“I was born in Be’er Sheva...the capital of the south of Israel," explains chef Nir Feller. His childhood home was an apartment building surrounded by four others, “all occupied by the melting pot of Israel,” he explains. Nir’s neighbors were families who immigrated to Israel from Morocco, Tunisia, the United States, and Europe, like his family.
“At home, my family is completely Ashkenazi,” Nir says. His mother is the daughter of an Israeli father and a Dutch mother who was hidden in an attic during the war and his father is the son of a partisan and a survivor of Auschwitz.
When he was growing up, his mother was known for her baking. She would make strudel, cheesecake, and a chocolate coconut cake. But, “I was born in 1975. In Israel, the beginning of the 1980s was a [culinary] catastrophe,” Nir explains. “Food was put in the toaster oven and reheated in the microwave.”
The smells from the kitchens of his friends, however, were alluring. The foods were liberally spiced and as an adult Nir jokes, “now I can say sexy.” Meals with his friends in the apartment complex was his first introduction to chraime, fish cooked in a spiced sauce with peppers (though it varies some depending upon your family’s roots) that’s a staple shabbat appetizer in North African Jewish homes.
It wasn’t until Nir was an adult, however, that the dish wove its way into his family. Almost 20 years ago, his middle sister married a man with Moroccan roots, later, his little sister married into a Tunisian family. In their honor, Nir’s mother asked her Moroccan mother-in-law for a recipe and started to make “spicy fish,” (the Moroccan name for the dish) with red bell pepper, sweet paprika, hot chilies, garlic, and cilantro. “It’s from a second hand,” says Nir. “But I think that’s the beauty of this story.”
The first time Nir made chraime (how it’s called in Tunisian families), he was a young chef working under Israeli culinary celebrity Eyal Shani at his most acclaimed restaurant HaSalon, tucked behind a warehouse in Tel Aviv. In place of generic tomatoes and dried spices, Shani substituted tomatoes roasted in a wood fire oven and added fresh green chilies. “Most people who grew up on chraime, would say this isn’t chraime,” Nir notes. But, the dish was a success. It’s the dish he says he makes “whenever I’m abroad and feel like making something homey.”
Influenced by his time cooking in the United States, he now makes his chraime with whole dried ancho chilies, which add a smokiness to the dish. It’s an ingredient he was introduced to by Mexican and Dominican chefs he worked with. It fits with a recent stint he spent cooking in New Orleans, echoing the flavors of barbeque.
“You cook in a context, you can’t be detached,” from where you’re cooking, he explains.
Nir served this fish recipe, alongside freshly-baked She Wolf challah, at our Fire, Come Drink With Me pop-up at The Castle in Brooklyn on June 1. The dish kicked off an evening of feasting on lamb skewers and spring salads, all paired with spirits from the Galilee’s Jullius Craft Distillery and wines from Recanati Winery.