Ba-Bite brings Israeli flavors to Piedmont Avenue
BY ALIX WALL | PHOTOS BY MELISSA MORRISON
Majadera. Also known as mujaddara, majadra, mejadra, moujadara, mudardara, and megadarra, this uncomplicated concoction of spiced lentils and rice, most often served with a generous swirl of tahini sauce and a topping of fried onions, is popular throughout the Arab world.
It also figures prominently on the menu at Ba-Bite, a popular new fast-casual eatery on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue.
For Ba-Bite employee Manal Abushareefih, majadera conjures up cheerless memories from her home in Jordan:
“Friday is the day when we make a special meal. Thursday is the day to eat cheap food, to save for Friday, so people eat majadera. My sister always cried when my mother made majadera, and I was always sad.”
Not so for Ba-Bite chef/owner Mica Talmor-Gott, an Israeli whose ancestral roots are in Eastern Europe. For her, majadera was a favorite food the family ate only in restaurants. Now with her own restaurant, she offers no less than seven majadera variations to customers.
According to food historian and cookbook author Claudia Roden, the dish originated in medieval times and was a favorite of rich and poor alike. In her New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Roden suggests majadera was a favorite of the Biblical character Esau. Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov furthers that idea in his new book Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, saying that some believe it was this very lentil stew for which Esau traded his birthright to his brother Jacob.
“And I can almost understand why Esau did the deal,” Solomonov writes. According to Solomonov, the Arabic word “mujadera” (as he spells it) means “pockmarked,” and refers to the dappled appearance of the lentils against the rice.
In their much-loved Jerusalem: A Cookbook, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi write: “The two of us can spend many pointless hours discussing what makes the best comfort food and why, but never seem to reach any kind of serious conclusion. Mejadra, however, is where the dispute ends.”
A Cuisine Comes of Age
Today’s chefs from Tel Aviv’s fine dining restaurants have staged all over the world, but it wasn’t always that way. Mica Talmor-Gott, when she goes back to visit, avoids the trendier eateries, returning to her mainstays, like the hummus places in Akko and the famed Diana Restaurant in Nazareth. These older establishments—most of them Arab-owned—feature traditional Palestinian menus, and the food is exceptional.
What makes Israeli food so interesting is the integration of ancient local foods and customs with the diverse culinary traditions of so many Jews emigrating from around the globe.
“Israeli food has come to a certain age and maturity,” says Mica. “After all, it’s a relatively young culture and cuisine. Yes, Middle Eastern food is not new or young, and neither is North African cuisine, but Israeli cuisine has benefitted greatly from this new take brought on by this unique blend of cultures that is distinctly Israeli.”
Not to mention that Israelis now travel like never before.
“The accessibility of everything has increased,” says Mica, “and the exposure. Israelis travel around the world. They come back and stay and then leave again. I don’t think the average American is exposed to so many people from other cultures.”
While residents and visitors have known about Israeli street food since its beginning, it took London-based Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi and his Palestinian business partner Sami Tamimi to introduce to a much broader audience the diversity and appeal of Israeli cuisine. Since publication in 2012 of their groundbreaking Jerusalem: A Cookbook, Israeli food has only continued to grow in popularity.
But who could have imagined that an Israeli-American chef would win a James Beard award for Best Chef of the South? Alon Shaya did that in 2015 from his Israeli-style restaurant Shaya in New Orleans, named among the best in the country by numerous critics.
Israeli chef Einat Admony continues to expand her mini restaurant empire in New York City and a few years ago published Balaboosta: Bold Mediterranean Recipes to Feed the People You Love.
Michael Solomonov of Zahav has been doing the same in Philadelphia, and his cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, even earned him a guest appearance on Terry Gross’s NPR-syndicated program “Fresh Air.”
All of this is to say that Israeli cuisine is having its moment: It has arrived. So while the political situation is always a fraught subject, at least we can happily focus on the food. Or, as Solomonov told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer on a recent visit to the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, “I get to talk about Israel and its people, and I don’t have to talk about politics, thank God, though people still try.”
