Food we made:
Shalom! Constraints burp innovation. So given the kosher, people and time restrictions, we re-innovated our menu on ground. For example Idli and Dosa – the most popular of the sound Indian cuisine had to be scored off the list. Reason: Practically the twain with a cumulative cooking time of over 12-15 hours (soaking/grinding/fermentation) makes for more toil and labor than we could have afforded. It’s as blunt as that, if you undertake something, do it only if you can do it better than the best.
The unseemliness of the ‘Mise en place’ over, we took to product conversion (In Industry jargon Mise en place refers to the pre preparation of ingredients). It was Combat time, and we soldiers were ready. Here’s a cut from the long spread we served our Israeli friends over the 3 days:
Kosambri – Freshly grated cucumber with grated coconut and tempered mustard.
Kheema Unde Curry – A traditional coriander and mint gravy with stewed lamb dumplings.
Chitra Anna – Its one of my personal favorites. It’s plain rice tempered with turmeric and drizzled with freshly squeezed limquat, small juicy lemons which are a cross between the Key lime and the Kumquat variety. It’s my all time favorite. It’s a sort of dish that scores excellently on visual appeal. It’s also perfect for the Mediterranean weather especially when served in a restaurant with a setting as dramatic as the one at Crowne. Incidentally a couple of years ago I had used the same dish in a cooking class at the Supper Club in Sacramento, California and it was a great hit there too.
Malabar Beef fry – I must say that the quality of beef served in most countries in the West is far superior to what is accessible in India. Maybe because, among other things, beef is such a taboo meat for the Hindus. The stir fried chilly beef recipe has been an instant hit at most international festivals we have presented. The fresh hint of curry leaf, the hotness of chilly powder, the pungency of crackled mustard makes it sinfully mouth watering.
Desserts – Typically Indian sweets are rich in their constitution with either condensed milk or ghee. However Kosher left us with an idea of a simple ‘Kesaribath with Pineapple coulis’, which we served with a whole bunch of fresh fruits.
Israelis, atleast the one’s we chanced upon, like to have dinner by 7 in the evening. We had an interesting repertoire of guests waiting to taste our spread. All our dishes were well received and appreciated. The restaurant at the Crowne was set on the terrace that overlooked the beach and in the evenings the setting sun made for ethereal scenery.The social butterfly in me thoroughly enjoyed interacting with the kind guests and striking a rapport with them.
Behind the scenes:
It was fun days at work, even though action packed. Chef Nani, my food partner in crime, with his disarming smile and a charming goatee, was at his elemental best when in action (as always). We also had unplanned (and humbly unassuming) help coming from our newly crowned Chef Yadav.
Yadav, my friend and business partner for over 6 years , an educationist, was in Israeli shores on a fun trip. Being a man of the moment, he didn’t hesitate to lend us his culinary skills, given that we were largely short of help. So foodie buddy Yadu instead of sunbathing his copious frame on the sunny beaches ended up spending over 10 hrs for 3 days in the kitchen with us. Donning his chef coat he handled high volumes of food processing with the ease of a professional. Fellow chefs would agree that it can become physically discomforting to spend long hours in a space where the temperature tends to get hot and stuffy given the ever busy hot pans, fire spitting grillers that host roasted meat etc. So Yadav did heat bathe, though not in the open under the sun! There were a couple of pretty and suave restaurant manageresses’ that were kind and hospitable to us. Having said that, Chen, the F&B Director at the hotel, with whom again I struck a chord, assured Divya (my lovely wife) jokingly that he would ‘keep a watchful eye’ on me, when he met her virtually through Facetime!
The staff at the Crowne was warm and hosted us graciously. Chef Nani, with his honest charming nature, disciplined approach and good looks invariably ends up as the favorite with the staff/guests/locals – which is what happened here too.
On the last day of the festival the Vice President of the Israel Culinary Association (ICA) came to greet us. In a small felicitation organized for us we mutually exchanged lapel pins (I gave them the Indian Federation of Culinary Associations’-IFCA- lapels and he gave me the ICA ones)
He also bestowed on me the responsibility of being the ‘Taste of Peace’ co-coordinator for India (Taste of Peace is an organization that through the culinary fraternity is trying to promote International peace), which I was very humbled by. How I take this responsibility forward is something I need to figure out with the IFCA.
Food culture at Tel Aviv
It was not all work and no play. We wrapped up most days by late dusk and set afoot to explore the city. The beaches in Tel Aviv are punctuated with many things beautiful – for one, the nymphs have such perfect anatomical proportions that it’s hard not to give them an admiring smile (!) Israel is a nation that takes fitness very seriously. Free gym equipments adorn the beachside, ready to be used by public and used they are. Walking is a way of life, as also cycling. Exclusive walking and bike tracks on the well laid out roads only make it more conducive for the fit to pursue their fitness obsession. Early dinner coupled with the rich salad spread in every meal is flagrance for the fit. On the Jewish day of Sabbath, (every Friday) one usually refrains from cooking or lighting the fire. So the tendency is to eat raw salads/food on the day, which according to me is an excellent detox pretext. It’s also compulsory for the Jewish men and women to undergo military training in the country. So physical agility and toned anatomy is a distinct omnivision for an outsider. In fact truth be told, one glance at the road/beach from my room at the Crowne and I made a mental note to keep our menu as light and healthy as possible. Light and healthy is my personal food philosophy too. The Biryani we serve at Just Mehfil (the Quick Service Restaurant brand of my company Excuisine Food & Beverage Pvt ltd) is also passionately doctored on the ‘light and healthy’ principle.
The weather in Israel is to die for. It’s cool, breezy and easy on the body. So exploring the city on foot came naturally and easily to us. Also walking was heavily pre-empted by our ever active expatriate friends (for an Isreali 1 hours walking distance = 10 mins of brisk walking!). We managed to visit a couple of bars and gourmet restaurants in Tel Aviv. The salad spread one gets before main course, is a delight for a vegetarian palate. It’s a generous serving and as fresh as they come.
The main dishes, cooked in middle eastern-Mediterranean style is a characteristic delight! I remember, the lamb meat (pinned into a metal skewer, grilled on charcoal with a mild flavor of saffron, yoghurt and pepper… ooh la la!) I bit into at a restaurant in Jordan just melted into the salivating confines of my chewy mouth. Even now the memory of that first bite remains with me, as dear as the memory of my first kiss! We tried going to Abu Hasan a restaurant rated highly by locals and trip advisor but in vain, coz it remained mysteriously shut on all 3 days we tried visiting it. Pity.
Jaffa is one hours walk from Tel Aviv. It’s the neighboring port city famous for its crustacean cuisine. Even though shell fish is against Kosher it is popular in Jaffa, given its diverse demography. It’s an ancient looking city, that could give you an illusion of Europe with its narrow cobble stoned alleyways and quaint looking buildings. The clock square is the tourist hub and is peppered with restaurants and Arab sweet shops. Not having a single molecule of sucrose in my sour tooth I didn’t venture to taste the otherwise famous Arab sweet meats. Restaurants in Jaffa come alive by evening when the chairs and tables spread onto the picture perfect cobblestoned pavements. Not punctuated by big city hassles like motor vehicles spewing fumes, eating alfresco in the alleyways makes it easy to begin romancing your food.
One week flew by in a flash. Looking at the glistening dots of lights from our late night flight out of Tel Aviv, I was a mixed bag of feelings – content at the experience and opportunity of a country that’s difficult to visit on casual tourism grounds, but also longed to have been able to explore it more thoroughly. But then I was also more than glad to gravitate towards my real life, which is a breeding ground of immense possibilities. The best is yet to come and the best is now.