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Israel has ruined me for life. Not a single day goes by that I’m NOT thinking about the glorious food I had there. No matter if it’s the juicy olives, the soft warm pita bread, the bread shops in general, the most excellent shakhuka, eggplants cooked to absolute perfection, scrumptious couscous, and I don’t even want to mention the hummus, the wonderful hummus, which just hasn’t tasted as good anymore since I left Israel. I am telling you: The food in Israel ruins you for life. I was perfectly fine with the mediocre hummus I had been eating before I went to Israel, but after I tried Said’s hummus in Acre, I realized that as a matter of fact, I’d never even had good hummus before!But I am getting ahead of myself – let’s start at the beginning.
What is Israeli food?*
Israel is a culinary melting pot of the cuisines of all the different cultures that passed through the region that marks today’s State of Israel over the centuries. The spices, scents and flavors of Northern Africa, mixed together with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine and traditional Jewish dishes make Israel’s cuisine truly unique, and most of all: extremely diverse and flavorful. Dishes like shawarma and baklava are just as common as schnitzel, borsht and chopped liver. Other dishes that you’ll come across over and over again – served in eateries ranging from cheap street food stalls to fancy restaurants – are falafel, olives, fresh fish, kebab and hummus.One thing I loved about Israel was how fresh everything was – fruits and vegetables are bought in big open markets rather than sterile supermarkets, fresh fruit juices are made to order at little food stalls, and mobile bakery carts are selling fresh breads and baked goods as the vendors are wheeling their carts around town. Flavorsome spices are prevalent in all the markets, as are dried fruits and nuts.
Breakfast is my absolute favorite meal of day in Israel. There are two dishes that stand out for me:
My all-time favorite Israeli dish! Funnily enough, I was introduced to Shakshuka in an Israeli restaurant in Guatemala (side note: if you find yourself in a country where meat is prevalent in all dishes, look for an Israeli restaurant. There are always plenty of veggie options there.) and even though I’ve had it in many places all around the world, I was excited to try it in Israel. So what exactly is shakshuka? It is an egg dish for which eggs are baked in a tasty tomato sauce made of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, chili and other spices. In some places, you’ll find it with additional ingredients such as eggplant, feta cheese or even shrimps. When you order it in a restaurant, it is served in the cast-iron pan that it is made in. I was even more delighted when one of my Israeli friends told me that it was perfectly acceptable to eat shakshuka for lunch and dinner, too. I could eat it three times a day, it’s seriously that good.The most popular shakshuka place in Israel is without a doubt Dr Shakshuka in Jaffa south of central Tel Aviv, which started out at as a small food shack and has now evolved into a spacious restaurant with several shakshukas on the menu. I have to admit though that I wasn’t too fussed about the shakshuka I had there (or maybe my expectations were just too high, after hearing so many people rave about this place?) and had better shakshukas around Israel, for example at Cafe Nadi in Jerusalem.Mezze
The other breakfast that I couldn’t get enough of is the mezze breakfast. Here, a variety of dips and cheeses, olives and fried vegetables like roasted cauliflower, baba ghanoush (an eggplant paste), tahini (sesame paste), zhough (chili paste with garlic, coriander and cumin) and of course hummus are served with several breads – and let’s talk about the bread for a minute: As a German, I am very picky with my bread, and don’t approve of bread products in most countries. In Israel, however, I couldn’t get enough of the fresh bread and fell in love with all the bread shops. Many cafes have their own bakery on site and bake all sorts of breads (rye, wholegrain, etc) there. That’s why the bread is always super fresh and extremely scrumptious. Bread is by the way a part of almost any meal in Israel, be it the typical Arab pita bread, Jewish Rosh Hashanah, Sabbat and Challah bread or the scrumptious Israeli bread, so for people who try to avoid bread – good luck doing that in Israel (but where’s the fun in eating hummus without scooping it up with pita bread anyway?)With the mezze breakfast spread you usually get to order eggs any style, and what’s never missing: a side salad. Eating salad for breakfast might sound weird to some people, but I loved it. The salad is usually made of cucumbers (Israel has a distinctive type of tiny cucumber – much smaller than the ones we know, and much less watery), tomatoes, peppers and onions.
Common vegetarian dishes in Israel
What I also loved about Israel is that is so vegetarian-friendly. I love it when I’m in a country and I don’t feel like I am missing out on local delicacies because I don’t eat meat. In Israel, I never felt like I missed out, and here are some of my favorite vegetarian dishes:
Hummus is one of the most popular Israeli dishes, and these days found all over the world. It is made out of chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, garlic, salt and lemon juice. Like I said in the beginning though: even though you can get hummus all over the world, you don’t know what a really good hummus tastes like until you try it in Israel. My absolute favorite hummus shop was Sa’id in the old town of Acre, an ancient fishing town in the far north of Israel. I would go back to Israel just to eat the still warm hummus with pita bread fresh out of the oven again.Falafel
These fried little balls of heaven are, just like hummus, widely available in most parts of the world. It is debatable if they are truly of Israeli origin, but falafel is one of those Middle Eastern foods that have made their way into the Israeli diet and is now considered the national dish. They are deep-fried balls made of chickpeas (sometimes fava beans, or a mix of both), and usually served with tahini, the aforementioned sesame paste that is a main staple in Israel, hummus and / or pita bread. You can find falafel everywhere, from tiny roadside stalls to high-end restaurants. I’ve had both the cheap version and fancier ones – what they all had in common was that they were mouthwatering delicious.Eggplant
Eggplant is a classic ingredient in the Israeli cuisine, typically served in two different ways: as baba ghanoush (a pureed and seasoned eggplant dip) and baked in the oven. When baked in the oven, the eggplants are usually baked as a whole, including the skin, which is removed afterwards.Bureka
Burekas are the Israeli version of Turkish pastry ‘Borek’, made from thin layers of filo dough that is filled with cheese, spinach or mushrooms, sometimes other ingredients. They are fried or baked and are a popular snack food which can be found in most bakeries or vendors who offer just bureka. They are eaten at any time of day. Tip: Get them when they are fresh out of the oven. Another tasty bread dish that has been brought to Israel by Georgian Jews is Khachapuri, a savory cheese filled pastry that is topped with a fried egg.Tabouleh
Tabouleh is a popular salad made of tomatoes, parsley, mint, onion, bulgur and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. It is not only eaten in Israel, but all over the Middle East.
