Whether it’s smoky baba ganoush, or loaded bowls of rich hummus and ful, the food of Israel has been a game changer.
Our love for the food of the Middle East and Levant has been an enduring one. Thanks in no small part to Yotam Ottolenghi, the flavours of Israel and Lebanon have almost become iconic of the British middle class. Fetishised in Guardian columns and Waitrose magazines, ingredients like sumac and tahini have found new life, and an increased market share thanks to his celebrity and fame.
Ottolenghi’s former chefs have one by one been opening their own restaurants and cafes, carrying with them influences of Yotam’s signature style and Israeli influence. Perhaps one of the most remarkable trademarks of Middle Eastern flavours is that they have the capability to bridge the gap between working man’s staple to luxury, plated dish. Hummus is a prime example of this. The marriage of chickpeas, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and tahini work together to become more than just the sum of ingredients. The thick smeary dip is a vessel for many other flavours in itself and in some restaurants is being utilised as a base, very much like mashed potato or polenta, mounted with tagines, sticky meat stews and smoked cuts like beef short ribs.
Bread has been serious business for the past few years with various flours and grains being used for sourdoughs and ryes. All signs point towards the pitta being next in line to get a serious upgrade. At Borough’s Bala Baya, an authentic pitta oven has been imported and the restaurant is gearing up for wholesale operations. This diversification in their food service creates a healthy revenue stream and helps enforce authority in an area of specialism.
Falafel is another chickpea based item that’s primed and ready to take
on a wide spectrum of spices and chilli based pastes. Rose and anise scented harissa is one of the most interesting, nuanced additions to both falafel and hummus and one that works equally as well when marinating lamb and other meats.
Of course fruit plays an integral role in Israeli cuisine and everything from figs, apricots and dates are common cornerstones of the balanced Levantine palate. Hitting that sweet spot between sweet and savoury is done effortlessly with the inclusion of cooked fruit and works in a much more complex way compared to syrups and refined sugars.
Some of the Ottolenghi alumni are starting to dry out their own spices in their kitchens, as well as creating their own rose waters, and cooking pastes. The mysticism of the Middle East has remained constant and the British appetite for Israeli cuisine is unfaltering. With shakshuka now becoming one of the most popular breakfast and brunch items on the upmarket café menu, and
variations of hummus beginning to flood the shelves of high-end delis and grocery outlets, there’s never been a greater time to give Israeli cuisine serious attention.