Aylin Öney Tan - [email protected]
There was a moment when there was confusion, or better to say disagreement.
A group of Israeli chefs and journalists were scrutinizing a plate in Istanbul, each taking multiple turns to taste, and commenting on the dish, having contradictory remarks. The final verdict was the plate could not be classified as hummus. The battle was about to begin, once again, over the ownership of food, in this case which would be considered the real one.
I felt the urge to interfere, but it was better to listen first. Actually, the plate did not really look like the ubiquitous Middle Eastern mezze; the contemporary plating made it like a cubist smear on a flat square of a pretentious designer slate-like plate. I wondered, in a blind tasting, not given the sight of the modern plating, how would they perceive the taste. It tasted quite authentic to me, but it surely had a contemporary twist, especially with the artful dusting of spices, which are natural ingredients or toppings of hummus. It was nice. I could probably devour the whole plate, though it would be like scraping the bottom of a pan or licking the remains of a plate given the minimalist amount served, so sadly the trend nowadays.
One big criticism from the Israeli side was there was no flat bread to go along. Their claim was hummus is very strongly tied to flat bread, like the lavash we have here, that they were appalled by the fact that the plate did not have its proper inseparable bread accompaniment with it. The only bread in sight on the table was sourdough bread. They just could not understand how sour bread could ever accompany the dip; obviously one could not use it as a scoop for the chickpea paste.
One wonders how that Israeli obsession with hummus developed. I’ve had the chance to read many letters of the Jews migrating from Turkey to Israel
from the early years of Aliyah. One letter wrote in a miserable tone: “They served us gefilte fish again!” Of all the hardship one big frustration for Turkish Jews was the lack of the food they used to have. They assumed all Jews would be eating the same food in the world, which was just not right. But how gefilte fish got translated to hummus as the food of the country is a long and complicated story, and I will deliberately not delve into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the issue.
When it comes to Israeli food, things get tangled. What is Israeli food exactly? With the most complicated influences from around the globe, it is a real mix of all the cuisines of the countries that the Jews once lived, an overwhelming amalgamation of cultures. It is interesting that New Yorker Jewish cuisine is supposed to be like that, but there is no sign of hummus there. I believe it is the geography that defines a food culture, so it was interesting to see all the chefs from Israel
commenting passionately on hummus. But all of a sudden I realized that they were the Sabra generation, or perhaps the kids of the first Sabras. The new Israeli-born generation is called Sabra, named after the cactus fruit, and often likened to one: tough and prickly outside, sweet and tender inside. They were born and raised in this geography, and if this geography’s taste is hummus, then they have no choice but own it. I could see that one cannot imagine the same gang arguing so fervently over gefilte fish.
Coming back to the plate that caused the stir, it was Maksut Aşkar’s at Neolokal, a chef native of Antioch not far from Israel, just a bit north on the border of Syria. The Israeli chefs were here for a culinary tour organized by David Dudi Califa in memory of his friends who got killed in an attack by a suicide bomber in March 19, 2016, in one of Istanbul’s busiest streets who were in a similar gastronomy tour. Califa did not give up loving the city despite the atrocity they experienced, and believed that food brought people together, and through sharing food; channels of communication were always open. That is why he titled this last tour “Food Connects Hearts” and brought with him top 10 chefs to savor Istanbul and then to create a dinner all with Turkish ingredients and inspirations. Of course they proudly served their own hummus, but again mentioning that it did not turn out great as the tahini here was not as they are used to in Israel. Back in Neolokal the kindest comment was that “It is tasty but not hummus.” They thought it lacked the tahini. Aşkar took it gracefully, saying, “This is the taste of my mother’s hummus, and of course their mothers can be different. I do not have an exact recipe, I adjust the amounts as I taste, and try to balance the lemon, the chickpea, and the tahini, no ingredient must surpass the other.”
It seems that food really connects hearts, maybe with the sole exception of hummus. The battle over the ownership of hummus evidently is one hard to resolve; ultimate peace will only be the chick-peace when agreement is set on the ubiquitous Middle Eastern chickpea spread!
Bite of the Week
Fork of the Week: The dream team of Israeli chefs included, Michael Gertopski from Michael Bistro, David Frenkel from Pronto, Tomer Agay Santa Katerina, Sunny Deri from Toto and Moyin Halabi from Rula, and the amazing Machneyuda team of four chefs headed by Uri Navon and Eliezer Mizrachi, all top places to have good food in Israel.
Cork of the Week: As the chefs cooked, they sang and occasionally toasted for friendship: şerefe and l’chayim, both words for cheers in Turkish and Hebrew, echoed simultaneously on the shores of Bosphorus. The wines of Recanati Winery presented by Yair Haidu; the white Marawi was as refreshing as the event, so representative of the Mediterranean with citrusy acidity and distinct minerality; Wild Carignan from unirrigated Judean Hills was authentic and wild as its name suggests; and the Special Reserve Red made only in the best harvest was deep and complex with lovely peppery notes. L’chayim to those amazing glasses!