Israeli Style

Culinary Diplomacy

12 APRIL 2017,
Israeli fusion food, photo by Dana Erlich
Israeli fusion food, photo by Dana Erlich

Travelers to Israel often comment about the special gastronomical Israeli breakfasts, lavished upon them by their hosts at B & B’s, and in hotel dining rooms across the country. At the breakfast buffets you can find a full display of fresh fruits and vegetables, hard and soft cheeses, eggs cooked and served to meet your personal tastes, smoked salmon and white fish. You can cut your own bread and smother it with a variety of Middle Eastern dips.

Today, despite strict kosher laws separating Israeli cuisine into two choices (dairy-based or meat-based), visitors to Israel are flocking to restaurants, exploring the Middle Eastern-Mediterranean food styles. The buzz going around is that some of the best chefs in the world are cooking Israeli food in a new way. Tourists, artists, businessmen, and government leaders are all tasting the splendor of Israeli delicacies in what is becoming an internationally known food culture, uniquely connected to fresh produce in the shuk market… a trademark of this region.

At the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), diplomats are finding ways to promote the Israeli food brand as a means of sharing the good things Israel has to offer on a global scale, emphasizing culinary diplomacy. Dana Erlich, Director of the Cadet Course at the MFA, defines herself as a culinary diplomat. Born in Israel to an Argentinian immigrant family with Eastern European roots, Erlich says her family life is typical of other immigrants who contribute to the mix in Israel of cultural diversity. “I grew up in a family where the table always had a combination of empanadas and herring. Russian Polish food combined with Argentinian meat. When you look at Argentinian food it has influences of Italy. There are a lot of immigrants from Italy to Argentina. So, you have a lot of pizza and pasta. Every 29th of the month you eat gnocchi.”

For Erlich, that kind of food fusion was part of her household. Her family moved to Israel with some traditions and adapted others. “Every Friday we would eat hummus. That was our family tradition. And, for me, that evolution is something natural that I see in the Israeli kitchen every day.” According to Erlich, when the modern state of Israel was established in 1948, new immigrants adopted the local foods of the region in order to create a new Jewish Israeli cuisine. This helped new immigrants not to look back at their heritage, but to look forward to their shared future. They ate falafel, hummus, and accessible Middle Eastern food that was kosher and inexpensive. “And, it didn’t belong to any one of the different groups that came here. It was something new; new for them.”

Years later what evolved was a Mediterranean food style. The Mediterranean diet has remained one of the most popular in Israel and throughout the world. That’s because of a focus on healthy eating, and also because of the diversity and variety that it offers. For a time, Israelis decided to go back to their roots and explore their grandmother’s food traditions in the home. After awhile, Jewish citizens wanted to then move forward and seek out other kinds of foods in regional culinary kitchens. Israeli chefs today, who understand both the immigrant and the native-born Israeli food interests, know how to combine ingredients for a unique local fare – including heritage and international trends.

Erlich explains, “We used to say in Israel that it is a melting pot. We call it now the Israeli salad. The important thing about an Israeli salad is that each ingredient keeps its taste, its flavor, its value, but still, together, it creates something better. You still remember where each ingredient came from.” The new fusion food term being used to explain Israeli cuisine, today, focuses on that unique community blend. In this era of globalization, some might be concerned that food traditions are disappearing. But, Erlich says, “It doesn’t erase identity. It actually embraces the different identities. And, for me, all of that fusion of bringing all of the culture and heritage together to create something new; that for me is the Israeli kitchen.”

As Erlich explores how to broaden Israeli culinary diplomacy, she reflects on the fresh foods found in the produce markets of Israel, especially the Carmel market in Tel Aviv and the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. It is there that she sees all the different immigrants that are eating and shopping; and, it is there where she experiences all the flavors side by side or together. Meanwhile, Israeli chefs who are perfecting the art of food integration are being recognized and receiving international acclaim and fame. “It’s because they are good, and because of their flexibility and their innovative mentality that allows them to explore other things.”

