Oct 27, 2011

Flavors of the Home(land)

Having been in Israel for two months now, I have come to appreciate the real personal interactions that occur in a country bubbling over with life! While many elements of Israel make me feel at home, the genuine feeling of family here represents a hallmark of my experience.   Upon walking down the street or sitting in a Tel Aviv café, I routinely feel like I belong here.  When passersby on the bustling streets smile at me or when the cheese man in the shuk offers me a slice of feta to taste, for instance, I know Israel is my new home. 
When I came to Israel three years ago on a Taglit-Birthright trip with UCLA Hillel, I met Chen Abraham, one of the female soldiers accompanying our group.  The warmth in her chocolate brown eyes welcomed me into the country, and I felt safe, happy, and intrigued to know about her life.  My curiosity for cultures across the world often fuels many of my friendships.  For some reason, I gravitate toward individuals with diverse cultural backgrounds.  Chen, coming from a Yemenite family, told me about their vibrant traditions, and I hoped to be able to share those with her someday. 
When I landed on Israeli soil two months ago, Chen’s face was the first familiar face I saw. She greeted me at the Ben Gurion Airport after copious Facebook messages back and forth to coordinate our reunion.  I felt so happy to be able to spend time with someone I had kept in touch with for three years over the Internet. Finally, we were in the homeland together!
Last week, Chen graciously invited me to come with her family to the Yemenite beit kinneset (synagogue) to celebrate Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the completion of the five books of the Torah.  Overflowing with festive energy, the beit kinneset sparkled as the men danced with pride carrying the Torahs around the beema.  As they circled around, the sounds of cheerful singing and clapping emanated as the women and children joined in the celebration.  Adorned in a blue velvet cover, the Torah glimmered with its ornate jewels.  Parents put their children on their shoulders and engaged their young ones in the festivities.  

Inside the Yemenite beit kinesset

At the beit kinneset, I met Chen’s grandma, Mazel, who happens to be even sweeter than apples and honey! She welcomed me to the synagogue, gave me a hug, squeezed my cheeks, and immediately made me feel at home. After partaking in the celebration at the synagogue, Chen’s family and I walked to walked to Mazel’s house where Chen and her grandma began preparing one of the most delicious things I have tasted in Tel Aviv thus far—malawach. This traditional Yemenite bread (similar to a fried bread pancake) seeps with oily goodness.  Mazel served this tasty, fluffy bread with handcrafted tomato paste to add extra flavor.  (Example recipe link: http://baking.food.com/recipe/malawah-60282) Key ingredient: Ahava...

Mazel's malawach - traditional Yemenite bread

Family bonding: Chen & I devoured the malawach!

While dining out in Tel Aviv’s enticing restauarants provides insight into the culture, there is no better way to engage in Israeli life than by spending time with a family.  Knowing the people behind the food allows us to translate the language of Israeli cuisine.

Wishing you a week of family, friends, and fun,

Oct 24, 2011


By Taly Matiteyahu

Odelia (89 Ben Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv) is a secret treasure of Tel Aviv. It’s the type of restaurant you feel proud of discovering and the kind of experience you want to share with everyone you know. And to be honest, the sensation wasn’t inspired by the restaurant's food, which was certainly good, but not the best I’ve ever had.

We went to Odelia in search of kosher, but cheap, meat. And boy, did we find it. The main dishes were 30 shekels (they also had 40 shekel, larger servings of some of the meals) and there was no lack of options. The food was largely North African, with hummus dishes as appetizers and a variety of meat dishes as mains. Sides consisted of majadera (rice with lentils and onions), rice, couscous with roasted vegetables, salad, and French fries.

