From traditional Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food to Franco-Israeli fusion, Israel is a food-lovers delight, with tiny hole-in-the-wall eateries, trendy bistros and high-end restaurants that would give any European city a run for its money. Restaurants offer a vast smorgasbord of delicious dishes, some of them hard to find outside the region, many of them vegetarian and all of them – including innovative fusion variants – likely to intrigue your taste buds.
If there is one thing that is guaranteed about a stay in Israel, it is that you will not go hungry. It is normally not necessary to book in advance except at the very top-end outlets.
- Restaurants Israel’s diversity means that whether it is Levantine, Russian, European or South American, international-Israeli dining options abound.
- Cafes Like European cities, cafes line the trendier streets of Israel’s cities and are a great place for a bite and a spot of people watching.
- Bakeries From the ubiquitous bagels to buttery challah, Israeli bakeries are something to behold.
- Falafel stands Do as the locals do and grab a cheap and filling sandwich on the go.
What to Eat
- Hummus Made of cooked chickpeas, this creamy paste is beloved across religious, political and cultural boundaries. Made to be dipped or scooped up with fresh pita bread, it is often served with warm fuul (fava beans), whole boiled chickpeas or tahini (sesame seed paste); Arabs sometimes serve it with ground meat. One difference: while Jews eat hummus all day long, Arabs traditionally take their (warm) hummus in the morning or early afternoon.
- Olives Especially popular for breakfast and dinner, olives come in a wide variety of styles very different than their Greek, Italian or Spanish cousins. Sold from vats in both markets and supermarkets, one particularly tasty variety to look for is surim d’fukim (cracked Tyre olives).
- Falafel Deep-fried balls made of ground chickpeas, best when piping hot. They are typically served inside a pita or wrapped in a laffa (flat pita) along with hummus and/or tahina, tomato, cucumber, pickle slices, a hot condiment such as Yemenite s’chug and, sometimes, sauerkraut.
- Sabich Falafel’s upstart rival consists of deep-fried eggplant, egg, boiled potato, cucumber, tomato, chopped parsley and tahina tucked into a pita; traditionally eaten by the Jews of Iraq on Shabbat morning.
- Shawarma Chicken, turkey or lamb grilled on a giant spit and sliced in layers before being stuffed into a pita – the ultimate street food.
- Grilled meats On sunny weekends you’re likely to see families in parks gathered around a mangal (portable brazier) chargrilling red meat, served with pita and hummus. Many Jewish- and Arab-run restaurants specialise in grilled meats – keep an eye out for kebab (ground meat balls on a skewer), shishlik (lamb or chicken chunks on a skewer), me’urav yerushalmi (‘Jerusalem mixed grill’: heart, liver, spleen and other chicken bits grilled on a plancha) and goose liver.
- Labneh A creamy, sour, yoghurt-type cheese, eaten with pita or laffa, that’s smothered in olive oil and sprinkled with zaatar (a blend of local spices that includes hyssop, sumac and sesame).
- Bourekas Savoury, flaky Balkan pastries, often triangular, filled with salty Bulgarian cheese, mashed potatoes, mushrooms or spinach.
- Shakshuka A spicy egg and tomato stew, usually eaten for breakfast.
- Kibbeh Minced lamb or beef encased in bulgur wheat to create a dumpling shaped like an American football. Iraqi and Kurdish Jews eat kibbeh made with semolina in a tangy soup.
- Jachnun Rolled-up, buttery dough slow baked in a pot and served with grated tomatoes and s’chug hot paste; traditionally eaten by the Jews of Yemen on Shabbat morning.
- Dates Varieties include the yellowish, translucent dekel nur (deglet nur) and the giant medjoul. In the fall you’ll see plump, unripe yellow dates for sale – freezing them shortly before consumption takes away the pucker effect.
Israeli families from across the religious spectrum keep the ancient tradition of dining together on Erev Shabbat (Sabbath eve). On Friday evening, parents, children and grandchildren gather for a festive dinner, often after a battle of wills between in-laws over who gets to host the married children. In many homes, even secular ones, the lighting of the Shabbat candles is followed by Kiddush, the blessing over the wine. Traditional main dishes among Ashkenazim include chicken, or couscous for families with roots in North Africa.
All work, including cooking, is forbidden on Shabbat, which runs from 18 minutes before sundown on Friday (36 minutes before in Jerusalem) to one hour after sundown on Saturday. As a result, the only hot foods that could traditionally be eaten for Saturday lunch – we’re talking about the time before the invention of the electric hot plate – were slow-cooked dishes put on the fire the night before. That’s how Jews in different communities around the world came up with hamin (tsholent in Yiddish), a rich, stick-to-your-ribs stew usually made with potatoes, meat, beans, barley, chickpeas and hard-boiled eggs.