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Monday, August 23, 2004

Loof

For those who have never served in the Israeli military, the title of today’s post probably sounds like a made-up word… a nonsense syllable one might use to make a baby laugh. But to generations of men and women who have worn the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces, the word loof conjures up sensory memories ranging from ecstasy to despair.

You see, loof is roughly the Israeli equivalent of English ‘bully beef’ or American Spam®. It really defies conventional description… but because I need to give you some idea of what it is in order to continue writing about it, let’s simply call it canned, preserved, seasoned, mystery meat.

Granted, since all rations given to Israeli soldiers need to be kosher, one can narrow down the main ingredient of loof to a fairly narrow segment of the animal kingdom. But the official list of ingredients seems to be more of a starting place for speculation than an assumption of fact.

For instance, according to the list of ingredients on the side of the can, ‘Beef’ is loof’s primary ingredient. This seems to be about as intentionally vague as saying that the main ingredient in a particular brand of hot dogs is ‘Beef’. Many pundits have speculated that the odd bits of the cow that the hot dog makers won’t accept find their way into loof. I think (hope) that this is just soldier humor… but I’ll save you the investigative trip to the slaughterhouse if we can all agree, for the sake of argument, that the term ‘beef’ covers an impressive range of meat products/ and byproducts… as well as a multitude of sins.

OK, now that we have a working knowledge of what loof is (as well as a hazy sense of what it is not), let’s talk a bit about how it is found in its natural habitat.

Loof is most commonly found in cans. For some odd reason, the net weight listed on these cans is 310 grams (just under 11 ounces). Why, you are probably asking, isn’t it packaged in a nice round weight… say 300, or even 500 grams? Nobody seems to know. One of the prevailing theories is that this odd weight is a resigned nod to the possibility that some extra scraps of ‘SOMETHING’ will inevitably find their way into the can along with the intended 300-gram serving.

All in all, the weight issue is probably best left to the side along with the issue of ingredients.

So, having decided to ignore the content and volume of loof, we proceed directly to actually opening the can. It is worth noting that there seems to be a peculiar fixation among present and former soldiers with regard to the ritual surrounding the opening of the can. For some reason, there is even something approaching superstition surrounding the cleanliness of the can itself. By this I mean that one is not supposed to wipe off the can before opening it. A dusty, mud-encrusted can of loof seems to be preferable to a shiny new can fresh from the box. Don’t ask me why. All I got whenever I repeatedly asked that very question was the classic Israeli shrug that would infuriate even a Frenchman.

Once you’ve used your pocket can opener to open the top of the dirty can… STOP! Don’t throw out that lid… and whatever you do, don’t put away the can opener… you’re not done yet. You now have to open the bottom of the can. Don’t worry about any juice leaking out. Trust me when I tell you that there is nothing in that can which isn’t solid at room temperature.

Now that you’ve opened and set aside the top of the can, and opened (but not removed) the bottom, you need to locate a piece of cardboard. Yes, as with the can, there seems to be a preference for dusty or dirty cardboard. [insert infuriating Israeli shrug here] Now, lay the can on its side, and begin pushing the loof out onto the cardboard by applying gentle pressure to the bottom of the can. As the pinkish ‘meat product’ begins to emerge from the top of the can, use the top lid of the can as a knife to cut the loof into slices.

I’ve had extensive conversations with current and former soldiers about the finer points of preparing and serving loof. As with most issues presented to a random sampling of Israelis, there is precious little consensus. Recipes and tastes seem inseparable from one’s ethnic background. Particular army units have cherished traditions surrounding ways for preparing loof, but the most common serving tips include frying chunks of loof with scrambled eggs… putting slices of loof directly on bread with the condiment(s) of choice… and of course, just passing around the the slices 'in bianco' on the dusty cardboard tray for people to grab with their fingers.

Ironically, my first exposure to loof came when I was in the U.S. Navy. A significant supply of the stuff was part of a shipment of Israeli battle rations (manot krav) that mysteriously showed up just before my ship was about to depart for a 6 month western pacific deployment (WESTPAC). I’m still not clear if it was arranged by the Jewish Chaplain in Pearl Harbor, or perhaps by the military’s Jewish Welfare Board (JWB)… but because I had recently become observant, somebody saw to it that an enormous supply of Israeli army food found its way to the dock in Pearl Harbor Hawaii… and onto my ship.

At the time, my Hebrew was almost non-existent, so opening a can from my Israeli ‘stash’ was often a game of ‘I wonder what the hell this is going to be. However, one of the words I quickly memorized was loof. It was fantastic! For as long as that supply lasted, I enjoyed it plain… on sandwiches… and with eggs. But, for some reason I quickly forgot about it once it was gone.

It wasn’t until I started swapping military experiences with the soldiers who join me on my Sunday morning commute that the topic of loof came up. I hadn’t thought about loof in years… but suddenly I couldn’t stop thinking about it! I guess they noticed the look of longing in my eyes because recently, a few of ‘my soldiers’ have started bringing home a can or two of loof when they know they are going to be riding with me. I can’t for the life of me figure out why someone doesn't market a civilian version of this stuff in supermarkets! It’s not like it wouldn’t have universal name recognition!!!

