My Israeli-American Appetite Influences from the other side of the world and back again
By Sam Grossman
Special thanks to both of my parents, as well as my siblings, without whom virtually none of this cookbook would have been possible to make.
A Small, but Important Introduction
This cookbook is about my food culture, but it’s also about my heritage and my family. My history. Growing up, I never thought to myself “Huh, I wonder what my food culture is”, even as it shaped my childhood, experiences and taste buds. I have family associated with the savory tastes of shawarma, and memories in every bite of hummus that I take. I spent many summers in Israel in the heat sweating profusely and eating pita in the restaurants of the town where my grandfather lives, or buying food from the shawarma and falafel stands that can be found on virtually every corner. These foods take me back to times I remember fondly, with people who are now gone in a world that has since changed, the flavors of summer and fun and family. Taking this into account, I would say that I had a distinct food culture before I ever knew my food culture, or what a food culture even was. Though I most definitely did not grow up only eating middle eastern food, I would consider that side of myself a very big influence: My Jewish culture plays a big role in what I eat, and how I eat it.
Although I am not kosher, I have family who is. So many of the dishes that I grew up eating came as a by-product of us catering to extended family’s needs and substituting ingredients. Mixing and matching and experimenting in a beautiful (and sometimes unsuccessful) cycle that sucked up old recipes and breathed new life into, adapting them to fit our current needs. I would also say that my food culture played an important role in helping me understand who I am; It being invariably related to my personal identity helped me better understand my roots. Another aspect would by my immediate family’s constant tendencies to seek out new foods. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, which among other things meant that I had hundreds of restaurants serving different types of foods from around the world, all within a walking distance, so I consider the sheer exposure to all the foods that I had very formative. As if that wasn’t enough, my family was prone to go on random dieting sprees where we would go for two weeks being vegetarian or vegan, or wouldn’t eat any foods with any added sugars, simply as an attempt to try something new. In this way I was exposed to a multitude of different lifestyles, both in terms of ethically diverse foods, and eating habits (going vegan for two weeks was much harder than I expected). Although this project focuses mostly on my middle eastern culinary side, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the local and personal food cultures that I tested growing up. To this end, I don’t think I have a food culture that stands on its own, or even a single food culture overall. Working on this project taught me about one of the most formative aspects of my childhood, which I never thought about.
Left: a bowl of Shawarma next to hummus as made by my parents.
A SHORT FAMILY STORY I never really thought of my family as one with a lot of culinary secrets.
dad explained this to me, I felt more and more like I was in a crime thriller movie. The secret recipe that had been a family secret passed down through the generations and everyone thought had been lost forever had been rediscovered
Growing up, we constantly had people coming over for the holidays, or on Friday nights. Food was always being made and my parents were the ones introducing people to new things, and answering their questions: Where did you find this? Oh my god! That’s so good how do you make it? I don’t really react well with wheat is there a substitute for this ingredient? Who taught you this? We were constantly trying new things and teaching others what we had learned abroad from our cousins and extended family. At least this was what I thought. Recently, after I inquired to my father about any recipes, we may use he responded telling me that although he doesn’t really cook with recipes, our family had recovered one that we had presumed to be lost. One of my father’s uncles named Avner had a shawarma recipe that had been passed down through the generations and he absolutely refused to share it. It was his secret recipe. When he refused to share it my father’s cousins became extremely angry and cursed Avner when they didn’t get the recipe and thought that he had taken it to the grave with him and that it had been lost for good. One day my cousins were in Avner’s mother’s apartment and stumbled across a box of the shawarma in the freezer. taped to the box was a tattered piece of paper with scribbled writing which they quickly realized was the recipe they had long presumed to be gone. When they realized what it was, they all became very excited and shocked because my father’s cousins had even bought a machine for machine shawarma but because had no way of making the shawarma. As my Avner's recovered recipe, Unfortunately it must remain a family secret
חומוס ופיתהHummus and Pita A dish typically made of crushed chickpeas mixed with tahini, and served with Pita bread as a side dish, however different adaptations include drizzling it with lemon juice, sesame seeds, and adding different vegetables to it such as cut and roasted bell pepper, and mushrooms. It is almost always served in smaller portions which is made up for by its richness and texture, making for a very filling and satisfying dish so larger portions are unnecessary.
