(January 21, 2015 / JNS) By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org
Standing between a display table full of touchscreen tablets and a colorful spread of Israeli cuisine favorites, World Jewish Heritage Organization (WJH) founder Jack Gottlieb delivers a toast.
“Israelis like projects,” he says. “We wanted to create a Jewish UNESCO and Jewish TripAdvisor in a combined application.”
Gottlieb’s references to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the popular travel website combine to describe a new interactive mobile app being launched by WJH, which is also rolling out an eBook on Jewish and new Israeli cuisine titled, “Israel’s Top 100 Ethnic Restaurants.”
On Jan. 14 in New York City, WJH hosted “Celebration of Jewish Ethnic Flavors,” a cocktail hour and dinner event to launch the eBook at Balaboosta, a highly acclaimed Lower East Side restaurant. The organization sees a rapid global decline in what it calls a “Jewish voice.” That trend is marked by the disappearance or repurposing of cherished cultural sites such as synagogues in countries where the Jewish population has decreased or faced rapid assimilation, resulting in a loss of shared history for the nation and the Jews calling it home. WJH, therefore, is “attempting to promote tourism to a variety of sites and cultural events around the world that are of great importance to Jewish heritage continuity,” Gottlieb tells JNS.org.
The goal is to encourage tourists to venture off the beaten path.
“Given the growing interest in food in Israel and around the world, and the fact that it can appeal to anyone, we decided to start [this initiative],” Gottlieb says of the app and the eBook, which will work together to inform travelers about hidden treasures they might otherwise miss. The app provides up-to-date information based on viewer location and is capable of generating tours that highlight dining, museums, and other culturally relevant sightseeing attractions. Did you discover something unique on your own that’s not listed in the app’s database? As with Wikipedia, users can upload articles to the app’s server, establishing an interactive medium that facilitates dialogue regarding Jewish heritage sites.
“This [new resource] is so special,” Gil Hovav—a noted Israeli food critic, chef, and TV personality who wrote a forward to the “Israel’s Top 100 Ethnic Restaurants” eBook, tells JNS.org. “I’ve been in the restaurant business for 27 years. Israeli food is booming and in Tel Aviv you can find everything. But this is about the real people, where the soul is, where the Jewish grandma serves you Kubbeh soup and says, ‘This time it really works!”
Despite his admitted affection for “posh restaurants” and his interest in the worldly fusion of flavors influencing modern Israeli cooking, Hovav notes the unique respect that old-style cuisine still receives in Israel.
When asked how he conducts his research to uncover hidden Israeli restaurants, Hovav replies, “The best source is cab drivers.” He recalls simply asking drivers “Where is the best place in Petah Tikva?” or other Israeli towns, and promptly being led to the back-alley restaurant where “somebody’s elderly aunt is serving.” Hovav explains that for lunch, Israelis typically go to cheaper places where they can find the most authentic food. Hungry tourists, he advises, should either look for the taxis parked out front or trust the WJH travel app. The new eBook—authored by Gottlieb and curated by Omri Negri, with the help of bloggers and “foodies” from around Israel—also steers travelers through Israel’s famous open markets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, home to the colorful fresh produce that characterizes the Israeli diet.
“The changing point [in the history of Israeli cuisine] was during the 1980s, when our kitchen became much richer,” Hovav says. “Up until then, food was not a main issue of conversation. Neither was it fashionable. It was almost impolite to enjoy food.”
During the early days of the Jewish state, a scarcity of ingredients hampered culinary creativity, and Israel’s humble settlers were simply thankful for whatever they had to eat. But now, the doors are wide open for experimentation, and anything is possible.
“In two words: everything goes!” says Hovav, describing the range of culinary fusion taking place in Israel. “You [will] see a combination of Arab, Russian, and Moroccan [cuisine] all on the same plate.”
Despite access to the world’s smorgasbord, Israelis aren’t likely to forget their past. Hovav is conscious of a popular throwback trend guiding contemporary cooking in Israel.
“I think everybody [is] trying to become more ‘Israeli,’” he says, explaining that Israelis are “going back to old ingredients that were used in harder times… trying to recreate something local, fresh and modern.”
For example, Hovav describes a salad made of the mallow plant (“hubeza” in Hebrew).
“This is what my family survived on during [the siege of Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence],” he recalls.
Additionally, Hovav recently encountered fish shawarma, a dish the poor citizens of Acre ate when there wasn’t enough money for meat.
“It’s one of the best fish dishes in the world, as far as I’m concerned,” Hovav says. “Surely now it’s done with better ingredients, better fish and spices, and it’s getting a new twist in modern times.”
Fittingly, new twists define the menu at New York City’s Balaboosta, scene of the WJH eBook launch.
“We’re making cauliflower fried like Bamba,” says Einat Admony, the restaurant’s owner and chef, referencing the popular peanut butter-flavored Israeli snack. “There’s couscous served with short rib in a Persian lime and herb sauce, crème brulee made with halva, and fried baklava, [the latter consisting of] pistachio ice cream wrapped in nuts [and] wrapped again] in phyllo dough and fried.”
While WJH refers to a “long-lost voice of Jewish heritage” in its mission statement, the eBook project and mobile app reveal a culture in which time-honored customs are beginning to fuse with new accents, defining a rapidly evolving palate.
“We’ve developed an interactive platform that is truly capable of bringing Jewish heritage into the 21st century,” Gottlieb says.