"Sometimes you get the leg of lamb, sometimes you get the tongue," chef Roy Ner says of the lucky dip that was the experience of visiting the butcher in Israel around holiday time. "If the butcher didn't have any leg left, you had to work with what you got."
Ner believes the philosophy of making the best of an unexpected situation has shaped Israeli cuisine, making cuts like offal as desirable today as a prime cut. Cooked properly, they can be just as delicious.
"The way to eat tongue is to pickle and smoke it. It's a very traditional Jewish way."
The process of smoking and pickling is an all-day affair that brings together family members in the same way a wedding or festival might.
"To smoke the tongue, they'd start a fire in the house, cure the tongue in brine and slow cook it. There was always acid in the water – lemon or vinegar, some herbs, mountain thyme or zaatar, whatever they had.
"Then they'd leave the tongue to air dry, put it on the table and start a fire to smoke it. It was never put directly over the smoke. It's a Berber way of smoking."
Ner is knowledgeable about the cuisines of the Middle East and North Africa not just because he's a chef, but because his family was part of a wave of Jewish diaspora from Morocco that arrived in Israel after World War II.
He grew up eating Tunisian, Moroccan and Yemenite food. During his childhood, the once disparate cuisines began to fuse.
"At first everyone was connected to their own groups. Then in the 70s and 80s, Moroccans started mixing with Libyan or Yemenite Jews; marriages started happening," he says.
"A Moroccan wife might have a Tunisian husband and they'd mix recipes. That's the beauty of Israeli cuisine. And it didn't happen 500 years ago, it was only 50 years ago."
In Ner's family, his grandma Carmella was the special occasion cook.
"If you came to her house now, there would be way too much food. She would drown you in food."
"My mum was a busy lady, she was a high school teacher, and she wasn't into cooking. When we went to my grandma for a holiday like Rosh Hashana, she'd put on a feast. She would prepare for two weeks, filling up the freezer and fridge. It was just her and my grandpa in the house, but she had three fridges just for hosting.
"I promise if you came to her house now, there would be way too much food. She would drown you in food."
Now that his mum is a grandma herself, she's taken on the helm of matriarch chef. "She learned very quick. All the grandchildren are in her house and she has three fridges herself. It's a different story now that there are grandchildren. She's learned to celebrate family like her mum did."
But when Ner thinks of the most comforting food, he doesn't think of those elaborate, celebratory meals that take weeks to prepare. He thinks of dumplings.
"I'm in love with dumplings. There isn't a lot of food that will give you that level of comfort. I don't know anyone who doesn’t like dumplings, unless they're on a diet."
Ner says that dumplings are an opportunity for a family to work together making a meal.
"It's a celebration of love, and about master and apprentice. There's always a boy or girl coming to grandma to learn, and for me, that's what food is all about. The child sees their mum in a calm situation, creating something with love, and they want to carry that energy too."
Ner reflects again on the choice between a leg of lamb or the tongue.
"Growing as a chef is about looking at history of recipes and the reasons why things are the way they are. What can you create when you have an unexpected ingredient? It's such a beautiful thing."
That's why his recipe for shish barak dumplings calls for smoked tongue.
"Food is in such abundance these days, you can put a scotch fillet in a dumpling. But I actually enjoy celebrating those techniques that started from necessity."
- 400 g high protein flour
- 800 g semolina fine white flour
- 330 g water
- 140 g egg white
- 20 g ash (optional)
Mix in a stand mixer or by hand until well combined. Form into a ball and rest in the oven overnight. (Semolina-based dough forms a stronger bond when rested for six or more hours, helps to get that al dente texture we’re after).
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 100 ml olive oil
- 500 g pickled, smoked and steamed tongue, diced
- 300 g cooked chickpeas
- 50 g confit garlic
- 30 g chickpea miso
- 10 g kebsa spice
- 500 ml chicken stock
- Salt, pepper
In a saucepan cook the onion in olive oil at medium heat. Keep stirring to make sure the onion doesn't take on any colour, approximately 10 minutes. Add the confit garlic, diced tongue and chickpea miso and cook for another five minutes.
Add the stock and cover the pot cook gently for 45 minutes.
Take the lid off add the kebsa spice now and cook for 20 minutes, reducing the stock into the mixture.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Yoghurt sauce (for cooking dumplings)
- 500 ml chicken stock reduction
- 500 g yoghurt
- 10 g chickpea miso
- Pinch Xanthan Gum
- Pinch dried mint
- Pinch salt
- Pinch nutmeg
Place all ingredients but yoghurt into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Take off the heat and stir in the yoghurt.
After the yoghurt is added the sauce cannot boil any more or it will split.
Burnt butter sauce
- 50 g unsalted butter
- 10 ml lemon juice
- 5 g zhug or any of your favourite chilli paste
- 30 ml chicken stock
- 20 g roasted pine nuts
- Sprig thyme
Place the butter onto medium heat till foams and turns a golden brown colour,
Lower heat add the pine nuts. Gently roast.
Add the lemon, chicken stock, thyme and chilli and melt through the sauce.
Assembly and cooking
Roll the dough out to a thickness of about 3 mm on a floured surface. Use a circular pastry cutter or any ring to cut the dough into rounds.
Place a spoonful of filling in the centre of each dough round. Seal the dumpling any way you like, or by pinching the sides of the dough together from the outer edges into the centre. It will look like four points radiating from the centre of the dumpling.
Once the dumplings are made, blanch in boiling water for four minutes. Remove from the boiling water and add to the burnt butter to pan fry, spooning butter over the dumplings for a few minutes. Set aside in a separate dish.
Assemble the dish, starting with yoghurt, adding the dumplings and drizzling burnt butter over the top.