Jewish Foods of the World
The Mediterranean Basin
by Daniel Rogov
From the culinary point of view, Greece, Turkey and Israel share far more than the Eastern rim of the Mediterranean Basin. In the homes and restaurants of each of the three nations, spices and herbs are used lavishly as are the various members of the onion family, including garlic; olives are so adored that they are consumed at breakfast, lunch and dinner and the principle cooking oil is olive oil; yogurt is used widely; sweets are much appreciated; and fresh fruits are sometimes attributed god-like qualities. More than this, the most popular vegetable, whether in Tel Aviv, Athens or Istanbul is eggplant which can be roasted, grilled, stuffed, or pureed with the sesame-seed based tchina sauce, and any vegetable large enough to be stuffed invariably winds up filled with one combination or another of meat, rice and vegetables. In every one of these cities, coffee and tea are indispensable to civilized life, serving as the focal point for social and business meetings. Because of the large number of immigrants to Israel from both of these countries, Greek and Turkish influences on the Israeli cuisine, both in homes and restaurants, are happily inescapable.
Once at the center of the Ottoman Empire, the cuisine of Turkey had an enormous influence on the dining styles of many Middle-Eastern nations, Israel perhaps being first among these. Because the Turks borrowed a great deal from their neighbors, modern Turkish cookery is influenced by that of the Greeks, Iranians, Kurds, Armenians, Romanians and Albanians. If one were to seek the archetypal Middle-Eastern cuisine, it would surely be that of Turkey.
Because Turkey was a Moslem nation, pork was a forbidden food. This in turn meant that the Jews of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir had very few problems in adopting this cuisine to their tables. So compatible with local customs were the dietary traditions of Jews, that some of the most famous restaurants in the cities were owned by Jewish families. Dining out is important to Turks, and both restaurants and street vendors are an important part of the culture. As in Istanbul, many of the Turkish restaurants in Israel stay open until quite late at night and in the local souks (outdoor markets), street-side food vendors may be found from the small hours of the morning selling anything from spit roasted lamb, white cheeses, grilled fish, spiced chickpeas and candied fruits. Also having made its way to the Israeli table is the occasional use of the rose water that Turks so adore.
Because pork and seafood are the most popular ingredients in many Greek dishes, one might think that it would have been difficult to adapt Hellenic cuisine to the requirements of the Jewish communities within Greece and later, of those Greeks who immigrated to Israel. This was not the case, however, for Greek cookery has always had a wide latitude for culinary inventiveness. In this inventiveness, the Jewish communities of Corfu and Thessaloniki did well; so well, in fact, that many originally Jewish recipes have become standard offerings in most Greek homes and restaurants.
The two keys to truly excellent Greek food, which has attained enormous popularity within Israel, are simplicity and conviviality. Cooking materials, methods and ingredients tend to be simple, not complex, and this is one of the great strengths of the food - whether it is consumed in the tavernas of Athens or Cos, in Israeli seaside restaurants or in the homes of Greek Israelis throughout the country.
Anyone who enjoys the Greek cuisine knows that there are no Greek gastronomic encyclopedias and there are practically no formal rules for cooks. Improvisation is always in order, adding just a bit of this or that, always increasing the pleasure of the meal. Above all, whether in the preparation or the consumption, Greek cuisine should be pleasurable.
The following recipes are examples of Greek meals.
Daniel Rogov is the restaurant and wine critic for the daily newspaper Ha'aretz. He is also the senior writer for Wine and Gourmet Magazine and contributes culinary and wine articles to newspapers in Europe and the United States.
Source: Israeli Foreign Ministry and Rogov's Ramblings. Reprinted with permission.