the impetus for her to actively begin thinking about a writing a book about Israeli food.
“That was the first seed. I was talking to the staff there and formulated the idea for a book that someone could buy for a Rosh Hashana present or a gift to bring back from a visit to Israel. There’s this genre of books, a combination of cookbook, tourist book and coffee table book,” she said.
“In many books like this, the recipes end up being there just for decoration, an afterthought. What was important, and what I hope we achieved is that the recipes are all relevant and useful.”
Gur and her staff were meticulous about providing background about the various dishes highlighted, and were careful to check all the ingredients to make sure they would be available in other locales besides Israel.
“There’s so many Middle Eastern markets and groceries around the world that if you want to buy tehina or halva, you can get it pretty easily,” said Gur.
One area regarding Israeli food that Gur deliberated on for a long time is the kosher factor. Ultimately, she made all the recipes and ingredients in the book kosher, but says that ironically, the best Israeli restaurants are not kosher.
“It’s very sad,” says Gur. “But the best restaurants and chefs like Haim Cohen at Keren in Tel Aviv and Ezra Kedem at Acadia in Jerusalem are not kosher. Israeli food definitely does necessarily mean kosher food.
“But it’s not that difficult in Israel to make kosher recipes. The traditional ingredients here don’t include seafood or pork, using butter and cream in recipes is not part of most Mediterranean recipes, you can just as easily use olive oil.”
Despite the decision to exclude non-kosher recipes, Gur sees the book as an Israeli cookbook, not a kosher cookbook.
“These are recipes of Israeli food, not necessarily Jewish food. That’s why in the holiday chapter, you have a section on the Muslim holiday of Ramadan – it’s a valid part of Israeli culture,” said Gur.
Gur demurs when asked to choose a favorite dish from the dozens of recipes in the book, but admits a weakness for the chapter on stuffed vegetables. While the cobbler’s children don’t quite go barefoot in this case, Gur’s home culinary skills center around the non-Israeli staple pasta, according to her teenage son Amit who accompanied her to Jerusalem.
“I think that’s my forte, along with salads,” she said, adding that she’s a food writer, not a chef.
Which is fine, because quality chefs now abound in Israel, a development that Gur attributes to many reasons.
“The new generation of Israeli chefs almost all were either trained abroad or worked abroad at some point. And more importantly, they all chose cooking because they loved it. It used to be that people would choose it as a vocation, the same way they could have gone into computers or become an airline pilot,” says Gur.
“The whole global development of food as recreation has also affected us, and the local chefs draw their inspiration from local ingredients and sources often within the character of their own family – especially if they come from a place with a rich culinary heritage like Iraq, Morocco or Persia. The chef at Raphael in Tel Aviv has a legendary Moroccan grandmother named Aviva, who was his first cooking teacher. He loved the dishes she made. And there you’ll find the fusion of many of the top restaurants today, mixing the old and the new.”
Gur is hoping that her book will do its part to inform the world that the words Israel and food should be mentioned in the same breath. She says that tourists and food professionals who visit are stunned by the variety and quality of Israeli restaurants.
The book, which is available in bookstores throughout Israel, has already been licensed for translation in Germany and Gur is looking for a publisher in the US. In the meantime, she is selling it herself via the Al Hashulchan website.
“My mission is to tell the world about Israeli food – that there’s something interesting going on food-wise.”