The food in Israel is reason enough to visit the country. I’ve gained at least 3kg during my week sampling the best of what the country has to offer my tastebuds. This is actually not the easiest thing to do as the food in Israel is so healthy – fresh veggies, fruit courses, fish over meat and goat milk as standard – so really, I should be proud of myself.
Hummus masabacha / kawarma
The reason for the weight gain is easy: delicious, freshly made hummus. It’s the most prevalent dish in Israeli cuisine, and we all know what goes well with hummus right? Bread. Delicious hot pitta bread served in paper bags to keep it warm while you dip the part you tore off.
Israeli cuisine doesn’t just feature any old hummus though, you need to try the hummus masabacha. This is when it’s garnished with whole chickpeas, paprika and lemon-spiked tahini on top. Or you could try the hummus kawarma – hummus garnished with lamb mince, onions and parsley. So. Damn. Good.
The origins of falafel go way back and whichever nationality lays claim to the invention, there’s no doubt it’s a core element of Israeli cuisine today. You’ll find it on many restaurant menus, particular those at the budget end of the spectrum. In Israel it’s cheaper to go out and buy falafel ready done than it is to try and make it at home. Made from fava beans, chickpeas, or a combination of the two, a traditional falafel feast will be served with all the trimmings, including the aformentioned hummus, pink pickled turnips, pita bread, traditional Israeli salad and pickles too.
Tahini is at the core of some of the best and most traditional dishes in Israel – from hummus to date products, to shawarma (like a kebab), chalba and onto salads. The tahini comes from nigella seeds and is sold in high volumes thanks to the need. Along with olive oil and garlic, tahini makes up the trinity of the fundamental ingredients of the food in Israel. Whether you’re aware of it or not I can guarantee you’ll try it while you’re in Israel.
Kanafeh is a Levantine Arabic dish and is very popular as a dessert in Israel. It’s basically a cheese pastry soaked in sweet sugar-based syrup.
You take the pastry and heat it in butter then spread with a white soft cheese like Nabulsi cheese or goat’s cheese, then top that bundle of health with more pastry. Most people will add a drop of rose water or orange blossom during the final few minutes. When it’s ready to serve you pour syrup over the top. Where I had it at the Han Manoli restaurant in Jaffa they also served it with yogurt for flavour.
Aubergine with baba ganoush
Aubergine, or eggplant, is a core dish of Israeli cuisine. Whether it’s tahini laced, smoked, lined with yogurt or some sort of mixture of all three, you’ll find it in any traditional Israeli breakfast, and most probably lunch and dinner too.
Eggplant can be served as a delight in itself (just char the skins) but in Israel you’ll often see it served in baba ganoush form too. This is simply aubergine mixed with tahini, lemon juice, garlic and whatever other flavours you want to add, and served, of course, with bread.
Shakshuka is the traditional breakfast fare in Israel. It reminded me of western style huervos rancheros in that it involved a mix of peppers, tomatoes and coriander served hot as a nest for the eggs to cook in.
One of the most popular ways to eat breakfast in Israel is to go for an Israeli buffet breakfast – this way you’ll be served the shakshuka and get to try everything on the side too. One of the best places to try the Israeli breakfast in Tel Aviv is the Mendeli Hotel – the smorgasbord was incredible.
Bread comes with every meal in Israel – walnut bread, pita bread, taboon pastries – but make sure to try the Lechem bread. The best, and most meaningful, place to try this is at a traditional Shabbat dinner in someone’s home. You could look at somewhere on eatwith.com – a website for people who want to open up their homes to see how locals eat – and join on a Friday for the traditional Jewish ceremony. The bread is broken at the start of the meal before the customary feasting begins.
Meatballs and sweet potatoes
One of the things I really liked about the Israeli cuisine is that there’s not that much meat involved. At least I didn’t have much. The food here is so good that the vegetables and tahini laced sides are enough. Having said that of course it makes sense to give some meat a try, rude not to. These meatballs at the Han Manoli restaurant in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, were amazing. Nothing like the heavy balls of fat I’d avoid in England, these plump balls were a taste sensation. Order them with some baked sweet potato, alongside some fresh goat yogurt for a traditional yet hearty meal.
Food in Israel
All the food I tried in Israel tasted so much fresher than what I’m used to in England. All the fish comes from Israeli waters, the vegetables are grown here and go straight to market and as the seasons change so do the menus in the restaurants. The choice here depends on what’s available on the market, so from experience I’d say that just one visit to Israel will not be enough to try it all!
Photos from Or Kaplan and Haim Yosef from VIBE Israel.