Learning how to make Israeli food
Since I am such a big fan of Israeli food, I was eager to learn how to make some of my favorite dishes at home. Luckily, Abraham Tours offered a Cooking Class and Market Tour in Jerusalem during which I did not only learn how to cook Israeli food, but also more about Israeli food culture in general. Our bubbly tour guide Samantha started our tour at Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem’s big main market which is well worth a visit, even if you’re not planning to pick up fresh produce, but I will tell you more about the market in my article on Jerusalem. As we walked through the maze of fruit and vegetable, cheese and fish, bakery and olive stalls, we learned that chick peas, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, coriander and sesame are the basis of many Israeli dishes. Rice is prevalent, and lentils are also a staple in the country, but also couscous and bulgur (both are grains) are very popular.Fresh food, and especially vegetables, are used in almost every meal: juicy tomatoes, purple eggplant, chilis, peppers in all colors. Jewish tradition brought Eastern European and Russian dishes such as borscht, schnitzel, chopped liver, cooked chicken and gefilte Fish to Israel. As a country with a long coastline along the Mediterranean, fish is ubiquitous in Israel. A popular fish dish that originates in Northern Africa is harimeh (a spicy fish dish with tomatoes, garlic, cayenne pepper and caraway).After our market tour, we returned to the hostel with enough ingredients to prepare a feast for at least 20 people, and start cooking. On the menu:
- Smoked Eggplant with Feta Cheese and Tahini
- Tahini paste
- Tabouleh Salad
- Grilled Cauliflower with Silan (date syrup)
- Kohlrabi and Fennel Salad
- Mediterranean Rice (with an amazing spice mix we bought in the market – I went back later to buy some more of those)
- Hamshuka (Spiced Minced Meat Stew) – for the meat eaters
Cooking up all these items was just as much fun as the visit to the market had been. Samantha divided us into smaller groups (1 – 2 people) and each pair was in charge of a specific dish. We were taught how to cut the vegetables for each dish, how to cook or broil them and how to serve them when they are done. I have already made some of the dishes I learned from Samantha at several Mediterranean-themed dinner parties (the eggplant, tahini, tabouleh, Mediterranean rice and grilled cauliflower) and they were always a huge success.The market tour and cooking class at Abraham Hostel was one of my highlights in Jerusalem and if you are interested in learning more about Israeli food culture and how to cook some Israeli dishes, I highly recommend taking this private class (you don’t have to stay at the hostel to sign up for it, but if you stay at Abraham’s, you get a discount for the class).Abraham is now also offering a hummus workshop which I will definitely take the next time I am in Jerusalem. Like I said: Eating hummus in Israel will ruin you for life and turn you into a hummus snob. So what better place to learn how to make a proper hummus than in Israel? The workshop does include eating all the hummus you prepare, of course! Trust me, these are the best 50 Shekels (~$12.50) you can spend in Jerusalem.
Israel = Dessert Heaven!
We can’t talk about Israeli food without mentioning some of the amazing desserts, or the reason I came back from Israel six pounds heavier, nearly not able to close my Dirndl.
Jewish pastries are actually very similar to German cakes, cookies and pastries and are widely available in the bakeries everywhere.Halva
Halva is a pastry that is made of sesame and to which ingredients like honey, vanilla, pistachios, cacao, almonds or nuts are added. In the markets, halva is sold in huge cake-like chunks of which the amount you desire is cut off, almost like a slice of cake. Halva is one of the most quintessential Israeli sweets and you can’t leave Israel without trying it (in the markets they usually offer free samples).Baklava
The most famous Middle Eastern sweet, a pastry made from nuts or pistachio, honey, syrup and filo. These are available in most bakeries in all kinds of shapes and tastes and are seriously addictive.Kanafeh
Kanafeh is one of my favorite desserts I’ve had in Israel, even though the very best one I had was in Ramallah, and if you visit the West Bank (which you should!) make sure to have a Kanafeh while you’re there. It is made of super thin pastry shreds soaked in sweet syrup, with a soft white cheese center and topped with pistachios.Arabiv coffee
You are typically served Arabic coffee (also known as Turkish coffee) with your sweets, which is brewed in a special pot and spiced up with cardamom. You drink it strong, black and from a small cup.Have you been to Israel? What’s your favorite Israeli food?