Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Not Really About Israel
If you want to see photos of the many unique, fascinating and beautiful places we went and saw during our ten days in Israel, check my Facebook posts! Seriously, maybe I’ll take you on a tour some other time. Meantime, here is one photo, showing a leafy kibbutz down near Eilat:
Israel itself was intense: a tiny country with a wide variety of landscapes, a deep history of watershed moments for multiple cultures, and many kinds of people living intensively in case they’re at war again tomorrow. I can’t begin to describe the emotions it evokes.
What I can do is share the culinary discoveries of Israel. Thanks to the many prosperous agricultural businesses and kibbutzes, the Israeli table groans with a huge variety of fresh vegetables mostly presented (at least, at the many hotel buffets we troughed at) as salads in endless combinations of color and dressing. With a population coming from all over the world, Israelis enjoy exposure to all sorts of cuisines and flavor combinations. By combining old Europe with African and Middle Eastern tastes, Israel presents many food delights. The vegetable stand shown above was in Nazareth.
My first food discovery was the Israeli breakfast. Coming from Europe, I was accustomed to the inclusion of meats and cheeses with breads and rolls, and touches of vegetables: sliced cucumbers, a lettuce leaf, chunks of unripe tomatoes. The hotels where we partook of huge breakfast buffets in Israel never included meats of any kinds, but usually featured half a dozen types of fish, prominently tuna (the canned sort). With salads, cheeses ranging from yoghurts to Edams, and multigrain rolls, I grew to love Israeli breakfasts right away.
From the first morning, I noticed small bowls of what looked like mashed red peppers, labeled “Yemeni Hot Sauce”, and it was almost never absent from the breakfast buffet. Nothing else was labeled “Yemeni”, so I did some research as soon as I could get my hands on some internet access. Yemeni Jews were among the first immigrants to the area even before the nation was founded. They stuck together and kept to their usual home recipes for decades. But gradually, possibly thanks to street food vendors and restaurants, the secret got out. Yemeni food was delicious.
Then, of course, I became obsessed. I visited the Yemeni Quarter when we were staying in and around Tel Aviv. There was an extensive and complete market, open-air but sheltered like a souk, featuring produce, spices, meats, housewares, and clothing, right on the edge of the Yemeni Quarter.
Here I found a restaurant run by a Yemeni family for decades, where I had the opportunity to try grilled Yemeni-style chunks of goose liver. Probably spiced with the blend called “Havadji” (and spelled all sorts of ways), it was seared just enough to seal and crisp the outer edges, while the inside of each chunk remained buttery soft, and richly meaty. Pretty much like ambrosia.
My guidebook had enticed me into this place with the magic words “Spicy Yemeni Oxtail Soup”, and I was disappointed that this cold-weather concoction wasn’t offered in spring. After some research, I decided that what I needed to bring back from Israel, in order to try this recipe, was some Havadji. And when I found it, I somehow found myself buying an entire pound of it.
Oxtails aren’t that easy to find, and upon returning to Germany, I had to satisfy myself at first with using some Havadji to season a couple of chicken dishes (which it did very well). (Havadji ingredients vary from one cook to another, but most usually is composed of cumin, black pepper, turmeric, cardamom, coriander, and sometimes saffron, finely ground and blended.) Finally I located a couple of pounds of oxtails, and simmered them for four hours with generous amounts of Havadji, chopped tomatoes, onions and garlic, and the zest and juice of an orange.
Once this was done, and all the bones and fat removed, we ate this with rice and some chunks of carrot, seasoned to taste with the fresh Yemeni hot sauce (called “zhug”) we’d snuck home in my suitcase. It’s a smooth, rich stew with a deep blend of flavors which encourages you to eat way more than is good for you. Doesn't look especially exotic but is very rich both in spice and meat.
I have also used Havadji generously in Yemeni Chicken Soup. Simmer some chicken legs, skimming the surface till it’s clear, then add a bunch of cilantro (not chopped), onion, garlic and Havadji. After about an hour, when the chicken is cooked, remove and discard the skin and bones, and the cilantro. Simmer carrots and potatoes in the broth until tender, return the chicken to the broth, and add more Havadji! We liked this with plenty of Yemeni hot sauce. It reminded me strongly of a family favorite recipe I’ve used for many years for Morrocan Chicken, and the flavor combination is also reminiscent of Chicken Mulligatawny. In the winter, especially if someone has a cold, Yemeni Chicken Soup and Oxtail Soup would be downright medicinal.
Yemeni hot sauce may be obtainable in the US—I’ve found internet sources suggesting that Kosher delicatessens in Brookline, Massachusetts carry their own blend. I might try to make it myself in my little grinder using lots of dry chili peppers, garlic, cilantro, cumin, coriander and cardamom seeds, black pepper, and a hint of cloves. Obviously, it’s hot stuff, but complex, and exotic.
So I didn’t return from Israel with quite what I expected. My Dear Husband had remembered Israeli food from 15 or 20 years ago as being pretty bland and uninteresting, but he has long since eaten those words. Truly digesting all the sights and history we encountered all over Israel will take a long time. Happy to say, however, that we are well along in digesting our discovery of Yemeni cuisine.