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The Israeli "Mangal"

Long before steak houses (steakiyot) became popular in the early 1960s, Arab restaurants throughout Israel grilled shishlik and kebab as well as fish. But grilled meat was not their exclusive domain. In Kerem Hateymanim, the Yemenite Quarter in central Tel Aviv, small eateries like Tzarum specialized in meat grilled and served on metal skewers. There were similar places in every neighborhood where Jewish immigrants from Middle Eastern countries lived. Using wood for fuel, they set up simple grills on the sidewalk to attract customers with the aroma of cooking meat while those dining inside were spared the smoke.

Later on, barbecue stands began cropping up along main roads. Nothing more than an improvised grill, a table and a tub of ice and soft drinks, they offered Israelis what became one of their favorite pick-ups: grilled meat stuffed in a pita. Many of these stands established themselves as full-fledged restaurants in gas stations and kept going for decades.

At the same time, Israel’s first luxury hotels introduced a new concept to a country indoctrinated in a Spartan lifestyle: five-star grillrooms. These high-class establishments quickly became the meeting places for the “cream” of society: politicians, industrialists, bankers, lawyers and generals rubbed shoulders with shady characters with spare cash.
This cosmopolitan import quickly spread beyond hotels and sirloin steaks and hamburgers became available throughout the land. For the first time, Israelis realized that grilled meat does not have to be charred, and “rare” and “medium” soon became part of everybody’s vocabulary.

In the 1970s, Shkhunat Hatikva, a modest neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, gained fame for its unique barbecue scene. Dozens of kosher restaurants along Etzel Street, the area’s main drag, offered more or less the same menu: fresh Iraqi pita from the bakery down the road, an extensive assortment of salads and dips, and a selection of meats grilled on metal skewers ranging from chicken livers, hearts and spleens, turkey testicles and cows’ udders, to a unique local invention, grilled foie gras. For many Israelis the idea of an evening out was a good, reasonably priced meal at one of these restaurants. This dining style is still popular in Shkhunat Hatikva and throughout the country.

Over the years imported tastes brought a variety of newcomers to the field: Argentinean-style Asado grill restaurants, Brazilian-style all-you-can-eat grills, and dozens of American-style eateries specializing in steaks and giant hamburgers. They joined veteran Balkan and Middle Eastern restaurants serving a variety of grilled meats, including different versions of a local favorite, lamb kebabs.

The huge demand for meat suitable for grilling gave rise to some unique inventions, one involving a product known locally as pargiyot, literally meaning “spring chickens”. Many people still believe these are a different breed of poultry, or chickens slaughtered while they are young. In reality, they are the meat cut off the thighs of ordinary chickens; the name was thought up by restaurateurs to add chic to mundane poultry. This dark meat with a relatively high fat content is much better for grilling than lean chicken breasts.

Restaurants and grillrooms aside, what Israelis love most is to make their own barbecues. Locally called mangal or al ha’esh (over the fire), they have become the country’s leading participant sport, taking place in the backyard, on the balcony, on the beach or on a picnic. Wherever you go, on any given weekend or holiday (weather permitting), you will see sweaty men hunched over cheap, box-like barbecues, frantically fanning the coals to cook massive quantities of grilled meat for large groups of family and friends. This phenomenon reaches its peak on Independence Day, when the barbecue crowds occupy every bit of grass and shade, deploying their grills, chairs and tables, intent on getting down to business.
Regardless of class, style, taste or cost, barbecue remains one of Israel’s best-loved food categories. It can safely be said that grilled meat has evolved into a mainstay not just of Israeli cuisine, but of Israeli lifestyle.

from "The Book of New Israeli Food"

Photos: Eilon Paz (from "The Book of New Israeli Food")




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