An anthropologist, a chef, and a writer walk into a Turkish restaurant.
What makes this more than just the opening gambit to a long and rambling joke is that the chef is Eyal Jagermann of The Barbary, a restaurant at the forefront of London's recent "modern Israeli" dining trend. The anthropologist is Joel Hart, a PhD candidate at Oxford University's Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology who studies migration and multiculturalism in the Israeli context. He is currently working on an ethnography of Jaffa's minority communities.
Both of them are with me to help explain exactly what modern Israeli food is—aside from the obvious fact that it's contemporary and from Israel.
"It's a mix of many different cuisines and heritages that combined together in the Middle East to form a new cuisine and heritage," says Jagermann.
Israel as a nation has only existed for roughly three generations, and is the product of huge waves of immigration from all over the Middle East, Europe, Russia, North Africa, and America. Each group of diasporic Jews has brought new dishes and dining traditions, and it's the dialogue between these heritages—and the local Palestinian cuisine—that creates what might be one of the most exciting food scenes in the world.
With this in mind, Jagermann and Hart are taking me to a Turkish grill, a Middle Eastern sweet shop, a traditional beigel place, and an Iraqi fish joint—all of which they think are relevant to understanding the origins of Israeli cuisine.
"It's fitting to start here, symbolically," says Hart, flicking through the menu at Cirrik 19 Numara Bos, a Turkish grill in Dalston and the first stop on our food crawl. "The Ottoman Empire created all kinds of networks between the Eastern Med and the Arab Middle East, and a huge part of this was the culinary exchanges that inevitably emerged through the networks between Istanbul, Beirut, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Baghdad."
He continues: "After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, you had the end of many of these dialogues and conversations, but ironically in the Israeli case, all of those food traditions that come from beyond pre-1948 Palestine and the Levant were brought by the nearly one million Jews of the Middle East who emigrated to Israel in the 1950 to 70s. Food is one area where Jewish-Arab hybrid culture was allowed to flourish."
Jagermann smiles at the quintessential Oxford academic, before letting slip that Cirrik was one of the places he'd visit when doing menu research for The Barbary.
"It's important to get the references in terms of what people in London are used to," he says. "Plus it's very similar to Mizrahi restaurants, which are extremely popular in Israel. They're based around the grill. You get a mezze before, which you eat with bread, and that is basically what we do at The Barbary."
Right on cue, our mezze arrives: a heaped plate of yogurt-based dips, divided by chopped red pepper, with a mound of hummus in the centre. We tear into it with laffa bread that has been heated over the grill.
"The hummus in these places normally sucks," says Hart, "but this one is actually really good."
He isn't lying. Within a few minutes, the plate is picked clean with just the red pepper slivers left.
The main event, of course, is the meat. Cirrik has a giant copper mangal, the Turkish grill that lends its name to many of London's kebab shops.
"I love this place. Everything is cut to order, which really impresses me," says Jagermann, the sound of knife thumping on chopping board punctuating our conversation. Moments later, huge skewers laden with lamb, freshly chopped peppers, and onions are put over the piping coals. The smell of cooking meat gently wafts our way.
It clearly puts Jagermann in the mood. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes for a moment.
"Lamb fat on the grill. If I had to break it down to one tiny flavour that represents the whole cuisine of Israel, it would be lamb fat on the grill. It's there. It's not subtle in any way, it's very direct."
The meat comes and it's predictably great. The et beyti yoghurtlu is the standout: lamb cooked wrapped in laffa bread and served on a bed of yogurt. Jagermann grabs one approvingly.
"It's the same concept as the Arayes at Barbary. Cooking the meat in bread like this allows all that fat to soak in, meaning the flavour is … " he trails off as he puts it in his mouth, but the satisfaction on his face says it all.
We devour the beyti with shish kebabs.
"I'm quite full already," says Hart, after I point out we still have another four places on our list.
"We came to work today," adds Jagermann.
The second stop isn't far—in fact it's the shop next door. Tugra Baklava is spacious and roomy, the kind of space that predates Dalston's gentrification. It's a prototypical Middle Eastern sweet shop with a long bar selling baklava and künefe, a dessert made from shredded pastry and white cheese.
We order one to share and it comes the size of a small pizza, with crumbled pistachio nuts on top. When Jagermann lifts up a slice, the cheese follows his fork like the tail of a comet. It's sweet, but not sickly. We wash it down with Turkish tea.
Next, with a nod at the group of old Turkish guys dining next to us, we head towards Brick Lane.
"I was featured in one of those 'Where chefs eat' lists," says Jagermann, "and of course, I put this down."
We're in front of Beigel Bake, the Brick Lane institution. Soon, the three of us are passing a hot salt beef beigel between us.
"This mustard, it's atomic," says Jagermann.
"I lived just around the corner from here during my undergraduate degree," says Hart, "if there is a better place for drunk food, I've never seen it."
But aside from being a favourite drunk food destination, Beigel Bake is also a prime example of the Ashkenazi influence on Israeli food. Jagermann's grandparents are from Vienna, Berlin, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, and the famous hot salt beef beigel with it's lick of bright yellow mustard is pure Ashkenazi.
It's not long before we're in a cab and en-route to Knightsbridge. Masgouf is an Iraqi grill that sits just over from Hyde Park on a tiny street beside the Pakistani Embassy. In the summer, the outside tables are filled from midday until late into the night, with smoke from customers' shisha pipes curling up towards the large black awning.
