Israel’s millennia-old ‘biblical diet’

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Between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv lies a man-made Garden of Eden, dotted with imported Lebanese cedar trees, reconstructed olive and wine presses and reproduced ancient gardens of wild sage and edible flowers. But the nature reserve, known as Neot Kedumim , is more than just a recreation of the landscape of biblical times. Since the 1990s, Israel’s foremost food archaeologist Tova Dickstein has been cultivating it as an open-air laboratory to examine the millennia-old ‘biblical diet’ and the ingredients that are making a comeback in Israeli nouvelle cuisine.

“The ancient culture was, for a long time, forgotten in Israel,” said Dickstein, explaining that the ancient Israelites ate a far richer and more diverse diet than the hummus, falafel and vegetable diets of early modern-day Israel. At the time of the Bible, ancient Israel was famed for its wine, honey and pomegranates, along with its olive oil, which was used extensively both raw and for cooking the occasional meat and the more frequent stews of legumes like lentils and barley.

Israel’s Neot Kedumim nature reserve is a recreation of the landscape of biblical times (Credit: Hanan Isachar/Getty Images)

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Israeli cuisine is currently having its moment on the international stage, but at home, many chefs and food scholars still struggle to determine what makes Israeli cuisine Israeli , or if it even qualifies as a cuisine . As the country splinters along religious, ethnic and political lines, Israel’s iconic foods, from the humble chickpea to the stuffed grape leaf, have been thrust into the centre of heated international debates . Many Palestinian activists, as reported by Haaretz , accuse Israeli chefs of appropriating Palestinian culture, while others, like Dickstein, point to the many influences of the diverse peoples who once inhabited this land on Israel’s culinary history.

Dickstein, a secular Israeli who is fascinated by the Bible and its sparse but deeply poetic references to food, sees the national cuisine as a way out of the political morass by uniting people through their food ancestries. She, along with a new generation of academics and chefs, are cooking with ancient grains and herbs, using what they believe are original recipes to help work through the nation's long-unresolved legacy of trauma.

At Neot Kedumim, Dickstein guides biblical nature tours that delve into the histories of the many wild vegetables and herbs on display, explaining their descriptions in the Bible, their harvest cycles and their multiple health and healing properties. She also leads an outdoor biblical cooking workshop, in which visitors use biblical-era tools to recreate ancient recipes, using, for example, sap from fig trees to curdle milk into cheese.

Food archaeologist Tova Dickstein has been cultivating the ingredients used in the ‘biblical diet’, some of which are making a comeback (Credit: Shira Rubin)

“When I first started, Israelis didn’t want to talk about [biblical food] because they saw it as a religious thing,” she explained, referring to tensions between Israel’s secular majority and its tiny, ultra-Orthodox minority that wields outsized political power, including in the Israeli restaurant scene. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has long attempted to block the import of non-kosher foods like shrimp. But Dickstein says that biblical food, deeply connected to the Israeli terroir, may provide a more accessible way for contemporary Israelis to appreciate their complex history in this land.

“Like the poet says, ‘Man is nothing without his native landscape’,” she said, quoting one of Israel’s most celebrated poets, Shaul Tchernichovsky.

In fact, Dickstein, who works with fellow Israeli and Palestinian food researchers to decrypt the histories and evolutions of local foods, like wild chicory or ancient grains such as millet and barley, is carrying the culinary torch of the country’s earliest secular founders: Jews from all over the world, who from 1948 onwards used food to build national identity.

Dickstein works with fellow Israeli and Palestinian food researchers to decrypt the evolution of local foods like ancient grains (Credit: IAISI/Getty Images)

In the 1940s and 1950s, the first waves of Holocaust survivors and immigrants to Israel found an infrastructure-poor Jewish State, plagued by economic isolation, widespread unemployment and a scarcity of meat. Generally, the Holocaust was considered taboo , and, according to Yael Raviv, author of Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel , European-Jewish foods, like gefilte fish carp patties, were derided as ‘diasporic’.

“In the beginning, there was this desire for erasure of the 2,000 years in which the Jews had been in exile,” she explained.

Man is nothing without his native landscape

Raviv says that agriculture was seen as the way to create a link between the hundreds of thousands of new olim , literally translating to ‘those who ascend’ to Israel and used to describe new immigrants and their biblical Israeli ancestors.

After the state of Israel was established in 1948, the new olim exalted aubergines, tomatoes and other local produce for their healthful simplicity and local availability. To learn to how to grow and cook the local foods, they looked to Palestinian farmers who had been cultivating the land for generations while Jews had been absent. When Jews arrived, they adapted Palestinian recipes for dishes like falafel, which they topped with nutty tahini and immigrant-imported condiments like schug , a spicy Yemeni pepper sauce.

