Forward asks “Can Pastrami Conquer the Palate in the Land of Hummus and Falafel?”
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(there’s a deli on those shores)
From today’s Forward, a look at the new Jewish deli that’s become a bit of a sensation in Tel Aviv:
Can Pastrami Conquer the Palate in the Land of Hummus and Falafel?
by Gil Shefler
At Ruben, a new restaurant with a distinctly American Jewish flavor, there’s almost no need for a menu; the thick smell of pastrami is like a business card for the eatery’s unabashed focus on smoked meats. Patrons can choose among freshly sliced heaps of pastrami, turkey or a mix, placed between two thin slices of rye with sauerkraut and a schmear of mustard, horseradish or harrisa — a Tunisian hot sauce that is one of the few concessions made to suit the local palate.
Since it opened several months ago, Ruben has carved out a following for pastrami on rye in the land of pita and falafel. While American-themed restaurants have been around for a while, Ruben is the first to devote itself entirely to cold cut sandwiches and has won the distinction of being called Israel’s first authentic Jewish deli by the local press. This month, in fact, Ruben will become a chain when a new branch opens at another Tel Aviv location, with one more new opening planned soon after.
“Ruben’s success has exceeded our expectations,” bragged Gavriel Zilber, 31, one of the restaurant’s owners. “I think we’re successful because Israelis recognize the quality of our product. But also, it reminds them of visits to New York and Montreal.”
It may come as a surprise to some that it took 61 years for Israel to be able to boast its first deli. But it shouldn’t. Despite impressions, this is not quite Ashkenazi food from “the Old Country.” Delis serving hallmark fare like oversized sandwiches and matzo balls larger than baseballs are a distinctly American creation. Eastern European Jews invented them only after their arrival in the New World, around the turn of the 20th century, and combined Old Country staples with local favorites and ingredients. Similar variants developed among Jewish communities in places like France and the United Kingdom but not in Israel, where local cuisine evolved in a different direction.
David Sax, author of “Save the Deli,” which tells the story of the increasingly endangered Jewish delicatessen, says there are a number of reasons that the deli never made it to the Holy Land.
“The climate made it very difficult for people to grow the produce, especially raise cattle for such a meat-based food,” Sax said in a telephone interview from New York. “Also, the food itself doesn’t suit the climate as much. Then there was the clear philosophical break Israel’s founding fathers made with the Diaspora, and [the indigenous] falafel became the official food of Israel.” CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE