In the Summer of 2018, I had the absolute privilege of traveling to Israel through the Taglit Birthright Israel program. Birthright Israel sponsors free, ten day trips for young Jewish Americans to explore their heritage. There are several Birthright Trip Organizers and various trip themes that you can choose to best suit your interests. Naturally, I chose a culinary-focused “Food and Wine Tours” theme. I was able to travel with the Israel Experts trip organizer. While the entire experience was memorable, nothing brings me back to the streets of Tel Aviv, the white stone walls of Jerusalem, or the desert heat of Negev like the incredible foods I encountered. Check out this post to hear about my favorite Israeli foods and the different markets, cuisines and flavors I encountered.
(Sadly, my husband, Scott, had to sit this one out. [He's not Jewish]. Don't worry - he had a simultaneous road trip of his own and enjoyed plenty of delicious quesadillas on the Lake Tahoe Phish lot. If you know, you know!)
Also, before you keep reading - I just want to be clear. This post is not sponsored, in any way. I am sharing my personal views focused on my best bites on Birthright. If you'd like to hear more about my personal experiences with Birthright or traveling with Israel Experts, feel free to reach out to me directly!
The Land of Milk and Honey: A Glimpse of Israeli Food Culture
Much like American food culture, Israel is a true melting pot for various styles of cuisine. The common foods of Israel are often influenced from Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African cuisines. The land of Israel is home to several religions, cultures and peoples. While it would be impossible to mention all of the influences of Israeli food culture, here are a few of the religions, peoples and cultures that I witnessed shaping the modern Israeli food scene.
The Many Influences of Israeli Food Culture
- Kosher (Jewish) - When complying with Jewish kosher diets, shellfish, rabbit and pork products are forbidden. While I did see pork in one or two of the marketplaces, I found most restaurants and vendors to be Kosher Certified.
- Druze - In Northern Israel, in the Golan Height region, a small group of Druze peoples maintain strict religious beliefs and deep cultural ties. Of course, they also harbor a unique food culture. Dishes of rice, lentils and bulgar are common. When I was there, we made our own laffa (similar to pita bread) in a small, domed pizza oven. The flatbread, topped with za’atar, is reminiscent of our own Perfectly Puffed Pita Pocket recipe.
- Bedouin - In the Southern deserts of Israel, a nomadic Arab tribe of Bedouin peoples reside. With a long history of herding animals, the Bedouin people have long lived off the meats and byproducts of sheep, goat and camel. With Israel’s modern irrigation, fresh fruits and vegetables like zucchini, tomatoes, figs and dates are now Bedouin diet staples, as well.
Surrounding Countries Influences
- Yemen - Around the 1950’s tens of thousands of Yemeni people were brought to Israel. Without getting into the political points of this operation, today, hundred’s of thousands of Jewish Yemenites are living in Israel. They have shared various culinary delights that have influenced Israels’s food culture. Among those delights is my personal favorite, zhug: a spicy, green, hot sauce.
- Ethiopia - Israel is also home to a considerable population of Ethiopian Jews. These Ethiopian descendants celebrate their African roots through food with communal-style feasts. These feasts are served with their traditional injera - a sour, spongy flatbread. Ethiopian restaurants serve injera alongside slow braised meat stews, berbere spiced vegetables and brightly colored lentils.
- Iraq - Sabich, arguably Israel’s favorite street food (move over, falafel balls!), is based off of the traditional Iraqi breakfast. This breakfast-turned-pita-sandwich is comprised of fried eggplant, hard boiled eggs and amba - a sweet and sour condiment of pickled mango and turmeric.
- The Balkans - The Balkan Peninsula is home to a vast expanse of unique cultures and traditions. In Israel, The Balkans are represented with lots of vegetables, olive oils, yogurts, feta and the beloved rotisserie-style döner kebabs.
- Palestine, Jordan, Syria & Lebanon - I, by no means, intend to group all of these places into the same culture or cuisine. Each of these places, (including Israel) have their own unique culture and cuisines. However, many of the foods that have become beloved staples of Israeli cuisine, actually originated from these Arab Middle Eastern nations. To name a few, falafel, hummus and tabouleh all have origins outside of Israel. Even the Israeli salad, as mentioned below, has Arab origins.
- Vegan & Vegetarianism - Israeli’s love their vegetables and their cuisine relies heavily on vegetarian and/or vegan foods. For instance, chickpeas, lentils, bulgar, eggplant, cucumbers and tomatoes are all prominent Israeli foods. In fact, according to Google, Israel’s population is 13% vegetarian - one of the highest percentages for any nation in the world.
