Monday, September 18, 2006

the terrible food of Israel

Since my two greatest passions in life are food and travel, eating while traveling is pretty much the pinnacle of my existence. I have such fond memories of sitting outdoors in the morning coolness in Essaouira, Morocco, drinking mint tea and smelling the ubiquitous smell of fresh bread. I regularly cook Spanish tortilla and Malay noodles, pining for Spain and Malaysia each time. I have visited, among other places, Mexico, the U.K., Australia, Peru, India, Panama, Czechoslovakia before it split into two, and most of Western Europe. I lived in the Philippines for two years and studied in Madrid. Of all the places I have visited, my personal vote for Worst Food In The World is Israel.

I am an insanely picky eater, so one might dismiss my complaints. However, my husband is without a picky bone (or tastebud) in his body, and he complained endlessly about the food in Israel. He was uncharacteristically catty on the subject of the faculty cafeteria at Hebrew University, where he was condemned to eat each weekday (we were in Israel while my husband visited Hebrew University on a short-term post-doc).

Ironically, I had been looking forward to eating out in Israel. As a lacto-ovo vegetarian, I knew that the kosher laws were (accidentally) in my favor. In order to keep kosher, a restaurant in all practicality must come down on either the dairy or the meat side of the divide, and all I had to do was shun the meat restaurants. At the dairy ones, I could feel free to order anything I liked; I wouldn't have to poke at obscure lumps with my fork and ask my dining companions to taste it and "please tell me that isn't meat."

All Israeli menus feature "fresh vegetables." At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you can expect a side of "fresh vegetables." What this means is that you will get a salad of desiccated, chopped vegetables with no dressing. Dried-out cucumber, some juiceless tomato, dried lettuce leaves... mmmm, just what you want for breakfast with your omelet. Perhaps the vegetables were once fresh off the kibbutz and fabulous, but leaving chopped vegetables lying around in a restaurant kitchen in that harsh heat and dry air is not a good idea.

Entrees tend to be extraordinarily fatty and unhealthy... to the point of being unappealing even to a drunken housewife such as myself, who is not averse to a bit of unhealthiness in her food. At one of the trendiest sidewalk cafes in the chicest neighborhood in Jerusalem, I noticed a "salad" composed of squares of Roquefort, fried in butter, served with pine nuts and sundried tomatoes (presumably the kind in oil). In the food section of a popular Israeli daily newspaper, I read an article extolling a wonderful dish, guaranteed to please all your guests, which worked equally well as an appetizer and an entree. Intrigued, I read on. The receipe began with putting four kinds of cheese into a food processor and turning it into an amorphous mass. Next, some of the cheesy mass was put in a bowl and topped liberally with olive oil. Next, make another layer of cheesiness and sprinkle fresh basil on top. Make another layer and pour olive oil liberally on top. Repeat until out of cheese, ending with a layer of olive oil. The result: a big bowl of greasy fat! I did not clip this recipe from the paper or try it at home.

Israeli food tends to be without any flavor or spice whatsoever. The exception is the food made by Palestinian Israelis, and ducking into any Palestinian restaurant yielded excellent, spicy Middle Eastern food served with the greatest civility (in contrast, Israeli waitrons tend to be hostile).

Many Israelis seem to have no understanding of what a decent restaurant could be like. We visited two different Israeli couples, who both intended to provide us with a nice, Israeli dinner. Each couple proposed that we walk to the nearest gas station to buy a falafel sandwich. I can't imagine that Americans, entertaining guests from abroad, would propose walking to a gas station convenience store for a hot dog as a special treat.

But given the state of the restaurants we visited, perhaps you might as well save your money and go to the gas station. There were some exceptions (such as Panini in Jerusalem), but for the most part, the food was terrible and the service was sullen.

And the coffee? Nescafe, called "Nes" affectionately, is the standard. If you want a decent cup of coffee, again you must seek out an Arab establishment, where you can get a wonderful Turkish coffee complete with cardamom seeds. I was so excited when I found a place in the upscale shopping district of Jerusalem, called "Coffee", which had a huge menu of hundreds of kinds of coffee drinks. The phenomenally rude waitron informed me that they were out of everything I tried asking for, and I ended up with a horrible cup of "coffee" which may or may not have been instant.

Want to try a local beer? The Israeli beers, Gold Star, Maccabbee, etc..., were dreadful. Taybeh, made in the West Bank from the first Palestinian microbrewery, was very good indeed, and it is a shame it is not exported. I would buy Taybeh on a regular basis if I could.

I wrote about my experiences with the food online after my return from Israel, and I forwarded a link to it to a disgruntled expatriate Israeli. I thought this person would have a sense of humor and some detachment from his native land as he had formed the resolve to never live there ever again, but it turns out I hit a ton of nerves. He went off: "The person who wrote that obviously had never traveled anywhere and is very insular and ignorant!"

"Ummm, I wrote it. I thought I made that clear. Actually, I've lived abroad twice and traveled a lot."

"The part about the vegetables is entirely wrong! The vegetables in Israel are much fresher and more flavorful than what you get at Safeway!"

