Eat Jewish Food and Be Happy

Warning: This story will make your mouth water

By Sabrina Emms                                                                                                    

At Mama’s Vegetarian on South 20th street in Philadelphia, sabich is served up in a warm whole wheat pita slathered with hummus; a fried eggplant slice nestled next to an hard boild egg and spiced with the hot mango sauce, amba, all wrapped in foil.

Two miles away, at Zahav, a very different hummus is served with roast kohlrabi and a little pool of olive oil accompanied by pita dusted with za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend. Salatim & Hummus, salads and hummus, are only the first plates of a many course meal.

Zahav is a prime example of Jewish and Israeli food moving from being street food or individually adopted dishes, like lox and bagels, to a new place as a mainstream upmarket cuisine. While Zahav was not the first modern Israeli restaurant, it has fast became one of the better known ones. Michael Solomonov is the chef behind both Zahav the restaurant, and Zahav the cookbook, as well as Abe Fisher and Dizengoff an authentic hummusiya (a restaurant serving primarily hummus).

Dinner at Zahav's

Dinner at Zahav’s

As Jewish food becomes more popular and more upmarket, there are a growing number of foodies, especially in this do-it-yourself age of food, who desire to replicate iconic dishes, like Zahav’s incredibly smooth hummus. Also Philadelphia based, Soom, is a company that has risen to fill the niche made by the rise of Israeli food. Soom is a distributor of tahini, the paste made of sesame seeds best known as a key ingredient in hummus. In Zahav Michael Solomonov writes, “Israelis love tahina like Americans love Doritos and wrestling — unconditionally, but a little irrationally.”

Tahini used to be considered almost solely as an ingredient in hummus. Now it is gaining a wider place in the American diet. This might reflect the place tahini holds in Israeli food. Zahav has an entire chapter on tahini, including cookies, other dips and halva, a soft, distinctive candy.

Halva is one of the main offerings at Seed + Mill, a counter in Chelsea Market that opened in 2016, which sells tahini and tahini related goods, like halva. Seed + Mill doesn’t have a lot of competition yet, as it, Soom and Brooklyn Sesame are some of the only companies with a focus on tahini specifically. All were opened in the last five years. Soom does not make halva, or anything other than tahini, but they do pay a sort of homage to halva, with a chocolate tahini spread (halva is also popularly chocolate).

Soom was founded by three sisters, Shelby, Amy, and Jackie Zitelman. Jackie’s husband, Omri, actually was involved in tahini production in Israel. He introduced the Zitelman sisters to good Ethiopian sesame seeds, which make a superior grade of tahini. When the sisters approached Solomonov he was immediately interested because he had been struggling to get a consistent and delicious hummus in the quantities he needed.

While Zahav is glamorous, dark with a long wooden bar, low-backed booths, and hanging glass lanterns, the headquarters of Soom reflects its relatively new status. Soom rents space in Philadelphia’s Common Market, and its head office is a single room with two desks and a mini-fridge. Over Ethiopian coffee, Amy Zitelman, head of marketing and the youngest sister, explained that Soom tahini is being used by chefs and foodies. In fact, places like Mama’s Vegetarian are less interested in high-quality imported tahini. They are happy to stick with a cheaper produce that works. Soom is not marketed at them. It is marketed at people who want to recreate restaurant quality dishes, people who care about their ingredients and more importantly, who can afford to care about their ingredients.

Zahav isn’t the only Jewish/Israeli restaurant of note. Some have adopted dishes with an element Jewish fusion like CHeUnoodle bar, a trendy restaurant on 10th street were you can get a steaming bowl of Brisket Ramen [matzo ball, kimchi, sesame red chile broth]. Jewish-Asian fusion reflects the linkage these two nonChristian cultures share in the face of Christian holidays, most notably Christmas. A popular, and reasonably accurate stereotype is of the Jewish family that gets Chinese takeout on Christmas.

If CHeUnoodle eludes to Jewish fusion, Solomonov’s Abe Fisher is a love letter to it, with dishes like a whole Hungarian duck, served “Chinatown style” with pretzel steamed bun and lekvar hoisin. Or perhaps chicken liver mousse with pastrami  and onion jam on Jewish rye and a Manischewitz poached pear to finish.  Lekvar is an eastern European fruit condiment and Manischewitz  is a popular brand of sweet Kosher wine with the foxy tang of Concord grapes.

Other specifically Jewish shops and restaurants are opening, not just to serve a single community, but attracting popular support. This April, reported on the opening of Essen, Yiddish for food, a bakery in South Philadelphia that serves za’atar croissants, cinnamon hazelnut babka, and a pastrami-smoked salmon (salmon cured with the spices typically used to make pastrami) sandwich on, what else, but house-made rye bread.

Essen also has roots to Michael Solomonov, as Solomonov and Essen’s creator,  Tova du Plessis have worked together before.  But the upwardly mobile trend in Jewish and Israeli cuisine covers more ground than just Philadelphia — witness the acclaim and praise heaped on The Gefilte Manifesto, a Ashkenazi cookbook published in September 2016.

In an interview with NPR’s ,The Salt, Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz, the book’s coauthors explained that their inspiration was a desire to preserve the food of their histories and childhoods, only to update it. Just like cinnamon hazelnut babka (Babka is traditionally chocolate or cinnamon). The Gefilte Manifesto isn’t the only recent cookbook, with Leah Koenig’s Modern Jewish Cooking  in 2015 and Uri Scheft’s Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking and Ana Sortun’s Soframiz in 2016. Jewish food, not just the easy-to-love Mediterranean influenced favorites like hummus, but dense Eastern European dishes such as matzo balls, and gefilte fish, borscht, are becoming fine dining.

Expect chocolate sesame paste instead of Nutella. Expect chocolate coated halva candy bars. Get ready for preserved lemon and harissa, fattoush, halloumi, cholent, labneh, tzimmes and kreplach. Expect to eat gefilte fish and like it. Expect more Jewish food, and be happy, it’s delicious.