- Globalization - Like most major cities and travel destinations, globalization plays a huge role on the overall food scene. Today, global cuisines like Italian pastas, German schnitzels, American hamburgers and Japanese sushi can all be found in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and beyond.
If there is one single plate of food that would best represent the nation of Israel, I would argue that it is the classic Israeli breakfast. In Israel, breakfast is one of the grandest and most important meals of the day. (Lunch can also be quite grand, but dinner is rather minimal.) Traditionally, breakfast in Israel is kosher (complying to Jewish dietary laws) and does not contain any meat. However, Israeli breakfast is abundant with fresh vegetables and dairy products.
Theses savory morning meals typically consisted of classic Israeli salad, cheeses, tahini, hummus, labne and various bread products. The breakfast foods were served with Israeli coffee. Israeli coffee is a mud-style coffee reminiscent of the thick, finely ground Turkish coffee. These brews were infused with cardamom and served in tiny, espresso-like cups.
When we first arrived in Israel, our Birthright group was brought directly to a goat farm, just West of Jerusalem. There, we experienced our first Israeli breakfast. I had my first taste of authentic Israeli salad, fresh baked breads, hummus and several varieties of farm-fresh goat cheese. Please excuse the amateur photos...I wasn't planning on becoming a food blogger back then!
The Power of Irrigation: From Arid Desert to Bountiful Oasis
It is no secret that the State of Israel is home to the some to the World's most outstanding technological advances. (I mean, Iron Dome, come on.) Among the technology they have offered to the world is revolutionizing drip irrigation systems. Unlike flood irrigation, drip irrigation is incredibly efficient with very little water loss. Besides sustainability, drip irrigation is also suitable for dry, sandy soils such as those common throughout the Middle East.
I think it is important to recognize that much of Israeli food culture is due, at least in part, to their unlimited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In fact, with the power of drip irrigation systems implemented in the 1960's, Israel now supplies all of their own food. Unlike the surrounding countries, Israel does not rely on any imports to feed their people. This is incredible. Especially considering less than twenty percent of the State of Israel is arable and over sixty percent is arid climate desert. Furthermore, Israel even produces subtropical fruits such as mango, passionfruit and avocado. Remarkably, these subtropical delicacies are so successful, many are exported throughout Europe.
The Salad Trail: Making the Desert Bloom
I was fortunate to learn a lot about Israel's irrigation systems while traveling on Birthright. You can learn more about how irrigation has transformed Israel's agricultural and food scenes, here. Israel's former Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion had a dream to cultivate Israel's desert bloom. It appears as though this dream has come true, after all.
When we traveled to the Negev desert, we had the chance to witness the power of irrigation first hand. The Salad Trail is more than just a tourist destination. On this two and a half acre desert farm, greenhouses are filled with vibrant produce. We had the pleasure of plucking carrots fresh from the dirt. We walked and grazed through colorful greenhouses, abundant with vertically grown cherry tomatoes and strawberries. Dozens of varieties of herbs filled the hothouses with aromatics of essential oils. Owner and agriculturist, Uri, spoke passionately about The Salad Trail's contribution to Israeli food culture. Should you ever travel to Negev, I can highly recommend a stop at the bountiful Salad Trail.
Shopping at the Shuk: Outdoor Markets of Israel
Of all of my experiences throughout Israel, nothing excited my senses like the bustle and bounty of their outdoor marketplaces. These markets, sometimes called a shuk in Hebrew, seemed to be the heartbeat of every city and town we visited. Narrow streets and alleys came to life with vendors umbrellaed under colorful tapestries. Everything from art, to household goods and clothing, to produce and prepared foods were sold and haggled for.
I could hear the banter of a dozen languages, the sizzle or street foods and the whirring of blenders whizzing sweet, fresh fruits into refreshing juices. Thousands of smells filled the markets and one moment I was breathing in the aroma of freshly-roasting coffee beans. Next, I was mesmerized by warm spices hitting a hot pan. Keep going, and I could smell the baklava still warm from the oven. I could feel the energy of the busy locals bustling around me, select the ripest pomegranate in the palm of my hand and, in the same moment, admire the hand painted pottery stacked on tiny stands. Looking around, I saw handmade jewelry, paintings, piles of intensely colored spices, olives and candies at every turn.
