To me, the food in Israel felt so familiar yet unique. Maybe because, similar to here in Los Angeles, there are flavors, ingredients, techniques, and recipes from a ton of different cultures. In the case of Israel, the mix is mostly Middle Eastern, North African, Mediterranean, and European Jewish. That means you can find North African shakshuka and Middle Eastern hummus, but you see local chefs using those influences to make something modern and creative.
This trip was my first time to Israel and, even though it's a pretty small place (just a tad bigger than New Jersey), there is a ton to see. I headed north to the Galilee and Sdot Yam, but I really got to know Jerusalem and Tel Aviv well. In my 10 days there, I ate, sip, and Instagrammed, and was inspired to get in the kitchen and recreate many of the dishes. Of all my bites and sips, these are the 25 most memorable foods that I ate:
One of the things I usually miss most when I travel are good-quality greens. That was not an issue at all in Israel—especially in the north where every lettuce I met was picture perfect, like these greens from Farma Cultura in Bnei Zion.
Olives (And Olive Oil)
As an Italian-American who grew up in California, it's possible my circulation system actually pumps olive oil so I'll admit: I'm a fan. The Israelis are equally into olives and use them for everything from cooking-friendly olive oils to salads and tapenades. There were plenty of more mainstream olives (Kalamatas and Castelvetranos), they also have regional varietals such as Souri and Nabali. A great place to try tons of varieties is at the various stands at Tel Aviv's Sarona Market.
Cherry Tomatoes (And Persian Cucumbers)
Speaking of being Italian-American, I've always claimed that Italy and California are tied for the best tasting tomatoes. But I gotta admit: Israel gives them a run for their money. There's a je ne sais quoi to the soil and climate that makes for particularly delicious produce. And, of everything I tried, the tomatoes and cucumbers were the best. And the best of the best were the grape tomatoes I bought at the Tel Aviv Port Farmers Market (aka Shuk HaNamal, which, fun fact, was started by my culinary school classmate)!
While kohlrabi is only just taking off in the United States, the Israelis are all about it. If you've never had kohlrabi, it's like a slightly sweet, crisp version of cabbage and can be eaten raw or cooked (once you trim and peel it). Most of the time I got it in Israel, it was served raw in salads, but my favorite was this Kohlrabi Carpaccio from Aluma Restaurant in Maalot-Tarshiha.
Super Fresh Seafood
Seafood is clearly a big thing in Israel with fish from all over the region from bonito to John Dory to scallops and octopus. Some of the freshest fish we saw was at the newly-opened Sarona Market fish shop and the best seafood-centric meal we had was at the Tel Aviv seaside institution Manta Ray.
My biggest weakness is a good loaf of bread so I'm always on the lookout for baked goods when I head somewhere new. In Israel the bread—be it challah, a seeded loaf, pita, jachun, or lafa—was excellent across the board. A discovery for me on this trip was the flaky Yemenite Jewish flatbread known as malawach. We had it at Saluf & Sons in Tel Aviv's Levinsky Market area along with a tomato sauce, tons of zhug (spicy green chile sauce), and a few cold beers.
If you've hung around here long enough, you know I love me some baked eggs, especially shakshuka. It's eggs baked in a slightly spicy tomato sauce and it's pretty much a breakfast staple in Israel along with tahini and Israeli salad Israeli salad (red onions, cucumbers, and bell peppers). One of my favorites was this artichoke shakshuka with calamari that we were served at a weekend brunch hosted by Eat With and chef Ofir Kaminkovsky.
The stew known as kubbeh (pronounced coo-bae for the uninitiated) looks a lot like borscht and the truth is, I've never loved borscht. The good news (for me, at least) is that this stew of Iraqi Jewish origin is definitely not borscht. The stews namesake are kubbeh dumplings, which are semolina or bulgur stuffed with ground meat. Most versions I saw served the dumplings in a slightly tangy beet broth like this one I tried at Jerusalem's Shuk Machane Yehuda.
I can tell you that I've never—not once—ever thought of slow-cooking zucchini the way that I saw it done in Israel. I've seen them stuffed, braised, grilled, roasted, and sauteed. But in Israel I saw chef after chef do this technique: they'd braise the baby zucchini (which are particularly tasty over there, btw) in a broth-brine mix then cook them with olive oil and finish them off with an obscene amount of herbed yogurt.
In addition to the braised zucchini situation, it seemed like everyone was making some variation on fish crudo. Some versions were made with fresh fish (during a Shabat dinner at Kibbutz Sdot Yam) while others were made with preserved fish. The most exceptional dish was this palamida (a type of bonito), greens, and potato appetizer we were served by chef Chef Yossi Shitrit at Kitchen Market upstairs at Tel Aviv's Shuk HaNamal.
