Cookbook examines multi-ethnic influences of Israeli cuisine

You would think that with all the cookbooks on the market today, finding a stellar one would be easy. Not so. Some are beautiful to look at but lack innovative recipes. Some with seemingly innovative recipes have not been properly tested and produce disappointing results. Some feature recipes calling for ingredients that would require a trip around the world. And, alas, some simply fail to hold our interest.

That’s why I am so ecstatic over The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey (Al Hashulchan Gastronomic Media, $35). This is a cookbook that qualifies as stellar by every measure. It is a feast for the eyes, features innovative recipes that work, calls for ingredients you can find locally, and not only holds our interest but piques it.


Author Janna Gur, who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in 1974, is the founder and chief editor of Al Hashulchan, the premier Israeli food and wine magazine. With enough conflicting theories regarding the origins of Israeli food to fill a culinary Mishnah, Gur adeptly traces Israel’s culinary history by examining the waves of immigration to Israel dating back thousands of years.

Through beautiful narrative, Gur explains how the immigrants from North Africa, Spain, Turkey, and Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Lebanon, along with indigenous peoples, created a culinary “melting pot” in Israel.

“Ethnic groups clung tenaciously to their culinary heritage,” she writes, “partly as a way of preserving their identity, but a certain amount of interaction began to take place. Recipes and cooking advice were swapped. The first steps toward a multi-ethnic food culture were underway.”

This resulted in a new type of “fusion” cooking, a blending of cooking traditions. The chapter on eggplant provides a perfect example of this “fusion” cooking. Recipes for roasted eggplant salads and dips include ingredients such as tahini, pecans and blue cheese, pesto, yogurt, sunflower oil, feta, or red peppers, which reflect the varied food traditions of the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic reality of modern Israel.

Also contributing to this unique culinary landscape are dishes that evolved from heritage recipes. Because these immigrants now lived in a country with a climate and terrain different from their own, and where their traditional ingredients were now exotic (and thus too expensive), they adapted their recipes to incorporate local ingredients: fish, poultry, and lamb, and the fruits, vegetables, and grains that grew well in Israel.

“Cherished ethnic dishes had to be modified;” Gur writes, “eggplant made to taste like chopped liver for the East Europeans; kubbe made from frozen fish instead of ground meat for the Iraquis; kicheri, a stew of rice and lentils now eaten with ptitim, toasted pasta flakes invented at the time of tsena as a substitute for rice.”

The recipes in the book feature a wide spectrum of dishes, from the simple hummus to the more complex Kurdish “Kubbe Hamousta,” a lemon and chicken-based soup with torpedo-shaped dumplings made from bulgur wheat, semolina flour and ground beef. Whether simple or more complex, all of the recipes are easy to follow and feature ingredients that are easy to find locally.

In an interview earlier this year with a reporter from The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Gur characterized her book this way:

“If I had a motto for the book it would be: ‘Forget all you know about Israel, for better and for worse, foodwise and otherwise, and just have a look — or, better still, a taste.’

Even if you do not cook, paging through this cookbook is a sensory delight. The photography by Eilon Paz is stunning and conveys the uniqueness of the dishes, the diversity of the population, and the beauty of the Promised Land. And if after looking through this book your mouth is not watering and you do not feel compelled to cook, I will be surprised.

Though I have prepared hummus countless times, the hummus made from Gur’s recipe has a lush velvety texture and warm soupy consistency equal to nothing I have ever tasted. As for the Semolina Citrus Cake recipe, which is found in the chapter, “A Cake For Shabbat,” it features a long list of ingredients and makes a lot of cake. The way the various flavors in the cake meld together is luscious, and the cake stays fresh and moist for days wrapped in aluminum foil and stored at room temperature.

With Hanukkah just around the corner, The Book of New Israeli Food would make the perfect gift for anyone who enjoys good cookbooks, stunning photography, or both. This wonderful book fits equally well in your cookbook library or on your coffee table. It can be purchased locally at Left Bank Books in the Central West End, Borders in Brentwood and Sunset Hills, and online at

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of two. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]