What has food to do with touring? Well, everything. This article is about the culinary history of Israel consists of foods and cooking methods over 3,000 years. Over that period, the cuisine has been influenced and shaped by cultures throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. Such tiny country managed such culinary melting pot, which was and is related to its religious and ethnic history and is there for you to smell and taste.
This is the history of Israeli food and the story goes 3,000 years back in time. But actually, the history of food goes back 10,000 years, the times when the first settlement was created in Jericho. But I focus on the ‘short’ history here. This article will be followed by other articles about Israeli food (and recipes).
Records provide insight into the culinary life of the region in the days of the kings of ancient Israel, as far back as 968 BC. The table of King Solomon, who ruled for forty years, seems to have been remarkably advanced for its time. Solomon feasted on legs of roasted partridge; fattened goose liver; lentil stew prepared with bone marrow, onions, garlic, and coriander; and spicy red wine. These foods were succulently prepared for the king and his courtiers, though the vast majority of the people in his time lived on a much simpler diet.
Following the destruction of the First Temple (which Solomon built in 950 BC) and the rebuilding of the Second Temple in 516 BC, Alexander the Great brought his Hellenistic influence to Israel. Soon after, Roman culture also held sway as Pompey, the Roman general, annexed the region as a Roman province in 63 BC. Of course, these series of events took more then four hundred years to unfold, but Hellenistic and Roman culture came to inspire heavily the manners and cuisine of the priests and nobility of Jerusalem.
For instance, the ability to hire a professional chef became the highest mark of social status. Guests received written invitations to parties and were welcomed with a few piquant dishes and an alcoholic drink to whet the appetite. They were then offered pickled fish and smoked meat, fried eggs and honey, accompanied by pickled vegetables, olives, radishes, celery, lettuce or cucumbers, and tart or very sweet fruits.
The food of Palestine, as the Romans named it, or the Holy Land, as it became generally known throughout the Christian world, was the same as that of the surrounding Middle Eastern countries.
Home-grown diets were enhanced by imported spices and herbs, easily accessible because of the land’s position at the crossroads of east-west trade routes. The people of Israel shared the land and its produce with many other nations. In addition to what they grew locally, the inhabitants also ate the meat of animals that foraged in the scrub of the land.
With the rise of the Islamic faith in the seventh century, the religious prohibitions of both Muslims and Jews meant that no pork was consumed; instead the people subsisted on the meat of mountain goats and sheep.
There is little else known about the food of the Holy Land until the tenth century, when the Muslim geographer Al-Mukadasi wrote of clean and organized markets selling food in Jerusalem . He mentions quince, raisins, bananas, oranges, cheese, pine nuts, and honey. Bananas arrived from India, causing great astonishment, as indicated in this description by a visitor as late as 1280:
“They have a thick peel like a pea pod, but the color is a shade of light yellow. The peel should be disposed of, the fruit inside taken and eaten. Its taste is very sweet, like a delicate butter with honey …. The fruit has no seeds, and can be totally consumed.”
The Crusaders, who invaded from Europe at the end of the eleventh century, were convinced that the banana came from the Garden of Eden. Indeed, they were taken by much of the local cuisine, which by now included foods from the Persian nobility and the courts of the Muslim khalifs in Baghdad, both of whom had arrived with their cuisines several hundred years earlier. The Crusaders liked the Middle Eastern spices, and especially the wine that had been banned during Muslim rule. In a burst of creativity, they brought snow from the mountains of Lebanon and doused it with wine to make summer coolers, or they infused it with fruit juices to create sweet sherbets.
In the sixteenth century Turkish provincial cuisine became dominant following the Ottoman conquest of the Holy Land. The Ottomans brought with them dramatic new ways of cooking.
They combined meat with yogurt and prepared barbecued shashlzk and kebab. The practice of stuffing certain foods, such as vine leaves, zucchini, and eggplant, quickly grew in popularity, and tomatoes and potatoes arrived from the New World via Europe.
Some travelers arriving in Israel from the west in the nineteenth century wrote admiringly of the local cuisine. An Italian princess, Cristina diBclgiojoso, and a Madam Sara Berkley Johnson, who visited in the mid-nineteenth century, chronicled their visit to a typical harem. At the time, their writing provided a fascinating study of table etiquette in an environment of privilege that would have rivaled that of King Solomon.
“After coffee, small low inlaid mother-of-pearl tables were brought in. On them were placed large brass trays with a huge and rich variety of small dishes filled with an assortment of foods …. Flat pita breads, either halved or whole, were used to wipe the plate and bring the food to one’s mouth. The cooked food was cut ahead of time, which enabled us to eat without cutlery … they presented large wooden spoons for the soup and sherbet, on which they sprinkled rose water. Every guest received an embroidered napkin … to wipe her hands and protect her clothes.”
No doubt, the Western visitors also dined on sweets, an inseparable part of every meal at that time. Specialties included the pistachio and honeyed baklava, the semolina-based Knafeh, Rakhat Lakum (the local version of Turkish delight), marzipans, sugared nuts, almonds, and different kinds of halvah.
Jewish immigration began anew in the late nineteenth century, and with it came a whole array of foods. The next fifty years witnessed the return of a people who had been exiled from their homeland for almost two thousand years. Having absorbed the eating customs of the communities into which they had wandered (whilst, of course, maintaining their own traditions and prohibitions), the Jews brought their acquired tastes back to their roots and their own ancient culture. Jewish immigrants arriving from central Europe continued to eat their favorite foods, such as schnitzels and strudels, while Russian Jews clung to their tchai (black tea) and borscht. The immigrants came from all over, offering a homecoming gift of endless cuisine from the farthest reaches of the world.
At the same time, the occupying forces of the British mandate, which began after World War I, brought yet another set of eating habits to Israel. During the period of British rule, salons across the region offered cocktail hour, replete with crystal service. Five o’clock tea was served regularly, accompanied by finger sandwiches and sweets.
However, with the end of the mandate, and the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, these traditions ceased to play any significant role. Food was extremely basic in the early years of the Israeli state. As in most pioneer societies, preparation of good and sensual food was viewed with some contempt. It was considered more appropriate to save one’s time and strength to help build the country. Even at the end of the 1970s, eating habits were still heavily influenced by the spartan rigidity that had marked early Israeli society following the Holocaust.
But people still indulged in the barbecue; its pungent charcoal odors of beef and chicken would linger over the entire country, especially during Independence Day celebrations in May. It is a method that harkens back to the most basic cooking principles used even before the time of King Solomon and acts as a reminder to all of the long history s hared by the peoples of this land.