But, oh, the food. Nothing compares to the sensational tastes and flavors so humbly created in the Israeli markets. Local vendors serve the most flavorful dishes on napkins and paper plates. Falafel balls are fried fresh to order. Shawarma is shaved generously into fresh baked pita. Syrup soaked kataifi (shredded phyllo dough) pastries are sprinkled with pistachios and gently shatter beneath the crunch of your teeth. Hummus (pronounced with a throaty "hoo-moose") was the silkiest I'd ever tasted. Every bite was better than the last.
Best Bites on Birthright: Must Try Israeli Foods
Needless to say, I fell in love with the many foods of Israel. I couldn't try them all, but I can't wait to go back and try again. Here are some of my favorite Israeli food recommendations and must-try bites!
- Hummus - Hummus is a chickpea puree that is typically flavored with lemon juice, garlic and tahini (sesame). Much more than a snacking dip, hummus was served at breakfast and on sandwiches, and kebab plates.
- Pita (AKA Syrian Bread) or Laffa Bread - A fluffy, yeast-leveled flatbread that has become paramount to Israeli food culture. Check out our own recipe and guide for Perfectly Puffed Pita Pockets to bring the taste of Israel into your own kitchen.
- Israeli Salad - A chopped salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, onion, olive oil and spices was served at breakfast, stuffed in pita pockets of topped with grilled meats.
- Sabich - This Iraqi inspired sandwich won the heart of many fellow Birthright-ers. For this sandwich, pita is stuffed with fried eggplant, hard boiled eggs, parsley, tahini, chopped vegetables and amba.
- Labne - This thick, strained yogurt, sometimes called yogurt cheese, is the perfect, tangy addition to any mezze platter or street food sandwich.
- Challah - This slightly sweet, braided yeast bread is a staple of Jewish cuisine and often served at Shabbat dinners.
- Falafel - The best fried chickpea fritters are green with fresh ground herbs. Personally, I like falafel pita pockets topped with hummus, Israeli salad and amba. In addition, yogurt sauce, herbs, fried potatoes and tahini were also popular toppings.
- Amba - This tangy condiment is made from mango pickled in vinegar and seasoned with turmeric, chilis and fenugreek. I fell in love with my first taste of amba at a gas station falafel stand. Nothing in The States compares, and I'll never be the same.
- Khachapuri - A boat-shaped bread filled with cheeses and a sunny-side egg has origins from Georgia but has recently become quite popular with bloggers. Though not the traditional preparation I tried in Jerusalem, Tiegahn from Half Baked Harvest has a great recipe for this cheesy delight.
- Baklava / Kataifi - An Ottoman Empire dessert consisting of layers of phyllo dough layered with nuts and soaked in honey or syrup. These pastries took on several new-age flavor combinations and presentations and were shuk show-stoppers.
- Halvah - A somewhat chalky confection made from sweetened ground sesame seeds. Halva stands showcased dozens of flavor combinations in the local marketplaces. While a somewhat acquired taste, I love halva baked into brownies or whipped into milkshakes.
- Pomegranate - You must try the fresh pomegranate available in Israel's markets! The tart juice is the perfect way to start your day! Furthermore, pomegranate arils makes a lovely addition to salads and desserts!
- Kanafeh - I still dream about the kanafeh I had on my last afternoon in Israel. A sweet, stretchy cheese is topped with shredded phyllo dough (kataifi), soaked in rose water syrup and sprinkled with pistachios. It may sound strange to the American palette, but let me assure you, when served warm, it is not to be missed!
- Malabi - I first tried malabi while working at Oleana Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was love at first bite. When I saw it on the menu at Bicicletta, in Tal Aviv- I couldn't resist. Malabi is a chilled milk pudding topped with rose water and pistachios. It is the perfect Summertime dessert and is traditionally used to break the fast on Yom Kippur. While I'm not sure this dessert is still on either restaurant's menu... I am happy to recommend them both!
A Taste of Israel at Home
If you can't make it to Israel to experience these flavors for yourself, we hope you will be inspired to try some of these foods at home. Israeli cuisine is inspiring chefs all over the world. If you look, you can probably find many of the mentioned foods in your nearest city. Better yet, try experimenting with these flavors and cooking Israeli food at home! Need some recipes? Comment below on which of these foods you'd like to see a recipe for in the foodworthfeed archives. For now, let us tide you over with our Perfectly Puffed Pita Pockets: Recipe and Guide. Also, check out one of our favorite hummus variation recipes...Spinach Hummus with Lemon Artichokes! There is an easy How-To Video on YouTube and the post!