We ordered hummus with a lemon-garlic drizzle, which came with an incredibly spicy skhug-like dip (but far spicier than the skhug I usually eat, which is made from hot red or green peppers seasoned with coriander, garlic, and a variety of other spices). We ended up wishing we had saved the hummus and pita for later so that we could have made pitas stuffed with our meat entrees. We didn’t fret over it too much, though, already figuring that it wouldn’t be our only visit to Odelia.
For my main dish, I struggled between the merguez and the chorizo and ultimately settled on the merguez, after asking the waiter what he recommended and concluding that the spicier merguez would better satiate my appetite. Beyond being excited for the tasty-sounding meat, I was excited for the two sides that came with it. Naturally, I chose French fries as one of my sides. The waiter recommended the couscous as my second side; I figured he knew what was best, so I listened to his advice and ordered the couscous.
Meanwhile, Doug ordered mafrum, which is cinnamon-flavored ground beef wrapped in eggplant or potatoes (Doug got the eggplant version) atop a bed of couscous and roasted vegetables.
Upon receiving my meal, I couldn’t help but wish I had ordered the 40 shekel version of it rather than the 30 shekel one. While there was absolutely no lack of food on my plate, I only received two merguez sausages, and they were good. They were wonderfully spiced, with just enough chili and garlic flavoring to make me want to finish them off before touching my fries or couscous. The couscous, meanwhile, was well-seasoned and tasty. I wasn’t a huge fan of the roasted vegetables that accompanied the couscous, but that may be attributable to my dislike of onions, which were prevalent. The fries, meanwhile, definitely hit the right spot. They were the perfect side for the spicy merguez (but then again, I suppose I’d consider fries the perfect side for any meal…)

Doug’s entrée was also good, but was unfortunately a little cold upon arrival. He loved the couscous and vegetables and was quite happy to help me finish mine.

After our waiter whisked away our cleaned plates, a different server came to ask if we would like some tea “on them.” Once we clarified that the tea was actually complimentary, we gladly accepted and spent another half hour or so lingering at the restaurant over the warm nana tea (tea with fresh mint leaves). We spent a few of those minutes discussing excitedly how incredibly affordable (more accurately: incredibly cheap) the dinner was, especially by Tel Aviv standards. We eventually left quite satisfied with our meal and experience, determined to return once more.

Oct 18, 2011

Food for Thought

“Sometimes the only way to create something new is to go back to the beginning.” 
Inscribed upon the walls of a beachside café in Tel Aviv, these words echoed in my mind as I walked along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea last night. Listening to the waves gently crash, I felt the day’s weight on my shoulders; I had begun completing my law school applications.  Having spent the day preparing for the next chapter in my life, my evening stroll to the port allowed me to connect with my present state of being.  The writing on the wall in this café struck me, for I seem to have a special affinity for coffee shops.  Not only do they represent places of social interaction, but they also provide me with a place to type, write, read, study, create.

Thus, following my morning beach run, I packed my bags and ran out the door to Rehov Hayarkon.  Equipped with my laptop, I spent the majority of my day at a rather unconventional study spot.  I am not the type of person that requires pin-drop silence in order to be productive; instead, I thrive while surrounded by energy, life, and chatter.  So, I stumbled upon a this gem of a café embedded in the sand…

Symbolically, my time in Israel has allowed me to reflect upon my unique beginning—my Jewish heritage.  Perhaps this beginning will allow me to create something new out of my life.  After all, it not only connects me to my Jewish background but also my personal foreground.  Like many Jews experiencing life in Israel, I feel a strong affinity to the ancient history yet admire the modern culture as well.  The convergence of old and new, especially in Tel Aviv, inundates me with motivation to succeed.  It not only makes me want to be a better Jew but also a better sister, friend, daughter, and global citizen.
I have come to appreciate the Jewish tradition with a greater level of respect.  For instance, I spent Rosh Hashanah in Hashmonaim, a yeshuv in the West Bank, where my friend Atara’s family lives.  On Rosh Hashanah, the family and I walked to the security checkpoint, and we delivered copious amounts of apples, honey, chocolate cakes, and other treats to the soldiers working on the holiday.  Since the soldiers could not be with their families, the father, David, had the beautiful idea to give back to the soldiers on the new year.  A few rabbis had also walked miles to visit the soldiers, and while we were there, they blew the shofar, providing a special gift of celebration. 
After having been in Israel for month and a half, I have come to the conclusion that one of the country’s hallmarks is Jewish hospitality.  Because Jews tend to view fellow Jews as family, this warmth comes through in many forms.  Today, as I was writing this blog, in fact, I had my own experience of this.
As I sat down at The Streets Café on King George St. this afternoon, I ordered my new favorite staple of café menus—te im nana (tea with mint).  After about five minutes, some flighty girl knocked the burning hot tea over with her backpack. (Can you tell I’m slightly bitter?) The boiling water flew directly into my lap, singeing my thighs.  Inevitably, I was more concerned about the few water droplets on the keys of my MacBook Pro instead of my legs.  After the kind gentleman next to me helped me clean up the mess, I calmed down and began to write again. Back in the zone.  The waitress brought me a fresh tea and smiled at me with her red lips.  I thought that was the end of it, but I thought wrong.  Two minutes later, a glass of sparkling champagne magically appeared on my table.  One of the waiters saw what had happened and delivered this special gift.  Cafes truly are magical…

