Spain is probably one of the last places to look for quality kosher cuisine. Maybe before the expulsion of its Jews in 1492 you could find some top-of-the-line Sephardi fusion in Cordoba, Granada, or Toledo, but the country's predilection for cured ham and fresh seafood make it hard to find good eats that would meet rabbinic approval.
That goes double for Michelin star-winning chef Rafael Centeno's home region of Galicia, where the Atlantic's bounty of fresh shellfish and fattened swine are staples. His restaurant Maruja Limón on the quayside in Vigo, Spain, is hailed for its adaptation of classic Galician recipes to modern techniques.
Authentic Spanish food rarely makes its way to Israeli restaurants, so when Centeno came to Tel Aviv last week to cook at Liliyot, a high-end kosher restaurant, it was a rare meeting of two radically different styles of cuisine.
Centeno was participating in the Round Tables Tour, a month-long event in which award-winning chefs from around the world sport their dishes at restaurants in Israel's culinary capital.
"For me it's new, it's a first time," Centeno said last week, unfazed, as Liliyot's staff prepped ahead of their third night with chef Rafa's kosher menu. He learned to cook from his mother, and most of the dishes at Maruja Limón he adapted from traditional Galician recipes. Before coming to Tel Aviv, he suggested a number of dishes to Liliyot's chef Yonatan Berrebi that were nixed because they contained forbidden items.
Asking a world-class Spanish chef to try his hand at preparing Galician food minus the essential elements of crustaceans or pork—forbidden according to Jewish dietary laws—sounded like a menacing challenge on a cooking competition TV show.
"It's difficult to cook here because my cuisine has a lot of seafood," he said.
Bacalao—salted cod—has been a staple of the Spanish kitchen for centuries, but few Israelis have ever heard of it. Fresh cod featured prominently on the tasting menu at Liliyot instead, and in lieu of the octopus, squid, mussels, and clams you'd enjoy at Maruja Limón. The potato cream foam and chocolate mousse dessert—ordinarily concocted with cream, butter, and milk—demanded dairy-free substitutes.
"When you come to Maruja Limón," Centeno said, "I want you to feel Galicia in every dish I make." He said he aimed to "translate my cuisine for Israel" by creating a Galician-Israeli fusion with Berrebi.
Israeli cuisine tends to have "stronger, a lot more rough" flavours—punchy herbs, unreserved spices, and brazen olive oil—than Centeno's delicate Galician style, which "elevates the fish" by accompanying it with milder companions, Berrebi said. The resulting lineup was an audacious attempt to harmonise the two.
Exemplary of that combination of profiles was the amuse-bouche, Berrebi said: a morsel of drum fish ensconced in a potato cream foam with a crimson oil imbued with a faint paprika heat. The creamy potato and spicy oil were a superb accompaniment to the filet; it may have been the best bite on the menu.
The beef tartar with tahini (a distinctly Israeli flair) and the mackerel enveloped in a strawberry-beet film with quinoa were earthy, their components accentuating the flavours of the proteins. The sun-dried tomatoes that followed weren't run-of-the mill leathery scraps, but succulent and bursting with umami goodness that managed to eclipse the preceding appetisers. Veal cheeks, slow cooked in a tangy sauce, and cod filet with creamy pil-pil sauce were excellently executed, but lacked an intangible element that would lend them authenticity (the lack of bacalao in Israel, perhaps). Dessert was a dark chocolate mousse atop a crunchy, sweet and salty crumble: delicious but not a blockbuster.
There's no questioning the superlative quality of the Centeno and Berrebi's dinner collaboration. The ingredients were fresh and the tastes were simple, clear, and sumptuous. As kosher dining goes, it was Michelin star-worthy. But can a Galician-style menu without octopus or pork be called Galician any more than a kosher-style restaurant with ham and cheese be called kosher?
The Galician-Israeli fusion experiment lasted only four nights at Liliyot, and Centeno's dishes won't become a fixture there, Berrebi said, but he'll adapt techniques he learned from Centeno going forward.
Travel enhances culinary skills, Centeno said, "because you have a lot more references to make your cuisine." The new fusions forged in the kitchen crucibles across Tel Aviv during Round Tables, the cross-pollination of flavours from the Middle East and abroad that may take months or years to develop, will ultimately prove to be the most savoury.