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The Food of Israel

The Bible describes the Land of Israel as “a land of wheat and barley, and (grape) vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and (date) honey.” (Deuteronomy 8:8) Yet there is much more to Israeli cuisine than these “7 species.” Let us take a look at what Israel has to offer:

img_1912Trying the Jerusalem mixed grill – hearts, livers, spleens and more.

Meat: Israel has a love affair with meat going back several thousand years when, as part of an ancient custom, animals were sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem. Although animal sacrifice was abandoned with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., on many Israeli and Jewish holidays it is tough to find an Israeli not standing within 5 steps of a mangal (grill). Grill restaurants flourish around the country where pargiyot (young tender chickens) are a popular item. For the more adventurous, the Jerusalem mixed grill is a tasty treat. Several South American-style restaurants also have all you can eat carnivorous extravaganzas. A popular meat dish, especially among children, is schnitzel – fried, breaded chicken breast.

Groves-of-Jaffa-orangesGroves of Jaffa oranges have given way to real estate in recent years.

Fish: Israel has many fish and (non-Kosher) seafood restaurants. Tel Aviv supposedly has more sushi restaurants per capita than any place in the world outside Japan and New York City. Each body of water has its own specialty: St. Peter’s Fish (tilapia) is a delicacy from Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), lavrak (sea bass) from the Mediterranean Sea and denis (sea bream) from the Red Sea. Of course, for those who can’t get enough at Passover, there is always the gefilte fish, which legend has it, lives in the Dead Sea.

Agriculture: Perhaps the best parts of Israeli food options are the fresh produce and dairy products on hand virtually everywhere you go. The fruits of the Bible – figs, dates, grapes and pomegranates – and Jaffa oranges and Golan apples are virtually unequalled anywhere else in the world. Israeli olives and olive oil are fabulous. Tastings are available throughout the country. Just passing by the excellent bakeries will make your mouth water. Of course a visit to the outdoor markets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to try all of these delicacies is an absolute must.

grilled-meatIsraelis love their grilled meat. Jews around the world love that it is kosher.

Drinks: Israel has a wine-drinking tradition going back 5000 years. In recent years, Israeli wines have begun to receive serious international recognition. Because there are no open-container laws in Israel, you can enjoy a bottle of your favorite vintage with all of the other Israeli delicacies as you enjoy the sunset on the Mediterranean Sea. There is even a special wine route in Israel for touring many of the 200 or so wineries. Although the local beers are not as well recognized as some of the wines, a number of them, especially the microbrews (Dancing Camel and Taybeh, a Palestinian beer), are quite tasty. The local spirit, “arak,” is a licorice-flavored drink similar to the Greek ouzo and the Turkish raki. Because the fruits in Israel are so plentiful, the juices are equally outstanding, Pomegranate juice is both healthy and tasty, and the orange juice and lemonana (lemonade with nana – similar to mint) – are some of the best.

170-300x225 “The Abulafia Bakery in Jaffa is considered by many to be the country’s best.

Ethnic Food: Coming to Israel is akin to coming to a world fair. When Jews started returning to Israel, they brought their traditional foods back with them to Israel. Yemenite foods, including malawach, jachnun, lachuch and hilbe are very popular as are North-African shakshuka, Kurdish kubeh soup and Tunisian sandwiches called “sabich.” European/Ashkenazi foods include blintzes, knishes, kugel, bagels and cholent. There are excellent Indian and Italian restaurants as well as Ethiopian restaurants (with their signature bread, injara).

It may come as a surprise that what is often called “Israeli food” is in fact Arab cuisine. This includes falafel (fried chickpea balls) – which is originally Egyptian, shwarma (meat shavings of lamb, turkey or chicken – similar to the Turkish doner, tahina sauce (made from sesame seeds), hummus (made from chickpeas and tahina), babaganoush (eggplant and tahina) and labaneh (something between cheese and sour cream). A common spice to the region is called za’atar or hyssop. Pita is the main bread, although it may look different depending on the ethnic origin of the baker.

Your visit can include a trip to any or all of these culinary communities to learn about them and taste their food.

BaklavaBaklava is a sweet Arab pastry which comes in many tasty forms.

Snack Food: The most popular snacks in Israel are Bamba (something akin to peanut-butter Cheetos), Bisli (which come in numerous flavors ranging from falafel to bbq flavor), Elite chocolate and sunflower seeds.

Meals: No pancakes and cereal for breakfast here. In fact, all cereals in Israel are simply called “corn flakes!” Instead you will find a smorgasbord of breads, cheeses, fish, eggs, salads and vegetables (especially cut cucumbers and tomatoes, often referred to as “Israeli salad”). Dinner is often the same sort of fare. Lunch is traditionally the big meal of the day, usually involving meat.

American Food: Yes, it is true: there are pizza, bagel and hamburger places all over the country and all of the major chain fast-food restaurants such as McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Sbarro and more. Surprisingly, Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts did not last long in Israel; somewhat less surprising is that American beer has not made an inroads either. Because Israelis love hamburgers, “Burger Bars” have started to appear all over the country. Unfortunately decent (or even bad) Mexican food which is hard to come by; Israel is still waiting for the arrival of Taco Bell.

hummousA bowl of hummous. Each Israeli has his/her favorite local place.

Kosher Food: Many, but not all, of the restaurants in Israel keep the Jewish dietary laws (called “kashrut” or “kosher”). Those that do post a certificate near the entrance. Sometimes restaurants keep the dietary laws but stay open on the Jewish Sabbath (which lasts from sundown Friday until darkness falls on Saturday) and holidays, which bars them from receiving a kosher certification. The main rules of kashrut are not cooking/eating milk and meat products together, which means that kosher restaurants will serve either dairy or meat but not both. Fish are not considered to be meat and thus fall under a third category called “pareve.” Certain animals like pig and shrimp are banned. Even animals that are permitted must be ritually slaughtered in order to minimize their pain. Muslims also have ritual slaughtering called “halal” and many will eat kosher meat.

More information on wining and dining in Israel.