The Rise of Lamb Bacon in Israel's Dining Scene
When Avi Moskowitz first tried home-cured, home-smoked lamb bacon a few years ago at a friend’s house, he knew it would be the perfect addition to the bar food menu at Beer Bazaar, his Israeli chain of craft beer pubs. Having never tasted ordinary bacon, due to the Jewish dietary ban on eating pork, the gamey sweet and salty taste opened up a whole new world for Moskowitz. “It really provides a unique savory flavor that I hadn’t been exposed to before,” he said.
So now at a branch of Beer Bazaar in an alleyway of Jerusalem’s sprawling central market, lamb bacon is a key component of the turkey club sandwich. Offerings like that turkey club have contributed to Beer Bazaar’s popularity in Jerusalem’s bustling kosher dining scene. But Beer Bazaar is just one of a growing number of Israeli restaurants serving lamb bacon. In a country where regular bacon is relatively rare due to the Jewish and Muslim religious bans on eating pork, lamb now provides a way for diners to experience the forbidden richness of bacon.
“It usually just enhances anything you are making,” said Todd Aarons, a chef who co-founded Crave, another restaurant on the outskirts of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market. Although Aarons recently sold his share in Crave, the menu still features his kosher bacon cheeseburger made with lamb bacon and vegan cheese, since Jewish dietary laws also prohibit the mixing of meat and milk products. Now Aarons is working on opening a new diner-style eatery in Tel Aviv, which will also incorporate lamb bacon.
Unlike Moskowitz, Aarons had tasted—and as a chef had even cured and smoked—pork bacon before he became more religiously observant more than a decade ago. He sees lamb bacon not as secondary to the pork stuff, but as another avenue.
“Bacon is a process, not a product, so can really be made from any meat,” Aarons said. “People need to get over themselves and stop thinking that bacon can only be pork.” Although there is scant local tradition of smoking meat and of eating pork, Aarons, Moskowitz and others see lamb bacon as an authentic local component of the Israeli culinary scene. Lamb, after all, is one of the most traditional foods of the Middle East, conjuring up Biblical images of both roaming shepherds and Temple sacrifice.
“Lamb is the animal of Israel, it’s an indigenous meat,” Aarons said. “So it’s a hybrid that we have made, we are taking an indigenous animal and adding a technique that is European.”
This new embrace of lamb goes beyond using it to make bacon, said Yael Raviv, author of the recent book Falafel National: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel. “Over the years there has been more integration of local food into the Jewish Israeli cuisine,” Raviv said, explaining that the European Jews who first settled here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t usually eat lamb, which was commonly consumed by the local Arab, Druze and other populations. But as Israelis have developed a national identity based on their location in the Middle East, and as Jews with roots in Iraq, Egypt and other local countries have gained more standing in Israeli society, foods like lamb, tahini and hummus are a defining feature of the cuisine.
“Now we see Israelis embracing these food as their own,” Raviv said, and using them in the fusion dishes that have played a large role in the growing global popularity of Israeli food. “Lamb bacon is that culmination.”
While the majority of restaurants here using lamb bacon are kosher, it is also a product increasingly in demand even for those who do eat pork, said Dor Cohen, who owns the HaMezave deli and food boutique in Karkur, a small town north of Tel Aviv.
“It’s really tasty,” said Cohen, who began curing, smoking and selling lamb bacon in his shop two years ago. “All sorts of people come in here to try it because they have heard about it. They are not looking for a substitute, but for something new.”
In fact, pork bacon was never popular enough in Israel to spur a search for a substitute, said Guy Ben-Porat, a political science professor at Ben Gurion University who has researched pork consumption trends in Israel. Less than 20 percent of Jewish Israelis consume pork, Ben-Porat said. “You always had pork in Israel, but it was often under the radar,” he said.
Aside from its gamey taste, a main difference between lamb and pork bacon is that lamb bacon does not get crispy when fried because it absorbs more oil. “So we have to bake it in the oven,” said Harvey Sandler, owner of the new Jerusalem restaurant Harvey’s Smokehouse, which uses lamb bacon to top salads and burgers. “If you fry it, it gets bogged down by oil.”
For now, because there is no large supplier of prepared lamb bacon, restaurants make it themselves. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Etan Ogorek, the chef at Beer Bazaar, which was packed with both locals and tourists drinking craft beer, covered fatty pieces of lamb belly with a dry brine made from brown sugar, salt, peppercorns, bay leaves and allspice. This combination would sit in the refrigerator for about a week, when it would be taken out, rinsed and smoked over wood chips for a few hours.
Ogorek took a batch of smoked lamb bacon out of the fridge and began slicing it into thin pieces. These nice marbled pieces will go on sandwiches, and the fatty ends of the bacon will be used in the pan to cook hot dogs or thrown into the cholent, a traditional Jewish sabbath stew made of legumes and meat, which Beer Bazaar adds to its menu once a week in the winter. “You can really add the bacon, or the leftover fat to anything,” Ogorek said. Another thing that lamb bacon has in common with its pork counterpart—it really goes with any dish.