I didn’t know how to eat fruits and vegetables until I moved to Israel. I don’t mean that my parents neglected my nutrition growing up. God forbid. What I mean is that until I came to Israel at the age of 23, I did not know what a delight eating fruits and vegetables could be. I didn’t know that they had seasons. I didn’t know that one day I would be popping little pear-shaped cherry tomatoes into my mouth as if they were candy. I have also, in my 9 years here, learned how to eat yogurt, tehina, silan, kubbe and all manner of foods that I had had no exposure to when I lived in the United States. For someone who keeps kosher like myself, Israel is a gustatory wonderland. The variety and quality of the foods I can eat here is astounding. Every time I go back to the States I find myself rambling through the grocery store bemused and maybe even a bit exasperated. Where are my tomatoes, I want to cry. How come the Parmesan cheese looks like sawdust? And why, for heaven’s sake, are there mangoes in stock in March? It just makes no sense. Beyond the environmental and sustainability issues, which are of course important, I just don’t understand why you would want to eat a hard, under-ripe mango in the middle of March when you could eat one in the warmth of July standing over your sink, with sweet, sticky mango juice running down your arms.
And yet, my most eye-opening culinary experience didn’t happen in Israel. It happened in a Brooklyn restaurant called Pardes. Pardes is a “family owned progressive Kosher French Bistro” run by Chef Moshe Wendel and his wife, Shana Wendel. A friend of mine had been raving about it for over a year, and so when I found myself in New York for a couple of days, we made our way over there for dinner. It was the ketchup that did it. Now, mind you, I don’t actually like ketchup or at least the type of ketchup that comes in a bottle. I find it too intensely sweet and cloying. I don’t put it on my fries. I don’t put it on my burgers. But at Pardes, I happened to absentmindedly dip my French fry (which was perfectly crisp and salty, I should add) into the little bowl of ketchup at my side. I took a bite. I stopped talking mid-sentence. My eyes widened. I was hit with the sweetness of tomato and the acid of vinegar. Then, about thirty seconds later I got a bolt of heat and something bright. I leaned over to my friend and, whispered “I think there’s cardamom in the ketchup. The ketchup has layers. There are layers of flavor in the ketchup.” My friend, who had eaten at Pardes numerous times, was nonplussed. “Oh,” she said without blinking, “they must have changed their recipe.” And that is when I knew that my relationship to Kosher food and Kosher restaurants was forever changed.
I came back to Israel, and a few days later, found myself at a very good Kosher meat restaurant in Jerusalem. The menu was pretty much unchanged since the last time I had been there a year and a half before. My food was good, quite good even. But somehow it felt uninspired. There were almost no vegetables on my plate. I thought about the meal I had at Pardes. I thought, man, this place can do so much better. Across the ocean, Pardes’s menu changes every few weeks, along with the seasons. Chef Wendel is putting out things like sweetbreads wrapped in sausage with fennel kraut, saffron mustard and dehydrated Peach. He makes his own lamb bacon. For dessert he serves things like rhubarb tart made with duck fat pate sucre. But lest you think I am just a Pardes fangirl, it’s not only Pardes. In Crown Heights, the dairy restaurant Basil is doing something similar. And in Britain, ex-pat Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi is taking the flavors of his homeland and teaching the English speaking world a whole new way to think about vegetarian food.
Friends, Kosher food can be wildly inventive and creative. It can be great. It can change the way we think about what we eat. Israel has all the resources to be the leading the pack. So why aren’t we leading the pack? Israel has Kosher ingredients that American chefs can only dream of. Our produce is inherently seasonal and almost always local. It is head and shoulders above what you can get in America. Israeli culture, made up patchwork-like of a myriad of communities and traditions from all around the world, has a deep well of culinary inspiration to draw from. And if that is not enough, Israelis travel. We are exposed to food cultures from all over the world. There are Kosher culinary schools, for God’s sake. And don’t get me wrong. There is good Israeli Kosher food. There are restaurants I eat at that I gladly return to, time and time again. There are good food writers too. And yet, why do I feel like I’m stuck in a rut of tomato, cucumber, parsley and lemon? Why does every restaurant menu feature the ubiquitous and soul-crushing molten chocolate cake? We can do so much better.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just eating at the wrong places. Maybe I’m reading the wrong people. If I am wrong, I would be happy to find out. What are your experiences with Israel’s Kosher culinary scene? Who inspires you? Is there an Israeli culinary figure who you feel is pushing the boundaries of what Kosher food can be? I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Prove me wrong.