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Everday Food of Israel: On the Hummus Hunt

A Philadelphia chef explores the everyday, everyman’s food of Israel—kebabs, eggplant salads, hummus—searching for the best versions to bring back to America.

When I go home to Israel, I’m on a strict five-meal-a-day eating regimen,” says Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov. “I just can’t get the same flavors here in the States.” Recently, he set out to change that: Solomonov, who spent the past two years as executive chef of Marigold Kitchen, has opened a new restaurant, Zahav, serving the foods of his home country: smooth, nutty hummus; light, chewy Yemenite flatbread; and dozens of variations of eggplant dishes, ranging from a tangy stew to sabich, a fried-eggplant pita sandwich.

To educate and inspire his staff before Zahav’s opening, Solomonov took them on a weeklong tour of the restaurants in Jaffa and Tel Aviv and around Ganei Yehuda, the small Israeli community where he was born. The group set out to hit four kebab shops one day, five hummus parlors the next. A daylong eggplant extravaganza segued into a night of club-hopping and ended with a predawn bureka, a savory breakfast pastry stuffed with tangy Bulgarian feta cheese.

One of Solomonov’s goals was to show his colleagues how different cultures have shaped the food of Israel. “In 1948, the year of Israeli independence, many Bulgarians moved to Jaffa, so you really see that influence in the food,” he explains. “The Armenians and Eastern Europeans have been living in Jerusalem forever. And we’re seeing more North African flavors.” The result is a cuisine that’s been enhanced by a vast array of exotic spices and a wide variety of cooking techniques.

To drive the point home, Solomonov took his entourage for an early dinner at his father’s house, where they met his family. “Saturday meals at my father’s always included my Sephardic Bulgarian grandmother and great aunts; the parents of my father’s Romanian girlfriend; and my Persian half-brother-in-law,” says Solomonov. “They have taught me the techniques they use to make their simple food; I went to culinary school and have cooked with great French chefs and haven’t heard of these.” For instance, his dad’s girlfriend’s mother coal-roasts eggplant, peels and chops it, then tosses it with lemon, salt and garlic. The secret to this pristine salad is the wooden cleaver she uses to cut the eggplant: The wood doesn’t react with the eggplant the way metal would, so it leaves the flesh pearly white.

At Busi, a kebab house in Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah Quarter, Solomonov likes to order one of each of the specialties: shashlik (skewered chunks of meat, like chicken liver) and kofta (ground meat—usually lamb or beef—mixed with spices, then formed around skewers). Bulgarian- and Romanian-style kebabs are thicker and have a lighter texture than others, because cooks knead a small amount of sugar and baking soda into the meat. “But all Israeli kebabs, no matter their origin, are cooked over open coals,” Solomonov says.

Accompanying the kebabs is one of Solomonov’s favorite dishes, an earthy eggplant, pepper and onion stew. The eggplant is fried before being pickled in a piquant dressing. “The eggplant in Israel is so much fresher that it’s almost sweet,” says Solomonov.

Shakshuka, a messy tomato-and-egg stew Solomonov spikes with the spicy Tunisian chile paste harissa, is probably Israel’s most popular egg dish. For the most authentic version, he took his team to Jaffa’s beloved Doktor Shakshuka, where owner Bino Gabso mans the stove. “Hummus day” meant a trip to Ali Karavan in Jaffa. Solomonov has spent months perfecting his hummus for Zahav and considers Ali Karavan’s traditional version—a mix of chickpeas, olive oil, lemon juice and tahini (sesame paste)—the best in Israel. “Americans have this misconception that hummus is strongly lemony and garlicky,” Solomonov says. “Or worse, that it comes in lots of flavors. Israelis don’t do flavors. If you want to get a little crazy, you order masabacha,” he says, referring to a fancier version served warm, with whole chickpeas and a blend of tahini and lemon juice added to the center.

For the menu at Zahav, Solomonov will largely stay true to these recipes, but he’s left himself a bit of room to have fun. In a 24-seat space called The Quarter, Solomonov will serve a prix-fixe menu with modern takes on classic Israeli dishes, like the popular pastry kinaffeh. “Abulafia Bakery in Jaffa has mastered the ratio of sweetened sheep’s-milk cheese to shredded phyllolike dough and gets just the right balance of crispiness and creaminess,” says Solomonov. “But I couldn’t resist adding layers of Valrhona chocolate.”

Published May 2008
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