Why is the food in Israel so unique and desired?

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One of the most frequently asked questions when planning someone’s itinerary is “what are we going to eat for lunch?” to which I always reply “something totally different than what you’re probably used to”. Israel has so much to offer in regards to the culinary aspect that there are literally hundreds of dishes available you’ve probably never even heard about and are about to fall in love with. For many, the food in Israel is reason enough to visit the country and that has a lot to do with the history of Israel in the last 150 years or so. 

As Jews immigrated from all over the world back to the land of their forefathers, they came from all sort of places. Did you know that there are Yemenite Jews? Ethiopian Jews? Chinese Jews? What about Arab Jews? See, after the destruction of the 1st Temple, some 2,500 years ago, Jews were cast into exile. We know some returned later but not all. The same happens after the destruction of the 2nd Temple, almost 2,000 years ago, again some returned later but most did not. Many Jewish persecutions took place throughout the generations leading time and again to physical movement and scattering throughout the world. Over time, Jews were basically everywhere and everywhere they were they developed their own cuisine from the cuisine that surrounded them. Any dish they encountered and loved they altered to match the Kosher dietary laws and that resulted in unique food. When the immigration to the land of Palestine started some 150 years ago, Jews started arriving from everywhere. As the State of Israel was declared in 1948, there was a massive increase in Jewish immigration as it was suddenly possible, assisted, legal and provided a safe haven after the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII. 

Many think that they will gain at least 5kg (11lbs) during their weeklong visit while sampling the best of what the country has to offer but the truth is that this is not going to happen. See, this is the HOLY LAND and the calories here do not accumulate. Nah… I’m joking. The food here is actually SOOO healthy – fresh veggies, fruit courses, fish over meat and goat milk as standard – so really, not very likely. 

Fair warning – in this blog I am providing you with some known and some less known options that you can easily prepare at home. I will also supply you with some recommendations of where to get some of them as a lunch or snack option.

However, take into consideration that the Israeli culinary scene is actually very developed and we have many fine dining options as well. Chefs from all over the world come to Israel especially to see its diverse and fascinating culinary scene. So don’t limit yourselves to these options. When booking a tour with us you will automatically receive a list of recommended restaurants for dinner that will be totally different than the options below. Make good use of it all and you will get a truly wholesome experience.

Hummus

This is probably one of the most famous food options here. It’s the most frequented dishes in Israeli cuisine, and everyone knows what goes so well with hummus right? Bread. Specifically, delicious hot pita bread served in paper bags to keep it warm while you dip the part you tore off into the Hummus dish. Eating with your hands is the best thing ever and you should do just that. There are many Hummus dishes available and you can try them all – Fava beans, chickpeas, pine nuts, minced meat, eggplant and many more options are readily available and you should try a few before deciding which is YOUR favorite. 

My favorite spots include: Hahummus Shel Tehina, this is a modern option serving a really different and unique version. Lina Hummus, located in the Old City of Jerusalem, they are one of the best.

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Tahini

Tahini, pronounced locally as T’hina, is at the core of some of the best and most traditional dishes in Israel and is actually made from ground sesame seeds. You will find it in Hummus, Shawarma (see below), Halva and onto salads. Along with olive oil, water, squeezed lemon, garlic, and spices, tahini is mixed to become a creamy paste or sauce that is added to just about anything here. Whether you’re aware of it or not I can guarantee you’ll try it while you’re in Israel so if an allergy to sesame is what you’re bringing with you, be very careful.

You’ll basically find it anywhere and almost on anything but there are special locations to get very high quality versions. Some that you should be made aware of are: Har B’racha, Mamlechet Ha’Halva and many more.

Israeli salad

What is so unique about a salad, right? Well, the Israeli salad is almost a brand by now. It is made from thinly sliced cubes of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, red onions and bell peppers. On top of those parsley, olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice and spices are added. You will find it in many places and served with the breakfast at the hotel. However, nowadays many are lazy to make it as described above. If it’s very good, it’s made especially for you and was not pre-made and waited there.

Shakshuka

Shakshuka is a dish that was probably made originally by mistake. It’s basically sunny side up eggs sitting in a pan on top of cooked tomatoes, onions and bell peppers. I know that doesn’t sound as appetizing but trust me, this is a dish to explore. Many claim to have very good Shalshuka but the best ones will not be found in a restaurant or the hotel breakfast option. This is a dish Israelis take pride in and having someone invite you for breakfast to make you THEIR Shakshuka is not uncommon. Israelis take as much pride in this as some would in the making of Chili or Grits. Not trying Shakshuka while visiting Israel, is not only absurd, it is simply wrong. 

Most hotels will serve this dish as part of their breakfast buffet but try going to Mendelei Hotel in Tel Aviv once to see the difference or even to Dr. Shakshuka in Jaffa.

