One of the country's hottest chefs returns from a food fling with fresh ideas and recipes for culinary mash-ups.
Credit: Photo: David Vaaknin

I knew Jewish food before I went to Israel—at least I thought I did. Growing up in Ottawa and living in Montreal gives you a kinship with the latkes, the smoked fish, the matzo meal. I was a brash, young, secular Anglican, but Lord did I love latkes smothered with sour cream, smoked meats on piping hot rye, and lox with a schmear of cream cheese. But Ottawa is also a town with a huge Lebanese population, and we ate it all, reveling in shawarma, hummus, lamb, eggplant, and warm flatbread. Good food at bargain prices, fueling youthful beer-soaked shenanigans. Sometimes I ate meze and braised lamb with my dad and his friends at the fancy spots, where Dad would become enamored with the belly dancer.

Two food cultures, proximate but essentially separate—that's how it seemed. Then, last year, I went to Israel. What I found stirred up questions of geography and culture that have interested me since, as a chef, I found my adopted home in the South. The flow of peoples and flavors, locals and immigrants, is profound in a region as stirred up as the Middle East. Does food emanate from the population, or is it more a reflection of a region's bounty? Here was a country rich with food lore, whose cuisine abounds with Middle Eastern flavors of pomegranate, peppers, tomatoes, parsley, mint, olive oil, and citrus, all under the influence of people—Jews and Arabs—who have been there for thousands of years and others who arrived just recently. I found it a stunning cuisine and quickly lost interest in seeking anything close to a definition of "Israeli" food.

The cooking is an intense product of Arab, Kurdish, Christian, and Jewish origins, influenced by waves of Jews who have come from Brazil, Brooklyn, Italy, Spain, Yemen, and beyond. It's a mosaic, enhanced by a splendid array of chefs, young and old, now pushing the boundaries of what can be done with local bounty.

We spanned much of the country and saw complex fine dining; young, independent community restaurants; wonderfully stocked grocers; rural markets; quaint agriturismi; stellar bakeries; an amazing truck stop Lebanese restaurant; shawarma stands; and festive, busy bars in alleyways. Amid all the news and conflict, you seldom hear this: Israel is a country with a rich, dynamic culinary soul.

The food just sings with acid from citrus; bright herbaceous hits from parsley, mint, and purslane; pleasant bitterness from sumac; and richness from local olive oil. It's food that is constantly fresh and nourishing, something that, to me, Southern food can also be.

Back home in Athens, Georgia, immersed again in the cooking traditions I know and adore, I realized that the South can easily borrow from the excitement I had seen. Inspired, I added some of the light zest and full flavors that connect the Israeli mosaic to my own familiar traditions. Here are a few recipes made in a Middle Eastern style with staples from my own backyard.