“There is great importance to the fact that chefs such as Ottolenghi and Solomonov, and even me, are not residing in Israel and haven’t for a while,” says Mica. “We get to reminisce on the flavor of our childhoods while using the best ingredients and best techniques not available in our countries of origin. We bring something to the table that is more appealing and approachable to a Western audience.”
“Food is love, food is everything”
Mica Talmor-Gott’s uncle is a dairy farmer and her grandmother raised chickens and made her own cheese in Northern Israel.
“Food was love, food was everything,” says the chef.
She first came to San Francisco in 1997 to attend the California Culinary Academy’s Baking and Pastry Program, after finding Israeli kitchens not so female friendly. It was there that she met Robert Gott, and after five or six weeks of dating they married, not only to see if their relationship would work, but also so Mica could stay in the country. It seems to be working.
For the past 12 years, they have run Savoy Events, a catering company, where they fulfill every culinary desire with organic and local ingredients. Robert is the one most often at Ba-Bite while Mica is in their commercial kitchen space cooking for Ba-Bite and their catering gigs.
When the opportunity came up to buy Pizza Pazza on Piedmont Avenue (where Gott taught the previous owner how to make dough) they jumped at the chance, both for a new challenge and to serve the food that they’d serve at home.
“When we opened Ba-Bite, we didn’t do so as a part of a trend,” says Mica. “I was Israeli before Ottolenghi wrote his first book. This is a very personal project.”
Their restaurant’s name is a riff on the Hebrew Ba’bayit, which means “at home,” as in they’re serving food that Mica would eat both at home in Oakland as well as in her native country. It’s a colorful, family-friendly place where orders are taken at the counter, and in addition to the dishes mentioned, there are numerous variations on hummus as well as rotating seasonal salads.
“Robert wanted to open a hummus place, and I wanted to open a salad place, so this is our compromise,” says Mica, who had been frustrated by her inability to find a hefty meal-size salad, not just some greens piled on a plate for $10.
Falafel-lovers fear not, as you can have your hummus and salads topped with the fried bean-paste balls—Mica makes hers with both chickpeas and fava beans. Hummus fans take note: This is some of the silkiest around, and can be ordered with toppings like whole chickpeas, fava bean purée, falafel, or lamb kefta. There are also falafel, chicken or lamb wraps, tagines—both vegetarian and chicken—and shakshuka, a dish that consists of eggs poached in a zesty tomato sauce, which originally hails from Tunisia.
Nearly everything on the menu is organic. Local is a priority whenever possible, but the pickles and tahini are imported from Israel, since Mica simply has not yet found the qualities she requires. (See recipe for tahini-yogurt sauce for her specific tahini recommendation.) Pita comes from Hamati, a Palestinian bakery in San Bruno.
And whether one can attribute it to the sudden popularity of Israeli food or Mica’s recipes, word about the restaurant—despite its lack of fine-dining cred and no budget for public relations—has definitely gotten out, with articles in everything from Food and Wine to San Francisco Magazine.
“It’s obvious that Israeli chefs share a certain sensibility,” says Mica. “We gravitate towards spices and legumes, and we are shameless in taking and owning any and every influence.
“The best thing that happened to Middle Eastern and North African food is the stepping away from tradition. That is the best thing that can happen to any food.”
Ba-Bite is located at 3905 Piedmont Avenue in Oakland.
A contributing editor of j. weekly, Alix Wall writes regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Area Bites, Berkeleyside’s NOSH, Walnut Creek Magazine, and The Forward’s Eat, Drink + Think. She has also contributed to Civil Eats and the San Jose Mercury News. Alix is also a natural foods chef. Find her at theorganicepicure.com or on twitter
Lafayette photographer Melissa Morrison loves exploring the East Bay with her camera. She has a passion for food photography, drawing, and baking the perfect chocolate chip cookie.