On a personal note When I travel to Israel (where the majority of my extended family lives), many restaurants called “Hummuseria” serve out a few different variations of this dish, along with a basket or two of fresh pita bread, also generally made in-house. The Hummus is generally served as a side dish to meat and while higher-end places have adapted it to be more elegant than the usual dish, (have more expensive toppings and be served in more beautiful servings and portions) many street-vendors still sell it frequently because it is very filling, cheap, and tasty. When I called up my father to ask him about how Hummus came to be such a well known and versatile mela in my life, he explained that much of it stems from being relatively cheap and easy to make: Almost all of the ingredients that we used came from our own garden, which is my father’s hobby that he passed down to us, and also taught us how to make use of resources that we had worked to grow on our own.
A beautiful plate of Hummus covered with lemon juice, olive oil, and paprika
The Unofficial Official Recipe *Quantities were not included since my dad does much of the preparation based on feel, nevertheless, this recipe describes the process. Ingredients: · Cooked chickpeas or canned chickpeas (~$2) · Tahini paste (~$0.50/ounce, $7.50 per jar) · Lemon juice (free for us :), $1 per lemon at a store) · Water (free) · Salt (~$1.50) · Pepper (~$3) · Olive Oil (anywhere from $8-18) Cumin ($2 per ouce) Optional ingredients (for those that want to take it to the next level) · Cilantro (~$0.79 per bundle) · Pine nuts (~$9) · Paprika (~$5) · Cremini Mushrooms (~$4 per pound) Total cost: $43, but will last four or five meals *Prices are approximate average of costs from different grociery stores.
Preparation Start by mixing tahini paste with water, lemon juice, salt, and a little pepper until the consistency becomes a little runny. Next, add the tahini to the cooked (or canned) chickpeas and keep blending while periodically adding olive oil until the desired consistency is achieved (less mixing will generally result in a chunkier paste, while stirring the tahini consistently will turn it into a much finer, smoother texture.
Above: a plate of Hummus and pita that I had when visiting the city of Haifa this past summer.
Add cumin and salt for flavoring. When the hummus paste (final product of the tahini and the chickpeas) is the right consistency,additional topping such as cilantro, pine nuts, paprika, and mushrooms can be added to top off the hummus and make a beautiful side dish. Serve and enjoy.
Chickpeas in a bowl. Crushed chickpeas make the base
Virtually all types of Hummus go extremely well with stews, salads, and meats, while still being a vegan base, which makes it such a reliable side dish or snack. Can be eaten With bread as well as other vegetables. I speak from experience.
שקשוקהShakshuka In my household, Shakshuka was a dish that we had at tons of family gatherings. It is made from cooking poached eggs in a pan of tomatoes sauce with peppers and garlic. It is served ina way that everybody gets an egg to eat with the tomato paste and other spices, and sometimes bread is provided to eat with the tomato and garlic paste, or to soak up the excess moisture. We spice it generally with cumin, paprika, salt and pepper, and it takes me back to Israel every time I eat it.
Personal Note Although I grew up eating these foods, I don’t remember the first time I tried any of them, having been so young at the time. As a result, this food is so ingrained in my memory and familial food culture that every time I eat it, it reminds me of countless memories of visiting my grandparents or cousins in Israel, in addition to celebrating all the holidays with my parents and my siblings when I was younger. When I talked to my mom about this, she also mentioned how this food was a go-to because we had made it so many times over the years that introducing it to our friends when we had them over was almost habitual. The recipe as relayed to me by my father is based almost completely on feel and experience. Although I couldn't find any pictures of Shakshuka from my family, this picture is virtually identical to the ones made by my parents at family gatherings (http://www.hairybikers.com/recipes/view/shakshuka)
The Unofficial Official Recipe · Chopped Tomatoes (~$2/pound) · Tomato paste (~2.50) · Water (Free) · Red Pepper (~$2.89) · Green Pepper (~$2.40) · Black Pepper (~$3) · Onion ($1.30 per pound) · Cilantro (~$0.79 per bundle) · Parsley (~$1.50 per bundle) · Cumin ($2 per ounce) · Salt (~$1.50) Eggs (~$6 for a dozen) Other fillers to throw in to the sauce include: · Carrots (chopped or diced) (~$2.25 for one package) · Chopped celery (~$2) · Potatoes (~$3.99 for a 5 pound bag) Total Costs: $34.13
Preparation Start with chopped tomatoes and tomato sauce in a pan on medium heat and mix in a little bit of water until it reaches a sauce-like consistency. When the desired consistency is achieved (based on personal preference so there is no right answer), start mixing in red pepper, green pepper, chopped onion, in addition to parsley, cilantro and cumin. Turn down the heat just low enough as is necessary to let the mixture simmer on the stove, which also helps the combination of flavors really blend. When you feel that you have the right consistency of blend (smelling the blend can also help greatly with this process so make sure you are engaging your senses), add some eggs on top and poach them. Cover the pan, since covering it helps the eggs poach quicker. *Prices are approximate average of costs from different grocery stores.
