What is Jewish food? Some Israelis, rolling their eyes heavenward, laugh and say, "If you get indigestion, you'll know it's authentic." But in our recent travels through the country, we discovered that the stereotype doesn't necessarily hold. We visited a wide variety of restaurants, and we didn't sample a single bowl of chicken soup with matzoh balls, borsch or herring in sour cream. Those foods were available, of course -- but so were lamb kebabs, Hungarian goulash and fried calamari. Among the world's melting pots, Israel must surely rank as the most diverse, and its cuisine reflects many backgrounds.
"Red or white wine, it's all the same," announces the jovial waiter at the Masswadeh restaurant in East Jerusalem. We choose the white, he nods encouragingly and continues, pencil poised: "I'm sure you want the salads." "Sure, sure," we affirm, having no idea what we're affirming.
He gives succulent details of the possibilities, on which we endlessly deliberate, and finally choose: tahini (sesame seeds ground into a paste), hummus (cooked, mashed chick peas), tabouleh (cooked wheat grains) with chopped tomatoes, eggplant caviar, cooked carrots, cole slaw, peppers, olives, pickles, beets ... and a large basket of hot pita bread. The idea is to break off bite-size pieces of pita and swirl them into one of these appealing salads.
Two hot hors d'oeuvres follow, both molded into balls: fried falafel (ground chick peas and coriander) and ground lamb with pine nuts and onion. Then come chicken stuffed with cabbage, onions, eggplant and almonds, pigeon stuffed with pine nuts, almonds and rice, lamb kebab with onions and tomatoes, and lamb with tahini, tomatoes and potatoes.
Dessert arrives unordered: a variety of baklava, served with lemon tea or very strong, sweet Turkish coffee.
In central Jerusalem, at the corner of King George Avenue and Histadruth Street, stands Fink's Bar Restaurant, a dark building with a somewhat battered appearance. It turns out to be one of the liveliest and most interesting spots in town -- a fact due in large part to its proprietor, the engaging Kurt David Rothschild. A farmer's son, he arrived from Bavaria in 1935 and learned to cook in Israel, joining up with Mr. Fink in 1948.
Fink's is full of action, and the people who eat here come often. It is comfortable and cluttered, a known hangout for journalists and politicians. Everyone who arrives is greeted like an old friend.
"Goulash is our signature tune," says Rothschild, and indeed, he offers three different versions of the spicy stew. Soup, steaming and robust, is served in white, oversized cups. Fink's is an easy sort of place, serving up bacon and eggs, omelets and more first courses than anything else. Escargots bourguignon and chateaubriand are other possibilities.
The light background music is pleasant and unobtrusive, but Rothschild says he turns it off when Zubin Mehta or Leonard Bernstein stop by. "Musicians don't like music," he shrugs.
A beautiful, basalt, 19th-century building surrounded by gardens and waterfalls provides the magical setting for The House, a first-rate Chinese restaurant in Tiberias. A series of small, intimate rooms, inside and out, cater to as many as 160 people, though one is unaware of numbers. The menu is read back to front in the Hebrew way, and items are listed in both English and Hebrew.
Presentation is a major part of the artistry here: huge Israeli radishes are fashioned into roses and birds, and papayas are sculpted into splendid curvaceous leaves. Along with the first courses -- such as duck noodle soup, egg roll, sesame shrimp or fried calamari -- beef, chicken, pork and duck dishes dominate the menu. And spicy Thai specialties abound (the restaurant's eight chefs come from Thailand).
Dessert at The House is a gorgeous, glittering finale. Tall, flashing sparklers illuminate various ice creams, which are piled under a cascade of fresh litchis, mangoes and pineapples with sesame seeds. Paper umbrellas and a paper lantern complete the foodscape.
At Taboon, on the pier at Jaffa, the Israeli chef does wonders with his self-designed electric oven -- called a taboon -- that he uses to bake and smoke fish. Before this invention, he says, he prepared the fish in a clay oven from Cyprus.
White stucco walls (with, refreshingly, no pictures at all), white chairs, white paper tablecloths and a draped white ceiling create an airy effect. Blue linen napkins and fresh flowers complete the picture.
The menu consists almost entirely of fish: in soup, smoked, in salads, and as main courses. The daily catch can include sole, grouper, trout and gray mullet. The fish is served taboon-baked, a` la meunie`re or grilled.
Dessert sorbet at Taboon comes in a range of exotic flavors, such as guava, mango and pistachio -- all native grown.
Claire Frankel is a free-lance writer and broadcaster based in London. WAYS & MEANS
Masswadeh Restaurant, 8 Al-Masoudi Street, East Jerusalem. Dinner for two, including wine, costs about $50.
Fink's Bar Restaurant, 13 King George Ave., Jerusalem. Dinner for two, including wine, costs about $65.
The House, Lido Kinneret, P.O. Box 253, Tiberias. Dinner for two, including wine, costs about $50.
Taboon Restaurant, on the pier at Jaffa. Dinner for two, including wine, costs about $55.