Israeli Food After 1948

Once Israel was established in 1948, it had a daunting task on its hands: feeding hundreds of new citizens, many of whom were refugees.

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Kosher meat was scarce as well. Before the war it was often imported to Pales­tine from Romania. After the war, it was eventually supplied from Uganda, Argentina, and Brazil. The only kosher beef in the early years of the state came from male calves produced from the rapidly growing herds of dairy cows. Under a Jewish Agency program, thousands of heifers were being sent to Israel from the United States by plane and ship. It was not until the late Fifties, however, when water sources had improved, that large herds of beef cattle were introduced into the Israeli agricultural economy.

Diversity of Israeli Agriculture

As the fertility of the land increased, so did the excitement of creating food to meet the needs of the growing population. "Israel is unique," said Shaul Homsky, author of Fruits Grown in Israel. "Within a small area, for example, a subtropical climate exists--near the Sea of Galilee, where mangoes, kiwis and bananas can grow--alongside a temperate climate in the mountains of Galilee and the Golan, where cherries and apples grow."

Diversity of Israeli agriculture also has been affected by the constantly changing population; the European population that developed in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s was accustomed to eating apples, plums, and cherries, while later immigrants from Middle Eastern countries liked to eat and grow grapes, olives, and dates. "Because of the lack of a deep agricultural tradition," Mr. Homsky wrote, "farmers on the kibbutzim [agricultural collectives] were ready to accept new techniques and experiment with new fruits and vegetables, unlike in a coun­try like Greece, where for generations farmers have been tilling the soil in the same way and people have had the same diet."

Sometimes the experiments did not work. In 1961, Moshe Dayan, minister of agriculture, decided to replace Israel's favorite Marymont--a large, oval, and juicy tomato--with a thicker-skinned, cylindrical, and almost juiceless tomato, slightly larger than a cherry tomato. Dagan thought this "Moneymaker" would be heartier and cheaper to produce, and would appeal to the export market. In the transition from one strain of tomato to the other, 5,000 tons of Mon­eymaker tomatoes were to be grown in the first season, half for local consumption and half for export. Farmers were encouraged to grow only Moneymakers. But he experiment was a failure both inside and outside the country, and the local press dubbed it Dayan's "assault" on agriculture.

Still, new fruits and vegetables had an increasing presence in the local market, and ambitious young chefs began to take advantage of their novelty. Chef Uri Guttman, who from the late Sixties on was considered the ambassador of the Israeli kitchen, came up with innovative concoctions like a hot avocado soup; "St. Peter's fish" with mango and pomegranate; and crepes stuffed with pears, nuts, dates, and figs. Schooled in the French culinary tradition, Guttman traveled around the world representing Israel in cook­ing competitions and adapted unusual recipes to what was available in the country. He also developed menus for army bases and restau­rants, using local products. "One of my dreams was to establish an Israeli cuisine," he said. "It is hard, though, with Jews coming from so many countries."

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Joan Nathan

Joan Nathan is the author of several cookbooks, contributes articles on international ethnic food and special holiday features to The New York Times, Food Arts, Gourmet, and the B'nai B'rith International Jewish Monthly. Visit her website here.