Culinary Diplomacy : How embassy worker spent 24 years connecting Japan and Israel through food

Exclusive interview | Oded Soroka (Local staff at the Embassy of Japan in Israel and cooking instructor)

by Rotem Kles |2020年10月09日

Oded Soroka

Oded Soroka has been working at the Embassy of Japan in Israel for 24 years. During his time as Local Staff Employee, Oded found inspiration in the culture – and the cuisine.

Fascination quickly led Oded to take up cooking himself. A polyglot who speaks 6 languages and a former graphic designer, he uses his knowledge of culture and aesthetics to make interpretations of familiar Israeli and Japanese dishes, and even invent dishes of his own.

We interviewed Oded about his cultural and culinary love story with Japan, as well as his inspirations and approach to cooking.

From Graphic Design teacher to top student in Japanese

Oded's love story with Japan began with a phone call. Oded was working as a teacher at a Graphic Design school, when a close friend called him and spoke glamorously on his intentions to study Japanese.

“Aside from Japanese, there was also a Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies and he told me that combining them would be easy for us as we could concentrate on studying Japanese. We both knew Spanish and I really love learning languages. Japanese sounded cool to me, so I decided to join my friend.”

Filled with enthusiasm, Oded decided to enroll in the course despite not having any knowledge of Japan. His love of learning and interest in the culture allowed Oded to soon become a top student. He even earned an award for excellence in the Japanese language by the Embassy of Japan in Israel.

Oded was awarded a 2-week visit to Japan to finally experience the country he had been studying for so long. He traveled from Tokyo to Hiroshima, through Nara and Kyoto, where he absorbed the authentic flavor of the culture, food, and people.

Shortly after, he received a call from the Embassy of Japan in Israel, who gave him the opportunity of a lifetime: a job at the embassy. Needless to say, Oded accepted the offer and after a long screening procedure he was selected to be the advisor to the Cultural Attaché.

Oded Soroka

Lessons from Japan

Through his work, Oded serves as a bridge between Israel and Japan. “As part of my role, I am privileged to make Japanese culture accessible in Israel. Exhibitions, dance performances, theater, food, we bring diverse content to Israeli people who are curious to learn and experience Japanese culture.”

Oded worked for a variety of events, from music festivals, dance, art and theater like Kabuki, Noh, Kyogen and bunraku (Japanese traditional puppet theater) performances. “One experience that left a strong impression was in 2002. We invited a troupe of puppeteers to Israel and during their performances, I accompanied them behind the scenes. I was privileged to see them take a traditional Japanese art and do a modern rendering, using contemporary puppets for their shows.

Beyond the honor of being present in the preparations, I was privileged to see the Japanese artists prepare for a show. The quietness, concentration, accuracy, and attention to the smallest details were inspiring – from the color of the fan to the angle of the curtain on stage.

I internalized what I saw, and I learned to prepare for each task in a considered, calm way as I have seen it done with methods that have been practiced for centuries. It is a different state of mind from Israel, where you usually start working on a project, then correct mistakes as you go.”

The art of cooking à la Oded

Whether consciously or unconsciously, Oded absorbed parts of the culture, which has shaped the dishes he creates in the kitchen. Combined with his background in graphic design, this resulted in food that displays the aesthetics of the culture vividly.

 Diamond Shaped chicken cutlet

״As part of my growing interest in Japan, I became interested in the aesthetics, like calligraphy, home design, gardens, and of course, food. My interest in cooking and Japanese-style cooking, in particular, started after I started working at the embassy. I would get all kinds of sauces and spices every time my colleagues came back from Japan and I was exposed to new flavors. Even after almost a quarter of a century I am still excited to discover new products that I haven’t seen or tasted before.”

Oded sees cooking as an art and he treats his dishes like his canvas.

“It takes me a few minutes in front of a pantry or an open refrigerator and I can picture in my mind what dish can be created with the given ingredients. In my mind, I imagine what flavors the dish will have and how I want it to look – like a painter or designer looking at a canvas and imagining what the final piece will look like.”

 Oded`s food is a reflection of himself, and as a result, his dishes are unique and full of different influences. Oded likes to combine the two cultures – Israeli and Japanese – for delicious, beautiful, and surprising results. A part of his secret is to use Japanese raw materials, which over the years have become more accessible in Israel, and combine them with common Israeli dishes.

“For example, if you add Japanese spices to an Israeli childhood favorite such as schnitzel, it suddenly becomes a similar looking dish  with a surprising taste.”

Oded wants to share his fusion recipes with the world, and let others feel the same inspiration and joy he felt when he first started cooking. “I make most of the cooking for my family, in accordance with the tight schedules of busy and working people, so I try to make everything easy and quick to prepare. The result is fast, easy, and aesthetic food – That is the Charm. This is the Secret”.

Gyoza tortilla, toasted tofu

Cultural diplomacy through passion, food and social media

To pass on his knowledge and share his culinary inspiration and ideas, Oded has opened an attractive culinary Instagram page and a YouTube Channel with his creations, and even shares his recipes on local TV programs and Social Media.

 “I want people to feel that even though the final dish looks like an art creation, it’s easy and quick to make.”

Oded makes all of his recipes kosher. In Jewish tradition, certain foods are forbidden to eat or combine with ingredients that are considered non-kosher.

”My kitchen is completely kosher. This means that I don’t cook seafood or pork at home, nor do I mix dairy products and meat in the dishes I prepare. I prepare dishes with Japanese flavors, but I’m using only fish, chicken, or meat that are kosher. The result is always successful,and proves that you can achieve excellent flavors and presentation even with limited, yet abundant raw materials.”

In the future, Oded wants to continue to spread his passion for cooking, and use it as a tool to develop cultural relations between Japan and Israel through food and the gathering around it.

“I am happy and proud to continue my work at the Embassy of Japan and to spread my knowledge about Japanese culture among Israeli audiences. I want to convey the knowledge of making homemade food that is rather easy and quick, and also teach how to make it look perfect and aesthetically pleasing.

Jewish New Year dish

I want people to know that there are excellent Japanese ingredients in Israel and that they can be used for almost any recipe. I also want readers in Japan to know that it is possible to prepare Israeli dishes in Japan with local ingredients!

I want to expose more people to the forms of cooking that I love so much.  I’m very active on social media and invite everyone to follow, and subscribe to my channels, contact me, ask questions, get recipes, and share recipes you have tried to make yourself.”

Oded Soroka Social Media