Orders are coming in thick and fast for Reut Levitas’s traditional holiday food, writes Olivia Fletcher
Hummus is not a dip, it’s a meal,” is Reut Levitas’s motto. And no, she’s not joking. In the Israeli chef’s home in east Belfast, the chickpea-based dish is more than just a spread that people in Northern Ireland have come to know and love. The proper way to serve it is in its own right with pita — Reut’s favourite thing to cook — or falafel.
The chef started out in high-end restaurants in Israel before running a kosher hotel in Denmark and working in a Michelin star kitchen in France. But here in Belfast, where she has lived for six years with her husband and son, she’s established Pita & Co from her own kitchen, where she cooks for Belfast’s Israeli and Jewish communities in her spare time. And with the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah happening now, orders are coming in.
The ancient religious holiday commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the miracle of light. The Maccabees had only enough oil to light for one day in their celebrations of defeating the Greek army — but it lasted eight. And so began the tradition of serving food fried in oil during Hanukkah.
This year, Reut is making traditional food to order like sufganiyot (doughnuts filled with jelly) fried — you guessed it — in oil, and challah, a bread eaten during celebrations.
“People started to order, some were Jewish, saying ‘it reminds me of my childhood. Can I order this and that?’ So, I decided catering basically will be the best idea to keep the business and people still have the option to order Jewish food… so this is what I’m doing now,” Reut says.
Initially, her plan was to make Pita & Co work full-time.
She set up shop during the first lockdown, selling falafel and pita from her kitchen window, where mostly Israeli and Jewish people from across Belfast would flock to get the comforting taste of homecooked food.
But she says sustaining the one-man catering company is difficult because “to get to do something cheap and good” when larger chains can offer falafel for a smaller price means customers can get their falafel fix cheaper elsewhere — “even if they taste mine and they say, ‘it’s the best falafel that I tried and different from any other falafels I’ve tried’,” Reut adds.
Northern Ireland’s Israeli community is small — but with Belfast and Tel Aviv’s IT industries both booming, the Israeli population is growing in Northern Ireland and the Republic, as people come here in search of tech work.
And the Jewish community in Belfast is close-knit too, with many leaving the city for places like Britain and Israel in the second half of the 20th century.
That’s why Reut’s cooking is appreciated so much — people miss the culinary comforts that are usually hard to come by here.
When Jewish student Nicholas Castillo from New York City came to study at Queen’s in September, he stumbled across Pita & Co just in time for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, where sweet foods and challah is typical.
“Coming to Belfast, it would be my first time living in a place without a large Jewish community, so I was worried about not being able to get traditional food or goods,” he said.
“Being able to go over to her house, chat a bit, and get really good quality homemade challah wasn’t just great because I got food, but also nice in that I was able to connect with some kind of local Jewish community.”
He is thinking of ordering more challah for Hanukkah too.
The bread is a hit for other local Israelis and Jews too, especially on Friday nights where it is traditional to welcome in Shabbat, Reut says.
“People are often ordering the food for family for Friday evening, so they take in a starter and salads and mains. There are sometimes just orders for challah even, like for Friday.”
Growing up, Reut says, laughing, “I basically came from a family where the mum didn’t allow the kids to go into the kitchen” which inspired her to study cooking before taking on jobs in kitchens across Israel and Europe.
And what about Belfast? Surprisingly, she says “the weather is better” here because Israel is too hot, and she prefers the work-life balance too.
“The first time that I came to work in Belfast I saw at five o’clock everyone running outside. In Israel, this will never happen — if you finish at five, it means that you finish at seven… here you have work and you have your life, and in Israel the work is your life basically.”
But there is one thing that Belfast is beaten on: the food. Reut stands by what she said about hummus; it’s a meal, not a dip.
And a delicious one that families across Belfast will no doubt be enjoying this Hanukkah.