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Culinary Promise Fulfilled - In the Promised Land

by Judy Ross

Chinese Food in the Middle East

Winter Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(4) page(s): 13 and 23

The old quip that one can identify a Jewish neighborhood by the prevalence of Chinese restaurants assumes a new dimension in that most Jewish of all locales, the state of Israel. In the Promised Land, where Chinese restaurants are abundantly apparent, the population has already realized the dream cherished by ISAAC: Israelis perceive Chinese food as a prestigious cuisine, served in sophisticated surroundings, supported by a professionally-trained staff, and a place with a serious wine list.

Prices match the accoutrements, so that inviting guests to a Chinese restaurant in Tel Aviv is as much a compliment and commitment to expenditure as to invite him to a fine French restaurant in New York.

Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that Aharoni, Israel's major celebrity-chef, is as well known for his classic French restaurant, The Golden Apple, as he is for his four Chinese restaurants. Aharoni, who pioneered Chinese food in Israel twenty years ago, after training in Taiwan, insists on the similarity between French and Chinese culinary philosophies. Both nationalities adore eating and consider gastronomy a serious business. Parisians will drive all day to reach a Michelin-starred restaurant; among Chinese, the morning greeting is, 'Have you eaten yet?' Both cuisines value fresh ingredients and make creative use of 'variety' meats that less venerable and less sophisticated kitchens reject. Both deeply revere tradition, preserving 'classic' recipes and meticulously observed.

It is in this respect that the Chinese triumph, since so many contemporary French chefs have succumbed to 'novelle' notions, while the great Chinese Chefs cling to the old ways.

Aharoni confesses that his own menu strays from classic purity, partly from cultural considerations and partly because many traditional ingredients are not yet available in Israel. He waged a personal battle to acquire the fresh ginger currently on the scene; snow peas only arrived this year; bok choy is still nowhere to be found in The Land; and the seafood treasures of China are represented only by shrimp and calamari. Add to such material the cultural problems of introducing a completely new cuisine to a relatively unsophisticated population.

Aharoni wisely introduced semi-familiar flavors rather than radically foreign foods. He appealed to the Israeli sweet tooth with sweet and sour sauces, and to their predilection for hot seasonings with fiery Sichuan dishes. His new noodle shop was an instant success, however, he is still unable to sell the concept of Dim Sum.

Today, in his three white-tablecloth restaurants, his varied menu lists over one hundred Cantonese and Sichuan possibilities. If they are not impeccably classic, they are all nevertheless, credibly Chinese--and often incredibly delicious, as we discovered at his Tai Chi Restaurant. There, the rooms are decorated in smartly austere black-and-white shoji-screen geometrics, with an elegant floating skylit ceiling. Several curved banquettes surround tables equipped with revolving center trays for banquet dining; these accommodate electric chafing dishes to keep platters warm. All tables are laid with both silverware and chopsticks, dinners are greeted with a dish of pickled tidbits, and presented with a wine list of over two dozen respected local labels--red and white, dry and sweet--as well as Chinese wines and sake.

Memorable appetizers from our feast included greaselessly golden deep-fried wontons; delicately thin-sliced pork in garlic-soy dressing under a crisp confetti of chopped peanuts; and a refreshing salad of julienned raw veggies, shredded chicken, nuts, and the sweet shock of fresh lichees, all bathed in tangy vinaigrette. This last is likely a legacy of the Vietnamese boat people, who have exerted a major impact as Chinese restaurant chefs, ever since Israel was the first nation to receive them, ten years ago. In fact, Aharoni's partner is a Vietnamese-Chinese-Israeli, with perfect command of Hebrew!

A Steamed Whole Sea Bass arrived dramatically poised on a sea of black bean sauce and floating meaty black mushrooms. The silver skin, dappled with verdant chopped scallion, enclosed custardy white flesh permeated with ginger root. This was an indisputably classic presentation, executed with skills second to none in our experience.

Another platter bore succulent chunks of Chicken Breast Stir Fried with Scarlet Peppers and (chewy whole) Garlic Cloves. Jumbo shrimp Kung Pau, imbued with a marinade of sesame oil, ginger and chilies, glowed neon pink in a nest of baby corns, onion, garlic and chili skins. A mellow mating of tender Beef Slices with Caramelized Eggplant, slithered seductively on the tongue.

Eggplant delivered moments of textures and tastes. Eight Treasures Egg Noodles proved another adventure in contrasts: whole almonds, minced seafoods, mushrooms and veggies all tangled in the savory pasta.