Falafel

The origins of Falafel are found thousands of years ago and there is a huge argument if the Greek or the Egyptians originally created this dish. As both empires ruled over this land at some point, it doesn’t matter, these deep fried golden balls are here to stay. This is the signatory dish of Israel, found on any street corner and sometimes as cheap as the cost of a soda. Many make the mistake of thinking they are all the same but there are some great ones, good ones and very bad ones out there. This is actually made from ground chickpeas or fava beans, mixed with fresh herbs and spices and made in balls that are dropped into boiling hot oil. That creates a golden-brown crust on the outside but the inside remains nice and soft. Traditionally served in a pita bread filled with Israeli salad, Hummus, tahini, pickles, French-fries and some hot paste called “Schug”. This on-the-go snack is a light lunch and can take care of your lunch issue without a problem.

The truth is that there are simply too many options and you should just try a few. Many will let you try a ball so you can decide if you like it before ordering and that is a great idea.

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Shawarma

Imagine a standing upright spit surrounded by actual flames, on the spit are thinly sliced pieces of meat (lamp, beef or chicken) stacked on top of each other. In between the slices of meat are slices of onion, fat and spices. Have you ever seen or eaten a Gyro? It’s actually very similar but much better. As you approach the stand you decide if you’re eating it in a pita, Lafa (larger pita) or on a plate and they start cutting off the meat from the spit so your pieces are slightly charred and warm. This is mixed with the Israeli salad, humus, tahini, pickles, French-fries and Schug and you are good to go. For the full experience get the Lafa and ask for some “Amba” sauce, this Ethiopian mango sauce is an acquired taste but it absolutely on of my favorites. 

One of the best nowadays is acyually found in the alley behind Dr. Shakshuka in Jaffa and is owned by him as well. Don’t sit down at the restaurant but instead ask to go where the meat is prepared. There are a few tables there and the vibe is totally different. 

Yemenite Lachuch

The Yemenite Jews started arriving in Israel close to 140 years ago and brought with them from Yemen a huge collection of pastries one must try: Jachnun, Melawach, Kubane and many more. One of the least known and appreciated is actually the Lachuch. Lachuch resembles a classic American pancake in its looks and texture, but tastes different and is not flipped over as are pancakes. Rather, It is left to cook on one side only, and that generates its unique look. While Yemenites will eat it with everything, I’d recommend to look for it in Safed (Tzfat) where a local Yemenite named Ronen made it into something truly special. His particular dish can be found only here and is something worth a try. On top of the Lachuch they add freshly sliced tomatoes, a spice called za’atar (local spice mix) and olive oil. Than, they scrape 2 types of hard goat cheese and some soft yellow cheese (local, similar to bland cheddar). As the cheese melts and the dish is clearly done, they remove it from the hot pan and fold it to what looks like a wrap. Add to that their great Lemon-mint juice and you’re set.

Knafe 

Knafe is one of the most famous desserts in Israel and is truly a unique dish. Knafe originated from Lebanon and is basically a goat cheesy bottom topped with a unique pastry made from wheat noodles and soaked in sweet honey-based syrup. Many times today you’ll find that cow cheese and sugar-syrup are actually being used and that is not what you want. It’s the saltiness of the goat cheese that contrasts with the honey-syrup and is soaked into the wheat noodles that make it so unique and delicious. While a visit to Israel is not complete without Knafe, there are many more deserving of your attention that originate in the same area: Baqlawa, Leilat-Beirut and even Malabi.

My favorite Knafe is found at Ja’afar Sweets in the Old City of Jerusalem, as it is very traditional, fresh and unassuming. However, Uri-Buri in Acre serves a great modern Knafe dish as well that I absolutely love.

Halva

This unique dessert is made from the same sesame seeds as the Tahini we mentioned earlier. However, instead of mixing the thick sesame oil with olive oil, water, squeezed lemon, garlic, and spices, it is simply mixed with water and sugar and topped with pistachios, Pecans or something similar. This generates a very sweet and very tasty treat. It can be found on any Israeli breakfast at the hotels and those are great. If you want some higher quality Halva, look for the big Halva cakes at the markets and try some. The taste is very different and you’ll probably feel that what you had at the hotel doesn’t match.

Food in Israel

Is very diverse and there is a lot of it. We covered only the absolute basics. The options described above are must tries but you shouldn’t limit yourself to those. Try additional dishes even if you aren’t sure what it is. The best is to go for a food tasting tour in one of the big markets because than you really get a feel and a taste of Israel and its story through the food and the people. Any great guide will know to point out their favorites and what you should try. All the food you’ll try in Israel will be much fresher than what you’re used to. This is “The land of milk and honey” and almost everything is raised locally and served fresh. That’s why the menus at restaurants change with the seasons and is also why there will always be something new to try. Just one visit to Israel will not be enough to try it all but try non the less ☺

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