Home February 2024 Cooking Jewish- Breaking Bread

Cooking Jewish- Breaking Bread

Traditional Shakshouka

Food as a unifying force

Israel is forever on my mind these days, as I’m sure it is on all of yours. I was reminiscing about something famed cookbook author Joan Nathan told me years ago when I interviewed her about her cookbook “The Foods of Israel Today.” While working in the early ‘70s as a foreign press attaché for the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, she noticed how cooler heads prevailed when disputes were settled over a shared meal. “Food became a means of breaking down political and ethnic barriers,” she noted.
   I found a similar thought expressed in “Jerusalem, a Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, $35) by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi writing about this diverse city inhabited by Jews, Christians and Moslems: “Alas, although Jerusalemites have so much in common, food, at the moment, seems to be the only unifying force in this highly fractured place. It takes a giant leap of faith to imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will.” Obviously both books were written well before the current struggle, but how nice to ponder a halcyon time when food might bring splintered factions together.
   Ottelenghi and Tamimi grew up in the 70’s and 80’s on opposite sides of a city racked by 4,000 years of political and religious strife, Ottolenghi on the Jewish west side and Tamimi on the Muslim east. They did not know each other then, but both become chefs, later met in London and became close friends and business partners. Four delis and two restaurants later, and after collaborating on “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook,” the pair became nostalgic over the food of their shared homeland and embarked on what they call a “private odyssey,” capturing the sights, smells and tastes of their birthplace as only they could do. “Jerusalem, a Cookbook” emerged not as an encyclopedic documentation of the many cultures and cuisines of the city, but as their personal homage to the food they relished in their own families’ kitchens, plus their own favorite dishes and exciting flavor profiles inspired by the “immense tapestry of cuisines” of this truly international city. “The flavors and smells of this city are our mother tongue,” they write. In a city fraught with contention and fierce loyalties, stark differences in cuisine among the many groups are expected, but Ottolenghi and Tamimi consider the similarities. 
    “Everybody, absolutely everybody, uses chopped cucumber and tomatoes to create an Arab salad or an Israeli salad, depending on point of view.” The same can be said of stuffed or pickled vegetables and the pervasive use of olive oil, lemon juice and olives as well as local seasonal fruits and vegetables.  
    It’s just a salad, but, according to my friend Carolyn Gilboa, “it built a homeland and nourished a people.” The Israeli salad, usually consisting of finely diced green or red peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and parsley with an olive oil and lemon juice dressing, is so universally served and enjoyed that it is considered Israel’s national dish.
   Gilboa gave me a bit of history reaching back to before Israel became a state in 1948. “The pioneers worked, when they could get work, with the Arabs, in Turkish Palestine,” she explained. “Like them, they had no crockery or utensils. Vegetables were the most affordable food available, and pita, so, like the Turks and the Arabs there, they used one knife for the whole group, dicing the vegetables into one bowl and using the pita to eat the salad.” By the time Gilboa lived there, beginning in 1953, they had advanced to one knife per table and one plate, one spoon and one fork per person.     
    “By then, we grew our own food and we used what we had. We didn’t have much—a bed, maybe a wardrobe, perhaps a chair in our rooms, and the communal dining room, which served good, nutritious food one way or another. Meat, butter, etc., were still rationed, but vegetables were not any longer, so our salads were wonderful. In season, we used cucumber, green pepper, tomatoes, radishes and onions, all diced, usually in equal amounts, and olives, pitted and sliced. It was all mixed together with a tiny bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. Most also added a portion of protein: one slice of yellow cheese or two small sardines or half a hard-boiled egg, also diced. It stretched a little further that way. We ate it with a fork and a piece of bread European-style.”
      This was in the kibbutzim (collective farms). “In the cities, most people did not eat quite as well,” Gilboa said, “and had fewer additions to the daily salad. At my wedding, right after the Sinai Campaign, we had one fried egg and a little mountain of Israeli salad per person. At the time, there were not half a dozen privately owned automobiles in Israel, and over 1,000,000 Jews, including 400,000 holocaust survivors and victims of other persecutions, all different, but all eating that same salad.”     
    The key is using the freshest vegetables and chopping them as finely as possible. In fact, the ability to chop cucumbers and tomatoes into a precise, consistent fine dice is considered a status symbol. Israeli salad is served with every meal—even breakfast—and there are as many variations as there are Israelis. I love this one, contributed to “Cooking Jewish” (Workman, $29.95) by my cousin Wendy Epstein with the crunch of toasted seeds, the explosion of fresh herbs, and the briny, rich addition of feta cheese. Wendy says her mother-in-law, Nava, instructed her to chop the vegetables quite small—a quarter inch is common, but Wendy, an expert by now, chops them even tinier for her husband, Elad.
    Shakshuka “is Tunisian in origin but has become hugely popular all over Israel as substantial breakfast or lunch fare,” write Ottelenghi and Samimi. You can watch a video of the preparation at ottolenghi.co.uk.  


Nava Epstein’s Israeli Salad

Yield: 6 servings, or more as part of a buffet 

For dressing:

Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)

5 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste (optional)

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste 

1/4 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste 

For salad:

3 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and chopped

3 tomatoes, seeded and chopped 

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 large carrot, grated

2 green onions, white and green parts, finely sliced 

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped oregano

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped mint 

4 ounces feta, Bulgarian feta, or other salted cheese, crumbled

2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds, toasted

2 tablespoons sunflower seeds, toasted 

2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted 

Kosher (coarse) salt and black pepper to taste (optional)

1. Whisk dressing ingredients together in large bowl. 

2. Add vegetables, herbs, and feta, and mix thoroughly. 

3. Immediately before serving, add seeds and pine nuts; toss well. Adjust salt and pepper, if necessary. 

Source: “Cooking Jewish” by Judy Bart Kancigor


2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons harissa, store-bought or homemade

2 teaspoons tomato paste

2 large red peppers, cut into 1/4–inch dice (2 cups total)

4 cloves garlic, finally chopped

1 teaspoon ground cumin

5 large, very ripe tomatoes, chopped (5 cups) canned are also fine

4 large free-range eggs, plus 4 egg yolks

1/2 cup labneh or thick yogurt

1. Heat olive oil in large frying pan over medium heat and add harissa, tomato paste, peppers, garlic, cumin, and 3/4 spoon salt. Stir and cook over medium heat about 8 minutes to allow peppers to soften. Add tomatoes, bring to a gentle simmer, and cook 10 minutes more until you have quite a thick sauce. Taste for seasoning. 

2. Make 8 little dips in the sauce. Gently break eggs and carefully pour each into its own dip. Do the same with the yolks. Use a fork to swirl the egg whites a little bit with the sauce, taken care not to break the yolks. Simmer gently 8 to 10 minutes, until egg whites are set but yolks are still runny (you can cover pan with a lid if you wish to hasten the process). Remove from heat, leave for a couple of minutes to settle, then spoon into individual plates and serve with labneh or yogurt.

Source: “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi

Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at


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