Looking for something wonderful to read? Raising Sparks, the terrific debut novel by Ariel Kahn, is full of food, Jewish mysticism, and a thrilling journey through modern Israel.
Something a bit different from my usual recipes and general stream of conciousness today. Raising Sparks is the debut novel by Ariel Kahn, and with its themes of Judaism and food, it was a natural candidate for me to review here on family-friends-food.com. It’s a fantastic book, and you should definitely add it to your summer reading list!
Full disclosure – I know the author! But I had no idea just how talented he was until now. I was blown away by this book; it’s honestly one of the best things I’ve read for ages. I was hooked from the first page. The writing is engaging and beautiful, the characters are complex and believable, and the story is a gripping, twisting, thought-provoking journey that I was delighted to be taken on.
A journey around Israel
I really don’t want to give away too much in the way of spoilers, but I think I can probably tell you a few things without getting into too much trouble. Raising Sparks is set in Israel, and moves from Jerusalem to Safed and finally to Jaffa. If you’ve visited these places you’ll thrill in the descriptions that transport you back. And if you haven’t, Ariel’s wonderful prose will make you feel like you have!
Mysticism, and food
There is a strong Jewish mystical thread to the story, which is so perfectly written that even the magical sequences and supernatural visions seem completely realistic.
And finally, the FOOD. Food is really central to the plot – from home cooking and market shopping to bakeries and professional kitchens, the characters express so much of themselves through food. I spoke to Ariel about the book, food and cooking, and how some of the ideas in Raising Sparks came about.
“Food creates community,” says Ariel. “It’s a brilliant bridge builder. You can connect to other people through food because it resonates with everyone. In the book, the characters use food to communicate and open up to one another and forge relationships. A lot of that comes from my own experiences, here in the UK and also living in Israel.
“For instance, a few years ago I was working as a waiter at Villandry in London. They also had a deli and at the end of the day lots of food was getting chucked out. But there was a homeless community at the end of the road, so me and a few others asked if we could give the leftover food to them instead.
“At first there was resistance but we persuaded them to do a trial and it worked brilliantly! It had such a positive impact on this group of homeless people. They became real food connoisseurs! The food helped them to feel empowered because someone was taking them seriously.
“Some of that experience was translated into the book – when the main character works in a bakery in Safed and gives the broken biscuits to a group of Chasidic children at the end of the day. Like my experience in London, it helped to create a connection, a community.”
One of the locations in the book, a fictional restaurant in Jaffa, has more than a whiff of Jamie Oliver’s 15 and Yotam Ottolenghi’s Israeli-Palestinian fusion about it. Ariel confirmed that these were both influences.
“My sister-in-law lives next door to Yotam Ottolenghi’s parents, near Jerusalem!” he says. “I actually wrote a lot of the book sitting in her garden, looking at their herbs.
“Thinking about Ottolenghi and his Arab partner Sami Tamimi, and how they set up their business… I wondered what would happen if I flipped it around and had an Arab chef with a Jewish backer…
“The restaurant in the book was also inspired by this great place I ate at in Tel Aviv, called Lilith. They train street kids to work in restaurant kitchens, a bit like Jamie Oliver’s place in Cornwall.”
Opening their home
Homelessness is an issue close to Ariel’s heart. As well as his experience above, he and his family now volunteer for Nightstop, providing short-term hosting in their home for vulnerable young people who would otherwise have nowhere to go.
“The people we host are often migrants, and their food is a part of their identity. They often talk about the food of home, and it comforts them. We sometimes try to cook their traditional foods – it can really help.
“Food doesn’t have to be fancy to have emotional associations. In the book I wanted food to be a bridge that connects the characters’ inner self to the wider world. For the main character, food provides a way for her to find herself, to escape, to grow stronger, and to connect to other people.
“It also provides a way for some of the characters to heal the wounds of the past and reconnect with others.”
I asked Ariel about his experience of the locations in the book. I recognised some of them myself, but others were clearly works of his imagination.
“I revisited all the locations in the book as I was writing; I wanted to see them as the characters saw them. Some of the things I came across on that journey, like certain graffiti and street art, made their way into the story too.
“The Abulafia bakery in Jaffa features in the book. It’s a wonderful place and really stands for the values that I’ve explored in the novel. It’s Arab owned, but closes for the Jewish holidays. And when they open in the morning, everyone is queuing up there – they’ve built multicultural respect through great food!
“Some things in the novel are fantastical, but I wanted it to be grounded in the real world.”
Sharing a recipe
Finally, I asked Ariel if he had a recipe he’d like to share. He said that some of the things in Raising Sparks he’s been too scared to try! But he did kindly provide this recipe for Jerusalem kugel.
The taste of Home:
‘What was your favourite food as a kid?’
‘Jerusalem Kugel,’ Malka said without hesitation. ‘I loved the contrast between sweet caramelised noodles and fiery black pepper. Everyone else bought theirs, but my mother made ours, every week. What’s that got to do with it?’
‘Well, kugel is the taste of home for you, isn’t it? I bet no-one here has ever eaten it.’
From Raising Sparks p.247, ©Bluemoose Books
- 500 g straight egg noodles, 2mm thick
- 1 cup corn or sunflower oil (225 ml)
- 1 cup sugar (approx. 200g)
- 6 eggs
- 1 tbsp ground black pepper
- Baking parchment
- Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until they are soft, but not too soft, around 3-4 minutes.
- Heat the oil and sugar in a deep pot. Cook over a low heat, tipping the pot gently from side to side without stirring it, until the sugar melts and caramelises (around 10 minutes). Immediately, but with great care, add the cooked noodles and stir. Don’t worry if some of the caramelised sugar hardens into granules.
- Crack the eggs and add them, together with the black pepper, and stir until you see that the pepper has been fully mixed in. Taste, and add a little salt if necessary.
- Heat the oven to 90-100C (195-215F). Heat a little oil in a medium lidded pot which can go in the oven, pour the noodle mixture into it, flatten with the aid of a spoon, and cover with baking parchment cut into a circle at the mouth of the pot (without the parchment the kugel will dry out and burn). Pour a little oil onto the parchment, then cover the pot with its lid. It I advisable to wrap the pot in a large sheet of foil. Put in the preheated oven. Cook for 7-10 hours. I f you think the kugel is too dry and getting burnt, Add a little water to the pot. If you cover the pot properly, it won’t happen.
- Eat with pickled cucumbers.
To read more about the foods of Israel, take a look at my tasting tours of the Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Market and Carmel Market. Other Israeli-inspired recipes you might enjoy include vegan Malabi, limonana, sahlab, and chopped vegetable salad.