Chef Mica Talmor’s Majadera with Lamb Kefta
With a garnish of fried onions and a healthy drizzle of tehina-yogurt sauce, majadera is certainly delicious enough to be eaten on its own. At Ba-Bite, the lentil and rice dish becomes a hearty base for various items such as fried cauliflower, roasted eggplant, roasted salmon, lemon saffron shrimp, chicken or lamb shishlik (cubes of meat, marinated and grilled), or lamb kefta (spiced ground lamb).
4 ounces petite French green lentils (about ½ cup)
2 cups white basmati rice
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2–3 tablespoons canola oil
2¼ cups boiling water
Soak the lentils overnight to aid in digestibility, if that’s a concern. Otherwise, start by filling a small saucepan with cold water and adding the lentils. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to a simmer. Cook the lentils until tender, about 25 minutes. (If you have soaked them, they only need a few minutes.) Drain and then rinse them in cold water.
Measure the spices, salt, and sugar into a small bowl. Pour the oil into a medium pot and heat it until it shimmers. Add the spice mixture and sauté, stirring frequently, for one to two minutes: It should bubble without burning. Add the rice, stirring to coat each grain, then sauté for a few more minutes, stirring constantly until the rice turns opaque.
Pour 2¼ cups of hot or boiling water into the pot, and add the lentils. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer, then cover the pot tightly and cook for 13 to 15 minutes.
When done, turn off the heat, fluff rice with a fork, cover again, and allow the rice to steam for another 10 minutes. Remove lid, and fluff again, then serve.
Many chefs first grill meat or fish and then finish it in the oven. Chef Mica recommends the other way around. “You get the same flavor, and it makes it easier to handle.”
2½ pounds ground lamb
1 bunch mint, leaves only, finely chopped
1 bunch parsley, avoid large stems, finely chopped
1 yellow onion, finely diced
1 ounce puréed garlic (about 6 cloves)
2¼ teaspoons salt
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1½ teaspoons ground allspice
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1½ ounces toasted pine nuts (about ¼ cup)
Preheat the oven to 350°. Chop the mint, parsley, and onion by hand and then mix together with the lamb, garlic, spices, and pine nuts. Shape onto a metal skewer, if desired, into a sausage shape. Cook for 5 minutes in the oven on a tray, and then finish on the grill, on a grill pan, or in a skillet until all sides are browned.
Chef Mica uses only local organic produce and sustainably raised meat, but she makes an exception for her tahini, insisting on Al Arz, a brand from Nazareth, which can be found at many halal or Middle Eastern grocers.
2 cups low-fat yogurt
½ cup raw tahini
1 garlic clove, puréed (about ¾ teaspoons)
¾ teaspoon lemon juice
1½ teaspoons salt
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Let stand for 15 minutes for flavors to meld. Taste and adjust with salt and lemon juice as needed.
Deeply browned onions take a bowl of ho-hum rice and lentils to the next level. While many places caramelize them for several hours, Chef Mica fries them until crisp and dries them overnight by the heat of the pilot in a gas oven.
2 or 3 yellow onions
3 to 4 cups canola oil, depending on the size of the pot
Slice the onions thinly (by hand or with a mandoline), making sure slices are the same size so they’ll cook evenly. Put ¼ cup oil in a large skillet and heat until shimmering. Add the onions, and sauté them for 8 to 10 minutes, until they lose most of their moisture.
Heat a pot of oil to 350° and set up a tray lined with paper towels. With a slotted spoon, transfer a few onion slices at a time from the skillet to the pot (do not overcrowd), frying until lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on the towel-lined tray. Sprinkle with salt and then place in a very low oven overnight or in a 200° warming drawer for an hour.
If you don’t want to do this multi-stepped process, Chef Mica recommends skipping the sautéing stage and deep-frying them a bit longer, or just caramelizing them in a skillet for about 30 minutes.
To plate: Put a layer of majadera in a shallow bowl. Place two lamb kefta on top. Liberally drizzle with about ¼ cup tahini-yogurt sauce, then top with a handful of fried onions.