The Israeli Chef Making Ancient Rotten Fish Sauce the Not-so-traditional Way
Garum, a basic element of the Mediterranean diet until the Middle Ages, is a sauce derived from salted, fermented fish, notable for its complex salinity and umami taste. In ancient times it was prepared by drying and fermenting small fish such as anchovies and sardines, together with their innards, in straw baskets or clay barrels that were placed out in the sun. In the past few months, Asaf Doktor, known to all as Dok or Doktor, experimented with the preparation of traditional garum, intended as a cooking ingredient and condiment for some of the dishes on the new menu.
“Some people want to go forward with progress, but my interest is to go back, to the traditions and the roots,” he says. “I have no problem using modern technology. I have a sous-vide cooker in the kitchen, and it cuts down the time to prepare garum from 6 months to 11 weeks. To accelerate the fermentation process, caused by enzymes originating in the fish guts, we used barley koji that we got thanks to the Dok restaurant. Because [the menu] is based exclusively on local ingredients produced in Israel, and because we invited the public to share interesting raw ingredients with us, almost every day someone knocks on the door and brings something. In this case, it’s a young man from a kibbutz in the north who’s interested in fermentation processes and who makes barley koji and miso.”
Curiosity about the past and the tendency to treat the restaurant’s kitchen as an experimental research laboratory is manifested in Abie’s most prominent feature: an immense wood-fired grill – 3.5 meters long, half a meter deep – that dominates the narrow, elongated space. Abie is named “a little for Abe Lincoln, like the street, and a lot for Abie Nathan, a restaurateur and person of peace who understood long before all of us that there’s a shared Mediterranean space,” says Asaf. It’s the next stage in the development of the restaurant business for the Doktor brothers and their partners.
Haachim, opened in 2011 on Ibn Gabirol Street in Tel Aviv, is a modern skewers restaurant based on a charcoal-fired grill. Dok is a small, intimate bar-and-restaurant adjacent to it, which opened in 2015. “Abie is something of a combination of the two,” Asaf Doktor says, “but a wood grill takes the place of the charcoal grill. For the local ingredients we’ll go with a less rigid version than in Dok – here you can have a coffee and eat tahini – but we will still work with small manufacturers who supply most of the products – the primary one being local fish. There’s no meat, only fish and vegetables.
“We work with four different fishmongers to try and acquire the best catch: fish imported only from the Mediterranean – Cyprus and Egypt – and hopefully importation of mussels and fish from Greece will also develop; and fish [raised in] local sweet-water ponds, mostly St. Peter’s fish and trout, which in my view have achieved excellent quality. When fishing in the Mediterranean stops during the reproduction period, we’ll serve a more pared-down menu, which will include fish from breeding ponds and pickled and preserved fish that we prepare ourselves.”
Cooking at the primal level
It’s enthralling to watch the big grill, in which two or three fires at different stages are always burning, and the work of the cooks, who incessantly need to feed the fire or shift a burning ember. “It’s cooking at the most primal level,” a cook who visited the restaurant early in the trial run said in amazement. “To throw logs on the fire, like in the past, and over them to grill animals, vegetables and fruits. In the modern age, cooking processes are hidden behind sophisticated instruments and techniques, but here you’re reminded anew of how the controlled use of fire was a driving force in human development.”
“Charcoal is also made of wood,” Dok says, explaining the choice of a wood-fired oven that entailed installation of a complex, costly system of chimneys and smoke filters to meet environmental standards. “But the burn and emission of charcoal are different,” he adds. “In a way, as with the challenge of local raw ingredients that we set at Dok, we’re making it hard on ourselves. With charcoal you skip the combustion stage and get a stable, long-lasting fire. With a wood stove, we have to start by igniting the fires, created from twigs with logs atop them, hours before the service; and because wood is more dynamic, we need to ensure a fire nonstop.
“It’s a headache,” he continues, “but it makes the work more interesting, with the goal of making the aromas and flavors more interesting, too. Working with wood also allows us to place the foods above the fire – at different levels of proximity to the flames or to the glowing coals – on thin nets, instead of the thick nets that a coal-fired grill requires.”
Wood for the fire comes from agricultural refuse provided by farmers who cut down trees, old groves and orchards; the main types at the moment are pomegranate, citrus and olive trees. The wood-fired oven is used simultaneously for grilling, for slow or fast cooking of fish, shellfish and vegetables, and for smoking fish heads and bones to produce stock. (The sight of fish hanging on a steel hook above the source of the fire makes you think of still lifes by Chaim Soutine or larder paintings by Juan Sanchez Cotan; the image will surely become an icon readily identified with the restaurant.)
The wood oven, covered with red bricks, also includes a hot smoker. The range of fish and cooking techniques made possible by this oven prompts thoughts about the use of the sea creatures’ less familiar parts, which usually get thrown out. One day in the restaurant’s trial run, an excellent stew of turnips cooked on the grill and then smoked together with the flesh of triggerfish heads was served. The next day came triggerfish stock and heads of little tunny with saffron and fennel.
In the first two weeks of the trial run – the restaurant opened in the season when fishermen return to the sea (between summer and winter, or what optimists call the “Israeli autumn”) – the first diners enjoyed excellent dishes based on blue crabs, striped sea bream, anchovies, Spanish mackarel, greater amberjack, chub mackerel and other local fish. The grilled trout, from local ponds, is also very good; and even better is the St. Peter’s fish, also raised in local ponds, served deep fried as is the custom here. “Frying enhances St. Peter’s fish,” Dok says. “I’ve noticed that wherever I go in the world people respect it and present it as the crowning glory of the local kitchen. Maybe the time has come for a renaissance of St. Peter’s fish in the Israeli consciousness, too.” Served with the fish is a selection of Mediterranean mezze, such as homemade ikra, labaneh and a spread made from fava beans and grilled vegetables.
Abie is located in a strange-looking concrete building that used to be a telephone exchange and had been abandoned in recent years. The nearest neighbor in the small, neglected commercial center, opposite excavations for the light train project, is a local supermarket. Like the brothers’ other two restaurants, which appear to have successfully captured the elusive essence of Israeliness, the design and atmosphere of the new establishment create a relaxed feeling free of formality and luxury elements.
Abie, Lincoln 16, Tel Aviv, 03-777-5161
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