A taste of Israeli street food

Uday Kumar Varma

The pursuit of discovering New York city and its rich culinary offerings took the author to an  Israeli restaurant located in swanky Hudson Yards not serving the standard Israeli fare but  street food. It fascinated and tempted him to experience what it claimed to offer – an authentic Israeli Street Food. This gastronomic venture turned out to be rewarding.

Israel occupies a unique position politically, culturally and economically in today’s complex configuration of nationalities. In less than a hundred years, a race which was more defined by its diaspora is now a country with a definite geography enjoying considerable international clout and standing.

Unlike Chinese or Italian, Israeli cuisine is deemed possibly more esoteric. History may have played some role but exclusivity of Jews and the perceptional peculiarities of this race surely have contributed to this cuisine being less known and enjoyed.

Outside of Israel, one country that has indeed patronized and popularized Israeli food is the USA, possibly because of eminence this community has demonstrated in diverse areas and deeply influential as their position is in American polity.

Therefore, an opportunity to sample and savour genuine Israeli cuisine offered an exciting occasion to stimulate our taste buds.

Israeli Cuisine
Israeli cuisine is deeply influenced by its diaspora. After the state of Israel was formally established in 1948, and as it acquired since 1970 a reluctant but distinct respect and recognition from the world, the Israeli cuisine evolved into a truly Jewish fusion cuisine.

The distinct influence on Israeli cuisine includes elements of several Arab traditions of cooking as also of their diaspora cuisine, particularly the Mizrahi, Sephardic and Ashkenazi styles of cooking. The Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine has deeply impacted its present form, so much so that many of their traditional spices like za’atar and dishes such as falafel, hummus, msabbha, shakshouka and couscous are now widely popular in Israel. The two other influences include the tradition of Kosher and Jewish Holiday cuisine on occasions like Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Tu Bishvat, and Passover.

‘Kosher’ is the Jewish dietary law. In Hebrew, it means ‘fit or proper.’ The laws of kosher define which food a person can or cannot eat, and also how certain foods should be produced and handled. Also, which combination of foods people should avoid. For instance, kosher prohibit mixing of meat and milk products, and kosher meat is from animals that are properly slaughtered. Interestingly, there are commonality between the Hindu and Jewish concept of food and the way they should be consumed.

What is Street Food?
Food and Agricultural Organization(FAO) defines Street Food as ‘ready to eat foods and beverages prepared and/or sold by vendors, especially in streets or other similar public places.’ The hawkers or vendors usually do so from portable food booths, food trucks or food carts and the food served is for immediate consumption.

Not to be confused with Fast Food, which is often precooked and non-nutritious, Street Foods are cooked on the spot and are usually nutritious.

Street foods of Israel
In Israel, as in many other Middle Eastern countries, “street food” is a kind of fast food that is sometimes literally eaten while standing in the street, while in some cases there are places to sit down. The street food indeed reflects the synthesis of the many varieties of dishes that Jews all over the globe experimented and perfected.

At the top among this variety of food is Falafel.

Falafel are fried balls or patties of spiced, mashed chickpeas or fava beans and are a common Middle-Eastern street food that have become identified with Israeli cuisine. Falafel is most often served in a pita, with pickles, tahina, hummus, cut vegetable salad and often, harif, a hot sauce, the type used depending on the origin of the falafel maker. Variations include green falafel, red falafel, and yellow falafel, even a falafel coated with sesame seeds.

Shawarma, (from çevirme, meaning “rotating” in Turkish) is usually made in Israel with turkey, with lamb fat added. The shawarma meat is sliced and marinated and then roasted on a huge rotating skewer. The cooked meat is shaved off and stuffed into a pita, with hummus and tahina, or with additional trimmings such as fresh or fried onion rings, French fries, salads and pickles.

Shakshouka, originally a workman’s breakfast popularized by North-African Jews in Israel, is made simply of fried eggs in spicy tomato sauce, with other vegetable ingredients or sausage optional. Shakshouka is typically served in the same frying pan in which it is cooked, with thick slices of white bread to mop up the sauce, and a side of salad. Modern variations include a milder version made with spinach and feta without tomato sauce, and hot-chili shakshouka, a version that includes both sweet and hot peppers and coriander. Shakshouka in pita is called shakshouka be-pita.

Jerusalem bagels and Jerusalem Mixed Grill are other two innovations that adorn an Israeli Street Food repertoire. The desserts Malabi, Sahlab and Halva compete the fare.

Pita bread is perhaps most commonly used bread in street food. It is a double-layered flat or pocket bread traditional in many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. It is baked plain, or with a topping of sesame or nigella seeds or za’atar and used in multiple ways. Hummus, something like peanut butter and Tahini, the white sesame sauce are the other two very common ingredients.

A variety of sandwich that has become immensely popular is Sabikh. Introduced by Mizrahi Jews, it is a pita filled with fried eggplant, hardboiled egg, salad, tehina and pickles, and sold at almost every Kiosk serving Israeli Food.

Miznon in Hebrew means ‘kiosk’, and true to this meaning, the chain of this exclusive Israeli eating joint in Israel and outside, offers the best fast-casual pitas, the ultimate street food. Chef Eyal Shani opened the first location in Tel Aviv 10 years ago, and since then it has exploded world- wide.

It took almost a decade before the first MIznon was opened in New York. The journey happened through Paris, Vienna, Melbourne. The outlet at Hudson Park, New York is their newest venture and claims to offer authentic street food.

Their menu displays very limited fare mostly consisting of stuffed Pita breads, the stuffing being of assortment of vegetables, mushrooms, fish, meat, chicken or lamb; side dishes served with Pita bread, Matok or dessert –very few but of acclaimed high quality, and of course beverages both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.

Falafel Burger, Lavan, Wild Mushrooms offer excellent vegetarian choices, while Mesabaha Lima Beans and Run Over Potatoes as side dishes to the Pita bread command considerable popularity. ‘Tahini’, the celebrated Mediterranean sauce made of white sesame seeds, tomato salsa, green peppers, scallions and pickles are the other notable ingredients on their menu.

The chef-d’oeuvre, of this place, however, is its well -publicised preparations of cauliflowers. They like to put it as ‘The Original World Famous Cauliflower’ on their menu card. A recipe that they will like to be exclusively theirs, presents baby cauliflowers as a unique gourmet preparation. They are served whole, with sauces and spices, and allow your taste buds to evaluate the veracity of their claim. While our own experience was not overwhelming, it was nevertheless, a resounding endorsement of a delightful and delicious innovation.

The Halva, on their dessert menu sounded familiar. Halva ever so popular in India, originated in Iran, the Persia of olden times, and came with the Iranians when they came seeking a new fortune to India. Halva found several other manifestations in other parts of the world and despite innovations remain essentially a grain based confection sweetened with sugar or honey. The Halva, at this place was good but not perhaps the best. Tatami or Malabi could still be a better choice.

The tryst with the Israeli street food at Miznon turned out to be a gastronomic adventure -delectable and deliciously delightful.

Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B

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