Meny Vankin Cooks from the Heart at Montclair’s Mishmish
Chris Malloy | Aug, 01 2016
The Soul of an Israeli Chef
When you taste Meny Vankin’s shakshuka, an Israeli dish of eggs cooked in tomato sauce, you can pick out flavors and try to fathom what makes his version so good. There’s garlic. There’s chopped cilantro. There’s olive oil (from Spain), the herbal fragrance of za’atar, the tang of the feta that fills a tub in the open kitchen of Mishmish, Vaknin’s 46-seat restaurant in Montclair (opened December 2014). But still, you know you’re missing a crucial ingredient. And to understand what that ingredient is, you have to understand Vaknin and his experience with food— most of all, the food of Israel.
Vaknin, 33, was born in Yeruham, a town in Israel’s Negev Desert. His parents came to Yeruham in the early 1960s, with a wave of fellow Jewish immigrants from Morocco. “Yeruham was a developing town,” Vaknin recalls. “In the beginning there were a lot of North African Jews: Tunisian, Persian, Moroccan, a melting pot. Later on, Russians and Ethiopians came. The culture was small town. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody tasted each other’s food. Jews from all over North Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and even India settled in his hometown. “I’m influenced by Indian cuisine,” Vaknin says, recalling the assorted flavors of Yeruham with a kind of awe.
“For Moroccan Jews, the kitchen is the main part of the home,” Vaknin explains. “Growing up, everything was based around food. My grandmas and aunts were women who cooked, and they did so with great pride.” Vaknin recalls his great-aunt’s house, where “at any point of the day you could see at least two things being made—I’m talking big pots that could feed 20 people.