Wishing you a week of productivity, tea, and bubbly,

Oct 16, 2011

Tasting Tel Aviv at Last!

Shalom world,
After approximately three months of drooling over foodie blogs, reviews, websites (especially TasteTLV.com) and Facebook mobile uploads of Israeli cuisine, I have finally arrived in the homeland, ready to indulge in the rich culture and cuisine!  At the beginning of July 2011, I made my decision to explore the profundity of life in Israel through a five-month internship program.  Career Israel, a MASA program, offers recent university graduates the opportunity to work in internships in their respective fields while immersing themselves in the beauty and magic of Israel.  Accompanied by ninety-five international participants, I feel a sense of gratitude to be able to experience the tastes, sights, and sounds of our Jewish homeland together.  

Having recently graduated from UCLA with a degree in Global Studies, I have always had a penchant for things of an international nature, particularly food. Coming from a Moroccan family in the heart of Los Angeles, my palate already yearns for exotic flavors.  For Shabbat and other meals, my grandmother always prepares a colorful array of salads, including traditional Israeli salad, carrots with cumin, beets with shallots, corn with avocado and freshly squeezed lemon juice among others.  However, the couscous and spicy salmon with chickpeas usually play starring roles.  At Passover, my grandmother prepares my favorite meal of the entire year.  By my special request, she makes roasted lamb, yet instead of a savory preparation, she makes it sweet with prunes, almonds, and caramelized onions oozing with sugary juices.  Needless to say, my childhood and young adulthood have prepped my palate for my culinary excursions in Israel.   Having been here for a month now, I can finally share my Israeli foodie experiences with you.
So, of course, upon disembarking the plane, I immediately craved to sink my teeth into some Israeli falafel seeping with Mediterranean olive oil.  Encased in a fluffy, heavenly pita, this falafel was perfectly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.  Fresh from the fryer, the hotcakes’ heat almost melted the hummus and tahini, creating a warm flavor sensation.  This contrast with the crunch of cucumber-tomato-onion trifecta of Israeli salad sealed the deal for me and fulfilled my craving. 

And, naturally, I had to make friends with the falafel stand people…

If you know me, these types of encounters are not unusual…
After spending four days with the Career Israel group in Jerusalem, we moved to our new home, TEL AVIV! Ever since our arrival, I have created a balanced routine of early morning runs by the beach to fuel my appetite for the day’s tasty adventures!

That’s all for now, but I will be back soon to fill you in on the most amazing cuisine in Tel Aviv!

Wishing you a week of smiles, sabich, and simcha,

Oct 6, 2011

The Best Pasta I've Ever Had

By Taly Matiteyahu

Doug and I wanted our first dinner outing in Tel Aviv to be special not only because it would be our first outing, but also because we were celebrating our anniversary.  Having arrived in Israel only a couple of weeks before, we sought all the suggestions and feedback we could get.  We checked restaurant review sites, websites, and blogs; we looked at menus as we explored the city; we asked family and friends. Thankfully, our efforts paid off.  We ended up at Piccola Pasta (Taste TLV’s review), a charming little restaurant at 53 Ben Yehuda Street.

