Friday, January 25, 2013

A Taste of the Holy Land

I have never had Israeli food before. Not because I didn’t want to- the Philippines is not exactly a hotbed for Jews. However, one of my hunger-induced Facebook statuses (something like “this country needs a good Jewish deli!”) caught the attention of a friend who has Israeli connections and told me about a remarkable Kosher meal a friend of his prepared recently. It was not the New York-style corned beef sandwich I was craving for, but it definitely aroused my interest. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was sitting down to a beautifully laid-out spread of Israeli dishes with Matt and a few friends.

 Our friends Dudu and Marie O. introduced us to young and charming Iyar, a Jewish expatriate based in Manila. For us (and a few other food lovers we brought along), he gamely prepared a lovely meal featuring the popular Israeli dishes he used to serve in his own restaurant back home.

The meal began with Moroccan Spicy Fish- maya-maya flavored strongly with cumin and coriander. Iyar admits to being adverse to salt, and it was most evident in this particular dish. However, it was a fitting prologue to this exotic meal as it features a flavor profile that I admit is surprisingly unfamiliar to me despite the use of common ingredients. Fine, it’s Moroccan, but its good and he prepared it well, so no complaints here.

 Iyar explained that a traditional Israeli meal features a wide assortment of salads- ranging from savory dips to refreshing chopped vegetables. Although he has expressed his disdain for locally-produced pita bread, he found the ones at Arya Restaurant to be quite good so he bought some from them to accompany the salads.

Our host is most proud of his Hummus, and rightfully so- the chickpeas are pureed until silky-smooth (sorry, I couldn’t resist the “Zohan” reference) and mixed with high-quality Tahini (sesame paste) that he brings in from Israel. Topped with spices and some pine nuts for extra flavor and texture, it was a hit, especially with a friend who admits to being a hummus addict.

I love Moutabal, and I have to admit that Iyar’s was one of the best (and prettiest) I have had so far. It has that perfect balance between the roasted eggplant and garlic, not one overpowering the other.

The most talked about salad/dip that evening would have to be the Matbuha, painstakingly prepared by cooking down huge, ripe tomatoes (the best he can find, Iyar shared) until rich and concentrated like a paste. This is traditionally served alongside grilled meats as a condiment, lending a sweet and tangy flavor to the dish. It really was quite addicting, even just slathered on pita.

As a side dish to grilled meats, a light but tasty accompaniment would be this Cucumber, Tomato and Carrot Salad. Mildly-flavored with lemon and some herbs, it lends textural contrast alongside the pureed dishes.

Matt the Cheese Lover was infatuated with the Fresh Cheese. I mean… It’s fresh cheese. How could you not, right? Made from thick yogurt, it is slightly tangy but creamy. I found myself wishing there was more of it, or perhaps less people to share it with.

Falafel is one of the most popular middle-eastern dishes, and as a result, probably the most bastardized. I was really excited to try Iyar’s version, knowing that this is the closest I would ever come to an authentic falafel. However, with our generous host’s desire to serve us a wide array of dishes, his falafels have grown cold awaiting its moment in the spotlight. Hopefully, I would get another chance to try them when they are freshly-cooked.

Thankfully, the Grilled Meats (an assortment of chopped chicken meat, hearts and liver) more than made up for the void left by the falafel. It was flavorful and pungent- “like kofta”, the chef in our group shared. This is typical Israeli fast food, stuffed in a pita with salad and hummus. Delightful!

The centerpiece is definitely the Maloube- a rice dish stuffed with lamb chops and eggplant. The rice on its own was so buttery and smoky, flavored with the juices of the tender lamb. Iyar admitted earlier on that the rice in the middle might be undercooked, but fortunately I had none of that on my plate. If I wasn’t watching my carbs, the rice on its own was so tasty I could have definitely had more of it.

 What a blessing it was to have been invited to this dinner. I learned so much about Israeli food, not only from the actual experience of eating it, but also from the discussion among foodies that ensued after. Thank you so much to our gracious host!