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Pining for the communal flavor of Israeli cuisine

by Rebecca Milner

I thought I missed hummus. By which I mean: I missed being able to pick up a tub at the supermarket. But to hear an Israeli acquaintance talk of it is to learn that there is so much more to miss.

“Eating hummus reminds me of so many things, like sitting with friends in a village near the kibbutz where I lived, sharing pita and a plate of hummus drowned in olive oil. I love the taste, of course, but also the communal aspect of eating it,” he said.

To get that communal atmosphere (and good food) in Tokyo, he recommended Shamaim (2F TM Bldg., 4-11 Ekoda, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 03-3948-5333). In addition to being the capital’s longest running Israeli restaurant, Shamaim is also a fantastic deal: The all-you-can-eat dinner course is just ¥2,100 per person. First come the various starters: hummus and pita, falafel (deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas) and tahini (sesame paste), and chopped salads. These are followed by chicken schnitzel (breaded and fried chicken breast) and lamb kebab (minced meat grilled on a skewer), fried potatoes and majadra (rice with lentils), and then seconds and thirds as you like. Dessert such as malabi (sweet milk pudding) is extra.

Everything is served family style, leaving diners to help themselves to shared plates. And just so you know: “In Israel, most people — I’ll go out on a limb here and say 100 percent — would not take a bit of hummus with a spoon or fork and put it on their personal plate. Instead, break off a bit of pita and dip it into the shared plate,” my acquaintance explained.

Shamaim also has reasonably priced Israeli wines — by the bottle (¥3,000-5,000), to keep that communal atmosphere going — and the occasional belly-dance show (check the website).

Tokyo’s other Israeli institution is David’s Deli (5-13-13 Mita, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5441-1211). Run by a longtime Israeli expat and his wife, David’s Deli is part Israeli restaurant and part Jewish deli — the only place in town that serves hummus and p’tcha (calves’ foot jelly, full of collagen!), baba ganoush (mashed eggplant) and kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats and pasta). The Japanese chef here was trained by two Israeli chefs (one of whom brought with him a coveted recipe for goulash from a famous restaurant in Israel).

The owners concede that good taste is prioritized over authenticity: The much-maligned gefilte fish (like meatloaf, but made with fish, usually something like carp or mullet) has been made over with Japanese aji (horse mackerel) and ume (pickled plum). The matzo-ball soup (chicken soup with dumplings made from crumbs of unleavened bread) features one fantastically large, plush matzo ball in a perfectly clarified broth. It’s all very good, and the only downside is that if you order everything you want to eat, David’s Deli gets pricey.

You also won’t likely leave empty handed: There is a bakery on-site, turning out burekas (flaky pastries filled with the likes of cheese, spinach or potato), bagels, rugelach (crescent-shaped pastry) and, on Fridays, challah (braided bread).

When it comes to pita bread, however, the place to go is Pita the Great (2F ATT Shinkan, 2-11-7 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5563-0851). Tokyo’s original falafel joint (in business since 1993) makes all its own pita bread fresh daily on the premises (which are invariably splattered with flour). The house special, the Big Pita, is a maximalist sandwich stuffed with falafel, sauerkraut, tahini and tomato sauce. It has got to be the most filling vegetarian meal in town.

Israeli ingredients are hard to come by in Japan (every place I talked to imported most seasonings, and even chickpeas, from Israel). However, Pita the Great packages its pita, falafel, hummus, tahini and harissa (spicy tomato sauce) for sale at National Azabu (4-5-2 Minami Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-3442-3181).

Then there’s Ta-im (1-29-16 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-5424-2990), which means “delicious” in Hebrew. Celebrating its third anniversary this June, Ta-im is the newcomer on the scene, but one with plenty of buzz. It’s a cozy counter joint, with Hebrew scribbled on the walls and Israeli radio on the stereo. The Israeli owner turns out tasty versions of such classics as falafel, hummus, baba ganoush and matbucha (stewed tomatoes and peppers), mixing imported seasonings with locally sourced veggies. It serves chicken schnitzel and lamb kebab, too, as well as a smooth, creamy hummus to go.

Rebecca Milner is a freelance writer in Tokyo and coauthor of Lonely Planet’s travel guides to Tokyo and Japan.


Keeping kosher

Looking for kosher food in Japan? King Falafel (2-7-31 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5441-4770; www.kingfalafel.com), run by Chabad Tokyo, does certified kosher falafel. The Chabad also has a catering service, Kosher Delica (www.kosherdelica.com), which can deliver hummus, chicken schnitzel and challah (among others) with 24 hours’ notice. Chabad of Japan (03-5789-2846; www.chabad.jp) runs a similar service, and can hook you up with matzo, wine and grape juice for Passover. The Jewish Community Center (3-8-8 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3400-2559; www.jccjapan.or.jp) is also taking Passover orders.