May 24, 2024


Built General Tough

Israel’s immigrants talk their favorite foods from home

 “First of all, you can’t call them ‘chips,’” says Anton Delin, gently admonishing me. “They are called ‘crisps.’”

Americans may call deep-fried, thin slices of potatoes “chips,” but in the UK and Ireland, they call them “crisps.” In mid-April, the lives of Delin and all former British subjects living in Israel changed overnight when Israeli food conglomerate Strauss released Salt and Vinegar Tapuchips. 

“For many, it was like the Moshiach [Messiah] had come. Forget about waiting for him to come. This was it,” exults Delin. 

Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who was born in London and grew up in Gibraltar, tweeted at the time, “The only thing missing from my life in Israel has finally arrived.” 

Josh Brook, of Nefesh B’Nefesh, says that when he learned of the Israeli version of the vinegar and salt crisps, “I was like a kid. I was so excited that all I wanted was to try and find them.”

Salt and vinegar, Delin explains, are commonly added to the distinctly British meal of fish and chips, and salt and vinegar crisps are the stuff of English childhood dreams. “It’s the smell and the combination of their homeland,” he says.

While imported versions of the flavorful potato snacks were readily available in Israel, they cost up to NIS 30 per bag. Strauss’s salt and vinegar version sells for as little as NIS 2.50 a bag, and tastes like the original British crisps, says Delin.

He notes that he and some of his fellow British expatriates monitored the reaction of Israeli foodies to the release of the Strauss chips – er, crisps – and were amused that their reviews were diametrically opposed to the positive British reviews. 

“On the Israeli foodie page, they write, ‘Get this shit off my shelves. I can’t believe people eat this shit.’ It’s very funny.” He adds that many more products made in the UK are now available in Israel since Great Britain’s exit from the European Union, including many more varieties of English chocolate and Cadbury’s famous Creme Eggs.

Delin is the administrator of the 8,000-member Facebook group Brits Living in Israel, and one of the daily topics of the group has been where to obtain food from the UK.

“There are basic staples that the Brits living in Israel really miss,” he says. “It’s the memories and the deja vu. Kids of a certain age grew up with this stuff – baked beans on toast, tomato soup. This is our youth.”

Nevertheless, he admits that for the most part, children raised in Israel are not attracted to crisps, baked beans, or Heinz tomato soup.

“It’s only the parents or the grandparents who crave it,” he says. When asked if his children share his enthusiasm for foods from the UK, Delin laughs. “It’s one of my biggest regrets, as a parent, and one of my biggest failings, I am ashamed to say. They have no taste for it.”

Delin made aliyah in 1997, and he recalls that there was a dearth of British foodstuffs in the Holy Land when he first arrived. 

“Little was available then, apart from some obvious things like Cadbury’s chocolate,” says Delin. Over the years, he would bring in items such as Heinz baked beans, salad cream, Heinz tomato soup, and other products that reminded him of home. In the past 24 years, he has shipped almost 5,000 cans of beans and soup from the United Kingdom. 

“For many Brits, these foods represent their childhood, and it’s as much about the memories as it is about the taste.” 

BROOKS FROM Nefesh B’Nefesh says that there is something special about an Israeli version of a foreign snack. “It adds another element of happiness with your aliyah. You love living in Israel, but then you get an extra bonus to get things you’re used to growing up with here with you,” he says.

Delin thinks that there is something unique about the British love for food from their land of birth. 

“I don’t know how it is for Americans,” says Delin, “but Brits get very nostalgic for their homeland when they get out of the country. It doesn’t matter the fact that there is antisemitism there, and Corbyn, and the weather. The minute they land elsewhere, suddenly they look back at these things and these products. It’s an experience for them, and it brings their homeland closer to them. They are very nostalgic for the homeland.”

Delin’s comments notwithstanding, nostalgia for one’s homeland is not necessarily limited to former residents of the British Isles. Immigrants who leave their homeland – not only those who move to Israel – frequently retain an affinity for the foods of their past. The term “comfort food” refers to cuisine associated with a particular nostalgic value, frequently with the security of childhood. 

When we made aliyah in the summer of 1996, my six-year-old son had a yen for American cheese, which was then difficult to obtain in Israel. For the next several years, whenever I traveled to the United States, I made sure to buy a thickly packed block that contained more than 100 slices of American cheese, which I stuffed into a duffle bag, along with other gifts for my children. It was only recently that my now 31-year-old progeny confessed that soon after we arrived in Israel, he lost his taste for American cheese and often gave his cheese sandwiches to his school friends.

