Tens of thousands of soldiers are currently at the border to Gaza, waiting to hear if there will be a ground offensive or a truce. Along with their operational and personal concerns, many are probably also thinking about their next meal.
For soldiers away from the base and in the field, manot krav, field rations, are the primary source of sustenance: a cardboard box of canned goods that are endearingly familiar to every soldier, whether on guard duty or in battle.
With enough food in each box to serve three meals a day for four soldiers, each field ration usually includes cans of tuna, beans, corn and fruit cocktail, packets of fruit-flavored drink powder as well as ketchup, mustard, chocolate spread and jam and bars of halva, the popular sesame candy.
There have been reports that there isn’t enough hot food available at the bases due to logistics issues following the massive call-up, with reservists already having to rely on field rations. That said, it’s food that is high in protein, as well as too much sugar and chemical additives, and can be scarfed down quickly and quietly, an important detail when hunkering down on the battlefield. And as one reservist stationed up north commented Monday, they haven’t deteriorated to field rations just yet, but when they do, he has enough Tabasco to get him to Damascus and back.
Two years ago, the IDF announced that that it had updated its field rations to include chocolate energy bars and freeze-dried packets of goulash, turkey schwarma and meatballs that could be cooked with packets of water, since soldiers are not allowed to use their canteens for anything other than drinking.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Office was not available for comment, but according to soldiers currently on duty in the south, the old-fashioned field rations are what they’re still eating.
“I never had it, only heard of it,” said one soldier currently in an officers’ training course. “I think they’re still trying it out.”
That may be a good thing, because eating through the contents of the old-fashioned field rations is a rite of passage for Israelis, who sit around trading stories about their favorite parts of the canned meals, or their particular tricks for improving and expanding upon the feasts created from the box.
There are those who wax nostalgic over Loof, the canned kosher meat similar to Spam that was phased out in 2008 but was still being served to soldiers four years ago, even though the expiration date was often from 10 years earlier.
Others profess a particular fondness for the canned tuna and sardines, explaining how they would often place clean toilet paper on top of the tuna, and light a match, burning off the oil and creating a “smoked tuna” flavor, an alternative to the usual oily taste.
Many love the tins of grape leaves – also available on supermarket shelves – and canned corn, which remains an Israeli kitchen staple, regularly tossed in fresh salads, on pizza and always served alongside chicken schnitzel, rice and French fries.
In the field, however, the key to remaining sane on the daily diet of oily proteins, carbs and sugar is a certain inventiveness and willingness to put some effort into each meal… unless there’s a battle underway and it’s a matter of shoving in some protein and sugar to keep going.
“You’re desperate and away from home and dirty and you want to have something like a warm stew,” explained Gil Hovav, a chef and food writer who served in an intelligence unit in the army 25 years ago.
He remembers cooking what they called the mahbata, an Arabic term that is also used in Hebrew and is based on the word mahbat (in Arabic) or mahvat (in Hebrew), the word for a frying pan.
“To call it a recipe would be a blasphemy, but a mahbata is something like a one-pot dish or a one-pan dish,” Hovav said. “What you do, and this is not going to add to the respect of the Jewish people, is you take all of the interesting things you find in the rations, and that includes the Loof, the corn, but also the slices of grapefruit in heavy fruit syrup, as well as the crackers and the halva. Whatever you have, you mix it together and cook it up.”
He likened it to the chulent, the long-cooked Shabbat stew made on many army bases, conjecturing that they use the leftovers from the week and then boil it all up together.
For Tomer Perets, now a chef at Beersheba’s well-known Ringelblum restaurant – currently closed due to the rocket barrage – his first experiences cooking were while serving in the navy, where he spent most of his three years holed up on a boat with his fellow recruits, cooking meals in a kitchen the size of a shoe cupboard.
The sailors received supplies once a week, and weren’t always allowed to use the oven, since it could interfere with the operation of the boat. Inventiveness, explained Perets, was essential.
“We would take turns, and you discover your talents when you’re cooking like that,” he said, chuckling. “You had to be as creative as possible.”
In that setting, culinary creativity meant using cornflakes rather than breadcrumbs for schnitzel, which made chicken cutlets that were the “KFC of the Navy,” he said. But that was just one simple substitution. Lacking salt, they would gather the sea salt left on deck from the waves lapping over the edge, and “bake” their stuffed potatoes in the engine of the machine room, since that oven was off-limits.
The canned corn from the field rations would be used for a kind of corn bread, which they would set to rise on top of the engines in the machine room, while they would mix the sugary drink powder with soft white cheese and stick it in the freezer for “army ice cream,” Perets recalled.
Navy recruits tend to get into the food groove, he added, bringing their families’ leftover toasters and sandwich makers to augment the meager kitchen utensils, or taping eggplants to the galley shelves, as items tend to shift and fall on the boat.
“You spend so much time on the boat that you don’t have any choice; you don’t go to the dining room even when you’re back at the base,” said Perets, who served most of his time up north near Lebanon, but was down in Gaza several times for the ongoing blockade and has already received a message from his unit to stand by for possible reserve duty.
Ironically, the best culinary moments were when a reserve duty commander would spend a week on board, when they do all “kinds of crazy cooking stunts,” he said. One particularly memorable set of meals included fish caught after testing hand grenades in the water.
“That was always the best,” sighed Perets, clearly remembering a meal of classic proportions.
But if he gets called down south, the meals will be quick and easy, he said. “Just scarfing down corn and tuna, from the can,” he said. “Battlefield meals.”