If you ask random people what is the most important things on their holiday is, they might say, a cozy hotel, or some quiet time away from their work, but if you ask me, I’ll say FOOD. I’m sure I’m not the only Travelette around here who will declare a fresh breakfast, mouth-watering lunch and delicious dinner the three top priorities of a successful travel day.
When I recently boarded the plane at Tel Aviv airport after a week of exploring Israel, I had seen a lot – a cool city, a dreamlike spa hotel, and amazing people – ah, let’s just scratch that. I rolled on that plane reluctantly because I hadn’t finished that last tub of hummus in my hotel fridge yet. I came for adventure, but all I could think of was food. Of all the places I’ve visited around the Mediterranean, Israel outrivals its foodie contenders by miles – mainly because it combines so many influences from Turkey, Greece, Palestine, Egypt etc. Israel is Food-Heaven and I can prove it. Just look at these twelve foods you should try when you come here.
Disclaimer 1: I am very well aware of the fact that a lot of the food (and variations of it) mentioned here originated or is common in other countries of the Middle East or Mediterranean. I distance myself from any pro-Israel/pro-Palestine/anti-Israel/anti-Palestine discourse. I do have a political opinion, and a dream of harmony and more than just co-existence, but this blog post about FOOD is not the place to share or discuss it.
A no-brainer. It feels like hummus is the stuff that Israel is made of. Every Tel Avivian will be able point you towards their favorite hummus bar, and you could easily taste around the different recipes until you drop. Traditionally hummus is made of chickpeas with a little bit of tahini (sesame paste), garlic, oil and lemon juice, but there seem to be endless variations of that. For lunch, why don’t you order a few plates of hummus with different toppings, like red beet or roasted pepper?
First enjoyed at the Oriental market in my hometown of Vienna, I have been in love with falafel ever since – little deep-fried balls of mashed chickpeas with all kinds of herbs and spices inside. Falafel are usually served with hummus and pita bread, which makes the experience only oh – so much better. My personal favourite falafel place in Israel was a little shop in the Old Town of Jerusalem which was frequented by local families after they left the Mosque after morning prayers – so, the best tip: find a place where locals eat.
Traditional red shakshuka is eggs cooked in a sauce of tomatoes, chilli peppers and onion, but there are many variations like with spinach (green shakshuka), eggplant or cheese on top. It is usually served for breakfast – think one level up a regular poached egg. I went for white shakshuka which is based on yogurt and comes with eggplant and almonds on top (first picture).
4. Israeli Breakfast
While we’re at it – there’s nothing like Israeli breakfast. I like a good brunch, and the variety of grilled veggies, cheeses, pastries, sweet and savoury served for our breakfast experience at the Mendeli Street Hotel was just that. Of course, I had shakshuka, but also a pile of eggplant, zucchini, quinoa salad, herb coated goat cheese, stuffed peppers and artichokes. Yummy! Even though I ate a mountain of food, I still didn’t feel overly stuffed (or sick even), because all the dishes are super healthy, and of course vegetarian. The chefs at the hotel really know how to whip up a breakfast – good to know that the restaurant is open to the public (and very popular among locals)!
One of the peculiar things at the breakfast buffet was a huge clay oven right behind the bread counter – a Taboon oven. Whatever comes out of there must be good anyways, but the most traditional baked treat is Sambusak, a longish piece of pastry filled with hummus or meat. Just the right thing to eat with your shakshuka.
Like borek (or burke) in Turkey, bourekas is a slightly bigger pastry filled with potatoes, spinach or goat cheese. It’s a great snack for on-the-go, but also a popular late-night snack or hangover treat. Best get it warmed up – then it’s a little bit like eating a croissant that made love with a pizza minus the tomatoes.
7. A Shabbat dinner
When you are in Israel on a Friday, a traditional shabbat dinner is one not to miss. I’m sure you could find a nice local inviting you through CouchSurfing, but if you feel more comfortable with a more official set-up, head to Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem. I’ll tell you more about why Jerusalem is best visited on a Friday later on, but the hostel’s Shabbat dinner is certainly one reason. All afternoon, the hostel staff takes over the communal kitchen (helpers welcome) to whip up everything that belongs to a traditional vegetarian Shabbat dinner: Hallah (bread baked in a big knot), potato and vegetable casseroles, rice dishes, salads, hummus and of course a little bit of wine. The beauty of a Shabbat dinner is less the individual dishes though, but the feeling of community – gathering with strangers and friends around a large table, exchanging stories, breaking the knotted bread together and then stuffing your face until you can fit no more scoops of hummus.