None of this is 'cheap' eating, with appetizers priced from eith to ten dollars, fish at twenty-two, shrimp at twenty-five, chicken and beef as twenty, and the noodle dishes going for ten to fifteen dollars. Including a modest wine, dinner for two could tally close to eihty dollars--not exorbitant, but surely double the cost of such a meal in Chinatown or in a New York 'neighborhood' restaurant.

Part of the cost is dictated by elite and imported ingredients--but the larger factor is that Chinese Chefs and staffs are valuable employees in Israeli restaurants. Israelis regard Chinese restaurants as prime places for gala evenings, competitive in ambiance, service and gastronomy with any elegant eatery in town--and they do not protest the prices.

Some of the most highly regarded Chinese food in Israel is kosher--and some is not. Dietary laws merely edit ingredients, not culinary talent. In Tel Aviv, when thinking of a glatt kosher Chinese meal, it is impossible to resist reprising that old cliche: 'You do not have to be kosher to love China Lee.' In fact, fully half of the crowd that congregates nightly to wait for tables at this stylish spot are non-kosher devotees of dining rather than dietary laws.

They are drawn to China Lee because the artistry of three Taiwanese chefs is abundantly evident, while the Ministry of the Mashgiach (ritual inspector for assuring that all is kosher), though impeccably documented, is undetectable to the tastebuds. Except for the absence of pork and seafood; a staff uniform that includes emerald-green kipot (ritual skullcaps) to match their green satin tunics; and the availability of handsome burgundy-velvet kipot trimmed in gold, to guests who desire one--this could be any elegant restaurant anywhere--East or West, kosher or not. The setting of vivid, green-glowing walls inset with mirrored panels, fountains and lush plant life is stylishly international--as is the assiduously attentive service of food and napkin-wrapped wines, by gracious professionals.

The quality of the cuisine is immediately established by a series of distinctive soups. An exemplary Hot and Sour Soup is gratifyingly gelatinous, tart, and thick with julienned tofu. A pungently gingered broth surprisingly dominates the filling of tender shredded chicken with rice. Ruddy Fish Soup is chock-full of succulent white chunks. Glass-noodle Soup similarly brims with translucent strands of pasta and contrastingly crunchy al-dente veggies and chicken bits in a golden chicken base. At approximately five dollars per small individual serving, these are serious soups--not cheap, but undeniably sublime. Similarly, a spectacular presentation of Associated Appetizers is worth the twelve dollars per person tariff just for the price of a 'ticket to the show.' Rising above a revolving tray illuminated by fireworks-sparklers, a bird carved from a green apple is pierced by skewers of peanut-sauced chicken sates. At the base parades a succession of dainty, finger-sized egg rolls filled with fresh tasting crisp veggies; equally crunchy deep-fried wontons; zesty-type raw salad; baby chicken drumettes bathed in tangy sauce with whole garlic nuggets; strips of chicken breast crusted with sesame seeds; juicy whole mushrooms in tempura batter; pastry turnovers filled with beef, nuts and raisins.

An entree of crisp-edged shreds of Veal with Vegetables and Garlic succeeds as a savory substitute for similar dishes elsewhere done with pork. Thick slices of skinless duck are marvelously moist on their bed of stir-fried Chinese vegetables, smartly surrounded by mellow roasted quail eggs. (Our MaƮtre D', Niko, explained that the house insists on using only male ducks that are naturally less fatty than the females). The perennial favorite, Lemon Chicken, is one of the most popular dishes here. The offering arrives dramatically wrapped in foil, preserving natural juices within the frilly tempura binding of each poignantly citrus-perfumed slice. Every bite is seductively satin-textured and succulent.

More robust eating is provided by fork-tender medallions of beef in a glaze that alternates peppery with subtly sweet sensations. The sauce is sufficiently dominant to suppress any hint that the meat was, of course, 'koshered' twenty-four hours in a salt bath. (The remarkable tenderness is probably a dividend from this ritual treatment). Authentic Lo Mein Noodles, made in-house, are delicious and nutty Fried Rice reminds us of 'back home.' Most entrees are priced at fifteen to twenty dollars.

The dessert display is more Las Vegas: a rotary tray with fireworks, paper umbrellas, tiny Israeli flags and carved vegetable flowers, presiding over a profusion of batter-fried bananas and apples; fresh lichees and watermelon balls; candied pecans; and non-dairy ice creams, some with whipped cream, some 'fried.'

For Chinese food fans, is Israel 'worth a special trip?' We vote YES and recommend that you visit:
Tai-Chi at 71 Ibn Gavirol St.; phone: 523-5795,
(Aharoni's first restaurant) at 60 Rothschild Blvd.; phone: 560-6833, and
China Lee at 102 Hayarkon St.; phone: 524-3141, just opposite the Dan Hotel.
You will be delighted!

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