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How I learned to love tahini

It took getting stuck in Israel for the next 7 years to induce her to taste the Israeli classics (she has no regrets)
A bowl of my homemade hummus
A bowl of my homemade hummus

In my experience, language acquisition comes in waves. One minute, you are sitting in ulpan just barely able to grasp the words that are floating just above your reach, and then all of a sudden it falls into place, like a bar settling out on Tetris, and it just clicks. This was my experience with tahini (Or as Israelis say, tehina).

Upon moving here I found lots of Israeli foods easy to like. Borekas (flaky, doughy, savory pastries) — sure! Israeli salad stuffed pitas with piping hot falafel balls and chips (aka French fries) — pass it along! But I always made sure to shake my head, “No,” when the man behind the counter asked if I would like a heaping dollop of tehina on top. It’s okay though; I just wasn’t there yet. First, a different barrier had to come down.

Long before the days when I would naturally crave olives and salty cheese, or jachnun with grated fresh tomato and hard-boiled egg (a sure sign that you are on your way to becoming a true Israeli!), I hadn’t even ever bought salty cheese. In fact, the hurdle of even approaching the cheese counter at the store, and pushing my way to the front of the line, all the while having in mind a sense of what in the world I was going to ask for when I got there, took me at least two years to conquer. What were all of those unfamiliar fresh cheeses? What was the meaning behind all of those percentages? There was no tell-all guide to the Israeli supermarket, and so I shied away, and stuck to the familiar.

Following the completion of my two-year master’s program, I no longer had anything keeping me in Tel Aviv, and so I set out for a new adventure in Haifa with my then boyfriend (now husband), to settle into a more domesticated life in the North. While he was finishing his army service, I taught myself to cook the basics in our tiny apartment.

Before Shabbat set in and he’d return from his base, I’d often spend a leisurely morning finding the perfect recipe, and then set off to the store to carefully pick out all the necessary ingredients. Afterwards, I’d spend hours cooking and tidying up the apartment, so that he would think that this is what it always looked like. I’m glad that he was so easy tricked into buying that nonsense! During the week, it was egg salad for dinner every night, and piles of clothes on the floor, all the way!

I drew my culinary inspiration from home, and also from places I had visited as a college student studying abroad. One of those places was Greece (I didn’t know how lucky I was!), and so one day I decided to conquer Spanikopita — a savory cheese and spinach pastry, for which I would need the dreaded Bulgarit cheese. I know people say this much too often, but from that day on, I never looked back. From that moment on, Bulgarit cheese had made its way into my heart and onto my plate, and it has never left since. It is now a staple in our house, and we use it in everything from salads, to pastas, to plain with a sprinkling of za’atar spice alongside our Israeli breakfasts.

Learning to like Bulgarit cheese was easy, but learning to embrace tehina was a much more arduous journey. You see, making aliyah, (aka: moving to Israel) is like a marriage. It has its ups and downs, and the first years can be often be the hardest. There is adjusting to a new lifestyle and culture, and the constant weighing of pros versus cons. It is like marriage in the sense that it is a permanent decision, but you can always divorce if things really don’t work out. With aliyah, as with marriage, there is such thing as the seven year itch.

Even though I love Israel, I had reached a point where I had had enough. Enough of pushy Israelis screaming in my face, enough of a lifestyle where I might never earn enough money to buy my own home, and enough of the hot and hostile summers that dragged on into the fall. I also had a husband who felt broken after many years of not getting into medical school, and who wanted to pursue the second best option abroad. So we sold everything, packed up our remaining valuables, and got ready to move to the States. With one child in tow, and the other still growing in my belly, we readied ourselves for the new adventure ahead.

It is a story within itself, but with one sudden and unexpected acceptance email, all of our plans suddenly changed, and instead of starting our new life back home, we visited family for a few weeks and then headed back to Israel. It was not easy, but we focused on new goals, and that meant seven years (at least) of schooling ahead for my husband. I had to suck it up, and figure out how to like Israel again, and fast. This was going to be my home for the foreseeable future, and I was certainly not going to spend my life being miserable.

However, in this tale of re-entry, I somehow adopted a new outlook regarding aliyah. It was like a vow-renewal, and I felt refreshed. I started a mission to get myself to look at things from a new perspective. Those annoying and screaming Israelis became quaint, and it became clear that the lifestyle was more about family, and experiencing nature and life together, and making do with what you have — and I was okay with that. We got out, got moving, and saw as many sites as we could to remind ourselves of the country’s natural wonders. The summers are still too hot for me, but, hey, you can’t win ‘em all.

Most of all I learned to stop letting small things bother me. I stopped mistaking pushiness for a personal vendetta against me and my polite Anglo ways. This turned out to be the key to a calmer existence in a sometimes stressful place.

With this new acceptance, I started a mission to fix the one missing puzzle piece. I was going to embrace Israeli food like I hadn’t before, and fix the gaping gaps where I had previously stuck up my nose and insisted, I don’t really like that.

Where to start? It seemed only fitting to start with hummus. Living with someone who is borderline obsessed with it, there was a constant chirp in my ear of: Hey, you want to go get some hummus? Hey, do you think you might want to start making hummus at home? Hummus, hummus, hummus. My husband, himself an immigrant of 26 years, truly is Israeli-raised. And so I cleared the kitchen, cracked open Janna Gur’s spectacular book: The Book of New Israeli Food, and got to work. It wasn’t an instant hit. Something like homemade hummus takes practice to perfect. Getting the perfect smooth and creamy, yet light and airy consistency takes practice, as does perfecting that satisfying rich nutty-“yolkey” aftertaste that I discovered I liked so much.

I was surprised to find through this process that it was the tehina that lent this delectable quality to the dish, and so, with a perfect bowl of warm homemade hummus that I had slaved to make, I started to appreciate my long arch-nemesis — the tehina itself.

And the floodgates opened for other foods and spices as well. Where previously I would have gagged at the thought of adding cumin or turmeric to my food, I have since learned that every spice has its place, and that a pinch here, and a dash there can really enhance a dish beyond its basic flavors.

And so that is the story of how the most Israeli of foods found its way into my heart and palate. It is not possible to love a cuisine when you do not love the people, the history, and the culture behind it. And in order to love something, you must first accept it unconditionally, and with a whole heart.

My journey through the world of Israeli food may never be complete, but for now it has at least “clicked in,” just the same as that old Tetris bar on the computer screen. I now get and even crave Israeli foods, but there is always room for improvement. After all, as is true with language, you always have to keep working at things. Israeli food is just as special and as varied as Israeli people, and most importantly, there is always a new flavor to discover. However, I am ready for the journey ahead wherever it may lead, and I know that I am on the right path. And that is the most important part.

About the Author
Jessica Halfin is owner and operator of Haifa Street Food Tours, through which she gives culinary tours to tourists in the beautiful coastal city of Haifa. She is an American immigrant to Israel of 10 years, an Israeli-trained baker and gourmet cook, and self-proclaimed “foodie.”
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