Israel Matters! – February 2022

Israeli Weird Science

When reading or hearing about Israel in the news these days, it seems that there are only two stories repeated over and over again – the latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or Israel’s leading edge in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. While aspects of both of these have been addressed here, we at Israel Matters pledged broader coverage of Israel the land and stuff that happens there.

Delivering on that promise this month takes us into the realm of zany Israeli scientific discoveries and applications thereof, starting with a study conducted at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev that…get ready for this…teaches goldfish how to drive. No, this is not some study of digital e-fish-in-sea; rather it is a remarkable experiment that teaches goldfish how to drive a mobile, four-wheel vehicle around the halls and streets of the university from the comfort their own fish tank, as shown in the picture below.

Why did a group of scientists at a university in the middle of the desert try to teach fish to drive, and how did they pull this off? Noting that all animals develop the ability to navigate in their native habitats to find food, shelter, mates etc., a natural curiosity is to ask whether an animal’s sense of navigation is restricted to their natural environment, or whether they can learn to move around in a completely foreign setting. Pushing this idea to the limit, Shachar Givon and colleagues at Ben Gurion’s Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience constructed a “fish operated vehicle” (or FOV) by putting a fish tank on top of a four-wheeled cart and connecting a laser scanner to a camera and a computer that would translate the directional movement of the fish in the tank to movement of the FOV. At first, were trained by having them navigate towards a target to receive a reward – goldfish food! – in a small room, in effect drivers’ ed for goldfish. One the goldfish figured out that the outward direction they faced along the wall of their fish tank determined the direction the FOV would move, they were able to take their FOV for a spin both indoors and out. You can watch a video of this at, while anyone interested in reading the actual study can visit

It would be understandable if you have a hard time believing this, and some readers might go so far as to accuse us of lying! We are reporting truthfully as always, but now that you mention it, Israeli researchers have come up with a new way to detect liars. Lie detection is important in legal and security applications, and state-of-the-art lie detectors rely on polygraph technology that measures changes in blood pressure, breathing and sweating. Unfortunately, polygraphs can be duped by persons who have mastered control of their physiological responses. But what if liars, well, look like they are lying? And what does lying look like? Prof. Yael Hanein and her colleagues at Tel Aviv University conducted a study to find out by focusing on the minute movements of facial muscles that occur when subjects were knowingly telling a lie as measured by transmitters attached to the face (see picture). The study design was clever – study participants were paired off with one subject instructed to repeat a word transmitted over a headset to a second subject who would then state whether or not they thought their partner was lying. The catch is that the headphoned subject was instructed to mix up her answers so that some were truthful and others not. After doing this for a while, the subject pairs traded places with the second subject now wearing the headset and sometimes lying while the first subject tried to determine whether or not words were being truthfully transmitted. Since the researchers always knew which word had actually been sent over the headphones, they knew whether or not the transmitting subject was lying or not, and hence could calculate how successfully her partner subject could detect lying. So, what did the researchers learn? First, subjects could not detect with anything approaching statistical significance whether their partners were lying or not. By contrast, facial muscle contractions, not detectable by humans but easily measured by the facial sensors, were able to detect lies with 73% accuracy! That beats the accuracy of polygraphs by a goldfish FOV mile. Further, it turns out that different liars unknowingly react with different facial muscles. Some lie with their cheek muscles, while others lie with their brow. You do not have to go to the lie-brow-y to read this study since it is online at

All this talk about lying goldfish is making us hungry. A juicy steak would be nice, but we are trying to cut back on meat. Once again it appears that Israeli ingenuity is coming to the rescue. While Impossible Burgers and other plant-based products have been around for a while now, Israelis have successfully redefined meat, as in We are talking 3D-printed plant-based substitutes for whole cuts of meat. Prepared from soy and pea protein, chickpeas, beetroot and other natural ingredients, Redefine Meat features steaks, kebabs, sausages, and more that look, smell, sound (while cooking) and taste like the original items from Noah’s Ark. These products are on the menu at over 150 restaurants in Israel. Redefine Meat has been in the works for a while now, having received the largest ever grant for a tech startup within the food sector from the Israel Innovation Authority. A good part of the research underlying this company was developed at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, often called the MIT of Israel.

So, there you have it folks, from a driving goldfish at Ben Gurion University through lie detection at Tel Aviv University to meatless meat via the Technion, Israeli weird science is alive and well.

Eating Like an Israeli – The Tastiest Chicken!
My BFF Meryl now lives in Tel Aviv. Meryl swears that the best chicken dinner she ever had was in a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Jerusalem. The first time she went into that restaurant, she asked the waiter what smelled so wonderful. He replied, “העופ הכי טעים” (“the tastiest chicken!”). Of course, Meryl ordered it (and was not disappointed). What was the secret ingredient to this yummy chicken? Sumac.
Sumac is a spice that has a bit of a lemony tang to it, made from berries of the sumac flower. Ground sumac is not available everywhere, but can be found locally at Whole Foods or online on Amazon. (Whole Foods sells sumac made by an Israeli-spice company, Pereg.)
Chicken and sumac dishes are common in the Middle East. Chicken Sumac is usually cooked and served over a flat bread (naan, pita, etc.) which soaks up all the wonderful flavors and makes eating the leftovers with your hands almost a requirement. ☺ Not only does Sumac smell incredible, it gives the food it envelopes a beautiful color and a wonderfully unique and delicious taste. This version of Chicken Sumac is one Meryl created after talking to the chef-owner at that little Jerusalem restaurant. Enjoy! !בתיאבון
4 pitas (6-to-8-inch round), or any flatbread
1 onion, thinly sliced about 1 cup
Salt and pepper
5 tablespoons ground sumac
4 chicken leg and thigh quarters, or 1 3-pound chicken cut into pieces
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

The original (restaurant) recipe calls for tearing the bread into smaller pieces, but we prefer to keep the pita whole. Each pita loaf can serve as a serving platform for the chicken. Just lift and plate.
You can even use stale or dry pita– just spray or sprinkle both sides with water before using in the recipe.
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Drizzle the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking dish or roaster pan lightly with olive oil. Stagger the pita bread loaves on the baking dish and top each loaf with the thinly sliced onions. Season the pita bread loaves with salt and pepper and dust with about 3 tablespoons of the ground sumac.
Trim any excess fat from the chicken pieces. Place the chicken leg quarters on each of the pita bread loaves and season liberally with salt and pepper. Dust with the remaining 2 tablespoons of ground sumac. Drizzle the bread and chicken with about 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil.
Bake at 450°F for approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour, checking every 15 minutes to ensure that the pita bread does not burn. Cover the baking dish loosely with aluminum foil if the pita bread is browning too quickly.
This dish is SO pretty and delicious, it is a wonderful dish to share with company, and you can double the recipe easily, without modifications other than doubling all amounts.