A TASTE OF ISRAEL by Nida Degutlené, published by Penguin Random House, 2015
October means that we book reviewers can expect lists of titles in our in-boxes to lengthen, as the seasonal harvest of new books starts arriving for the Christmas trade. I have waited until now to review this very delectable and well-produced cookbook as I didn’t want it regarded only as a book to dip into at the time of traditional Jewish holidays. It is certainly a compilation that celebrates the Israeli culinary tradition, written by a foreigner and non-Jew and perhaps this helps to make it a fascinating and tempting collection for those cooks who savour exploring exotic cuisines.
The author is a Lithuanian businesswoman, food blogger and freelance journalist who married a diplomat who was sent to Israel in 2009 as Lithuanian ambassador. While there, Nida not only relished unearthing Jewish culinary traditions, but found that dishes from her childhood are based on Jewish recipes that have become part of Lithunanian fare. She started sharing her discoveries on her blog, and now has 30 000 followers.
Meze and appetizers make a colourful start to the recipes and between the well-known chopped herring and watermelon and feta salad, there are interesting bites like Muhammara, walnut and sweet pepper paste, courtesy Syrian Jews who spread it on pita breads and an Israeli take on Peruvian ceviche, paired with cubed mango. Among the breakfast ideas I honed in on a frittata with baby marrows, leek and walnuts – although I will use local pecans instead. The characteristic carmelised onions favoured by Sephardis feature in a baked fish recipe that includes a layer of tahini sauce and that is finished with toasted pine nuts. A chicken recipe enjoyed in winter when its citrus season adds orange and lemon juice and zest to chicken quarters, along with honey, Arak, garlic, chilli and cardamom – definitely worth trying,.
The chapter on street food is an enjoyable trip - celebrating classics like burekas,knish,shawarma and falafel. And lesser-known creations such as Sabich, a vegetarian sandwich of pita bread filled with tahini, aubergine, egg, and onion, made by Iraqi Jews.
Talking of meat-free fare, there is a great selection in the vegetarian section, from sweet peppers filled with cheese, through a selection of patties – leek, pumpkin, peanut - , and a Turkish phyllo cheese pie. From one of Jerusalem’s most popular restaurants comes Machane Yehuda, polenta with mushroom, asparagus and poached eggs, a favourite with diners that cannot be removed from the menu,
Bakes include a latkes selection – I rather fancy the potato and beetroot ones with onion and feta, that are baked rather than fried. An interesting article on kosher wine precedes the final chapter of “Extras” that includes a fiery spice paste called Zhug, a contribution to Israeli street food from Yemeni Jews.
Nida Degutiené is a publisher’s dream – not only does she write well and compile an enticing collection of recipes, but she does her own styling and food photography as well – this book has been well translated from Lithuanian by Medeine Tribinevičius and will make a popular addition to many a well-used cookbook collection this summer.