Chef Einat Admony applies global influences to Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine at Balaboosta in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. She founded Taim Falafel, which has six New York locations and two D.C. outposts, and has authored two cookbooks: "Shuk: From Market to Table, the Heart of Israeli Home Cooking" and "BALABOOSTA: Bold Mediterranean Recipes to Feed the People You Love."
We dove into her current obsession this month, how the dish was developed from idea to execution, and her creative process that evolves every day.
How would you describe your cooking style?
Modern Israeli food, Middle Eastern, a lot of spices, a lot of big flavor. It’s very balanced. Enough acid in my food is the most important thing.
I’m probably the only Mizrahi-Israeli chef doing this food. My strength is I actually grew up on this food, and I like to use a lot of influence from around the world. I’m very strong with Iraqi, North African, Jewish, Persian and Yemenite food. You can see in my food a lot of elements from everywhere.
What inspires your recipes?
A lot of different things. I grew up in Israel, I lived in Europe for five years, I traveled for seven years, I’ve been everywhere. A lot of my traveling, a lot of seeing how my kids eat, a lot of eating at restaurants.
Right now we’re practicing dosa. It’s one of my favorite things in Indian food. I want to do dosa with some beef inside, I like doing that. I have in the restaurant manchamantel mole that we mix with harissa, it’s beautiful. It’s a vegan mole with skewers of beautiful mushroom.
I get a lot of influence and inspiration from my traveling, but it can be from a lot of different things. It’s a lot about my childhood. I grew up with a Persian mom, a Yemenite dad and a Moroccan neighbor. A little bit later all I cared about was North African cuisine. That’s one of my favorite things. That’s why I opened Kish Kash a few years ago, to dedicate everything to real couscous. The inspiration comes from a lot of different things.
The dish: Yemenite Soup Dumplings
I’m obsessed with Yemenite soup because I grew up on it. My dad was Yemenite, and we had it every week and then when I spent time in Israel, I used to take my dad to where he grew up in Tel Aviv and have Yemenite soup there which was done a little better than my Persian mom’s.
We always eat that with lahchuch, which is almost like a Yemenite pancake similar to injera but not sour at all. I’ve made many, many variations of Yemenite soup for Passover in America. I’ve used matzoh ball and fenugreek leaves or seeds. I’ve made so many versions.
My kids are serious eaters. They like good and interesting food and my daughter is obsessed, like really obsessed, with soup dumplings. So every time we’re in the city, I stop on Mott Street or when we’re away, I find some other new places for soup dumplings for her. And it’s funny because she was vegetarian for two or three years so she would put the pork on the side and just sucked on the juice and ate the dumping skin but gave the little ball of pork to her brother.
I decided to combine these two things I love. I think it’s a genius idea. I find the inside of the soup dumpling never really excited me as much, but the whole idea is experience. I want it to look like I’m in Chinatown but all the flavor be surprising — different from anything else. It took me two years to find a person to make the dumplings.
What’s special about the dumplings?
It’s a specific flour and water. I could make it myself, but it’s so much work. I asked every Asian friend of mine, even if they’re Vietnamese. One of my closest friends is Vietnamese, and I know they don’t do soup dumplings but they do amazing dumplings so they have the technique and that’s very important. I seriously looked for the person for two years. A friend of a friend of a friend of a friend is a dumpling chef and comes once a week to make sheets of dough fresh and then we freeze it.
Two weeks ago my friend Shirley Chung, who’s part of the dumpling mafia and from Beijing, came in. She has a place called Ms Chi Cafe, she’s very known for her dumplings and she could not believe that I freeze dough. She’s super professional about dumplings and she was very, very impressed. Me too, it’s super delicious, the skin is very thin.
And the soup?
The soup dumpling is usually made with pork, but obviously I’m not going to cook pork. The gelatin of the pork is what makes it hard and breaks it down when it steams. So I knew I needed to manipulate that a bit, and I figured out how to make the gelatin.