"Well, actually, I shop at Andronico's, and the vegetables are great. The point was, though, that they are served without any kind of dressing, and they are all dried out from being chopped up and then left out in the heat."

"You don't need dressing when you have great vegetables! You just say that because you're used to bad American vegetables from Safeway that need dressing!"

We argued on and on about the whole taking-your-foreign-guests-to-the-gas-station-for-a-sandwich thing, and eventually he partially conceded that to a foreigner, that would not seem so fabulous.

I should have known better than to even start the whole conversation. After all, it wasn't my first argument about food with an Israeli. Once I mentioned to my husband's main Israeli friend, who for reasons which remain obscure hates me, that we'd accidentally stumbled upon the most amazingly secular restaurant in Jerusalem: one which not only stayed open during the Sabbath, but also served cheeseburgers, flouting the laws of kosher. The restaurant played very loud rock music, and it was filled with sulky looking young people, striking a pose in skimpy clothes. Anton's friend assailed me.

"All restaurants in Jerusalem keep kosher!"

"I'm telling you, this one has cheeseburgers."

"In Jerusalem, you cannot be open on the Sabbath! They will throw stones! There is no such thing as a restaurant which is not kosher and which is open on the Sabbath!"

"I can tell you the address."

"All restaurants in Jerusalem keep kosher" (contemptously said while turning away and thereafter ignoring me).

I realize that fine food is a luxury and that a people who are often at war have more important things to think about than spices. Perhaps the true revelation of this was just how shallow we spoiled Americans are (or at least my husband and myself). But yet, the Palestinians are making yummy food and sumptuous coffee and delightful beer, right in the very same war zone.


Green said...

I remember reading that exchange. I recall thinking it was funny that a guy who always said he hated Israel so much was so intent on defending its food. Whatever. I probably wouldn't like Israeli food, based on what you describe. Point me towards the nearest matzah ball soup, and I'm happy.

Anonymous said...

that was funny and cathartic. i wonder, do i know you from CL? i came across your blog via green's. i grew up in israel, believing that the vegetables there were indeed superior to any others. on my last couple of visits i've been sorely disappointed. there are a few good restaurants you may have missed, but your observations about uber-defensive israelis are spot-on. don't you know that EVERYTHING is better there?

despite everything else, i will staunchly defend the superiority of israeli yogurt.

Anonymous said...

I spent a summer in Israel when I was in high school and I have to agree with you. I survived on nutella and bread for the most part.

It seemed that all the food was also always oval. We were often served what I called the oval breakfast every day -- oval bread, eggs, tomatoes, olives.

At noontime in the heat of the day they served us horrid hot soup. The meat was also disgusting.

The best food I had in Israel (besides the nutella) was the falafel in Sfad and the sesame bread sold by Arab vendors near the gates of Jerusalem.

Anonymous said...

Yet another bleeding heart Jew-Hater, now posing as a food critic. A quick summary: "Israeli [code word for Jew] = baaaad (oppressive), Palestinian = yummy." Take a job at the U.N., as it is full of fellow thinkers. Wanker.

the Drunken Housewife said...

I guess you missed the part about how I'M MARRIED TO A JEWISH MAN, WHO ALSO HATED THE FOOD.

You know, just because someone dislikes something about Israel does not mean that automatically that person is a loathsome Jew-killer. You really lose credibility by being so hysterical in accusing people of anti-Semitism.

Anonymous said...

I lived in Israel for a couple of years (on Kibbutz) and returned for several 3-month spells after that.
As soon as the kibbutz worked out that I could cook my fate was sealed.
As you have mentioned the raw vegetables and fruit were good, as good as I have seen anywhere (although Peru has a better selection) and the meat was not just kosher, but completely free of additives of any kind. I particularly remember the baby avocados, about the size of cherry tomatos, and you can just pop them into your mouth.. no seed or thick skin, they were great! So the basics were good.

I got stuck in and completely revised the kibbutz menu. No more salad for breakfast, fresh cooked bread, proper brewed coffee (better than nes or turkish) sandwiches, fajitas and baguettes sent out to the fields, iced desserts in summer, coleslaw (they'd never seen mayonnaise before) ketchup made from tomatoes and peppers, chilli-based bangalore-style curries... I was asked to stay, and it was tempting if not for the fact that I'd have had to join the army!!

To be frank, I'd have to agree that the average israeli isn't really concerned about food, but is ferociously xenophobic when compared with other countries. Whilst I'm being frank, the US really isn't much better. It all very well running a top class food establishment but if the punters don't care then you've not got a hope. Most yanks prefer a crappy microwaved meal or greasy burger to finely prepared masterpiece

Anonymous said...

ha ha ha that was really funny. Do you know that there is a food stand in Tel Aviv that sells sausagues! I swear it is true. It's so funny it's kind of clandestine but open at the same time. It's in the clothes making district it's a booth that opens onto the pavement it's got no sign advertising it but its open all night and people come from miles around to eat, basically, pig meat. It's a v popular institution in old hypocritical Israel.

Anonymous said...

As a world traveler I can make two statements:

1. I've never met a cheeseburger I didn't like, and

2. Peanut butter. Keep a jar handy for when all else fails

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