Dear Soul Foodie,
Q. I’m new to Israel from the US. Can you give me any tips on how to adapt to Israeli cooking and eating?
A. There’s a lot to adapt to – but much less today than when we did it over 25 years ago. Then there were very few American, or even American-style products on the shelf. (Of course, when we arrived, the ‘old-timers’ were telling us how easy we had it compared to when they came…)
Two important tips that are really one are: 1) think ‘simple’, and 2) think ‘homemade’. They are really one because when you’re making many more things from scratch (which you will do because there is a far more limited selection of prepared foods, and even those that exist are seldom of the quality and/or quantity to justify the hefty price) you are not going to want to get too complicated.
This, by the way, is a great cook’s education, as not only will you expand your repertoire of things you make yourself, but you will learn how to do it with a far more limited palette of ingredients that in the ‘old country.’1
Then there is the getting used to the regional cuisine. This is Mediterranean Diet wonderland. If you like eating that way, you’ll fall fairly seamlessly into line with the most available and reasonably priced local ingredients and seasonal produce. (Yes, there are seasons on the supermarket shelves here. Nearly half a year without citrus, for example – just to open your eyes to what I mean. 2)
Cooking-wise, when I came, I had to get used to gas stoves atop electric ovens, rather than the other way around. And, of course, the oven temperatures here are denoted in Celsius, not Fahrenheit (hint: 250ºC is not the same as 250ºF – a lesson that is best not learned the hard way.)
The main thing is to stay open and balanced. Be willing to flow with the local ways of doing things, but don’t throw all the skills and proclivities you brought with you out with the cultural bathwater. 3
Yours in (hopefully) good taste,
Kabbalistic Pantry Notes
1. It can also bring joy. There is almost always more satisfaction in doing things ourselves than having them handed to us on a platter. That is one of the reasons God divided the human experience into two stages, the world of striving (this world) and the world of receiving (the next world). Of course, God could have given us the spiritual delights awaiting us in the next world as a free gift without our having to strive to grow in this one. But it wouldn’t have been as good. The feeling we’ll get of having earned what we’ll receive will intensify the pleasure and remove all traces of the shame that comes with receiving a ‘handout’.
2. There’s something to be said for having things pop in and out with the seasons. The simple delight of eyeing the fall’s first orange, or the summer’s first peach, not only means the produce is fresh, but it keeps life fresh too. The wisdom of the Torah’s creating ‘seasons’ of availability and its opposite in everything from mealtime to marriage also minimizes the ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ ennui that stultifies life and drives people to seek the ever greater thrill, often with considerable collateral damage in its wake.
3. There are many parallels here to the acculturation process that baalei teshuvah grapple with as they adapt themselves to the frum world. There too, balance is the key; don’t stubbornly cling to the past, but don’t wholesale expunge it either. Take measured but steady steps, integrating what’s good from the past and lovingly letting the rest go.