On a recent trip to Israel, my husband and I took a taxi to Bat Yam, a workingman’s town located a stone’s throw and a world away from the uber-cool city that is Tel Aviv. We went to eat Russian food in a community filled with immigrants from the former Soviet Union. My goal? To learn whether the cuisine had moved out of the home and become part of the multifaceted prism that is Israeli food today.
Our food guide was Yan Gitcelter, a chef born in Baku, Azerbaijan who came to Israel 30 years ago. We met at Yorsh, a small restaurant in which the owner is also the chef.
Gitcelter ordered for us: home-cured herring served with steamed potatoes and fresh dill; pickled cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and cabbage; creamy potato pancakes; and a classic Russian celebratory dish called shuba, constructed of layers of herring, beets, and potatoes. A small pine tree, a remnant of Novy God, the Russian secular new year celebration, twinkled on a counter nearby.
Just over three years ago, Yan and three other immigrants from the former Soviet Union published a cookbook in Hebrew entitled, The Russian Jewish Cookbook: Recollections and Recipes of Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. The book contains recipes and reminisces of these immigrants before and after their arrival in Israel. So far, more than 7,500 copies of the book have been sold.
“Russian food is entering the mainstream slowly,” says Gitcelter. “Young people of other backgrounds are beginning to eat it. It’s an attraction. It’s different.”
Novy God is the gateway.
“In the last three years, Novy God has become popular in Israel,” said Gitcelter. The Israeli media cover the holiday with growing frequency every year. “Just as mimouna, the post-Passover celebration of the Moroccan Jews, is now celebrated by all, so too with Novy God. And shuba, along with salade Olivier, the Russian potato salad made with carrots, hard-boiled eggs, pickled cucumber, and bound with mayonnaise, are staples of a festive Russian meal.”
Some are dubious as to the future success of Russian food in Israel. Janna Gur, Israeli food writer and author of several cookbooks including The Book of New Israeli Food, believes that cuisines that have “made it” in Israel come from in and around the Middle East. “Foods that have become part of the culinary mainstream in Israel fit within the region’s geographical food vibe,” she says. “Think hummus and the Iraqi sandwich, sabich.”
Russian food, long equated with Ashkenazi food like chicken soup, chopped liver, and gefilte fish has a bad name, explained Gur, because “we eat the immigrant version of it. The flavorful goose fat and wild mushrooms of Eastern Europe were not available in Israel when these cuisines arrived at the local culinary scene. Ashkenazi food comes from a different climate with different ingredients than what we have here.”
Gur connected me with Sabina Waldman, who, like Gur, was born in Latvia and moved to Israel many years ago. Waldman is a chef, recipe writer, food stylist, and culinary instructor. She was able to tick off in rapid succession examples of prominent chefs who are incorporating Russian food in their cuisine.
When noted chef Haim Cohen planned a celebratory menu for the 8th anniversary of his restaurant Yaffo-Tel Aviv, he included a kreplach course — dumplings stuffed with potato, bathed in butter, and topped with a selection of herring, caviar, and fish tartar. And at the Danon Culinary Academy, where Waldman teaches, the menu for her students’ final dinner included white borsht, black bread, and blintzes for dessert, served with a compote of red berries. The meal, which was open to the public, sold out within a day.
Enav Ezagouri, chef at Tel Aviv’s Café Nordoy, considered one of Tel Aviv’s best, recently posted an image on Instagram of a kreplach dish filled with smoked potato and fried onions, served in a beef and horseradish consomme. Horseradish? Kreplach? Undoubtedly more Russian than Levantine. Scroll down his Instagram feed and you’ll find his take on Ukrainian vareniki — a dumpling that he stuffed with cheese and topped with caviar.
Our dinner at Yorsh ended with vareniki, served that night in a butter sauce and stuffed with sour cherries. Perhaps one day soon we will find it on a menu of one of the hip Israeli chefs with a Middle Eastern twist — the cherries replaced with pomegranate or grapes.