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Rosh Hashanah

Tahini and Baguette Bars : Rosh Hashanah Menus Go Cross-Cultural in Israel

September 12, 1996|JOAN NATHAN | NATHAN, the author of "Jewish Cooking in America" (Alfred Knopf), is working on "The Foods of Israel."

JERUSALEM — In the United States, most Jews will welcome Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, with a table laden with sweet foods for a good year, foremost among them an apple dipped in honey.

Not so in Israel, where Jews from more than 70 countries will be celebrating with many kinds of symbolic fruits from all over the world, including the biblical pomegranate and dates. The diversity in the dining room in this 48-year-old country reflects the interplay of cultures and cuisines, making for great eating.

"Israeli food is a little Oriental and a little Russian," said Dahlia Cohen, chef-owner of Dahlia's restaurant in a vegetarian moshav (collective farm) called Amirim, outside Safed.

In a biblical setting, replete with pomegranate, lemon and fig trees in the front garden, and with a splendid view of the mountains and the Sea of Galilee, Cohen, who comes from a Polish background, cooks mostly Mediterranean meals for visitors at her bed-and-breakfast lodge.

A recent menu started with lemonade sweetened with grape sugar and spiked with mint, spinach fritters with cumin, vegetarian moussaka, a potpourri of 10 salads, homemade bread, Eastern European blintzes, and a dessert of shredded apples and nuts sprinkled over yogurt. Instead of using butter to top her bread, she uses olive oil with za'atar, the biblical combination of salt, sesame seeds, sumac and wild hyssop, a variety of oregano. Her olive oil, which she sells at the restaurant, comes from the moshav's own olives that are pressed at the home of an Arab neighbor.

Like life at Dahlia's, a new cross-culturalism is being played out on almost every table throughout the country. Take the wildly popular baguette bar. About seven years ago, a Tunisian Jew invented a baguette-making machine.

Today "baguette bars," rapidly replacing the falafel stands of the past, dot the country. Fresh-from-the-oven baguette sandwiches are served with slices of deli meats. Customers have a choice of more than two dozen kinds of salads, from red cabbage to hummus, from Turkish eggplant salads to Russian beet salads, from Syrian sour pickles to Yemenite hot sauces.

Israelis point to the plates of spreads the way Americans do to flavors of ice cream, the difference being that flavor preferences reflect family background instead of individual taste. As a finishing touch, every sandwich is completed with a dollop of tahini (a sesame paste) often studded with parsley, garlic and lemon juice.

"No matter what food is served in Israel, people have to have their tahini," said Chicago-born Yehuda Avni, owner of Vered HaGalil, a ranch in upper Galilee that has been known since 1960 for its American fried chicken, pancakes and apple pie. Catering to an Israeli public, Avni has added fajitas stuffed into pita pockets rather than tortillas, and seasoned with tahini.

"The Arab influence is very strong on our food. Give my kids a meal with good hummus, pita, salads and grilled fish or meat and they are in seventh heaven. That is a regular Israeli 'happy meal.' "

Today, a typical Israeli everyday main meal, as codified in the "Israel Defense Force Cookbook," includes a Middle Eastern hummus or tahini, a Central European schnitzel made out of chicken breast, or turkey with a Turkish eggplant salad, or a Hungarian goulash-type stew, with fresh fruit for dessert.

For these daily meals, the majority of Israelis do not follow the kashrut (dietary laws) in their homes, but the knowledge of kashrut is second nature and remains a defining element in Israeli cuisine.

Breakfast and dinner are traditionally dairy meals while lunch, the main meal of the day, is a meat meal.

The dairy meal, popularized as the "kibbutz breakfast," has gained fame for the substantial array of vegetable salads, cheeses, herrings and olives offered to visitors of the Holy Land at hotel buffet tables. This meal structure and culinary intermarriage play themselves out across the country.

At a recent wedding for more than 700 people on Kibbutz Maayan Baruch, overlooking the Golan Heights, the meat meal reflected this cross-culturalism with a menu of stuffed grape leaves; Moroccan sweet couscous with kumquats, pine nuts, sauteed onions and almonds; Eastern European beef brisket; the inevitable eggplant salad; Chinese chicken with bean sprouts; and a pashtida, an Israeli vegetarian kugel-like casserole dish.

With a new generation of Israelis who have traveled abroad, culinary diversity has begun to permeate restaurants, kibbutzim and homes. Years ago, Avni, for example, started smoking fish over carob wood, a method he had learned in the United States.

Jacob Avishai, then of Kibbutz Dan in northern Galilee, watched him. Now he serves avocado wood-smoked trout, and salmon with rosemary and bay leaves at his rustic outdoor restaurant Dag a la Dan (Fish on the Dan), nestled under willow and wild fig trees over the Dan River.

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