As a newly-minted 27-year-old, this winter was my last chance to participate in a Birthright trip to Israel. But as a serious foodie, I was looking for something more than tourist shawarma at the Western Wall.
Enter the new Birthright culinary tour, which combines Masada and the Dead Sea with amateur culinary anthropology. After retooling 2010’s pilot trip, IsraelExperts sent 60 North American and 20 Israeli epicureans, myself included, in the mid-February rains to explore the question, “What is Israeli food?”
“We want to show how the food is connected to the country and how the country is connected to the food,” said Bill Frankel, who oversaw the program, at our opening wine and sheep’s-milk cheese reception at Nachshon Winery.
The trip’s keynote speakers, food writer Janna Gur and Master Chef Israel judge Michal Anksy, discussed how fresh, high-quality produce and products like tomatoes, silan (date syrup), and freekeh (cracked green wheat) make disparate Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi foods Israeli. Echoing the popularity of the Slow Food movement, Gur noted an uptick in restaurants offering local food menus and including “shuk” (market) in their names.
Ansky’s Shuk Hanamal, a relatively new farmers and artisan market offers high-quality staples in Tel Aviv’s redeveloped port. “The only farmers who make money are the ones who sell to supermarkets abroad,” Ansky noted as she outlined how her market might change this paradigm. At the shuk’s Kitchen Market, we worked with chef Oz Temel to create a panzanella salad with local cherry tomatoes and homemade labneh (yogurt cheese).
The trip’s focus shifted to food production with visits to Carmel Winery’s tourist-ready Zichron Ya’akov facility and Negev-based Shvil HaSalat (The Salad Trail). The latter guides 30,000 visitors a year through greenhouses and fields of riotously colored vegetables. Sixty to 80 percent of Israel’s produce grows in the Negev thanks to technology and simple ideas like growing strawberries in absorbent Malaysian coconut husks.
Though we celebrated Shabbat at a mediocre hotel buffet, the importance of communal meals like Shabbat dinners in Israeli society was always central to our discussions. During a dinner we prepared at the Nahal Oz army base, soldiers recounted memories of mess hall dinners and weekend poyke pot stews.
A packed itinerary meant we weren’t able to meet managers and chefs at every location. And we skirted important political issues underlying Israeli food production, such as kibbutz privatization, Israeli-Palestinian olive grove conflicts, and the use of migrant agricultural workers. Thai workers make up most of the workers on the Shvil HaSalat, and our tour guide told me that at one nearby Negev farming community, Thais outnumber Israelis.
We also never experienced Tel Aviv’s high-end restaurant scene. “We touched upon common food but we didn’t go to the top,” said Maya Yosef, a 23-year-old Israeli pastry chef. Mediterranean-European fusion restaurants like Messa and Raphael, Yosef’s last employer, are leading an upscale Israeli foodie revolution.
Independent culinary tourists will have more intimate conversations with food producers, but I can’t think of a better way to understand Israeli food than by shouting over a bustling table. Apparently, I’m not alone: over 220 Americans have already applied for this summer’s Birthright culinary tour.