I am not sure cauliflower has ever been such a hot topic of conversation until celebrity chef Eyal Shani started making this charred cauliflower. At his Tel Aviv restaurant, (Abraxas North) Tzfon Abraxas, the cooking is simple but sensational and most everything has a lick of flames thanks to the open oven. And I gotta say this charred cauliflower was so spot-on that I ate half of it within minutes and have been making my own take on the dish of it ever since.
Feta Red Pepper Brûlée
Within hours of landing, we headed to Tel Aviv's lively Levinsky Market neighborhood for an even more lively dinner at Dalida. The dishes kept arriving and each was better than the last from Arak Mojitos to an addictive zucchini salad. But the dish that stole the show was their spicy, sweet, salty red pepper feta dip that was topped with a crackly, brûléed sugar crust.
I had my eyes on the prize when it came to Sabich. This dish is of Iraqi Jewish origins and when made right—with super fluffy bread, delicious hummus, grilled eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, potato, salads, and loads of condiments (like the fenugreek-mango pickle known as amba)—it's a showstopper. From my experience, no one quite stops the show like the folks making sabich at Tel Aviv's Sabich Tcherinovsky.
Lots of Legumes (Ful and Lupine)
When I visited friends in Lebanon, we'd have Ful Mudammes for breakfast on the regular, but I'd never had it served like this before. At the Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv, a street vendor combined cooked dried favas with lupine beans, cumin, and lemon juice (the corn nut and wasabi peas were extras!) for a simple but delicious snack.
Speaking of legumes, I love chickpeas. As in capital L-O-V-E them. So every time I've been to the Middle East I've had chickpeas and hummus morning, noon, and night. There are as many variations on hummus as there are stars in the sky, but the common denominator in Israel is that it's more of a meal than as a starter as evidenced by this spread we got at Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. That means you get a huge bowl of hummus with pita and some zhug, Israeli salad, and a few falafel for good measure.
Look, I'm not usually much of a juice drinker but I was in Israel. Every time we were served juice—be it fresh squeezed citrus juice or a green juice—it was beyond. But my favorite juices of the trip were from Uzi-Eli juice stand near Shuk HaCarmel. He serves all sorts of curative juices though a lot of people go for the gat.
Perhaps because I grew up drinking Italian anisette I've always liked anise-flavored liqueur, which is probably why I enjoy Arak. This anise-flavored liqueur is drank all over the region but there tend to be a high proportion of shoddy versions of the liqueur. While doing a bar crawl in Tel Aviv's Levinsky Market area we had a bunch of excellent versions of Arak, but one of my favorite ways was served as an Arak Mojito at Dalida.
Back in college I tried my first Israeli wine during a tasting and remember the region for its bold and bracing reds. On this trip, I got a taste of a more mature, evolved wine culture. And, seeing as not a ton of Israeli wine is exported, I tried every wine I met, with everything from kosher wines to big reds and white wines that could be straight out of Burgundy. The most extensive wine tasting we did was at the Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem and a few wines I really enjoyed were the 2014 Avivim white by Galil winery and the 2013 Jezreel Carignan.
Most of the time I turn to cocktails and wine but the craft beer scene in Israel is so big that it demanded my attention. Over the few weeks I was there, I tried a lot of beer—even had an afternoon tasting session at Tel Aviv's Beer Bazaar one day—and my favorites of the lot were Jem's and Malka.
I first tried halvah was when I set foot in Turkey back in junior high and I've been into it ever since. In Israel, I was gifted halvah by pretty much everyone I met and almost every time they'd say, "this is from Halvah Kingdom—it's the best." After trying just a fraction of Halvah Kingdom's flavors (there are over 100!), I understood the fuss. And then, of course, I bought a huge slab to bring home with me.
Just Sweet Enough Ice Cream
I don't have a big sweet tooth so I loved that most the desserts in Israel were just sweet enough. I had all sorts of ice cream flavors—halvah, pistachio, salted caramel, chocolate—but the most interesting was this hyssop-citrus sorbet we made with the owners of Bouza Ice Cream shop in Maalot-Tarshiha.
This Turkish dessert is a creamy pudding that's pretty similar to panna cotta and it's a great sweet snack. At Ha'Malabiya Cafe (on Gedera Street near Allenby) at the entrace of Shuk Ha Carmel in Tel Aviv, they serve it topped with anything from cookies to nuts and various syrups for a classic but personalized take on the classic dessert.
Knafeh and Kadayif
One of my favorite Arabic desserts is the cheese and puff pastry dessert known as knafeh and the versions in Israel were excellent. All throughout Jaffa and in the Shuk HaCarmel market the vendors sold it as well as its sister dessert, kadayif, made with puff pastry and pistachios.
I know this list is long but I really only scratched the surface on this trip. There were a ton of bakeries and street food places I didn't get around to not to mention lots of restaurants! If you have a favorite dish you tried in Israel, let me know what it is and where to get it in the comments below!
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