by Pamela Azaria
There is a big debate today among the foodie culture over what is Israeli food, and if hummus and falafel in a pita were ever the answer -- it no longer applies. With influences that stem from the Middle East, Europe, the Far East and North Africa, people are trying to make sense of the creative food culture that has emerged in Israel over the last ten years. Yet more importantly, they are enjoying it to the point where food tours are the ‘à la mode’ of Israel travel.
Fortunately, New Yorkers do not need to go far to experience Israeli culture and taste its exotic and eclectic dishes. On October 20, La Boîte Spice Lab at 617 West 46, will host the first-ever, “Epicurean Expedition to Israel,” created by Israeli Chef Nir Margalith of Puzzle Israel. Puzzle Israel will be transporting guests to Israel for three hours with the help of Israeli companies: Jaman Entertainment and Celebrations in Israel, as well as the NY-based renowned Israeli-born spice master and chef, Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boîte and Sommelier Gil Avital of Elevation Wine Partners.
In the tradition of Mediterranean hosting hospitality, the evening is intended to bring guests in through the back door of an Israeli kitchen. As they enter La Boîte’s concrete-floored spice factory, they will experience a waft of exotic spices to transport them to a different location and mindset. Combined with the energetic, crazy Israeli groove of Jaman, and enhanced by Sommelier Gil Avital’s perfect wine pairings, Chef Lior Lev Sercarz will mix spices, as Puzzle Israel’s Chef Margalith and his assistant Dor Aloni create a ten-course meal of small plates with short cooking demonstrations and lots of explanation.
The location is the lab of Lior Lev Sercarz, the man Fortune calls the “Spice King of New York.” Fortune writes of Sercarz that his “passion and expertise have made him the go-to-guy for many of the world’s best chefs, who frequently call upon him to concoct custom blends.” These include James Beard Award winners Ana Sortun of Cambridge’s Oleana and Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav, as well as Eric Ripert of New York’s Michelin-starred Le Bernardin.
For this special event at La Boîte, Puzzle Israel has teamed up with Pamela Azaria of Celebrations in Israel, who plans “simchas” such as bar mitzvahs and weddings, for families that want their Jewish heritage and the beauty of Israel to be central to their milestone event. Azaria, who will oversee the dinner’s aesthetics, guests and flow, brought an entertainer that she regularly works with, Shahar Bukris of Jaman, who does spectacular, lively music, fire and light shows.
The Complex Dichotomy of the Israeli Food Scene
For foodies that evening, the Israeli epicureans will present the complex dichotomy of the Israeli food scene. Reflecting the people of Israel whose home kitchens carry recipes and traditions from all over the world, the meal will be about tasting dishes that started out very far from each other but have come together in Israel over time.
“To me, Israeli food is about the balance between the deep rich flavors of heavily spiced sauces and the use of fresh herbs on fresh meats and fish,” said Chef Margalith. “Using Chef Lior’s signature mix of spices plus peppers, tomatoes and a lot of garlic, at the NY event, we will make a Chraime. In this case it doesn’t matter if you are eating fish or chicken, because what's important is the delicious sauce you wipe clean with the bread. On the other side, we will make the fresh colorful, herbed, sweet and tasty dishes Israelis create when there’s a beautiful fish or a flavorful cut of beef.”
The atmosphere is intended to create a special night where people will feel like they have experienced a culinary outing in Israel. “The idea is to draw them into our part of the world, surprise them with new tastes and sounds. There will also be plenty of time to answer any questions they might have about Israel,” explained Chef Margalith. “We hope that this unique event will entice them to visit Israel and maybe even plan a milestone event there like a bar mitzvah or wedding.”
Three Kitchens, One Grandmother
Chef Margalith believes he is a living example of how Israel’s mix of cultures has created an extremely eclectic and creative food scene. He said that growing up in his Libyan grandmother’s kitchen was like being in “three kitchens,” as she expertly combined North African, Lebanese and Italian dishes. Coming to Israel at a very young age with a Jewish youth resettlement program, she built upon her family’s Italian-Libyan home cooking with what she learned from her Lebanese neighbors. Margalith would watch in awe as she fed her large extended family dishes representing all three kitchens. She is well-remembered for her Rosh Hashanah Chraime fish in a spicy red tomato sauce, the Mafrum flat potato encased meatball, as well as the family favorite, crispy oven-baked Shavuot ravioli with tender Tzfat cheese inside.
The Impoverished Origin of Israel’s Rich, Flavorful Spice Blends
Chef Margalith explained that in countries where many Israelis originate, such as Libya, Yemen, Morocco and Ethiopia, people used spices to develop very deep and rich-flavored sauces. This stems from the need to cover up the fact they were using cheap animal parts. Jews from those countries brought to Israel spice mixtures such as Ras El Hanout (a complex aromatic North African spice blend, combining warm flavors like cinnamon, turmeric, cloves, allspice, cardamom, ginger, mace, nutmeg, and a touch of cayenne). In Israel, every spice shop would have its own mix of Ras El Hanout and the locals would go to their spice guy around the corner to get their fish, meat, lamb or rice seasoning. “Since the same shop mixed your spices each time for years, these distinct flavors would be what you grew up on and would stay with your family,” he explained.