I made traditional Yemenite soup with a lot of chicken bones and then strained it. One time I even did consomme, which was cool but you don’t really need it for this soup. I strain all of it, I mix it with gelatin and let it sit. On the side, I mix a nice ribeye ground beef with a little bit of ginger, scallion and chive, and hawaij, which we have in Yemenite soup. It’s a mixed spice made with dried ginger, turmeric, coriander, a lot of things. I mix the beef with that and soup greens, maybe some cilantro. And then I mix all the gelatin with the beef. And then Lei, the girl that’s doing the dumplings, she comes and makes her own dough. It’s fresh, she makes the whole thing. It’s beautiful.
I serve it with a sauce called hilbeh, another specialty I grew up with. It’s usually made with fenugreek seeds or fenugreek powder from the leaves, a lot of cilantro, a little bit of garlic, a pinch of cardamom and cumin inside, we grate some tomato and a little bit of lemon. It has the same texture as okra, it’s kind of slimy, gooey, not so pleasant. Most people don’t like it when they try it for the first time — definitely not for kids. I love it. It also makes you stink a bit — I don’t care. It’s one of the most healthy things you can eat. Fenugreek is really good for you.
I made the sauce a little more friendly with fenugreek leaves so it’s lighter, of a different texture. It’s a green, green sauce so the same thing we would do with the sauce I will do with the fenugreek leaves. There is a lot of cilantro inside, there is some tomato, there’s lemon, there’s jalapeno, it’s spicy and it’s nice. It has the fenugreek flavoring to it.
We serve it with chopsticks and a spoon on a bamboo steamer. It’s really nice.
Where are you sourcing the ingredients?
Our chef here works with some farmers, some big companies, some small butchers. Lei brings in her own dough, she trusts the dough. I make my own spice of hawaij unless I find something really good. Sometimes I bring it from Israel from Rosh Haayin, a place that only Yemenite people live and there is a woman who grinds it in a mortar and pestle. I sometimes have that, and I make my own mix in the restaurant, which we always have. I try to do all my own blends.
How do you approach spices?
I try to toast everything. I toast almost all my spices, and I like to grind them fresh. That’s one of my favorite things. I don’t keep them for too long since spice loses its aroma. If my cumin is too light, I don’t want to use it. It’s out. Especially cumin, it’s such an important element in our kitchen. Not just cumin, coriander… every spice that has seeds. I’d rather get the seeds in my kitchen, toasted and then we grind it for the week so we have fresh spice. All the blends I do myself. We’re very strong on spices.
How do you develop and iterate dishes for the menu?
I usually put it on the specials for a few weeks and see how people get excited or not, what is the reaction? There are a few trustees – one of them is my husband – that I will let try and see what they think. I let different people try because my palate is a bit different.
I want to change every day. I get tired very fast, and I get super excited – right now I’m obsessed with dosa, obsessed. I have a third batter in my fridge in Brooklyn. I’m not going to relax until I make it the best, and I’m going to put it on the menu with sabich mix and amba mango sauce, and I will be very excited for the brunch and then after a week, I’m like ‘no.’ This always happens, I want to change the whole menu.
The only things that I’m super excited about right now and I don’t want to go anywhere are two dishes. I think everything is great, but I have fried baklava, which is an ice cream with all the nuts of baklava wrapped in phyllo fried fast with syrup – amazing. It’s my favorite dessert on the menu. And the soup dumpling, which is super unique and different and very innovative.
But I’m bored of my cauliflower for a long time and then when I take it off people get upset. I want to change and change and change. I’m trying new dishes nonstop.
The other thing I like is rice nigiri – crispy rice with fried tuna. It’s one of my favorite things. It’s the easiest bite when I go to a seafood Japanese restaurant, and if done well, it’s the best thing. I took the same thing and a take on the Tunisian sandwich we have in Israel. It’s usually stuffed in a fricassee, which is a sweet fried bread with a lot of spices and layers of many things. So I did the same thing, and it’s gorgeous and beautiful. It’s a nice bite, different from the Japanese bite, but I like to do things like that – to have a lot of different influences from everyone.
How do you train your team on that expertise you grew up with?
The recipes need to be very accurate. Things need to be very thorough. I have an Israeli chef right now, Liron Egozi, she comes from Michelin and very fine dining so it’s interesting. Her food is super clean. The idea to combine us together is super interesting. You can see a lot of her on the menu, which I love. She’s great. Also, I feed my staff. I cook for them a lot.
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