Israeli cuisine gets the 'Under the Tuscan Sun' treatment
'Israel Eats' is a photographic cookbook that takes readers on a beautiful journey.
As he strolled down the three-mile boardwalk between Jaffa and the Tel Aviv port, photographer and author Steven Rothfeld witnessed an unusual sport being played.
It was called Matkot, and at first glance it resembles paddle ball. But he stood there for a minute and realized it was unlike anything he'd ever seen. He observed "hundreds of people absorbed in this game that has no rules, no winners and no losers. It is played just for the fun of it." This game, he said, was a metaphor for life in Tel Aviv, a city he observed through the lens of his camera to produce "Israel Eats," his newest book. "The 300 sunny days a year make it an ideal place to find pleasure," he said, "and eating is one of the most important pursuits."
Rothfeld, a longtime resident of Napa Valley, Calif., has lent his photographic expertise to 16 books and traveled to more than 40 countries over the last couple of decades. But "Israel Eats" is his first foray into food writing. Rothfeld spent several months collecting photographic evidence of Israel's beauty, culture and ever-evolving cuisine, and learning the stories behind the dishes at a handful of Israeli eateries, from fast-casual to upscale gourmet and virtually everything in between.
As he traversed Israel's rolling hills and bustling cities, Rothfeld didn't have to look hard to find the best meals of his life. There was the visit to Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem's food lover's paradise, where "everything looks appetizing and the people shopping are as appealing as the puffy pitas being baked right on the spot in the ubiquitous bakeries." There was Goats with the Wind, the goat cheese farm and restaurant in Yodfat that "feels as if it is in another world, a world I had no desire to ever leave." And there was the vibrant array of salads at Savida, a restaurant in Akko with Ottoman arches and irresistible aromas.
But the food wasn't Rothfeld's only focus. He took in as much of the country as he could, including the requisite dip in the Dead Sea, a mystifying body of water in central Israel known for its high salt content and mineral-rich black mud.
In the Golan Heights in northern Israel, Rothfeld stayed and dined at the Pausa Inn, a one-acre garden in which everything grown on its grounds is served to the guests, and where the family matriarch made a kumquat marmalade "that flung me into a deep reverie when I tasted it the next morning."
In the Judean Hills, Rothfeld meandered across the overgrown fields in search of wild za'atar, nigella and Jerusalem sage with Moshe Basson, chef and owner of Eucalyptus, a restaurant that specializes in farm-to-table heritage ingredients and features a seasonal menu.
Indeed, it was the hidden treasures, the off-the-beaten-path discoveries in Rothfeld's journey that inspired him to write his first book. But it was also the creativity and ambition that drives the country's most revered chefs, the care and attention to detail they put into each and every dish, that became the backbone of "Israel Eats."
One experience in particular – his visit to Machneyuda, a top-rated eatery in Jerusalem – gave way to a watershed moment for Rothfeld. "The confluence of the highly charged atmosphere of the restaurant, the warm and generous people sitting next to me, the soul-smacking flavors, and the fact that I never imagined such a place could exist in Jerusalem ignited something dormant inside of me that held me in its grips for the four years it took to get this project off the ground," he said. "And I’m still captivated by the place."
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