When I visited Israel as a kid in the 1980s, the food was nothing special. My dad grew up on a kibbutz where oranges grew in sprawling groves, but most of the fruit ended up in crates bound for Europe. In the dining hall, the orange farmers stirred orange-flavored syrup into cups of seltzer. Before the tech boom, Israel had no restaurant culture to speak of. The only restaurant I can remember was a grill at a gas station where the no-nonsense servers slapped down steaks tough enough to patch a tire. By then Israeli Jews had developed an infatuation with Arab street food (falafel, hummus, cucumber-and-tomato salat) but hadn’t yet become hip to their neighbors’ more complex dishes, which weren’t commonly served outside the home, like shurbat freekeh, a soup of green wheat, and maqluba, a many-layered casserole of rice, eggplant, potatoes, cauliflower, and sometimes meat. Most Jews were still getting to know the land and what it offered. How was a kibbutznik raised by Polish or Moroccan immigrants supposed to understand what to do with the plumes of sumac that grow wild in the Judean Hills? What did the children of the diaspora know about the mixture of local wild herbs called za’atar?
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