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Front Burner | COOKBOOK WATCH

The Birth of Israeli Nouvelle

April 18, 2001|CHARLES PERRY

There is no one Jewish cuisine; there are the cuisines of all the Jewish communities in the world. They're all present in Israel, of course, and the resulting smorgasbord must be why Israel publishes more cookbooks per head than any other country.

A number of books have already appeared on this subject. In fact, "The Foods of Israel Today" (Alfred A. Knopf; $40) is the second Israeli cookbook Joan Nathan has written. This time her angle is the present state of Israel's food culture.

Thirty years ago, as she notes in an interesting 20-page historical preface, Israel's restaurant scene was limited to fast-food places serving tabbouleh and falafel, and Henry Kissinger asked why a country with 21/2 million Jewish mothers didn't have better food. These days, Nathan points out, Israel has upscale bakeries (one run by a guy who worked as a food stylist in California), boutique cheese-makers and prize-winning winemakers. It exports foie gras and extra-virgin olive oil. Nathan's recipes record a sort of Israeli nouvelle cuisine as well as archaic folk dishes from India, Kurdistan and Ethiopia.

To a degree, this book is aimed at people who might visit Israel sometime soon. Nathan wants them to explore local markets, not just historical sites. Where can you get the best hummus or falafel in the country? She gives lists of places.

The 300 recipes dig deeper than a lot of other Israeli cookbooks. There's very basic Middle Eastern food from an Alawite village on the Syrian border, Samaritan sesame crackers, a triangular Tunisian bread, an Egyptian coconut jam and some fascinating boreks filled with roasted fennel root flavored with the sumac-thyme mixture zaatar.

On the other hand, it's the sort of cookbook you can just sit down and read, because each recipe has a story: a memory of hard times in Israel's early days, a family anecdote from Yemen, a cook's philosophy. Nathan, who was once the press attache to the mayor of Jerusalem, knows a lot of Israeli big shots (well, the country isn't so big that it's impossible to know big shots), so she can give a roast lamb recipe from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's wife and Interior Minister Natan Sharansky's mother's gefilte fish recipe.

If I have a criticism, it's that somebody should have checked the spelling. There are all sorts of inconsistencies and trivial mistakes here (pfahnkuchen for pfannkuchen, milhouliya for mulukhiyya and so on). On a personal note, when she quotes my theories about the origin of pita, you could be forgiven for concluding that I think the word "pita" comes from the Greek word "plakous" (actually, my idea is that the Greeks coined "pitta" as a new name for a thin flatbread when "plakous" came to mean something thicker).

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