"I did quite a lot of research on London's Jewish Iraqi community last year," says Hart. "I met a group of Iraqi Jews and Muslims who knew each other in Baghdad and chose Masgouf as their monthly meet-up spot."
There are around 500,000 Iraqi Jews in Israel and according to Hart, around 6,000 in London. As we sit down at the table he starts listing off the contributions Iraqi Jews have made to the cuisine: "There's amba, kubbeh––"
"––and bread" says Jagermann, cutting him off and pointing at an enormous laffa bread that has just been put at the table next to us.
Our mains arrive: a fattoush salad with glistening tomatoes and kibbeh mosulawyi, meat-filled dumplings made with bulgur wheat. Appropriately, as the most Iraqi thing we order, they steal the show.
The waiter also brings a bowl of pickled vegetables in a yellow sauce as an appetiser.
"This is amba," says Hart, pointing at the yellow part. "It's a mango and vinegar sauce. It's not a chutney or mango pickle."
It is sour but without tasting like a gobstopper. I find myself scraping up amba with my fork.
"It's actually something I'm researching with a professor from Jaffa, it's really interesting," says Hart. "It was brought by Baghdadi Jewish merchants from Bombay, through Basra to Baghdad, and then onto Jerusalem, and now it's becoming popular in the West Bank. It sort of shows how food can transcend borders and politics, in a way."
With this in mind, we jump in a cab and head to The Barbary. Jagermann sends Hart and I for a coffee while he prepares for evening service.
Refreshed, we walk back over to the restaurant, which is tucked into a corner of Covent Garden. Jagermann has changed and is in a pressed white cooking shirt and apron. He stands behind the bar with his chefs behind him, looking perfectly at home.
The Barbary is essentially a giant U-shape, with diners seated around the grill and tandoor oven. Jagermann tells me that this arrangement was inspired by the tribes who lived along The Barbary coast and would traditionally send the males out to hunt in the morning. They'd then return and spend the afternoon making a bonfire in the middle of the village, around which everyone would gather together to watch the cooking.
There's a similar intimacy at The Barbary—the chefs are just a few feet away. They juggle meats on the grill, arrange endless plates of mezze-inspired dips, and pull piping hot breads out of the tandoor. Jagermann calls out the names of dishes and the chefs pirouette this way and that in the tiny space.
"As we've been discussing all day, Israeli cuisine has all different nationalities, cuisines and heritages, that have all been on a journey on their way to Israel, picking up recipes, cooking techniques, products, and spices along the way," says Jagermann, leaning over the bar to point at our place settings, which are maps of the Barbary coast. "This used to connect North Africa to the Middle East. It connected Morocco and Algeria, Egypt, and Lebanon, through to Turkey and Southern Europe—and obviously Israel."
Quickly, the influences of the day come together on the plates in front of us. We start with arayes, lamb cooked in tiny custom-made pitas, which burst with flavour. After, we're given a crispy naan bread and a plate of dips.
"It's our take on the mezze," Jagermann says, pointing out the dips one by one. Tirshy, a Moroccan pumpkin dip with lemon and harissa, baba ghanouj made from burnt aubergines, and Msabacha chickpeas from Jaffa, presented on tahini like a deconstructed hummus. And finally, Ashkenazi chicken liver from Eastern Europe with goose fat, pickles, and a crisp spoonful of mustard on the bottom.
Hart and I look at each other warily, unsure if our bodies are quite ready for this amount of food after eating so much this morning. But the second the baba ghanouj touches my lips, the smokiness of the aubergines takes me. I find a second wind.
As we wipe our plates clean with bread, it's clear that Jagermann approves.
"This is exactly the kind of eating I wanted here. The wiping motions of the bread … This is the kind of thing that you don't normally get in top restaurants."
Next, Jagermann hits us with monkfish cooked in a North African harissa-based marinade, as well as a winter fattoush with a cured lemon dressing and radishes.
"It's like the one earlier," says Hart, wistfully, "but it's just … elevated."
Seeing just how far he can push us, Jagermann then brings out grilled octopus on ambane (labane yogurt mixed with amba) and lamb chops with a yogurt and dried mint dressing.
The references to the dishes we shared earlier today are plain to see. The lamb is very Turkish, with cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds, but the sauce is from Northern Israel.
"Yogurt and dried mint: that for me is the Levant," says Jagermann.
Hart and I are ready to throw in the towel, but Jagermann isn't done with us yet. He pulls us around the bar to watch as he pours syrup over his version of the künefe we had earlier—which he has renamed knafe after the dessert's Arabic name. It bubbles and caramelises. We take our seats and raise our forks. It's delicate and there's a flavour I can't place.
"We use star anise and cardamom in the syrup," Jagermann offers when I probe him.
Hart holds a piece on his fork for a moment. "I've never had one like this," he says.
RECIPE: The Barbary's Lamb Chops
Tasting for myself how Jagermann draws together the influences and flavours of Israel is a fitting end to today's food tour. In a way, London's Turkish grills and Iraqi fish joints have primed the capital for new, innovative Israeli chefs like those at The Barbary.
As we get up to leave, Jagermann says a phrase in Hebrew: Kur Hituch.
"It translates as 'melting pot' and we use it a lot in Israel," he explains. "But it's more than that. We can use it for fusion, like in a nuclear reactor, and that's kind of what I feel is happening here. All these elements coming together and creating this incredible energy."