When did Israeli cuisine become such a thing in America? Was it Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks that started the craze? Our love for hummus, a section of the supermarket that just keeps spreading? The appearance of shakshuka on brunch menus throughout New York?
Whatever the reason, the new cookbook Shaya, from James Beard-award winning chef Alon Shaya, is right in step with our current fascination with Israeli cooking. But the book is not just a chef’s guide to the flavors of the Levant. Shaya is also skilled at Northern Italian, Southern, Cajun and Creole cooking, and he weaves his experiences in all these traditions into a memoir-ish cookbook that works equally well outside the kitchen.
Each chapter is preceded by a story that takes us through Shaya’s life and travels, from Israel to the U.S. He first lands in Philadelphia at age five, and in time becomes an impressive young cook, food shopping and preparing meals after school for his single, working mom. He burnishes his self-taught skills at the Culinary Institute of America and then lands a series of jobs in the kitchens of casinos until he ends up in New Orleans, which becomes his homebase has he ventures to Italy and Israel and back again. These brief chapters are often filled with wonderful, heart-aching moments, when food becomes a way of connecting with a loved one or a stranger or form of comfort in the face of life’s blows.
In one chapter, he travels back to Israel to see his ailing, bedridden grandmother, the woman who helped spark his love of cooking. Knowing this will likely be the last time they see each other, she helps him commit her recipes to paper from the bedroom, as he does his best alone in the kitchen, ferrying spoonfuls of her classic dishes back to her for her comments and adjustments. What follows are some of those beloved family recipes, like stuffed cabbage and chilled yogurt soup and a spanakopita that Shaya tweaks, using collards as the main green given its abundance back home.
In another chapter, he recounts the day leading up to Katrina, when he was busy prepping crabcakes for Harrah’s Casino, and the horrific aftermath, when Harrah’s becomes command central for the National Guard, mayor and governor. One of the meals he makes during the recovery is Red Beans and Rice, gallons and gallons of it, which is as comforting as it is satiating for the sea of rescue workers headquartered at a looted WalMart. His wife’s Red Beans and Rice recipe follows, along with a handful of delicious variations on the salads that Shaya serves with it.
Just as he becomes familiar with the foodways of the South, he follows a dream to cook and work in Italy, which he does, briefly, and then promptly takes his knowledge back home to open Italian restaurants in New Orleans, first Domenica and then Pizza Domenica. When he finds himself sneaking Middle Eastern ingredients into his Italian dishes, he finally opens an Israeli restaurant, Shaya, in 2015, the same year he won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South. The restaurant went on to earn a best new restaurant award, and after the cookbook’s publication, Chef Shaya became locked in a legal battle for ownership of his namesake restaurant as well as the Domenicas. He now has plans to open a new New Orleans restaurant, Saba, apart from his ex-business partner.
Business turmoil aside, the cookbook covers a lot of ground geographically speaking, from the secret of perfect buttermilk biscuits to thin crust pizza to yes, shakshuka. Some recipes could have used more testing and more detailed instructions, a fault of most restaurant cookbooks. But the spice blends that form the backbone of many of his recipes are ones you’ll want to work into your repertoire permanently. The Israeli chile paste zhoug, for instance, is a spicy, herbal condiment that, once trying, you may never be able to live without, and Shaya’s take is more nuanced than the one in the Jerusalem cookbook. He adds árbol chiles to his Hungarian Paprikash, creating a bold, bright sauce that makes the traditional version seem timid by comparison. And his Yemenite stewed chicken can be deliciously adapted for the grill with just a few tweaks, thanks to a versatile spice blend that adds warmth and depth to almost anything.
Aside from a few easy salads and dips to dive into, however, Shaya is not a book you will race through. Quite a few dishes are an investment of time, either to acquire an uncommon ingredient or perform a painstaking technique. Think of it as a cookbook worth slowing down for, whether you intend to cook from it or just enjoy the journey.
Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel
Alfred A. Knopf, 2018