Interview: Dad Since a lot of the new foods that I had tried as a child were home-cooked meals, I figured that asking my dad, who had cooked many of them, about these meals would be a good start. I knew that many of them came from Israel, where most of my family lives. I myself have been to Israel many times since I was a baby, and knew that much of my diet consisted of these Israeli meals, even as I had no idea about when or where the first time I tried them would have been. My father is Israeli, so I figured that most of the foods had to be cultural, but I didnâ€™t know why I grew up eating those specific foods. There had to be a reason as to why some had been taken and others left out. So, I decided to call my dad and ask him, and learned a couple new things in the process.
Hey I remember you mentioning green beans and onion among some other recipes, why do you think that recipe was so important in your childhood or whenever your mother made them for you? Honestly, I don't know, I mean I think it was just the flavors of home for her. It was, you know, the flavors that she grew up with and I mean I know that her mother made that recipe until she made it. These are just traditional dishes.
What about Israeli salads? I mean me and Abbie and Shai and Jake (my siblings) ate tons of those as well. Well the Israeli salads we had were made with cheap, local, fresh, delicious ingredients. So in Israel, the Israeli salads are much tastier there because the tomatoes are better, the cucumbers are better. As you know, we don't eat American cucumbers so when we say the word cucumbers it's not referring to the same cucumbers that everybody else refers to those, big gigantic dark green ones, we're talking about those small thin, light green ones that have almost no seeds theyâ€™re called Persian cucumbers but if you look in the seed catalog you'll see that you know like Alef Bet (Hebrew letters for A and B)I mean all the varieties of those cucumbers are now coming from Israel the hybrids are all being developed in Israel. And, you know, those ingredients, that Israeli salad is something that everybody there makes every day because it's easy and it's cheap.
Was that why we ate Shawarma, isn’t meat more expensive? the Shawarma and Meat and cheese products are expensive, so I guess the green beans, being a vegetable-based dish, were also a lot cheaper. You know that's not necessarily why we make it because it's not necessarily cheaper for us though. Green beans in the summer, when we grow our own beans, become available these days but historically in Israel where my grandmother and mother were making it, it would've been cheaper and it's pretty easy this to make, so they were available yearlong.
Is there any reason other than cheap and easy? Well I mean Israel is a pretty young country, and you know the tastes of the people dictated what was planted, not the other way around right. The olives have been growing there for thousands of years so if you want to talk about the dressing, like all of the Israeli food is dressed in olive oil, because the olives have been there for thousands of years and they had been producing olives and olive oil on that land for thousands of years. Similarly, orange groves were historically present, so the oranges were things that were grown but things like the tomatoes in the cucumbers, I think that those are pretty relatively additions to the repertoire you know what I mean? I'm sure people grew them all along, but they were grown year-round in large quantities because the public wanted it. I’d day that the demand created the supply, so to speak.
So that wasn’t what your grandparents had? No, they would make the green salad. Shred a head of romaine lettuce, toss it with some lemon juice, salt, and pepper, every day for breakfast. That was their go-to salad. I introduced the Israeli salad into their house. I cooked when I was there, they cooked when they were there. I think that actually a more historically accurate salad that was eating at the time. I think that Israeli salad is actually a more modern take on it, but everybody in Israeli now eats that, basically, at least once a day.
So you added or took away ingredients based on what you had, but it doesn’t sound like a lot of nutrients. I disagree, I think it was very nutritious.
