Culinary journalist and Israeli food personality Gil Hovav hails from one of the most well-known lineages in the Jewish world.
He’s the great-grandson of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language and the son of Moshe and Drora Hovav, founding members of Israel's modern day public radio.
And yet, the food traditions that the successful, internationally acclaimed restaurant critic holds closest to his heart are not complicated, gastronomical creations, nor are they born of fame or wealth. In fact, Hovav’s favourite dishes, handed down through the generations, have come to symbolise simplicity in the face of poverty.
“We ate ... the food that my grandmother learned to cook from the servants in her home when she was growing up."
“Although we were quite well to do, life was very simple,” Hovav tells SBS, recalling his childhood years in Jerusalem.
“We ate what we used to call ‘jail food’, which was the food that my grandmother learned to cook from the servants in her home when she was growing up. They were dishes like bean soup and okra and rice – traditional Moroccan or North African dishes with an Israeli flavour.”
Hovav explains that his maternal grandmother was raised in one of Israel’s wealthiest families. “Later on, because she married a guy that her parents didn’t want her to marry, she fell into poverty. So she used to cook the food she remembered from her servants. That was the best food in the world but it was super simple.”
A sophisticated grandmother with simple recipes
The Israeli TV host recalls how his grandmother, who was rightly positioned as the family’s respected matriarch, used to serve her grandchildren food when they got home from school. But don’t be fooled, he says. She was no cliché babushka, enslaved to the kitchen.
“My grandmother was a very well-educated and sophisticated woman," Hovav tells SBS during his recent visit to Australia. "She was not an elderly lady, with an apron on, who waited at home all day to feed people. No. Not at all.
“When we came home from school, she would sit us down to eat, give us food and then shout at us,” Hovav says, with a charming sense of humour.
Hovav’s grandmother never taught him to cook – in his family, men were barred the kitchen because it was believed they would only ever bring two things in with them: “dirt and bad luck”.
But the strong matriarch did yield an eternal influence over the food personality. On the day she died, Hovav entered the kitchen for the first time and started cooking for love and healing. “I was 20 years old at the time. I’ve cooking ever since that day, just to remember her flavours.”
Continuing Jewish Yemenite food traditions
The food traditions of Hovav’s paternal grandmother also shaped his culinary attitudes.
“My other grandmother used to make a dish that, up until today, I still think is the best dish in the world. It’s called kubaneh and is a very festive Yemenite bread.”
"The Yemenite proverb goes that when kubaneh is on the table, all other breads should kneel down because this is the queen of breads.”
“Yemenites were very poor, so they would eat bread – but this bread is the most amazing bread. The Yemenite proverb goes that when kubaneh is on the table, all other breads should kneel down because this is the queen of breads.”
Hovav explains how Kubaneh is traditionally prepared once a week. “Religious Jews are not supposed to cook on Saturday. So they cook something that is slow cooking throughout the night on Friday night and then they have it on Saturday morning.”
One pot of kubaneh – or as Hovav likes to call it “miracle bread” – would attract at least 40 family members from all over Israel to his grandmother’s house every week. Everyone would have a small slice of kubaneh and treasure the experience greatly.
“After my [paternal] grandmother passed away, I started to make it. Now I can eat it as many times a week as I want. You do feel like you sin or cheat [if you have it on a day other than Saturday] but it still tastes just as good.”
“Israeli food has also truth in it, a lot of cheek and charm. It’s simple, direct and almost primitive – and I love it."
Even though the years of Hovav’s childhood are distant and the 57-year-old food critic now has his own child, he says the simple style of Israeli home cooking still feeds his soul today.
“People note Israeli food and like it because it’s one step further from Californian and Mediterranean cuisine. It’s the same idea of food, only with bolder flavours, more sunshine and less rules.
“Israeli food has also truth in it, a lot of cheek and charm. It’s simple, direct and almost primitive – and I love it. I’m not about cooking tabouleh in the yard, lighting a fire with straw. But I try to make basic, simple recipes just because I think they are the best.”
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“I don’t have a long list, but one of the things I hate shooting are stuffed peppers [capsicums]. It’s a common dish here in Israel and I’ve had the challenge of shooting them for both magazines and cookbooks. Maybe it’s because they always look really messy or because I never liked their taste. When Danya told me she had perfected the recipe and I tried hers, something changed. They were well seasoned and not overcooked like so many I had tried before, and the capsicums kept their form and colour. Now, when a student asks me what doesn’t photograph well, I say: ‘There is no rule’.” Deanna