The food there is fresh, flavorful, innovative and downright delicious! And the best part? All that food can be vegetarian and high on health quotient! That means, if you eat in moderation (which is rather tough), you may not come back with uncomfortably tight jeans or a bulging tummy! While most dishes consist of fresh, juicy veggies, meat lovers have their own share of finger-licking specialities like shawarma, kofta b’siniyah (meatballs) and plenty of delicious fish and seafood. While shellfish is a more common sight on menus, lobsters, oysters, octopus and scallops are other popular favourites. However, with vegetarian options galore, even a committed non-vegetarian is happy to tuck into all the ghaas phoos. After all, Israel is listed as one of the top vegetarian-friendly destinations in the world!
A fusion like no other
Israeli cuisine exemplifies the true melting pot that is Israel. At the end of the 19th century, jews from over 80 countries returned to their ancient land, bringing with them the food cultures from far and wide. Yes, geography has a large influence on the country’s cuisine which is a delectable blend of recipes from North Africa (Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria), its Middle Eastern neighbours (Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq), as well as the Mediterranean countries, along with Eastern Europe and Russia. Among other things that have shaped the cuisine are Jewish dietary laws and festivals as well as the native ingredients of the land. No wonder chickpea specialities like hummus, pickled olives, Arabic coffee and freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice are some of the items that make an appearance throughout the country! Also lunch, rather than dinner, is the focal meal of the day in Israel!
On the menu
Falafel remains an all-time favorite fast-food in Israel, and hummus (pronounced hoo-moos) is a staple in almost every Israeli home. Consider starting your tasting tour in the country with a hearty breakfast – there’s nothing quite like it. A variety of cheeses, pastries – sweet and savoury, freshly-baked bread, coffee, fresh fruits and more. While salads are commonly part of the breakfast spread, they reappear all day. Forget limp lettuce and watery tomatoes – an Israeli salad is packed with fresh herbs, lemon juice, heaps of olive oil, nuts and much-needed crunchiness. Tabbouleh (tomato, parsley, mint, bulgur and onion), cauliflower with tahini or fried, tangy cauliflower, marinated aubergine, plump olives, preserved lemons, pickled carrots… they are all part of a typical spread here. Pair these with a cold glass of Israeli wine! Other edible somethings to sample in Israel are dates, all kind of nuts and seeds, dried fruits, gummy bears, candies, za’atar-infused breads, halvah, locally-grown fruits like prickly pears, and more.
To sum it up, you won’t leave the Holy Land without saying “Toda Raba” (Thank you very much) for the delicious food!
Israel has a dominating cafe culture; there is little that Israelis would pick over sipping their strong Arabic coffee in one of the funky, artistic, outdoor cafes. If you simply have nothing to do, find your kind of chic cafe and spend an evening enjoying a cup of latte with some Israeli staples while watching the locals pass by!
WHAT TO EAT WHEN IN ISRAEL
ALL THINGS CHICKPEAS
Israeli cuisine is incomplete without the chickpea. This humble legume forms the basis of some of the country’s most popular dishes.
Father-son duo preparing falafel in Akko, a little town in Israel
Hummus: Traditionally, hummus is a silky paste made of chickpeas with a little bit of tahini (sesame paste), garlic, oil and lemon juice yet every joint in Israel dishes out a different rendition of this staple. Often topped with toasted pine nuts, whole chickpeas, fava beans and loads of olive oil, it is perfectly acceptable to wipe the bowl clean with your last bit of pita.
Msabbaha: The only difference between hummus and msabbaha is the texture. While hummus is smooth, msabbaha embraces whole or smashed chickpeas and is often served with tahini, olive oil, chopped herbs, spices and pita.
Falafel: One of the country’s most iconic and inexpensive eat-on-the-run dishes, fafalels are found around every street corner. These deep-fried, crispy little balls are made out of mashed chickpeas, and served alongside fresh salad, hummus, a hot sauce, and pita. Also, it’s interesting to watch the street vendors frying freshly-made falafel balls right in front of you!
This one comes with a little bit of controversy as it is believed to have originated in the Palestinian city of Nablu. However, to a foodie, Knafeh is only something that seems to have bridged the divide. This sweet cheese pastry is soaked in sugar syrup, flavored with rose or orange water, and topped with crushed pistachios. The outside of knafeh is crunchy, making it cheese danish’s cooler cousin.
Kofta b’siniyah, meatballs of lamb and beef, are often served with tahini sauce and topped with pine nuts. While they are full of spices and garlic, and the tahini adds a nutty, rich layer. Sample this delicacy at one of the boutique fusion restaurants or at a local’s home.
It is considered auspicious to bake the bread in Jewish homes, where it represents many things of significance and some of it is always set aside as an offering to God. You have probably heard of challah and pita; but they are only a fraction of the world of Israeli breads. The diversity in bread is so vast that you can live by bread alone in Israel. Another must-try is ash tanur. Somewhere between a pita and a pizza crust, the sourdough air pockets trap a lot of flavor inside. Top it with olive oil and za’atar, and you’ll keep wanting for more.
This juice is a perfect thirst quencher during hotter months in Israel. You can find stalls selling the deep-red coloured juice in all kinds of markets and get a glass squeezed to order. You can also try different combinations of fresh juices like pomegranate with orange and passion fruit.
There is hardly a café in Israel that doesn’t include a bit of shakshuka on the menu. The word shakshuka translates to “all mixed up”. Wondering what are the ingredients that go into making the dish? Shakshuka is mainly eggs, poached in a sauce of tomatoes, peppers, onions and spiced with cumin, salt, pepper and a few other spices.
DON’T MISS THE SHUK
KNOW WHAT’S KOSHER
Kosher food is food prepared in accordance with Jewish Dietary Laws. In keeping kosher, it is necessary to keep all dairy and meat foods completely separate — which, unless one is vegetarian, necessitates separate sets of dishes and cooking utensils. Places offering kosher food usually display a Kashrut certificate granted to them by the local rabbinate.
SABBATH DINNER EXPERIENCE:
The Jewish Day of Rest, Shabbat in Hebrew, begins on Friday at sundown and ends on Saturday at sundown. A big part of Shabbath is the relishing of three Shabbath meals, mainly the first two — Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch. At the Friday night dinner, Jewish families transition from their everyday lives to a more spiritual time. Tables are set with white tablecloths, gorgeous cutlery as well as candles, wine, and challah loaves that are needed to perform Sabbath religious rituals. If you’re invited by a local for Sabbath dinner, never miss the opportunity to experience the authentic traditional meal.