Learning My Way Around the (Israeli) Kitchen

Growing up, I always enjoyed helping my mother in the kitchen. Mom soon discovered she could entrust me with such tasks as stirring a white sauce while she ran down to the basement to take a load of wash out of the dryer. By the time I got married, at the tender age of 18, I knew my way around a kitchen.

But that was in America.

None of those early kitchen experiences prepared me for purchasing and cooking Israeli foodstuffs. Trying to read food packaging and getting a feel for ingredients I’d never seen before left me feeling like I had developed a severe case of foodie dyslexia. The items I saw on the shelves refused to make sense to me.

There was nothing to do but dig in my heels and begin my grand experiment of acclimating to the Israeli kitchen. I learned which substitutions for the familiar products of my childhood worked and which were just not worth the attempt (I learned to give certain American recipes a miss). I learned how to convert ounces and pounds to grams and kilograms and Fahrenheit to Celsius. I learned that an American measuring cup is not the same as an Israeli measuring cup.  But most of all, I learned how to ASK. I admitted I needed help and asked questions of my American friends, who had made Aliyah to Israel before me and had struggled with the same issues.

Still, there were hits and misses. I thought I knew how to cook rice. As a teenager in America, whenever I wanted something quick, hot, and carbolicious, I had reached for the box of Minute Rice. I could practically make that stuff in my sleep. Dov loved rice. Still does. But Israeli rice refused to yield when treated like the rice I knew and loved.

I gave up on rice for many years, until a friend of Moroccan extraction, Chanita, initiated me into the secrets of how to cook perfect long-grain rice, which in Israel is labeled “Persian rice.” It turned out to be so simple to prepare and every bit as foolproof as Minute Rice. I’d just needed someone to teach me the technique. I could have followed the instructions in my Joy of Cooking cookbook, had I only known that “Persian rice” was the same thing as “long-grain rice.”

Once I started having children—12 of them to be exact—I learned how to make meals that could be prepared between bouts of colic and loads of laundry. I also learned how to make meals that would appeal to the widest cross-section of my very large family. This was no mean feat!

It seemed like there would always be at least one child who would not like the supper I had prepared that day. Yehoshua termed all fish except for canned tuna, “ugly food.” Aharon could not bear onions in any shape or form. I could not sneak them into his food by pureeing them in soup, for instance. He always KNEW.

Trying to please everyone was very limiting. To this day, with a greatly reduced number of mouths to feed (they do grow up, thank God), I still contend with this issue. Yitzchak, for instance, will not eat anything green except for:

A) Candy

B) Pickled cucumbers


C) Olives.

Natan largely stopped eating poultry when avian flu was going around a few years back and has yet to cultivate anew a taste for chicken or turkey.

I learned to have alternative foodstuffs on hand for those days when I am cooking something one or the other of my children dislike. They do, after all, take after me: they are foodies. They’d rather starve than eat something they don’t like. As a prototypically food-obsessed Jewish mother, I just don’t have the courage to say, “Fine. Don’t eat. Starve.”

Other factors that have influenced my recipe repertoire are the budgetary concerns that go with raising a vast family and like a lot of women I know, my constant need for replenishing my reserves of iron and B12. As a result, I am always on the lookout for inexpensive sources of meat or poultry. My friend Penny at swears by gizzards as the most inexpensive source of Kosher edible flesh. Gizzards happen to be an important part of Jewish cuisine but just the thought of them turns my stomach.

Years ago, I was in a large supermarket when I spotted something called nitchei hodu (turkey cuts or chunks) that was very inexpensive—the most inexpensive form of meat or poultry I’d yet seen in the country. I did something smart and bought a package. Then I asked my child’s ganenet (nursery school teacher) if she had a recipe for nitchei hodu. She did.

Sarah Ezra was of Turkish Jewish extraction. While her young charges played alongside us in the sandbox, she described a recipe to me which was so simple I had no need to commit her words to paper. Ever since then, when I have a hankering for meat midweek, I whip up this quick dish. You guessed it: Natan and Yitzchak won’t eat it (Aharon grew out of his onion hatred)but the rest of us LOVE this dish.

Sarah Ezra’s Nitchei Hodu

About six portions


2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 package frozen turkey pieces (or other form of turkey (basar adom or schwarma, for instance, cut up into chunks), about 1 kilogram, thawed

4 stalks of celery (or more), sliced

1 cup frozen peas

1 Bay leaf

½ teaspoon turmeric

¼ teaspoon granulated garlic

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil over medium heat in large pot. Add onions and cook stirring occasionally, until transparent.

Raise heat to high, add turkey, and turn until no longer pink. The Middle Eastern way is not to seal the meat, but just to turn the meat until all sides lose their pink color—more like braising and releasing a bit of juice than actually frying and sealing the surface as Americans would do.

Add celery, peas, bay leaf, turmeric, granulated garlic, salt and pepper to taste (about 1 teaspoon salt and half a teaspoon pepper).

Add water to barely cover. The meat should peek out over the top of the water. Cover and bring to a boil.

Turn the heat down to a simmer. Cook covered for 10 minutes or until meat is tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.

Serve over rice.

Chanita Carmel’s Persian Rice

Place 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 cups of rice in a one liter (1 quart) pot and heat on low heat, stirring occasionally, for two minutes. Add 4 cups cold water, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a boil on high heat.

Immediately turn heat down to very low. Cook covered 15-20 minutes without peeking.

Remove from heat. Allow rice to stand covered for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.

About the Author
Varda Epstein is a blogger and Communications Writer for
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