May 10, 2010

Israel Seeks Legitimacy for its National Cuisine

Tel Aviv…Chef Yonatan Roshfel of the upscale Herbert Samuel restaurant was recently ranked as being in first place in a list of rising stars by the prestigious culinary magazine Food&Wine. The news was disseminated by the Israel Export Institute in an effort to create what a food writer once called “the non-existent Israeli cuisine.” In fact, in a televised game show, a contestant described Israeli cuisine as “kosher food.” Unlike France and Italy, there is no international acclaim for Israeli cuisine. Israeli products are routinely labeled as Middle Eastern or even Mediterranean as the highly successful Sabra Salads is positioned n this country. Even Food&Wine characterized the cuisine at Herbert Samuel as “neo-Mediterranean.” As a melting pot, there is no monolithic cuisine that can be tabbed as Israeli. After all, Jews immigrated to Israel from the broader Diaspora bringing the local cuisine with them. But that has not stopped Israeli food officials from trying to create a new “Israeli cuisine.” Israeli chefs are often invited to participate in international competitions and they are certainly revered in the Jewish markets, particularly if associated with one of the leading hotels.

Industry officials point to Israeli wines that have leapfrogged into world-wide recognition, so much so that well established wine producers such as France, Italy and Spain have taken notice and are actively competing against the wines. Israeli food officials say flatly that the objective of establishing an Israeli cuisine is well worth the effort from a financial point of view. But the question becomes what besides the traditional Middle East dishes (i.e. hummus, tehina, falafel etc.) can Israel claim is authentically Israeli, a challenge many chefs have pursued. They are looking at many traditional French, Italian and Spanish dishes and trying to “Israelize” them, as one chef put it. Truth is that Israeli chefs are up to the challenge, creating dishes that compete favorably with world-class chefs, as anyone who has eaten at a leading Israeli hotel knows. The challenge at hand is to sell this new excellence to the rest of the world. The good news is that the nouveau Israeli cuisine is absolutely kosher.