The talk, led by Naor Ben-Yehoyada, a teaching fellow for Social Analysis 70: “Food and Culture,” gave students a crash course in Israeli food and culinary traditions.
The history of Jewish and Israeli food is largely intertwined with Israel’s turbulent history, but according to Ben-Yehoyada, “what we eat doesn’t travel along the same lines as our politics.”
The region’s culinary identity began to take shape in the decades following Israel’s formation—in 1948, the United Kingdom terminated the British Mandate of Palestine, which had placed the region under British rule, and Israel became an autonomous entity.
Before this, the region’s cuisine was largely determined by foreign influences.
“In the 1920s and ’30s, the food consisted of what was palatable to Jews coming from Europe,” Ben-Yehoyada said.
Among the foods served at the talk were chips, a British side-dish that was originally popular in the coastal regions of Palestine but has since spread to much of Israel.
In its early years, Israel’s infant economy dictated the types of food consumed by its inhabitants.
Ben-Yehoyada said that many foods that are considered staples come from this period, when Israel could not fund its own factories and needed monetary support from overseas businessmen.
“It was a recession state, a highly regulated production economy,” he said adding that Israel was largely unable to import goods so local products were primarily utilized in food production.
Couscous, another dish served at the dinner, and pita bread, a popular item in Israel, are both made of wheat, a crop that is abundant in the region.
“You were told what to grow,” Ben-Yehoyada said, noting that during this period, any food produced in surplus was used in cooking, occasionally to extremes.
“If during a season you made too much lettuce, everybody ate lettuce,” he said.
Many of Israel’s unique fruit juices were originally created during an orange surplus.
According to Ben-Yehoyada, the 1990s saw the advent of popular Israeli and Jewish ethnic food.
But many items associated with Israel in fact originated all over Europe and the Middle East.
Schnitzel, from Germany, is often stuffed into pita, Falafel is Egyptian, Israeli salad is actually Turkish, and fried eggplant is Iraqi.
“[Ben-Yehoyada] was incredible,” said Sarah B. Honig ’10, a member of the Harvard Culinary Society, which co-sponsored the event with the Harvard Students for Israel. “I thought it was a huge success.”