It’s from this Israeli tradition that Chef Lior Lev Sercarz has cultivated his passion for spices. Like today’s Israeli chefs, who creatively elevate traditional Israeli dishes, he takes it a step higher with imaginative exotic blends. These include, for example, the “Tangier” blend with its simple, yet unexpected combination of rose petals, cumin and cardamom and the “Luberon” blend (after the France’s Luberon lavender fields) with intense potpourri fragrance of lavender, basil and fennel. This innovation has made him famous among leading chefs around the world who use his blends and made his NYC shop, La Boîte, the Mecca for spices fusions.
Israeli Wanderlust, Chef Style
With Israeli chefs today, deep family traditions and a passion for food are combined with Israel’s curious wanderlust ethos. As Israelis are among the most well-traveled people in the world, the result is a slew of Israeli chefs who artistically mingle elements of the food and seasonings that they’ve experienced in other countries with their native dishes and fresh, locally available produce.
Chef Margalith is no exception to this typical Israeli “chef education.” After traveling through India, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand, he began a catering business. He put together what he learned from his travels with what he absorbed from his Libyan grandmother and started coming up with menus of his own. For example, he would boldly experiment with dishes of very different origins like Thai salad with his grandmother’s Rosh HaShanah Chraime fish, resulting in a surprisingly fresh twist.
The Flourishing Israeli Market-to-Table Scene
Over the past ten years, the Israeli food scene has become all about “market-to-table.” You can walk through any fruit, vegetable, fish, meat and spice market (such as Tel Aviv’s HaCarmel, Levinsky and HaTikvah markets and Jerusalem’s Machne Yehudah) and find numerous restaurants and food stands. These restaurants take spices, vegetables, meat, fish and pita from the different market stands and create freshly cooked meals for shoppers or people on their lunch hour.
Chef Margalith says that market-to-table is completely unique to Israel. “This is not found in the markets in Madrid or Barcelona, where they have these great cheeses and meats,” he explained. “There they usually just cut it and you take it home to make a meal. But in Israel, a different adaptation was made to the use of raw materials, eventually taking on the form of an appealing, fresh and delicious meal for hungry people walking through the shuk. Then BOOM, this concept blew up, and now it is seen in every market in Israel.” There are hundreds of food stands in Israeli markets all over the country where you can eat extraordinary meals in the same place where you buy the ingredients for your next meal.
A Fresh Way to Tour Israel
Because in today’s world “everyone is a foodie,” according to Chef Margalith, Puzzle Israel was able to capitalize on the concept of food tourism. After many amazing interactions with tourists over the years, he expanded his catering business to include food tours and cooking workshops. The company specializes in personalized and “out-of-the-box” food and travel experiences, where travelers get to know real Israelis and eat as they do.
Now Puzzle Israel is a full-fledge tour company, but not a typical one. “Our focus is on making a trip that will delight every person in the group, said Chef Margalith. “When you listen to your clients and understand who they are and then design a trip specifically for them, then you've changed something for the better in the tourism industry and customer service. As they were the pioneers of the innovative “Old City Scavenger Hunt,” they also make the conventional places to visit such as Masada, Dead Sea, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, more interesting and memorable through similar interactive activities.
In addition to the “must-sees” for first timers to Israel, Puzzle Israel introduces travelers to experience interesting sides of the Israeli culture on all its layers. They offer activities, such as meeting with a glass blowing artisan with a unique story; a visit to a special goat farm where you actually make the cheese and eat what you have just made; a tour of an organic farm kibbutz run by people with special needs, or participating in a musician’s workshop on top of a remote mountain in the Galilee.
“Recently, we took a family to the organic farm on the kibbutz where you also get to pick vegetables and then cook your own meals,” said Chef Margalith. “A ten-year-old boy surprised himself and delighted his parents by trying beets for the first time since he proudly picked them from the ground, chopped and cooked them. His parents never even imagined such an activity in Israel. They knew about Jerusalem and Masada, but they never heard about this farm. They got there only because of us. There is no other bus coming there before them or after them.”
Bringing Israeli Hospitality to Americans
Capitalizing on their culinarian roots, Puzzle Israel gets the word out about their extraordinary style of tourism by regularly visiting the US. On these visits, Americans host them for “Israel Kitchen Encounters,” which are Israeli cooking workshops in communities, homes and kitchens. This has become their number one marketing tool because it is the perfect expression of the style of tourism Puzzle Israel offers – one-on-one Israeli hospitality. The effort has paid off for Puzzle Israel. They say they couldn’t have anticipated the buzz that reverberates from these events. Every week, there are several new calls and emails from people interested in coming to Israel with the company after experiencing or hearing about the events.
Personalizing Travel Worldwide
“Nowadays, people are looking for a more unique and deeper connection than just visiting famous sites and museums on a tour,” said Chef Margalith. To fulfil this quest, Puzzle Israel is expanding beyond Israel and will be offering tours in 15 other countries as Puzzle International. “Our plan is to bring travelers, for example, into a beekeeping Greek home with a family apiary, to meet the locals, ‘taste the honey,’ and experience how they live. We believe this is the only way to really understand the local culture. This is something that frankly you would probably never be able to do unless you knew how to look for it. No other tour company that we know of invests time in research to locate activities that offer a special and unique connection with the local people. I'm proud to say that as we've done it successfully for ten years in Israel. We offer this service in countries all over the world and see this as the future of travel.”
Tickets for “Epicurean Expedition to Israel,” at 6:30pm on October 20 at La Boîte Spice Lab at 617 West 46, are limited. Please contact Deb@puzzleisrael.com for more information and to reserve your tickets.