Complex, vibrant, ancient and bright. These are the words that come to mind when thinking about Israel after my recent trip with non-profit Vibe Israel. It’s a place where so many histories and religions are woven together, often leaving their footprints in the local culture and cuisine. And when it comes to food, Israel, both modern and ancient, really comes into its own. It’s a melting pot where cultures come together, blending great quality fresh produce with healthful mindsets, involved preparation and tradition into a cuisine like no other.
Dining as a tourist in Israel, you’ll be exposed to the wonders of all kinds of new spices, herbs, ingredients and cooking methods. We experienced the oldest food cultures along with the new. Keep on reading to find out more about the flavors and cultures of Israel, as well as a few recommendations for the best places to eat.
Disclaimer: This trip was in part provided in partnership with Vibe Israel.
Israeli Food: A Cuisine of Many Cultures
One of the first things you notice about Israel is that Mediterranean, Jewish, Levantine and Middle Eastern cuisines influence restaurants and home cooking. The fusion of several cultures and the abundance of good quality ingredients have brought variety to the region. The flavors are savory, spicy, lemony, garlicky, sweet & fragrant. Every restaurant is an adventure, just like every hole in the wall cafe is memorable.
The Bible lists seven foods that were grown in the area: dates, grapes, olives, figs, pomegranates, wheat and barley. Amazingly enough, these ancient foods and the products made from them, like flatbreads and honey, are still found throughout the cuisine of Israel.
There are many unexpected and completely unknown parts of Israeli culture. For me, one of those completely unknown aspects was the Druze, a small religious community from the Carmel and Golan regions of Israel. We got to visit and learn about the Druze, while being hosted by Mona Shahin. She taught us about their history and culture whilst teaching us about their food. We made a huge communal meal, cooking, eating and sharing together. The dishes involved intense preparation — laboriously coring zucchini and stuffing them with vine leaves, rolling dough for flatbreads, grinding spices, cooking over coals and flames — but in this preparation, came a sense of history and community.
The aromas of Druze cuisine will make you see vegetables in a whole new way: as something to worship and take care in preparing. As a whole, all Israeli cuisines offer great vegetarian and even vegan options. In the Druze meal which we prepared, where there was meat, it was used sparingly and with care. This is something I think we could do to incorporate in our own food cultures at home.
Another thing which I learned a lot about in Israel was, of course, the art of keeping Kosher. Keeping Kosher is important to traditional Jewish people around the world, and nowhere more so than in Israel. Keeping Kosher involves conforming to dietary law and processing guidelines and excluding pork and shellfish, as well as not mixing meat and dairy. While it might sound restrictive and difficult to follow, a Kosher meal can actually be warm, inviting and culturally rich (nevermind delicious), as I learned at my very first Shabbat dinner.
We had traditional Sabbath dinner with Rottem Lieberson, a famous food blogger and cookbook author from Israel. Whenever I’m traveling, having someone cook for me in their own home and getting to meet their family is always a highlight of my trip. As Rottem’s husband read from the Torah and explained to us why the Sabbath is held, we all felt perfectly accepted and loved. The food, the preparation, the company, and all the traditions swirled together to create the perfect moment.
Traditional Mediterranean Cuisine
Traditional Mediterranean cuisine, some of which we got to taste at Rottem’s house, is flavored by the ingredients produced in the area, like the rich, tasty olive oil. Though we think we know the “Mediterranean diet”, I learned that it is actually very different to the health-focused diet trend popular in the US. Staples of the cuisine have traditionally included all kinds of things verboten in many diet trends, like bread, olive oil, and pasta. In Levantine cuisine, they also include tabbouleh, hummus, and baba ganoush — all of which are very nutritious.
Falafel is another healthy food, originating in the Middle East, that is extremely popular in Israel. I absolutely loved eating this delicious street food wrapped in a pita with all kinds of fascinating toppings. It can also be eaten on its own or dipped in garlic sauce — however you eat it, it’s a tasty, nutritious vegetarian snack. If you try to make it at home, as I will, do not, I repeat, DO NOT use canned chickpeas. It simply will not be the same. Soaked, dried chickpeas are the only option here, though fava beans are sometimes added in other parts of the Middle East.
Contemporary Israeli Food Culture: Bringing Tradition and Inventiveness Together
Contemporary Israeli culture is juxtaposed with the ancient surroundings, making for an interesting and complex restaurant and bar scene. Israeli nightlife is plentiful on the ancient streets of cities like Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv.
Traditional cuisines mix with the latest food trends, and the old world mixes with vibrant youthfulness offering cocktails and small plates. Ramesses in Joffa serves cocktails with Mediterranean cuisine and Beer Bazaar in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem offers over 100 local craft brews and pub favorites.
Breakfast: A Savory Start
Hotels in Israel offer hearty breakfasts, reminiscent of communal dining in a kibbutz. I love the traditional Israeli breakfast dishes, including cheeses, shakshuka (eggs cooked in a spicy tomato base, something I’ll definitely be making at home), fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, salads, yogurt, and hummus, along with coffee, tea, and other beverages. Brunch is also served at restaurants, offering similar fare.
The Building Blocks for Modern Israeli Cuisine: Abundance and Variety in Produce
Because of the various climate zones that span the country, Israel has a completely self-sufficient food system. It also has a huge variety of excellent quality produce, which is showcased in its glorious outdoor marketplaces. A visit to Israel’s open air markets is an absolute must. The air is thick with za’atar, harissa, and cumin — spiced and savory. The fresh produce gleams in a rainbow of colors, and it’s difficult not to touch and taste everything in sight. It’s easy to see why Israel’s modern chefs are so inspired.
My favorite market was the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, which dates back to the Ottoman Empire and is considered a neighborhood in and of itself. It’s brimming with food stalls, shops, cafes, and restaurants. You can even purchase a tasting card for the market or go on one of its tours, which is something I’d seriously consider next time.
A Culture of Health and Bounty
Israel has become a communal table where vibrant flavors meet warm hospitality. Regional foods help create a healthful balance between satisfying, familiar comfort foods and the variety of produce available in the region.
Some of the healthy Israeli habits that I’ll be trying to implement at home include serving salads at most meals, including breakfast, all dressed with fresh, vibrant olive oil, lemon, and spices, and serving fruit simply, either fresh or dried. I’ll also definitely be trying some healthy Israeli recipes at home, like vegetables stuffed with rice and herbs, stewed slowly over a low heat.
The Slow Food Movement and Farm to Table Culture
The slow food movement and farm-to-table culture are present in restaurants like the chandelier-lit vegan restaurants Zakaim and Anastasia in Tel Aviv. Though this is a new name, the slow food movement and farm to table culture are almost older than time here. Food has always been grown with love and prepared with care, no matter how much time or effort it may take. It is just now that we are realizing all the benefits that this way of cooking and eating brings, from health and wellness to community building and environmental strength.
Israel is both an ancient and a modern melting pot of history and culture. This ancient history has made for a fascinatingly complex modern food culture, which, if nothing else, is definitely worth visiting. I’ll never forget my time there. Visiting Israel and experiencing the people, culture and the food is bucket-list worthy. I’m honored that they chose me to come.