He had me at Marilyn Monroe. As Gil Hovav tells it, when Monroe visited Israel, she was served matzo-ball soup three times in three days. "On the third day she wondered, politely, if there weren't other organs of the matzo that were worth eating?" And with that quip, Israel's most mediagenic chef began whipping up a little breakfast couscous. A journalist, TV producer, restaurant critic, novelist, cookbook author, and host of several Israeli cooking shows, Hovav was recently in Boston at the Israeli Consulate General residence to promote his first English-language cookbook, Confessions of a Kitchen Rebbetzin. He says that Israeli food is much like Israelis themselves: blunt and colorful. To describe Hovav as "colorful" would be like calling pomegranate seeds a pleasant hue. He referred to them as "tiny explosive rubies" before adding a handful of the little gems to the couscous — and answering a few questions.
Is Israeli cuisine ready for the world stage? We are getting there. But we are evolving from nothingness. We are very young, and our country is only 64 years old. At first the cultural emphasis was to absorb all the ethnicities, to create one Israeli identity out of many and become the big melting pot for Jewish cooking from all over the world. That's not where we are today. We aren't a melting pot anymore. We are about respecting the things that go into the pot.
What are the primary flavors in the Israeli pot? Our food is influenced by the Palestinians, the Europeans, the Persians, the Yemenis, the Iraqis, the Russians, the Egyptians — and every other thing that is available around the southern Mediterranean. Our food can be shameless! A crime! But we do it in our own way. For example, schnitzel is the classic Israeli dish. Very German. But in Germany, schnitzel is classically made with cow. In Israel it is always made with chicken. It's a real crime, but Israeli kids wouldn't eat schnitzel any other way.
We have to talk about hummus. Did Ben Stiller overstate the hummus habit? No. It's true. Hummus and falafel are our staples. Originally falafel comes from Egypt and is made with fava beans. Egyptian falafel is green. We make ours with chickpeas, and it's brown. Hummus is a matter of great debate among Israelis. People in Jerusalem eat their hummus "doukh" — my best translation is "straightforward." We just scoop it up with a bit of pita. People from Tel Aviv eat their hummus "bessiyouv," with a little fancy wrist twist. I have friends who moved back to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and are so happy to eat hummus "like a normal person again."
Is kosher tradition a problem for Israeli chefs? A limitation on their creativity? Kosher food is not as good as non-kosher food. Kosher is all about having rules. You can't mix this with that. You can't put a cream sauce on a meat dish; you can't serve a dessert that has dairy after a meat meal. It's a problem for a creative chef. But Israeli food isn't so kosher anymore. Not since we've added one million people from the Soviet republics. It's still considered impolite to feature a non-kosher dish on TV, but I do it anyway.
: Food Features
, 5 Courses, food features