As a child this was my favorite at the Greek beach and the Turkish market in Vienna, and today I could still only eat this when it comes to bread: sesame bagels. These oriental bagels though, aren’t like the fluffy insult you get in most European and US-American supermarkets, they are crunchy and there is so much sesame on them, that you could fill a bag with just the seeds that fall off. In Israel they are called ka’akh, and people are selling them from little pushcarts in public places as well as residential areas, because EVERYBODY LOVES THEM. Traditionally you dip the bread into za’atar, a green herb mixed with salt, more sesame seeds and sumac.
Pitzuchim is basically trail mix – a blend of all sorts of nuts and seeds from the market. You can mix and match and get a variety of different nuts as a snack. The roasted cashew nuts from Israel are among the best nuts I have ever eaten (and I’m usually not a big fan of cashews), but what really got to me is the bags of considerably cheap pistachios. I always bring a souvenir for our flat, and this time it was a kilo of nuts…
Finally – the dessert part. From all the sweet treats – cakes, cremes, mousses etc. – the one that stood out the most was Knafeh. It’s basically a pastry made from thin noodle threads (called Kadaif) filled with soft goat cheese and soaked in sugary syrup. It’s hard to describe how well these different flavors blend together, you just have to try!
Another treat people will literally throw at you on markets, is Halva; sweetmeat made of sesame oil and nuts. You can even get sugar-free halva, but why would you? It is sold in big blocks, and the served is smaller cubes as dessert for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Or mid-day snack. Or car snack.
12. Mulberry Jam
During my stay in northern Israel, I got a taste of how fresh the produce in this country is. The veggies, the fruit, the cheese – everything tasted so much better because I felt like it came straight from the field (or dairy) and in my mouth. My favorite fruit, which I hadn’t eaten before, was mulberries. They look a little bit like blackberries, but are longer, and taste much sweeter – especially when they come fresh off a tree. As I’m a big fan of jam, I thoroughly enjoyed tasting mulberry jam for the first time, and instantly inquired where to get a jar for my souvenir shopping bag.
Of course you need to the right choice of drinks to go along with your fantastic meals – here are a few specialities:
– fresh fruit juices, especially orange and pomegranate juice which you’ll get at one of the numerous juice stalls on the streets and markets
– fresh black coffee, which is served similarly to Turkish coffee (with the grounds still in the cup) and wakes you up no matter how tired you are
– craft beer: I had not expected to find particularly interesting beer in Israel (you hardly ever do in countries with warm climate), but there are quite a few Israeli craft breweries worth trying. I guess the hipsterism of craft beer has reached the Middle East.
– wine: Another unexpected one! We all know South African and French wine, but Israeli? In fact, the north of the country has just the perfect climate to grow wine, and the vineyards around the Golan Heights, like …, are worth their own trip (if you’re into wine that is).
– the best and simultaneously worst drink to get is Arak – it’s sweet, but deadly, and tastes a little like Ouzo or Raki. You can get shots, or cocktails containing arak at basically any bar in Tel Aviv.
– Tubi 60: This shot has caused somewhat of a mystery, as nobody actually knows what’s in it… it’s a cloudy, yellow liquor, again sweet, but somewhat mind-blowing.
You might have noticed that not a single item on this list isn’t vegetarian, or even vegan – that’s my favorite thing about Israeli food. Although I’m not strictly vegetarian, I hardly eat any meat and foud it refreshing to see how diverse and yummy a cuisine could be without relying on meat as its main component – or pasta and bread, while I’m at it.
There are many good reasons to travel to the Middle East and Israel in particular, but the food is high up on my priority list. In the week I spent there, I have not yet managed to eat my body weight in hummus – certainly that’s the professional league – but there is always a next time!
Have you been to Israel before and tasted the food? I’d love to hear more about your favorite Israeli food and restaurant recommendations in the comments.
Disclaimer 2: I was invited to travel to Israel, courtesy of Vibe Israel.
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner, Or Kaplan and Haim Yosef.
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