I mean more a variety of nutrients I don’t know what the breakdown is, the lettuce is healthy, cheeses healthy, they didn’t buy bread though, because they couldn’t store it, so they bought crackers. But keep in mind, they ate all types of other stuff that they grew as well. We’re just talking about one salad. They ate vegetables and fish as well.
Oh ok gotcha. Thank you.
Interview: Mom What dictated what me and my siblings grew up eating? Well I think that the biggest food culture we have in our house is Israeli food and you know, it emerged I think because dad comes from an Israeli household and that was something he was very familiar with and I also found it very tasty. We would, as you know travel back to Israel so you guys also firsthand developed a taste for those sort of foods. You guys would leave and come back here and I would buy, say, hummus from Trader Joe's and then you guys wouldnâ€™t eat it because you wanted hummus how it tasted from Israel so we started making it and then of course the more you make it the more you kind of come up with your own take on it and everybody kind of knows how to make it and it becomes easier and so that's what we did.
traveled around and that country [Israel] in and of itself is a blend of many different cuisines you know you have Jews from all over the world and they bring their food there and so we try different things and then we would come back and end up making those as well so In addition to the stuff that we always had like these Israeli salads maybe hummus with Shawarma you know we started making things like Sabichs or like Shaakshouka and then that also became part of our family food culture. So, it was going abroad and developing these tastes, and then coming back and integrating them back into our lives. Absolutely.
Right, so uh we got all these tastes from Israel? Oh ok that makes sense. Most of them I think, and as you guys got older and we And also to be honest, you know, with the Holidays like for
example Sukkot, it’s a holiday where we have people over you know we would try especially when you guys were little, And we did a pretty good job of having people over like 8 nights in a row and so on the one hand you want to have something different on those 8 nights but because you're having different people, we started to develop a lot of our go-tos like I was thinking again Shakshuka, because a lot of people here haven't had that it's relatively easy to make, generally people like it, it's easy quick you can feed a lot of people to be honest it's not that expensive. So that would be something that we wind up having several times during the week. And that was the same with the shawarma, and we would start making shawarma with the meats, then a lot of times we just start making with vegetables 'cause it wasn't quite as expensive and you could have that on the side and introduce people or friends to different tastes. Something reasonably priced but still tasty obviously.
Yes exactly, and it would be good and relatively easy and people appreciated it. People didn’t really have it here, so it was a big wow effect. They don't even that it exists, people hadn't heard of shakshuka or Sabich or a lot of stuff like that that wasn't a mainstream. So do you think that's also a leading factor then, kind of these social effect of how we grew up having people over, and holidays? Yeah absolutely, I think that if we weren’t the sort of people that have people over then we would still have much more Israeli type food then most people, we would have Israeli salads irrespective of whether people were here or not, much I think that having people over reinforced that idea. So, it gave us an impetus to serve it more often So it was kind of like an excuse Yeah, Exactly.
I also talked to dad about some other recipes as well like eggplant with sesame seeds, or the green beans with onions, why do you think that we have some more often than others, I mean there are probably hundreds. Was it trying new things or going back to what people liked?
When did we start adapting these foods to our own tastes? Well we probably got exposed to it in Israel and came back and started making it back here. Thank you.
I think it was both. We had some dishes for our vegetarian foods, particularly the eggplant, like you can serve that on the side as well so its very versatile, same thing with hummus. They very beautiful and people liked them. And especially with Israeli food, weâ€™re not kosher obviously, and a lot of the foods have to stand on their own, you need a lot of side dishes. When was I exposed to this for the first time? I donâ€™t actually remember the first time I had these foods. [Chuckle] Well you were little, me and dad had that before you were born, those these foods would have outdated you.
Semi-related Pictures from across the world
My grandfather and I standing under ancient ruins in Caesaria
A sunset in Israel near where my family lives.
From left to right: My grandfather, My cousin (Benari), Me, and my Great Uncle
A picture of the Shuk in Tel Aviv where tourists from all over the world and locals alive come to shop at the markets.
Vegetables being chopped up for Shakshuka
Meat on the grill for dinner
A military base, as are frequent in Israel near virtually every town
A cultural cookbook of food, family, and a healthy blend of the two.