Well, until somebody has that particular marketing epiphany, I am hording my little stash of loof for those nights when everyone else is out of the house, and I can open up a can and take that sensory walk down memory lane.

Posted by David Bogner on August 23, 2004 | Permalink

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I loved loof in the army. But if you can eat it at home, you probably eat chulent until Tuesday.

Posted by: Ben Chorin | Aug 23, 2004 3:08:41 PM

While in the army I had a serious problem eating Luf right out of the can. It really turned my stomach. In fact, as I write this comment and think of luf, I am overwhelmed by pangs of nausea. In any case, I was in the armored corp and our way of preparing luf is highly original. We popped open the "hood" of our tank (which is a job that takes three people), placed the can next to engine and turned on the engine. We would rev it a couple of times and pull out our hot totally cooked luf. Of course this all ended when a can exploded, doing severe damage to the engine.

Posted by: harry | Aug 23, 2004 6:08:06 PM

The MRE's that I had to eat at times while I was in the Air Force was bad enough. I don't think I would like loof.
Speaking of heating meals Harry, the newer versions of MREs come with a heater. It's a clear plastic bag with what looks like a small plate of metal in it. Put your meal into the bag, add water to the fill line, and you have a very hot meal in about 2 min.

Posted by: dbates | Aug 23, 2004 6:25:41 PM

When I was living in Russia, on one of our first trips to the commissary for lunch, a friend of mine made the mistake of asking what the meat was. In similar fashion to your loof, apparently, she replied "Myassa," which is the Russian word for "meat." I quickly dropped the subject and picked up a bowl of soup, while my friend began doing animal impressions to try to elicit the source of the meat in question. She just kept replying "Myassa, myassa."

Urg.

We decided that the Myassa Beast was related to the Nauga Beast.

Posted by: Tanya | Aug 23, 2004 8:52:39 PM

just realize that my rock band is named "myassa".
But we didn't know that it was the word for meat in russian...surfing on the net i found this blog and learnt a new part of my band history...the secret part the real meaning of the name...thanks for the update...

bertrand de born

www.myassa-mp3.fr.st

Posted by: bertrand | Sep 27, 2004 9:41:28 AM

Don't ya just love the way the loof makes that slurping sound as it oozes out of the can, and how u cant take a dump for a week or so afterwards?

Btw, it isn't bad on a sandwich with the chocolate spread (known by civilians as mud with sugar) and halva which also come in the manot krav.

Posted by: Shane | Oct 20, 2004 10:47:53 PM

Loof is probably Hebrew for Lips & Assholes.
Probably some kind of kooky Kosher way was devised to change the flavor a little bit.
I like potted meat,baloney and hot dogs,so i'd likely eat Loof just the same.
Here's a new Hebrew phrase i have invented:
BUTT SHALOM! (peace of ass)
That's probably in Loof as well, but i'd eat that too.

Posted by: Shawn | Jun 29, 2005 11:43:10 PM

Ahhhh, Loof!

Yes, I have vivid memories of the stuff from my days (and nights) in the Artillery corps of the IDF. I must admit I (gasp!) liked it -- given the other options available in the Manot Krav. The staples were "Pilchei," or grapefruit slices (a favorite), chocolate spread (a delicacy!), Halva (not my thing) and Loof, which I always thought would also make good axle grease for our cannons. I wasn't too much into the dirty can variety; as a medic, I tried to get my fellow soldiers to at least try to remove some of the dirt, but mostly to no avail. An Israeli shrug is in order. My favorite mode of preparation was, indeed, the shove-that-slab-out-of-the-can maneuver and slice off a couple of thick servings onto a semi-stale piece of military bread, grab a pickle and take turns biting off from the sandwich and the pickle. Voila! A feast fit for a king -- or a starved grunt, at least.

Posted by: Yaron | Aug 14, 2005 3:23:26 PM

In 1972 December I was in Batalion 50 of Nahal(Paratroper), and did my first training jumps that winter in Sinai. We had a nice little battle ration box we jumped with, it contained exactly the same rations as the 7 man box, only all were miniature one serving portions of Halva, Corn, Grapefruit, and LOOF!
It was a dream trying to figure out how to make this individual ration last for a day or two.
Later in the Yom Kippur War our rations were sometimes whatever we could scrape together,
I recall finding a treasure trove of Argentine Beef inside a Syrian Tank on the Golan, but we did not touch it as we were surrounded by the dead and we were with out appetite.

LOOF, it would be nice to have a taste of our youth, "those were the days"

Posted by: Marvin Crane | Sep 1, 2005 4:41:28 AM

Wow - check this out!!! A bloody can of Luf for sale on eBay!

http://cgi.ebay.com/can-LOOF-Israel-Army-IDF-food-ration-HIGHLY-COLLECTABLE_W0QQitemZ6565846364QQcategoryZ36074QQssPageNameZWDVWQQrdZ1QQcmdZViewItem

Posted by: SJP | Oct 2, 2005 10:43:58 PM

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