By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder

“Dinner tonight will be served family style, because in Israel that is how we do it,” chef Avivit Priel told the group gathered at Hal’s Kitchen in Buckhead on Sunday, Jan. 22.

Anyone familiar with Israeli culture knows this to be true. In Israel, families regularly gather around food. Mothers pack meals to bring to their children serving in the army. Go to a fine dining establishment, and people at neighboring tables will gladly share insights into the best dishes to order.

So, Israeli style, the evening was intimate and friendly, with people seated together at a long table, sharing food. As they talked, they also watched Priel prepare the meal they were about to eat.

Priel is one of Israel’s top chefs, so while the food was served family style, there was nothing simple about it. The menu reflected the sophisticated style of the dishes she regularly cooks at Tel Aviv’s acclaimed Ouzeria.

“Israeli food is Mediterranean food. There is a focus on the fresh ingredients,” Priel said. “And we draw flavors from all over the region — Italian, Turkish, Palestinian, Lebanese — and of course all immigrants brought their tastes with them too. That is Israeli food.”

From this international array, Priel produced a meal that blended the flavors seamlessly.

Several dishes showcased ingredients that, while common in Israel, were less familiar to the Atlanta crowd. The appetizer of sea bass fingers was wrapped in a shredded form of filo pastry called katafi. The product, quickly fried, was a crunchy cocoon with a perfectly cooked morsel inside.

The “cooking” of the ceviche could not happen until the gazpacho with which it was served was made. Then, and only then, could the fish be dressed in lemon and mixed with avocado and tomatoes.

Tel Aviv chef Avivit Priel puts on a cooking show at Hal's Kitchen on Jan. 22. (Photo by Aliza Abusch-Magder)

Tel Aviv chef Avivit Priel puts on a cooking show at Hal’s Kitchen on Jan. 22. (Photo by Aliza Abusch-Magder)

Dessert came together easily: heavy cream, gelatin, tahini, a little sugar, some heat and then into the freezer. Topped with some pomegranate molasses and halva, Priel’s Israeli take on panna cotta had people asking where to buy the best tahini so they could make it at home.

In my childhood home, tahini was always on the table. My mother grew up in Israel, and even though I was raised in Canada, we put it on everything. But it was always savory, eaten with meats, rice or salads.

It was not until I was a mother myself that the sweet possibilities of this nutty paste began to open up for me. With my daughter attending kindergarten in Jerusalem, I was periodically treated to Israeli foods cooked by her class. The first such offering was a honey apple compote that was a revelation of what could be done on the Rosh Hashanah theme.

When the tahini cookies came home, I was quite skeptical. What could tahini add to the already fabulous combination of butter and sugar? A lifetime of experience suggested nothing; one bite and I understood how much I had to learn.

In the space of a generation, much has changed in the Israeli kitchen. The flavors my mother grew up with remain, but the national palate has expanded and pushed the boundaries of ingredients and fusion.

Alon Balshan of Alon’s Bakery, one of those at the Hal’s Kitchen event, recalled that when he left Israel 30 years ago, the only restaurants were small places that sold hummus and falafel. Today when he goes back, things have changed completely. “In Israel today, we have a food and restaurant culture that can compete with any other — French, Italian, Spanish. We do it even better.”

Sophisticated foods like those presented by Priel have become the norm in today’s Israel, and bringing them to Atlanta opened up the Israeli kitchen to those who have never been.

Friends Gaby Bradford, Ruth Pettit and Robyn Gillespie went to the event because Gillespie was intrigued to learn more about the Mediterranean flavors, but none of the women knew quite what to expect. Pettit enjoyed the fresh flavors and was a particular fan of the ceviche.

For Cyndi Sterne, the owner of Hal’s Kitchen, the evening was “a great opportunity to bring together people from all walks of life in Atlanta and have them experience Israeli cuisine and the best of Priel’s kitchen.”