Flexibility and innovative mentality are diplomatic terms used in a variety of ways at the Israeli Foreign Ministry when speaking of soft diplomacy – a way of bringing Israel and the nations together in a common bond. Sitting and eating a meal together is one way that government leaders can relax and talk about issues of mutual concern.

Erlich’s work experience has not always been based on culinary diplomacy. She studied at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and realized she was not good at selling her art. However, she was passionate about sharing Israel with others. But, Erlich became frustrated by the way Israel was being presented internationally. She felt she could help with the message, and make a difference in the way people perceived the values of the Jewish State.

Eventually, she began working abroad. She served in Israeli diplomatic missions in New York, Los Angeles, and Costa Rica. Her experience in media, digital and public diplomacy, culture and economics has been a valuable asset in her diplomatic field of interest. Throughout her work efforts, she has realized that food connects people together. Wherever Erlich is stationed abroad, she holds Israeli food related events. By talking about Israeli culinary cuisine, she connects people to the Jewish State. This helps others to gain a better understanding of the history of the land, as well as the process that Israel is going through as a modern nation. Food has been Erlich’s way of sharing Israel with the world. She has become well-known for bringing a sense of the Israeli mentality to those living abroad.“You create a certain culture. You get to know the chefs and the people of the media who are interested in those events. A target audience can be relevant; people who will come and attend who are interested in good food. Then, you start creating a tour. You make a connection between an Israeli chef and a local chef.”

Erlich brings the chefs together on an international adventure that usually lasts from a few days to a week, keeping it non-competitive so they can freely share their ideas. “Generally, as a diplomat, when you go to a new place, you try to map the country with ‘What’s the conversation?’ And, then, you look at different aspects of it.” For Erlich this includes researching public opinion while talking to opinion makers, members of the media, and politicians. She examines the variety of interests. “For me, that is one of the greatest benefits of food, because it connects all of those target audiences.”

Wherever Erlich goes, she observes the street culture of food, and contributes her culinary disciplines to the efforts of others. She helps Israeli missions in different capitals, providing diplomatic initiatives in addition to her work in Israel. “I mapped out, within one year, 60 Israeli missions around the world in food related events! So, it’s being done. It can be explored. There is such great potential. I don’t think we have reached the peak yet.” Diplomats like Erlich bring in experienced leaders from the culinary food industry. Popular chefs that have a public following are invited, as are journalists who write about food and lifestyle. “It’s not just the restaurants. It’s understanding the culture and the mentality; going to the markets; seeing different food initiatives.”

In July 2016, after working abroad, Erlich came back to head up a new diplomatic course at the MFA. But, culinary diplomacy continues to be a big part of her life. “It is something I keep on doing regardless of what my official position is. It connects because it is my job as a diplomat. I never clock out. I am always, ‘Dana the Diplomat.’ ” Erlich continues to collaborate with foodies, worldwide, observing various trends. “My main goal is to build some kind of a tool box of ‘How To’. So, if you go to a certain mission, it doesn’t matter where you are, but you know that there are certain tools of how to start thinking and planning – a culinary diplomacy event or program or initiative. Who do you need to know in that area? What is relevant and what is not?” These are questions that she hopes Israeli diplomats will consider as she prepares a paper for the MFA before taking up her next posting overseas.

Erlich’s challenge is to establish an Israeli policy about culinary diplomacy, as a cultural way of bringing countries together. Her proposal will include objectives to help the Foreign Ministry understand the potential of this important field. Her greatest interest is in reaching people who don’t know about Israel; who don’t care or understand Israel’s relevancy. “They are people who watch cooking shows, food competitions, and who are interested in food and love food; who consider themselves gourmet.”

The people that Erlich continues to meet, who are fascinated by different aspects of culinary diplomacy will learn, soon enough, that Israel has a lot to offer. As her passion grows to share Israeli cuisine on a global level, Israel, itself, is already becoming a well-known hotspot. Each year, curiosity about the new Israeli food is drawing thousands of people here to experience the fine tastes that this amazing immigrant culture has to offer.