You can learn so much about a culture from its cuisine. Food tells us who lives or lived in a country, when they arrived, whether the country was invaded or occupied, who its neighbors were throughout the ages. Food, in so many ways, is history. Think, for example, of how Vietnamese cuisine features crusty baguette-style bread in its banh mi sandwiches, or sweetened condensed milk in its coffee—both holdovers from French colonialism. Ingredients not only make a recipe; they tell a story about a culture, a country, a people.
As a modern geopolitical entity, Israel is young; however, the land and its people are both diverse and ancient. Therefore it’s no surprise that Israeli cuisine is a melting pot of Middle Eastern, African, Mediterranean, and European flavors. Add to this that over 3 million Jews have “made Aliyah” and immigrated to Israel since 1948, and you will also find a fascinating mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish culinary influences. In a given meal, you might find hummus, challah, latkes, brisket, salad, and chicken schnitzel all served alongside one another.
While many foods may be very popular in Israel or even referred to Israeli cuisine, in many cases they were born elsewhere. In fact, on our trip we learned that one of the only truly “original” Israeli foods is ptitim, or Israeli couscous. Actually a pasta rather than a grain, ptitim was originally commissioned by the first Israeli prime minister, Ben Gurion, as an inexpensive alternative to rice that the populace could eat during the austerity period in Israel, the decade after the country was founded, during which time food rationing and other measures were in place to help feed the country’s burgeoning populace of over 700,000 new arrivals.
Other foods—or, at the very least, ingredients—that might be considered Israeli are the “Seven Species” listed in the Torah: wheat, barley, grape (wine), fig, pomegranates, olive (oil), and date (honey). Though the ancient Israelites cannot take credit for creating wine, olive oil, or honey, these foods were nonetheless staples in their diets and have been important for thousands of years. These foods are intertwined with Israeli and Jewish history.
With the exception of ptitim, however, almost every other food found in Israel can trace its roots back to someplace else: hummus, to the eastern Mediterranean region formerly known as the Levant; amba, a sour pickled mango sauce, to Iraq; malabi, a rosewater-infused, milk- or coconut milk-based pudding, to Turkey; pita bread, to the Middle East; couscous, to North Africa; farro, to Syria, or perhaps Turkey. Some foods are even so ancient that their origins are unknown and nearly impossible to trace: halva, found in Israel as a dense sweet made from tahini paste and sometimes flavored with spices, chocolate, nuts, and fruit, predates the 7th century and has many other forms, names, and preparations across a variety of cultures.
If food tells a story, then Israel’s cuisine tells a story of an ever-changing landscape that has been called home by innumerable peoples across thousands of years: ancient Israelites, Palestinians, Jewish diaspora, Arabs, Bedouins, African and Syrian refugees, and so many more. It is not an easy or simple story to tell, nor is it anywhere done being told. The complexity of Israel’s history is equally reflected in the complexity and diversity of its foods—even wandering through a marketplace, you see history laid before you. Here there are Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bah’ai, and many other religions besides. There are Jewish Diaspora, immigrants from far and wide, and refugees. They brought their foods with them, and, in turn, their foods became a part of Israel’s gastronomic landscape.
Although Israel cannot claim to have created so many of its now-beloved dishes, the beauty of both its cuisine and its people is how they are a melting pot of influences, flavors, and traditions, coexisting in harmony. If so many different foods can meld and mingle so beautifully, perhaps, someday, the same can be true for the people both inside and outside Israeli borders. Perhaps, one day, hummus will be more than just a food, but a catalyst for peace: an acknowledgement of shared traditions, values, and cuisines—a symbol of the ways in which people are more alike than they are different.