Book Review: “Shuk” by Einat Admony

By Marilyn Lazar

These precious weeks see the produce section at Karma lusciously laden with local produce. Members’ baskets overflow with fabulous fare, from beautiful blueberries to bright bunches of garlic scapes. It inspires me to pull out my most recently acquired cookbook.

Flipping through the gorgeously illustrated pages, I recall a memorable meal I shared with ten fellow food-loving women. We were fortunate to share Shabbat* dinner with Janna Gur, author, along with Einat Admony, of Shuk: From Market to Table, the Heart of Israeli Home Cooking. The book’s title “shuk” means market and its pages deliver on its promise. Gur and host Bonnie Stern, herself a respected cookbook author, prepared Shabbat dinner, incorporating ten recipes from the cookbook. Additionally, dinner dialogue was infused with tips and additional dishes from the book’s 367 pages.

The scent of home baked challah** and Braised Chicken with Olives and Citrus wafted a welcome. Anyone who has visited Israel knows the propensity of restaurateurs and home cooks to bedeck tables with myriad salads. Our eatfest followed suit. 

 “Israeli cooks use copious amounts of fresh herbs and rarely measure,” says Gur. “We buy multiple bunches of parsley, cilantro, dill and mint for soups, salads, and meatballs.  I grab mine straight from the garden – Obviously it’s to taste but I don’t think you can overdo it.” 

While Israeli-born, New York-based Einat Admony is called chef, Gur and Stern insist on referring to themselves as cooks, emphasizing the importance and approachability of home-cooking. Gur calls both Admony and Stern friends. This is food to bond over; to taste it is to understand why. 

Between courses, I try my hand at whisking tahini, moulding meat logs and stuffing onions, feats that seem daunting until my attempts meet with success. This book has become my bible, bought after determining that my sagging bookshelves could hold no more and resolving to let the Internet serve as my sous-chef. So much for resolutions. This book turned that idea on its head like a pot of Persian Tahdig Rice; a side dish ceremoniously flipped out of its cooking vessel, its crusty bottom-turned-top garnished with pistachio nuts, saffron, barberries and candied orange zest. 

Between Eggplant Soup and Spicy Fish in Cherry Tomato and Harissa Sauce, I am regaled by accounts of food life in Israel.  Gur is a consummate storyteller, having authored two previous cookbooks, edited almost forty and launched culinary magazine Al Hashulchan (On the Table) with her husband. Gur first visited Tel Aviv’s Shuk HaCarmel as a teenage immigrant from “Nordic, polite Latvia”. She recalls the shock in such sensuous detail that I almost feel the humidity and smell the “orgy of peaches and watermelon, figs and grapes”.

Gur describes Israel’s “love affair” with tomatoes and “vegetable heroes”, cauliflower and eggplant. The book oozes vegan and gluten-free options, like Cauliflower Tabbouleh with Crunchy Seeds. Israelis embrace salad at every meal–even breakfast. Hence, a chapter entitled Salad All Day. But Israeli cuisine is neither contrived, nor based on concepts like ‘clean eating’ or ‘plant-based’. It evolved organically, reflects the energy of the country and is mopped up with hot pita by citizens and tourists alike. 

Stern recalls: “When I started leading culinary tours to Israel in 2005, people laughed – no one went to Israel for the food! But when we did, it was so delicious, and so new and exciting, I felt sure it was going to be big. When Janna’s first book, The Book of New Israeli Food, was published in 2007, it gave credibility to the idea of Israeli food –  the freshness, the spices, the vegetables, the healthfulness —  familiar in a Mediterranean kind of way but much more exciting. And now her new book, Shuk takes these things a step further, talking about the history of the markets and where the dishes actually come from to give people a better understanding of the fusion of so many ethnicities that is now known as Israeli cuisine. And, of course, the delicious recipes of Israeli Chef Einat Admony.”

Sesame is ubiquitous in Israeli cuisine and our Shabbat dinner is no exception. Gur calls tahini and chickpeas “Levantine treasures”. Learning to whip up luxuriously textured tahini sauce is key and Gur stands over me until I do. You can use a food processor, but “all you need is a fork,” says Gur. And voila: Honey Soy Tahini Sauce. 

Israelis entertain on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, at home and at the beach. Shuk covers Israeli barbecue in The Flavor of Fire and includes versatile variations. For example, Friday’s dough becomes Saturday brunch’s main in Challah Stuffed with Mushrooms, Leeks and Za’atar.

It’s not all healthy eating. “Israelis treat baking like sport,” says Gur. Baking fuels Israelis’ casual coffee entertaining and reflects the country’s European influence. Other influences include Syrian, North African, and Palestinian. The book concludes with a chapter called Sweet Endings. We conclude with Tahini Shortbread Cookies with Hawaij and Almonds. I didn’t think I could manage any after Apricot Semolina Cake, but like a good cake, I rise to the occasion.

Israel, here I come!  I wanted to shout it from rooftops, or at least from my kitchen island. I was in the throes of a fabulous food coma and I never wanted it to end. Luckily, Gur shares how to bring Israeli home cooking into my kitchen – and yours. 

Shuk is equal parts travelogue, cultural compendium, history, and love story. It goes way beyond recipes. It’s an approach that starts well before you preheat your oven. Recipes are interspersed with guides to shuks, tips on spices, information on ingredients and of course, mouth-watering photography. The troves within can be applied to loot from farmers markets or treasure from our very own Karma. 

So, until I board that flight to Israel, pass the ktzitzot please.

*The Jewish Sabbath on Friday night

**Traditional Jewish bread often made with eggs and braided.