After the state of Israel was established, Jews adapted Palestinian recipes for dishes like falafel (Credit: PhotoStock-Israel/Getty Images)

But Dickstein says that while hummus was compelling and convenient for the early Israeli narrative, because it tied an already-popular dish to the supposedly ancient Jewish tradition of hummus consumption, the Bible does not actually depict the ancient Israelites as hummus enthusiasts. She estimates that hummus in its current form was likely popularised during the Crusader period from 1099 to 1291 AD, as consequent Holy Land conquerors continued traditions of cultural exchange between the country’s many ethnic groups. But for her, correcting anachronisms, such as hummus’ exclusively Israeli origins, is not meant to change Israeli eating habits, but rather demonstrate their evolutions.

To make her case, Dickstein relies on the Hebrew Bible, a labyrinthine piece of literature teeming with ambiguity. To interpret the recipes, she cross-checks the Bible with modern people who are replicating or producing some version of the biblical diet. For example, Ezekiel bread features as a rare example of a biblical recipe, in the Book of Ezekiel. There, God instructs the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel: “Take you also to you wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make you bread thereof...”

Today, ‘ Ezekial Bread ’ is sold in health-food stores across the world, billed as a kind of carb superfood. But Dickstein believes it was never a bread at all, but in its original form consisted of fava beans, millet and nutrient-rich seeds, served alongside an ancient kind of barley bread.

“The word ‘bread’ in biblical Hebrew translates to ‘hearty stew,” Dickstein explained.

Although hummus is now a notable part of Israeli cuisine, the Bible does not depict the ancient Israelites as hummus enthusiasts (Credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images)

She says her suspicions were confirmed on a visit to modern Crete, where she found a similar dish made of precisely those ingredients. It’s known as ‘ palikaria ’ and is served during feast times, including on 5 January, ahead of the Christian Epiphany holiday, as well as during Lent, Dickstein says. She believes the dish was originally a Cretan food, brought over to Israel by the Minoans, an Ancient Greek civilisation whom archaeologists believe were among the most influential outside civilisations in the ancient Israelite city-state of Canaan , and whom Ezekiel actually mentions encountering in the Bible.

In its various manifestations, cross-border culinary movement has always been the hallmark of Israeli cooking, said Moshe Basson, an Israeli chef who migrated from Iraq in the 1950s. His Jerusalem restaurant, The Eucalyptus , serves ‘a modern interpretation of biblical cuisine’, much of which was concocted over a lifetime of discovering similarities between the recipes of his Iraqi grandmother and those of his Palestinian and Mediterranean neighbours – all cooking styles with centuries-old biblical roots. Basson developed a love for foraged herbs like wild sage and lemon verbana that the Iraqi Jews had fallen out of touch with while living outside of Israel for millennia. And he applied modern techniques and ingredients to reinvent dishes, like his salmon sashimi, which is lightly splashed with nettle oil, a plant extract consumed here for centuries for its detoxification and other healthful properties.

Cross-border culinary movement has always been the hallmark of Israeli cooking

Among Eucalyptus’ signature dishes is the siege-era mallow, in reference to the role of the wild leafy green during the 1948 Israeli-Palestinian battle for Jerusalem, when the city was under siege and food supplies were so low that Israelis had no choice but to eat the iron-rich plant. Such vegetables were once considered weeds and the domain of Palestinian traditional kitchens, he says, but have gained new prominence as Israeli cuisine has found its footing in recent years by looking toward its own ancient roots.

Basson says that Israeli cuisine is less about recipes than it is about psychologically unpacking and reliving memories. “The people who come to my restaurant are coming to remember their different lives,” he told me on the restaurant’s outdoor patio as he picked a piece of dried oregano, known as za’atar in Arabic and as hyssop in biblical Hebrew, and which is often used to season Israeli salads.

Chef Moshe Basson believes Israeli cuisine is less about recipes than it is about reliving memories (Credit: Shira Rubin)

Contemporary Israeli cuisine has changed dramatically since the 1980s and 1990s, when Israel’s food scene was dominated by hotel restaurants and European-trained chefs that emphasised technical precision and the use of heavy, often cream-based sauces. Only in the past two decades has Israeli food moved toward lighter, more locally connected foods that resonate closer with the biblical diet, conceived as more appropriate for Israel’s hot climate and laid-back mindset, says Amos Sion, an Israeli chef at the Helena Restaurant in Caesarea.

We have a role to play here that’s not about just eating, but in understanding this land that nourishes us

“Once, chefs tried to replicate French cooking, but there was always this feeling of searching,” said Sion, who trained in France but is inspired by the recipes of traditional fishmongers and farmers from nearby Arab villages and serves up dishes like Arab-style fish stew with Swiss chard and warm tahini, or fennel, sheep’s cheese and pomelo salad. “Israeli cuisine is still in its infancy. Maybe in another 40 years we’ll have something to call ‘Israeli cuisine’,” he said.

Dickstein says that the uptick in Israelis signing up for her biblical cooking workshops at Neot Kedumim, all of whom express a desire to understand, appreciate and name their foods as ‘Israeli’, indicate that ‘Israeli cuisine’ has already arrived.

“For the first time, we’ve started to understand that what we eat is from our ancient past, but it’s also from what exists today or what will exist in the future,” Dickstein said. “We have a role to play here that’s not about just eating, but in understanding this land that nourishes us.”

Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.

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