A new stunning Israeli book aims to bridge the space between the ocean and the table. Half cookbook, half artful seafood encyclopedia, the book is a project of famed Tel Aviv port restaurant Mul-Yam (or, Across the Sea).
“Mul-Yam is known for bringing unusual fish to Israel,” the book’s designer Dan Alexander said about the 17-year-old restaurant. “We wanted to show [the owner] Shalom Maharovsky’s obsession in bringing the best raw material. He was the first to bring lobsters, oysters and rare seafood to Israel.” In 2003, Mul-Yam was the first Mediterranean-region restaurant to be added to the elite Les Grandes Tables du Monde group.
The first section of the book, which is also called “Mul-Yam,” contains stunningly artful photographs of a wide selection of domestic and imported fish and edible sea creatures — with their names given in seven languages. Culinary information along with scientific and even mythological anecdotes accompany the photographs. The book’s second part consists of recipes from the restaurant, along with beautiful photographs of the prepared dishes.
“The challenge was to create something people wanted to look at,” Alexander explained. “Creating a catalogue of fish was risky. It could have ended up just a book of dead fish.”
Like many modern American families, the faces around my dinner table have changed as family members pass on, others leave for, and then return from, college and new members join our family through marriage. With each of those alterations, our religious and culinary traditions transformed — they have matured and morphed to fit our new family. Shabbat dinner — the one sacrosanct observance in our family — remains, though, the food has adapted to each shift in our family.
When I was little, our Shabbat table was filled with singing and numerous sets of Shabbat candles. Each dinner started with the telling of a Jewish fable like those of the fools of Chelm and the story of “The Sabbath Lion.” Despite being able to trace our Ashkenazi ancestry back generations into eastern Europe, our meal never included the chicken, tzimmes or kugel that my friends ate. Instead, each Shabbat was celebrated with a filet or whole fish that was picked up from the fishmonger that morning. Glistening pink salmon, pan-seared tuna topped with mango salsa, brilliant red snapper or shad doused with lemon juice and onions took center stage in our elaborate feasts. During high school, homemade challah, which I baked after school graced the table each week, while seasonal vegetables and sliced melon with berries rounded out the meal.
Thanks to my boyfriend Matt, I am now completely addicted to the Food Network. Matt and I often spend time glued to the television, brainstorming what we might create on “Chopped” with a certain mystery basket of ingredients. We get excited about what Canadian chef Chuck Hughes whips up on his day off. We even try and guess which celebrity chefs might be hitting the bottle a little too often.
A few weeks ago, I set out to put my newly gained food knowledge to good use and planned to make something special for Shabbat dinner. I prefer to keep my apartment’s kitchen meat-free (it makes keeping kosher much easier, especially in a small space) and admittedly, I was getting a little tired of trying to come up with new recipes using fake meat, which often didn’t suit a fancier Shabbat meal. I thought about some options and tilapia popped in to my head. There was just one problem: I had zero experience cooking fish that hadn’t come from a can or frozen in a box.
I’d usually get the call on Thursday night or Friday morning from my Israeli relatives Ariella and Yehudit. “Come over for Shabbat,” they’d say to me, not asking so much as insisting. With family in Israel, I found, there’s no need for prior notice or formal invitations to a meal. Family, like everything in Israel from dress codes to its approach to higher education, is just more relaxed.
I had visited Israel many times before finally living there for a year, and on each visit I coordinated part of my travels with my relatives in Shoham and Ramat Gan, just outside of Tel Aviv. Usually my cousins invited me to a huge meal with twenty or so family members at once, or they would meet me in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv to show me the sites for a few hours. But when I moved to Israel in 2007 I still felt as if I hardly knew my perennial gracious hosts. It was high time to really meet my family.
I had already been living in New Haven for close to five months when my parents came to visit for the first time. Whenever I cooked in the enormous, sunflower-yellow Le Creuset Dutch oven they sent as a housewarming gift or wondered where to hang a piece of art, their absence from my new home was palpable. It wasn’t that they weren’t eager to come or that I didn’t want them to — quite the opposite. But the six-hour drive from Washington suddenly felt like a much more daunting distance than the four hours it had taken to visit me at college in New York.
The fact that they were so far away heightened my sense that this move was for real. I had moved to a new city where I hardly knew anyone. For a job. With my boyfriend. I bought my first car. I shopped at our local farmers market and threw dinner parties on our deck. I paid my first gas bill. It all seemed very adult.
Nevertheless, my transition into true adulthood didn’t feel complete until I’d shared it with my parents. The roles were now reversed. It was my turn to make them feel at home and I wanted it to be perfect.
The elderly woman steps up to her stove, quite agile for her 80-something years and pushes aside the platter of fried fish fillets we are not quite ready for. “Now you put [in] the sour,” she says to me dipping her fingers into the plastic spice jar and sprinkling the powder into the bubbling sauce. I try and estimate about how much she is using.
“What do you use for the sour, Charlotte?” I ask, scribbling down notes. Charlotte, the matriarch of my boyfriend’s Jewish Iraqi family had graciously allowed me into her kitchen to learn some of the family’s recipes. Today she is showing me how to make salona, a sweet and sour fish dish she used to eat in Iraq.
I have been fascinated with Iraqi Jewish cuisine since I met my boyfriend with his Jewish Iraqi father and a Jewish Danish mother. (My own Midwestern Christian cuisine is pretty bland in comparison.) Try as I might, I hadn’t been able to find many Iraqi Jewish recipes published online or in cookbooks. So I was thrilled to be learning straight from the source.