One of my biggest regrets in life was going to Israel in 2008 as a young, university student. Don’t get me wrong—I still think it was one of my most memorable trips ever. I got to immerse myself in so much history, relish the culture, and even meet then-President Shimon Peres as well as Holocaust survivors. It’s just that I went at a time when I had quite an underdeveloped palate. I was 19, in my junior year as a journalism student surviving off a diet of cheap gin, cigarettes, and manic deadlines. I took the food part of the trip for granted and I still count that as a huge mistake.
Thankfully, Israeli food was having a moment in Berlin during our time there. There’s always a new Israeli restaurant opening in the city almost every quarter and I was often invited to write about them. I even ended up with an Israeli neighbor who went on her own culinary journey and turned me into a very willing guinea pig for her cooking. I always think of these things as the universe’s way of making it up to me when I was finally pretty confident with my taste and appreciation of food.
Fast forward to the present, I found myself at the Manila Hotel, sitting across Israeli chef Nir Liv who’s visiting Manila as part of a gastrodiplomacy project. “I will be showing a little bit about my background about the food that I was eating as I was growing up and visiting friends and relatives,” Liv said right before an intimate dinner reception hosted by the embassy. “Everything is going to be for sharing. This is how—in my eyes—you represent maybe even Middle Eastern but especially Israeli food culture.”
Dinner began with pani puri filled with tomatoes and one of Israel’s famed ingredients—olive oil. “I think there’s not one Israeli dinner or lunch that can happen without fresh vegetables and olive oil. There’s no way,” Liv said earlier during the interview with his dishes proving that statement. He followed up with Sabich spring rolls, a lighter version of the sandwich Iraqi Jews brought to Israel. Liv is proud of coming from a country that’s a melting pot of cultures. He himself is quite the melting pot too, with family coming from places like Russia, China, Yemen, Britain, and Turkey.
Liv shared that Israelis do consume a lot of vegetables, something they had to provide for with technology. ‘You have to keep in mind that 60 percent of the country is desert and to grow vegetables in such a scarce place isn’t so easy.’
Next came the salousf, a Yemenite flatbread that comes in a soft, chewy texture made (seemingly impossible but true) without any butter. It was time to use our hands with Ambassador Ilan Fluss and his wife, Mdm. Gila, showing everyone at our table how to eat properly. The salousf came with baba ganoush, a salad, matbucha (tomatoes), and pumpkin tershi that starts out creamy and ends each bite with a spicy kick. We tore the flatbread and dipped into each of the accompaniments before bringing it to the mouth. The ambassador’s advice? Don’t mix them up. Dip into one and savor each bite to enjoy the flavors.
“It truly looks like a Filipino table,” Mdm. Gila said when rice was placed in the middle of the table for the main course, accompanied by two kinds of stews. One came with a red, seemingly menacing sauce but wasn’t too spicy at all. It was rich and flavorful, with chunks of lapu-lapu. We learned that night that it’s one of the most expensive types of fish in Israel, a kilo can set you back about $100. The Besalk stew is reminiscent of Filipino nilaga but with spinach and white beans. Hearty and worth the calories.
The ambassador and his wife follow a kosher diet, something that proves to be challenging in the Philippines, where we eat a lot of pork and seafood that don’t always come with fins and scales. There’s a lot of home cooking and opting for vegan options in restaurants. The evening’s dinner was a true taste of home without any worry of violating their religious beliefs.
Liv shared that Israelis do consume a lot of vegetables, something they had to provide for with technology. “You have to keep in mind that 60 percent of the country is desert and to grow vegetables in such a scarce place isn’t so easy,” he said. It’s through technology that Israelis are able to enjoy more produce and even innovate what’s already there. Fun fact: Cherry tomatoes were first cultivated in Israel. One of the many things the ambassador is passionate about is food security, bringing Israeli agricultural practices and innovation to the Philippines.
“Most Filipinos know of Israel from the Bible as the land of milk and honey,” Fluss said, taking a break from the more serious side of the job to focus on sharing his culture. “But so much has changed since then and there’s a lot to try.”
Catch Chef Nir’s dishes at Manila Hotel’s Cafe Ilang-Ilang until Dec. 15.