Blue flames licked the base of the enormous steel pot as Israeli chef Avner Laskin dropped in a bushel of cherry tomatoes, and asked his audience, “Anybody here have a problem with spicy?”
Laskin increased the heat to sweat out juices from the cherry tomatoes, grown in hothouses down in the Negev desert. Cellphones and camera lenses hovered over the steamy pot, as the group of food bloggers tried to capture the best shot for their readers.
The bloggers, from five countries, were being hosted at the test kitchen of German kitchen designer Bulthaup in Tel Aviv with Vibe Israel, a philanthropic-business initiative that helps promote Israel’s image.
Vibe Israel had invited the international online opinion leaders for a week of participatory tastings to discover the edgy ways in which local Israeli chefs pair, prepare and present modern and traditional dishes.
All the bloggers were first-time travelers to Israel; and they all commented that what surprised them most about Israeli cuisine was the elemental yet glorified role of vegetables in every dish.
“We have too much fried fish, it’s Mediterranean food, but here they use more vegetables, basil, cilantro and different kinds of herbs,” said Manu Balanzino, a Spanish chef and sommelier whose blog, “The Gourmet Journal,” reaches one million readers monthly. “In Spain, it’s zucchini with bacon and yogurt, but here it’s more fresh and healthy.”
Sam Linsell, the food stylist and photographer behind DrizzleandDip.com, a South African blog with 400,000 readers, agreed that Israeli cuisine is a more “vegetable intensive diet” than that of the meat-heavy South African culture.
“We saw four different ways to make a vegetable sauce,” said Linsell, “It’s just highly thought-through, very fresh and very contemporary.”
Still steaming tomatoes, Laskin, who is the CEO of ZLA Ltd., a bakery consulting firm, dropped delicate sprigs of red saffron into the pot’s aromatic cloud and asked the bloggers to huddle closer.
“If I use ricotta cheese, it will be something to accompany the veggie; if we serve fish, it’s to complement the veggie,” said Laskin, who trained at le Cordon Bleu in Paris. “If I need to define the strongest ingredient in this country, it’s the fruits and vegetables.”
It’s Vibe’s third food tour, attempting to move the Israeli narrative from the conflict to the kitchen, said Joanna Landau, the CEO at Vibe Israel. Other foodies on Vibe tours have helped popularize the Israeli palate, including French blogger-baker David Lebovitz, who has shared shakshuka and almond-paste cookie recipes. And of course, there’s Israeli-born, London-based Yotam Ottolenghi, who wrote “Plenty” and “Jerusalem: A Cookbook.”
“What’s been found is that the narrative that works best is the vibrant diversity of Israeli culture,” explained Landau. “It’s the most appealing and attractive message about Israel because everyone can relate.”
Her team spent three months searching the culinary spectrum and mapping high-end eateries and street-food destinations across Israel in preparation for the tour.
As a result, the bloggers ate with Janna Gur, founder and editor-in-chief of “Al HaShulchan,” Israel’s leading culinary magazine, at Jerusalem’s Mamilla Rooftop restaurant. In the Mahane Yehuda market, they explored stalls selling seasonal strawberries and giant squash, sliced for better viewing of the meaty insides. Up north, the bloggers made ice cream in Maalot Tarshisha and experienced a homemade Shabbat meal in Kibbutz Sdot Yam, next to Caesarea.
London Chef Luiz Hara, called the kibbutz Shabbat experience, “the best meal so far.”
Hara specializes in Nikkei cuisine, a Japanese hybrid, and serves diners complex suppers of eight courses and ten dishes in his home. During the trip, he said he tasted a three-ingredient cauliflower dish that was “out of this world.”
“In the UK, the vegetable is always a side,” said Hara. “Here, the vegetable is center stage.”
Other visiting food bloggers were Aida Mollenkamp from the United States, and Anuphan and Nithithada Sukhapinda, travel guide writers from Thailand.
After Vibe’s final workshop at Bulthaup, Hara said he planned to incorporate Israel’s “creative presentation” techniques and unique food pairings, like tehina and raw fish, in his own kitchen.
Although the half-Japanese, Brazilian-born chef said he lost about 100 followers during his first two days posting from Israel because of political prejudice, he said he had gained “many more.”
“I’m here to learn about the people and food and culture,” said Hara. “If that’s going to upset people, then that’s what I’m going to do.”