To preface any discussion of my experience at Piccola Pasta, let me just say that I’ve eaten a lot of pasta in my lifetime.  As I only eat kosher meat and seafood, eating out is usually a vegetarian-style affair.  When going out to eat, veggie-friendly pasta dishes, of which there are many, always appealed to me.  Italian restaurants, with their myriad of non-meaty dishes, became the default when looking for a place to eat out.  I’m also quite content with my impossible-to-accomplish goal of finding the best homemade pasta in New York.

Beyond that, pasta is easy to prepare and incredibly versatile, making it a natural go-to dish when I lived abroad in Madrid in an apartment equipped with only a microwave and two hot plates (which now seems luxurious, given that I currently have a single hot plate).  Back in New York, I loved making baked pasta dishes with various cheesy sauces.  Aside from the usual pesto and tomato-based sauces, I also experimented with avocado-based sauces and even made a creamy smoked salmon sauce once.  I’d have to say my most successful pasta creation was probably homemade goat cheese-asparagus ravioli with lemon pesto sauce.  But even that delectable dish was nothing compared to the pasta I ate at Piccola Pasta.

Asparagus goat cheese filling in the making

Filling the ravioli
Raviolis tossed with lemon pesto sauce

It was difficult to select what I wanted from the menu full of delicious-sounding pasta dishes.  Dishes with mushrooms, anchovies, sundried tomatoes, cheeses, and fresh basil all sang my name in unison.  But one option stood out more than the others: pasta with hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, asparagus, and garlic, in a cream sauce with parmesan cheese on top.  I was eager to order, but had to wait while Doug battled to choose between similarly appealing options.  While I encouraged him to be adventurous and try the anchovy dish, he decided to go with a classic: pasta with garlic and fresh basil in tomato sauce, topped with parmesan cheese. 

Doug and I placed our order with a very friendly waitress with a cute accent (we later learned that she had made aliyah to Israel from France).  As we waited for our order to arrive, we agreed to share our meals, a habit we’ve taken to so that we could each sample as many dishes as possible.  But sharing was the last thing I wanted to do once I tasted my meal.

Luckily, a picture of my dish was taken before I devoured it

Delectable, delicious, scrumptious, palatable… none of these words do justice to the pasta I had placed before me.  “Heavenly” seems most appropriate.  The flavors of asparagus slathered in garlicky cream sauce, alongside tender artichoke hearts and juicy hearts of palm, with perfectly cooked penne and just a touch of Parmesan cheese, were all combined into one magical dish.  I couldn’t help but feel greedy.  As my plate emptied, I wished I had more.  I allowed Doug to try a couple pieces of my pasta, but refused to allow him to eat much more.  It was simply too good to share. 

I enjoyed my dish so much that I even asked the waitress if I could have a small piece of bread to wipe my bowl clean with.  While she tried to get one for me, she ultimately informed me that the kitchen could not give me a small piece of bread and that I would have to order garlic bread if I wanted some.  I tried not to let my disappointment show too much and got to work scooping up as much of the sauce as I could with my fork.  By the time I finished, there was no doubt in my mind: this was the best pasta I had ever eaten.

Doug’s pasta, meanwhile, was not nearly as tasty as mine.  The dish, called the Piccola Pasta, seemed like it should have been the restaurant's best signature dish, as it was named for the establishment preparing it.  It was certainly good, but it ultimately left something to be desired.  

Doug's dish.
Of course, I had to try the dessert at the restaurant that prepared the best pasta I had ever eaten.  We ordered panna cotta and spent the time waiting for it discussing how utterly amazing my pasta dish was.

Our dessert arrived beautifully arranged with cinnamon and a few dried cherries on top, all drizzled with honey.  While it was good, it wouldn’t be worth over-stuffing yourself for.  But if you believe that there is a separate part of the stomach for dessert, as I do, then order away!

Panna cotta

Thinking back on the meal, I can’t help but want to return to Piccola Pasta a second time.  But I’m afraid of getting the same dish and missing out on trying something new and similarly heavenly.  Alternatively, I’m worried that I would get something different and be underwhelmed.  But most of all, I’m afraid there are too many amazing restaurants in Tel Aviv for me to return to the same one so soon…

So in the meantime, I’m going to recommend it to anyone and everyone I possibly can, hoping to live vicariously through them as they delight in eating the best pasta they’ve ever had.