A wholly unscientific Facebook poll of immigrants that I conducted on several groups – Secret Jerusalem, Secret Beit Shemesh and Nefesh B’Nefesh – shows that many retain their love for the foods of their home countries, years after they have moved to Israel. Sometimes, these food traditions are regional. There are, of course, the standard laments for American staples and national brands. Many people miss items from Trader Joe’s, Entenmann’s baked products, Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme donuts, deli meat, and even Starbucks.

“Good bagels,” writes Joel Ackerman, who made aliyah from New York. 

“Decent bagels,” echoes Lisa Liel, a former Chicagoan. “And eggnog in the winter months!” 

Miriam Gold writes, “Bagel, lox tomato, onion and Temptee cream cheese with a good real American bagel. Can get similar but not the same at all!!” 

Some immigrants commented that they miss specialty items such as white tuna fish, Bacos imitation bacon bits, Crystal Light drink mix, and mint chocolate chip ice cream. For decades, former Chicagoans have made sure to request visitors from the Midwest to bring packages of Romanian kosher hot dogs.

Yet even within the United States, there are lesser-known, regional foods that immigrants from American recall fondly. David Levin of Ramat Beit Shemesh, a sixth-generation New Orleanian whose family has been in the South since 1830, longs for grits, a porridge made from boiled cornmeal that originated in the southern United States. Levin explains that in 1830, the French decided that they were losing too much influence in the new territory, so they sent 400 Jewish families to New Orleans to become active in trading. 

“My family was one of the original group,” says Levin, who adds that at the time of the Civil War, there were more Jews in New Orleans than in New York. “Grits is a way of life,” he notes. “The closest is polenta, but it’s not the same.”

Deb Weisblatt, also of Beit Shemesh, grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and says that grits remind her of home. She adds that though her sister-in-law brings them when she visits from Silver Spring, Maryland, “I’ve managed fine without them.”

CONTINUING IN the southern United States, Moshe Manheim, who made aliyah from Atlanta, Georgia, in August 2019 to Rehovot, has fond memories of Brunswick stew, a southern dish that features a tomato base with beans, vegetables and meat. Early Brunswick stews were often made with squirrel, rabbit, even opossum, but today, pork, chicken and beef are common ingredients.

“In the Jewish South,” he says, “it’s made with beef and chicken, and then all the other ingredients.” 

Lida Baker, who immigrated to Jerusalem from Los Angeles almost four years ago, says that she misses Mexican food from Southern California. 

“Flour and corn tortillas, refried beans – they make a good effort here, but nothing compares.” She has not brought in any of the food to Israel because she says it has to be cooked fresh. “I miss fresh Mexican food,” she says.

Outside of the United States and the United Kingdom, people have their own comfort foods and pet peeves about the local replacements. Eva van Sonderen, who hails from the Netherlands, commented, “The favorite Dutch foods that I miss most are nieuwe haring [fresh new “maatjes” herring]; good licorice, especially the double-salted version; other things like ontbijtkoek [a type of ginger cake/bread], is available here in some delicatessen stores but three times as expensive as in Holland; the same goes for good Dutch cheese. When I am in Amsterdam, I especially indulge in fresh herring, enough to sustain me for a year.” She scoffs at the maatjes herring that is sold in Israel, saying “the pink-colored version here is full of chemical additions, is an abomination, and is not fit for human consumption.”

Isaac Yitzhak Bendayan, who made aliyah from Spanish Morocco, has a soft spot in his heart for Turron de Jijona, a southern European nougat made from honey, sugar and egg white, with toasted almonds or other nuts. 

“I still can’t get it here,” he says.

Immigrants from South Africa mentioned the meats unique to the area, such as biltong, a type of dried, cured meat; droëwors, a dried sausage; and boerewors, a traditional South African farmer’s sausage whose unique flavor comes from coriander and vinegar. Of course, any listing of favorite foreign foods would be incomplete without a mention of Marmite and Vegemite spreads. Both are made from yeast extract, and immigrants from Australia, New Zealand and the UK are partial to them. 

Ma’ayan Turner, who made aliyah from New Zealand in 1991, commented that she prefers Vegemite, adding, “I am sadly without it at present.”

The last word on the subject comes from Philadelphia-born, New York-raised Jason Klinman, who made aliyah from Chicago to Tel Aviv in 2020. 

“I love most of the food and groceries in Israel. There is absolutely nothing I really miss from the USA, except perhaps my mother’s cooking and baking, or a few dishes specific to US-based friends here and there. It’s all so good here. Who has time to miss the fatty, over-processed food from North America?”

As for the vaunted Salt and Vinegar Tapuchips from Strauss, I found an unopened bag sitting in our pantry and sampled several, all in the interest of objective journalism. The verdict? Tasty, indeed, but not quite the harbinger of messianic times. 