U.S. appetite for Israeli food grows

Diners digging into Middle Eastern fare at Hummus Place, a restaurant in New York City's Greenwich Village. (Yonathan Sigler)

Diners digging into Middle Eastern fare at Hummus Place, a restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village. (Yonathan Sigler)

NEW YORK (JTA) — When the staff at Hummus Place hauled the oven into the kitchen of the Israeli-owned chain’s flagship branch and switched it on, no one was quite sure it would work.

After all, the baking equipment had been collecting dust in a storage room for five years.

A few minutes later, the first of hundreds of piping-hot pitas began emerging from the oven, soft and moist on the inside and firm on the outside — just like they make them back in Israel.

“It felt like the right moment,” Yigal Ashkenazi, a senior manager at the chain, said of Hummus Place’s decision to start baking its own bread. “Business is booming. During peak hours there are lines outside all our branches.”

Hummus Place, which began life as a small restaurant in East Greenwich Village in 2004, opened at its fifth location in New York two months ago.

Many other Israeli-owned food businesses in the United States are reporting similar successes offering the kind of fare found in the Old Country.

Falafel Maoz, a fast food franchise started by an Israeli couple in Amsterdam nearly 30 years ago, opened its first U.S. store in Philadelphia in 2004 and is now in the midst of a nationwide expansion. The company says it plans to have at least 15 stores across the country by next year.

The apparent growing enthusiasm in the United States for Israeli food is by no means limited to hummus and falafel.

In Philadelphia, chef Michael Solomonov offers a gourmet take on the tastes of his native Israel at Zahav restaurant.

“There are so many different cultural and gastronomic ideas that make up Israeli cuisine,” Solomonov told JTA. “Our kebabs are Romanian or Bulgarian, the merguez sausage is Moroccan, we have chraime fish stew from North Africa and kubbeh dumpling soup from Iraq.“

Since opening last year, Zahav has received glowing reviews in the local press. Solomonov says he might open a second branch in another city.

It’s not just restaurants. Israeli-style and Israeli-manufactured foods are increasingly visible at U.S. supermarkets, especially in areas with large Jewish communities.

“There’s no question that Israeli foods have become more popular, largely because improvement in the packaging and more effective marketing,” said Menachem Lubinsky, who runs the annual kosher food trade Kosherfest, which will take place the last week of October. “Sales of salads in the kosher market have tripled over the past few years.”

Israeli companies export $115 million worth of food to the United States annually, up from $30 million a decade ago, according to Lubinsky.

Janna Gur, editor of the Israeli food magazine Al Hashulchan and author of “The Book of New Israeli Food,” says American palates have been won over by the nutritious value of Israeli food.

“With the widespread problem of obesity in the U.S., many Americans are looking to eat more healthily,” Gur said. “Israeli food has more vegetables and less meat. We are the only people in the world that eats salad for breakfast.”

Israeli cuisine is a relative newcomer to the culinary world, a loose mix of different foods Jewish immigrants brought with them from the Diaspora combined with local fare Middle Easterners had been eating for centuries.

Some Israeli-owned operations hoping to tap the mainstream U.S. food market choose not to highlight their Israeli credentials.

Sabra, a food manufacturer that makes packed hummus and salads and is jointly owned by the Israeli Strauss-Elite company and PepsiCo, recently launched a national ad campaign based on its “Mediterranean” appeal.

Other food companies owned by Israelis also have expressed ambivalence over how much they ought to identify with their homeland.

“We are a company which was set up by Israelis, but our emphasis is on vegetarian food,” said Yair Marinov, a senior executive at Falafel Maoz and an Israel native. “We’re kosher, but we have no direct connection to Israel or Israeli food.”

“We’re competing with McDonald’s and Burger King,” he said. “We plan opening more locations in New York, Boston, Chicago, L.A., and I think we’ll do especially well in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, where there’s a lot of health food consciousness.”

Ori Apple, the founder and owner of Hummus Place, says there’s a balance when it comes to how strongly to identify Israeli roots. He says he’s happy to acknowledge his product’s ties to Israel but sees no need for overt patriotic displays.

Though the restaurants’ staff and management is predominantly Israeli, none of the Hummus Place branches play Israeli music, display flags or feature any other obvious Israeli symbols.

“Most of our customers aren’t Israeli and have no idea what the origin is of the food we have here,” he said. “At the end of the day we’re selling hummus, not Israel.”

Sometimes it takes time for U.S. consumers to adjust to Israeli food — and pronunciation.

“When I was at the opening of our branch in Boca Raton, Fla., people couldn’t even pronounce our name — falafal, falawel,” Marinov recalls.

Some in the Arab world have taken umbrage by Israel’s adoption of Middle Eastern specialties, particularly hummus, which has become something of a national dish in the Jewish state. In 2008, a Lebanese businessman went so far as to ask the European Union to grant exclusive naming rights for the term “hummus” to chickpea puree made in Lebanon.

In the United States, Arab customers are among Hummus Place’s regulars.

“We had an Egyptian customer who would routinely ask for a plate of ful and hummus,” Apple said. Ful is the Arabic and Hebrew word for fava beans. “He said the ful was just like his mother’s.”

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