Me, age 2, in a professional photographer’s studio in Jerusalem
I was raised in Jerusalem. I moved to Tel Aviv in 1989, at the age of 18, feeling very grown up, then to the US in 1999. At the end of that year, my first daughter was born. Raising my kids in California, I often think that being a first generation immigrant (because that’s essentially what I am) requires certain sacrifices, and a major one is raising your kids in a different culture than the one you grew up in.
The generation gap always exists, of course. The older I get, the more annoying I become with my frequent “sigh… it was so much better back then” when, if honest, I have to admit that it was “different,” not necessarily “better.” But the generation gap definitely widens when you and your kids do not share the same generation – AND the same culture.
Sometimes I watch my kids eat American diet staples such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, burgers and fries, stuff that I never ate as a kid, and I realize that many of the tastes of my childhood are foreign to them. We do visit Israel quite often of course, I regularly make foods from my childhood including pita bread, schnitzel and more, and today’s world is small enough that they are exposed to many different types of cuisines. But they’re still American kids with American tastes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 🙂
Growing up in the Middle East, but raised by parents from Eastern and Western European descents, I was exposed as a kid to an interesting mix of flavors – mostly Israeli and Middle Eastern, but also – thanks to my beloved late grandmother Chava (Eve) who was an amazing cook – to some Eastern European cooking.
When Hilary of “Positive Letters” wrote about food memories, I knew I had to write about my own. So, in no special order, here are some of my best childhood food memories:
A thick slice of fresh “dark bread” generously spread with butter. Back when I was a kid, Israeli supermarkets carried either what we called “white bread” or “dark bread.” Both were plain loaves of crusty bread, the white more processed than the dark but both were very good – freshly baked, not sliced, not spongy, not containing high fructose corn syrup or preservatives, and definitely not flavorless.
Fragrant guava fruit in the fall. Each September, for just a few short weeks, guavas were in season. With their strong smell and distinctive taste, it’s the kind of fruit that you either love or hate. I loved it and savored every bite, knowing that the season was so short. Back then (Late seventies! Not 100 years ago), we only had access to fruit and veggies when they were in season. Ever since moving to Northern California, 12 years ago, I haven’t been able to find decent guavas. The only ones I was able to find here are small, hard, under-ripe guavas that never seem to ripen.
Hot falafel balls, bought from a vendor at the market, encased in thick, soft, fragrant pita, very similar to the Indian naan bread. With some finely chopped Arabic salad, pickles and tahini sauce, it made a complete meal – and one of my favorites too. My little brother (not so little anymore!) would always get half an order while I used to get a full one. Biting into the warm, fragrant goodness, I couldn’t help but eat fast, wolfing down my meal, while he ate his so slowly that by the time I was finished with mine, he still had at least half of his, tormenting me as only younger siblings can do.
My late grandmother Chava’s cholent. Cholent is a traditional Jewish stew, simmered overnight, and eaten for lunch on Saturday. It contains beef or chicken that becomes tender and flavorful during the long slow cooking, potatoes, beans, and grains such as barley. Hidden in it, like little tasty treasures, are haminados – whole eggs in the shell, which are placed on top of the cholent and turn brown, fragrant and very creamy during the all-night cooking. Grandma had “borrowed” the haminados from her neighbors – they were not part of the original Eastern-European recipe.
Israeli salad, made of fresh, ripe tomatoes, firm cucumbers, onions and parsley, all very finely chopped and dressed with the simplest dressing, perfectly highlighting but never overpowering the fresh taste of the vegetables – fresh lemon juice, olive oil, salt and black pepper.
Ka’ak – a soft sesame seed bread, known as begale in Hebrew, sold in bakeries and by street vendors, sometimes with za’atar spice to dip into. It’s similar to a soft, fluffy pita, but has a richer, creamier taste and texture. Of all my childhood food favorites, sesame begale is the one food I consistently make sure I eat on every single visit to Israel.
Warm pita bread used for dipping into lots of small plates – mezethes. My favorites were freshly made hummus (velvety smooth, creamy and flavorful, it tastes nothing like the pasty crap you get here at the grocery store), tahini sauce, and labneh (yogurt drained to make a tangy, creamy cheese).
My Grandma Miep’s boterkoek – a super-rich, decadent Dutch butter cake. The Dutch, just like the French, are completely unconcerned when it comes to consuming saturated fats. Butter, cheeses, full fat milk – grandma would not even dream of using low fat versions of anything, let alone margarine.
Still, as a general rule, the Dutch are tall and thin. I think the secret is that they serve small portions (amazingly small to anyone who visits from the US), and get lots of exercise – especially cycling and walking. Whenever Oma (grandma in Dutch) used to serve cake, my father, the family clown – and rebel – would get up and exclaim “Quick! Close the windows!” and when everyone would inquire what was the matter, he would break into a smile and say, “These cake slices are so thin, I worry that with the slightest breeze they could fly out the window.” So yes, the cake is extremely rich, but serving sizes are extremely small. 🙂