Israel's bounty

In the Land of Milk and Honey, cooks are turning to light, fresh fare

September 19, 2007|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

Ten days separate the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana, which started on Sept. 12, and Yom Kippur, which is observed Friday and Saturday. This week-plus span, known as Teshuvah, is a time of soul-searching and making hopeful resolutions for the future. Because it includes alternate periods of fasting and feasting, some Jews use Teshuvah to reconsider past lapses in healthful eating and commit to a different diet ahead.

I was reminded of Teshuvah earlier this year, when I was shopping for produce at the open-air Carmel Market of Tel Aviv, Israel, with Gil Hovav, a food writer and celebrity chef in Israel. Hovav suggested that many Israelis are resolving to change their tastes -- shifting from hearty meat stews and calorie-laden desserts to lighter fare of the Mediterranean diet.

Hovav appears regularly on television shows in Israel to teach viewers which seasonal fruit and vegetables are available, and the most nutritious ways to cook them. It was Friday when we met -- Carmel's busiest day of the week by far, because everyone is off work and buying provisions for the Saturday Sabbath. Oblivious to the nearly frantic tumult around him, Hovav regarded the towering piles of produce with an almost worshipful gaze.

"Will you just look at this okra? See how delicate and tasty it is?" he said, and then insisted I pop one in my mouth. Even raw, the vegetable was astonishingly crisp and flavorful. A moment later, though, okra was over. Hovav now sang the praises of strawberries, watermelons, figs, dates and pomegranates. Then it was on to golden raisins the size of almonds.

In the Jewish culinary tradition, food preparation is an act of love for one's family and one's religion. But in Israel, I discovered, healthful eating also is becoming an act of patriotism. As Hovav made clear to me, the country is blessed in that none of Carmel's exemplary fruit or vegetables is imported, but all come from Israel's farms and kibbutzim.

"These tomatoes, for instance, are grown in the Negev Desert. They're a miracle, really," he said as he picked up a brilliant red orb and smiled at it rapturously. "In New York, these would be something like $5 a pound, but here they are the cheapest vegetable you can buy. They are sweet and great and I just can't tell you how proud I am of them! They are very Israeli!"

Back to nature

Israel is a small country, barely 300 miles long and less than 70 miles across at the widest point, making it roughly the same size as New Jersey. Though half the land is desert and what's arable has vast differences of soil and climate, Israel cultivates an incredible variety of produce. As people came to its shores from around the world, Israel also cultivated an incredible variety of immigrant recipes.

Ashkenazi Jews arriving from Eastern Europe arrived with a hankering for sweets like cheese-filled blinis and blintzes, as well as cholent -- a rich stew of meat, potatoes, beans and grain. Then, there are the calorie-dense snack foods beloved by Israelis, as well as other nations throughout the Middle East. I'm referring to falafel (deep-fried chickpea balls), kibbe (torpedo-shaped bites of ground meat, grilled or deep-fried) and shawarma, which is grilled meat, such as lamb or turkey, served in pita bread with a variety of piquant sauces.

To be sure, many Israelis still happily consume all of the above. However, during the two weeks I traveled throughout the country, whether I was wandering in groves of date palm trees near the Dead Sea, admiring grape vines in the Golan Heights or sampling grilled fish at a restaurant alongside the Sea of Galilee, I discovered what's currently "very Israeli" -- a rhyming phrase ubiquitous in people's speech here -- are dishes that use the nation's natural bounty in refreshingly simple ways.

"Israelis take tremendous pride in the fact that, for thousands of years, their country has been known as `the land of milk and honey.' And, it's not just that these foods are found there, but that this is a land which produces these things in great, great abundance," said Leah Waks, a native of Tel Aviv who is director of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland's department of communication.

Appearing more than 40 times in the Bible, "a land flowing with milk and honey" is perhaps the best-known phrase used to describe the Holy Land. What's intriguing, however, is that Israel, both in ancient times and now, boasts many trees bearing fruit that, when squeezed, gush forth with nectar as sweet if not sweeter than what's found in a beehive. In fact, many biblical scholars and food historians believe the "honey" referred to in Exodus was actually made by macerating dates into a delicious, naturally sugared syrup known today as silan.

The modern appetite

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