No one would think of our Sacramento Valley being so similar to Israel. Yet on a recent visit, I almost felt at home in that foreign country.
The climates are very similar—true Mediterranean with dry summers, wet but mild winters, plenty of sunshine, flat as a pancake, and agriculturally, both are as productive as anything on this planet. Green fields stretch as far as the eye can see. Because their climate is even milder and frost is unknown near the sea, Israel has huge banana groves covered with netting to keep the birds away.
The farmers’ market in Tel Aviv is just like our Sunday morning market in Sacramento – filled with beautifully displayed, absolutely fresh produce (much of it organic), but in Tel Aviv many stalls are also filled with innumerable varieties of cheese. I counted as many as eight different kinds of feta.
I watched a man prepare a layered, marinated concoction in a plastic container for a waiting buyer, using fresh fish and sliced vegetables, at a seafood stall. Notably absent are pork and shellfish, both of which are forbidden by both Jewish and Muslim laws.
Though most Israelis speak good English, the writing is exclusively in Hebrew almost everywhere, and deciphering a restaurant menu was a true mystery to me. But the food is so good everywhere that you cannot go wrong ordering just about anything. Thanks to the influence of immigrants from the surrounding Arab countries, most of the food has a positive Arab influence.
As soon as you sit down at any eating place, expect a plate of hummus and a side plate of tahini (sesame seed paste) placed in front of you, like salsa and dip in our Mexican restaurants. Next to the hummus is warm pita bread; munching on a piece spread with hummus made me think I was in pig heaven. They are so good that it is easy to forget about the rest of the meal.
But Eastern European immigrants (particularly from Russia) also brought their food traditions to the country. The variety of restaurants in Israel rivals that of New York City. Pastry shops are totally irresistible, brimming with mouthwatering baked goods. On Friday afternoons as Israelis prepare for the Sabbath, the pre-sunset lines stretch out the door.
And their cheeses! Americans like cheese mild, and even strong-flavored European cheeses are toned down when exported into our markets. But Israelis like them fully flavored. Even their cottage cheese is really rich and tasty.
Israeli beers are like our micro-brewery beers and wines, not unlike our Shenandoah Valley wines in variety and taste.
Who would think we have so much in common? Yet I noted one major difference – I rarely saw anyone who was overweight.
George Erdosh is a culinary scientist, food writer and certified cooking teacher (and now a cookbook reviewer) with a strong science and research background (Ph.D., McGill University, Montreal). Originally an exploration geologist for some 35 years, he switched career to be a high-end caterer, a business he ran for over 10 years, before switching to food writing and running cooking classes.
He is the author of 10 published food-related books: a six-book series for young readers Cooking throughout American History and The African-American Kitchen; Start and Run a Catering Business (in its 4th edition, translated into five languages), Tried and True Recipes from a Caterer’s Kitchen, and What Recipes Don’t Tell You, as well as numerous articles in magazines and newspapers.
Contact George with questions or problems at firstname.lastname@example.org.