As the 4×4 trucks raise to the rocky hills, our guide said, “it’s quiet today.” We unloaded baskets full of fruits, wine, cheese, and bread, set up a mantle, poured wine to our glasses, and sat down watching Israel’s neighbor, Syria. The silence bothered me. The area of Syria we are looking at seemed abandoned.
The hill I was standing on used to be Syrian territory. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, a war that still spikes my interest up to this day. I felt bad for taking my next sip of the wine. I felt like it wasn’t appropriate. It looked like we were celebrating.
“It’s quiet today.” the Israeli tour guide repeated. He said on most days, you can hear loud bangs blaring from their neighbor. I felt his sincerity about what’s happening in Syria. He wasn’t indifferent. I saw in his eyes how he wanted this war to end.
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🍷 Golan Heights, the historically rich wine country of Israel
The Golan Heights is very important to both Israel and Syria. Its higher elevations during the winter help sustain flowing rivers and springs during the dry season. For decades, it has been very safe as Israel dedicates the budget to keep it that way.
For many, an area close to war is not the best place to grow vineyards but 96% of Israel’s vines (400-1,200m altitudes) is in Golan Heights. In 2013, Golan Heights Winery was awarded World Winery of the Year by the Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
In a historical sense, Israel is classified “old world” but the Israeli wine industry is relatively young. Golan Heights Winery started their first vineyard in 1976 and have showed the world what real Mediterranean wine is throughout the years.
This thriving wine industry in an odd area of Israel has been scrutinized but is still standing tall. My time living in Tel Aviv taught me I should not engage into political conversations with my peers. My Israeli friends are very opinionated on this subject matter. It’s a never ending battle of words and worlds.
Food is also a frequent topic: Is shakshuka Israel? Is falafel originally from Palestinian territories? Who brough hummus to the world? We might never know the answers to these questions but today, it’s all about Israel and the innovation they developed to make Israeli food what it is at present.
Puzzle Israel Golan Heights
“You are going to make your own food today. Sounds fun, eh?” Chef Nir Margalith of Puzzle Israel welcomed us to his outdoor kitchen. Low rustic dining tables were set in the middle of the vineyard while Nir’s kitchen was a long table where beautifully (and neatly) arranged vegetables lay.
I love cooking and I believe Israeli cuisine is something that you will never have questions about. Nir asked us to start chopping tomatoes, onions, and garlic – a very familiar team for Shakshuka. I excused myself from the sous chef chore and went to talk to Chef Nir.
My old job in Hong Kong is all about food journalism. But my editor deemed me fit for writing about the people behind the kitchen. He thinks I am fit to tell other people’s stories and not the food they make.
I read about Chef Nir Margalith in the past and I have always been a fan of how he brings Israeli cuisine to the world. He is one of the main men who actively participate in Israel’s gastro diplomacy: if people around the world get introduced to Israeli food, then they will have the urge to come to visit Israel.
That love and frustration to bring Israeli cuisine to the world lead Nir and his business partner, Guy Marom to build Puzzle Israel, a gastronomic experience tour agency that aims to spread Israeli culture through mouth-watering delicacies. Every year, Nir and Guy do several trips to North and South America to spread the word.
In 2010, Chefs Nir and Guy were standing at a rooftop in Tel Aviv, thinking how they can bring people to Israel to travel differently. Being 2 chefs who both love food and eating, they thought it’s a great way of storytelling. They decided to travel overseas to bring Israeli cuisine out with the goal of making these people to go to Israel. Talking about Israel wasn’t enough. They needed to show the world what they can cook.
They gathered people together, bought boxes of tomatoes and onions (and beers for fun), and started cooking. When introducing someone to Israeli cuisine, I realized shakshuka is its great representation – simple, easy to make, and it’s delicious. During the dinner, Nir and Guy told everyone about their dream for the future of Israeli food, with the hope that they would want to support that dream.
As a child, Chef Nir was always observing how his safta (grandmother) Toni cooks in the kitchen. There was a rule in his household where you get to skip washing the dishes if you cook. Nir always chose cooking because he hates washing. Growing up, he also sold falafel on Friday afternoons and he makes it himself.
In the army, friends admit that they always see Nir cooking as long as fire is available. After completing his military service, he traveled for 11 months through Asia and New Zealand and 6 months in India. In his time there, he learned the most complex techniques of cooking a dishes that is so different from what he grew up with.
Nir came back to Israel full of newfound insights about food. It made him love Israeli cuisine more. He was offered jobs left and right but he chose to learn in Hanamal 24, the culinary jewel of Haifa and the north. In Hanamal, Nir worked 300 hours a month for 4 years and considers this the best learning years of his life.
I asked him why he chose Israel to develop his career. With his Hanamal credentials, he could easily score a job abroad. If not, there are more opportunities out there than staying in a small country like Israel. It is common knowledge that Israelis are not accepted everywhere. They can study culinary abroad (especially if they have the money) but being hired with that passport is still challenging.
But Nir’s reasons lean towards family, an answer I always get from most Israelis. The Israeli family is very close-knit and the fact that Israel is such a small country brings everyone closer together. He hails from a family of Holocaust survivors and for that, he is thankful for the heritage and land he inherited from his family.
After all the challenges Israel has been through as a country, Nir put the responsibility on his shoulders to make Israel a greater country. Life is hard in Israel but many Israelis are supporting the idea of making things happen for Israel.
More bottles of wine were opened and food (that we allegedly cooked ourselves) filled the table. There was freshly baked bread and I have no idea if they made it in their improvised kitchen – it was really tasty!
The famous Israeli salad, eggplant dishes, and a lot of beets are Israel’s staple dishes and are very healthy. Israelis eat well and source their food ethically. Facts state that Tel Aviv has the highest vegan per capita in the world! In Puzzle Israel, they show just that.
Quick fire Q&A with Chef Nir Margalith
Q: What was your most memorable taste?
A: I had a great privilege to eat in (back then) the best Cuban restaurant in Barcelona called Zarra. It was a platter of rice with slow cooked beef and beans served with fried bananas. Heaven on earth served with a frozen lemon piña colada!
Q: Worst experience in your culinary career?
A: There was a wedding I did the catering for and it was a disaster! It made me say NO MORE WEDDINGS. No more crazy bridezillas! It was a disaster!
Q: Which restaurant in Israel is a must visit destination food experience?
A: Definitely Taizu – a perfect kitchen with a great mix of Thai and Indian.
Q: What factors do you think are the most important in cooking?
A: Heart and love for food and people, calmness, hard work, being true to your words and gaining your co-worker’s trust.
After the sumptuous lunch, I realized how Puzzle Israel tours work: they bring you to a place where you can connect with the environment where food is sourced. It’s not just about the food but it’s also about showcasing the destination. That day, it was an outdoor setting in a vineyard.
Some days, Nir does magical weddings on the top of the Galilee Mountains, wedding anniversaries in the middle of the Jerusalem Forest, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs celebrated in the midst of the ruins of an ancient synagogue in the Judean Desert or a private family celebration on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea.
Puzzle Israel’s adventure tours with food give people that chance to have a very unique Israel experience. The culinary aspects added to the tours allow travelers to connect to the land and the people.
For Nir, this is just not a business but it’s something personal. It’s about his heritage and his passion for Israel’s land, people, and taste. Many of the meals are not just meals at restaurants but are a cultural encounter with those who prepare them. This is definitely not easily achieved by just having a meal at a local restaurant.