Israel in detail

Eating

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.

The Basics

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.

Kosher & Halal

Traditionally, Jews and Muslims observe strikingly similar sets of dietary laws, the former known as kosher (kasher), the latter as halal. Both religions allow only certain species of animal to be eaten, with pigs considered to be the most unclean of all the beasts, and have the same basic rules for slaughter: a blessing is recited and animals are killed while fully conscious, their throats slit with a sharp, non-serrated blade.

In addition, keeping kosher involves:

  • Refraining from the consumption of mammals that do not both have cloven hoofs and chew their cud (cattle, sheep and goats are fine); seafood (shrimp, lobster, squid etc); amphibians, reptiles and insects (except locusts); most birds that aren't ducks or geese; and those few types of fish that lack fins and/or scales (eg eels and catfish).
  • Not mixing meat and dairy products (yes, cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza are out).

Food that is neither milk nor meat, such as vegetables and fish, is called parveh (parve) and can be eaten with either milk or meat dishes. Foods to which especially strict standards have been applied are called kasher l'mehadrin. Meat labelled 'glatt kosher' comes from mammals whose lungs have been certified to be 'smooth', ie free of adhesions.

Israeli law does not require restaurants to be kosher – it's up to the owner to arrange (and pay for) kosher certification by the local Rabbinate branch. Kosher restaurants, which must close on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, are almost always either basari (fleyshig in Yiddish; ‘meat’) or chalavi (milchig in Yiddish; 'dairy', ie vegetarian plus fish). In Tel Aviv, kosher restaurants are the exception rather than the rule, whereas in West Jerusalem it can be hard to find a place to eat on Shabbat.

Unlike Judaism, Islam strictly prohibits alcohol. Even foods with trace amounts of alcohol, or whose preparation involves alcohol (eg vanilla extract), are haram (forbidden).

Shabbat Foods

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.

Jewish Festivals & Celebrations

Food is a central feature of all Jewish festivals and celebrations, notable either for its omnipresence (eg on Passover and at weddings) or its absence (during fasts such as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement).

A few weeks before each Jewish holiday, you'll start seeing special foods and dishes in shops and markets.

  • Rosh HaShanah The Jewish New Year begins sweetly with apples dipped in honey, honey cake, sweet round challah bread and pomegranates. Followers of Sephardi and Mizrahi traditions also eat foods such as leek, squash, beet, fritters and a fish head, each punningly associated with a blessing.
  • Yom Kippur The menu consists of nothing at all. About two-thirds of Israeli Jews, both religious and secular, refrain from eating or drinking for 25 hours and then dine in gatherings for a break-the-fast meal.
  • Sukkot Commemorating the Israelites' 40 years of desert wandering after the Exodus, the eight-day holiday of Sukkot is noteworthy less for what is eaten than where: weather permitting, observant Jews take their meals in a sukkah (a rectangular hut with a flat roof made of branches); to find one, head to a kosher hotel or restaurant.
  • Hanukkah Stuff yourself with levivot (latkes in Yiddish; fried potato pancakes) topped with sour cream or apple sauce and sufganiot (jelly-filled doughnuts), an Israeli contribution to the holiday.
  • Tu B’Shevat On the New Year of the Trees, kids and adults eat dried fruits and nuts and plant trees.
  • Purim Oznei haman (‘Haman's ears’; hamantashen in Yiddish) are triangular pastries with a poppy-seed, prune or date filling; they are named after the arch-villain of the Purim story, Haman.
  • Passover (Pesach) Parsley, salt water, bitter herbs (usually horseradish or romaine lettuce), charoset (a sweet paste of grated apple, grated walnuts, sweet wine and chopped dates), a lamb shank bone and a roasted hard-boiled egg symbolise aspects of the Exodus story. Instead of bread, which – along with all leavened foods – is forbidden, there's matzah, unleavened crackers made of just two ingredients: flour and water. (During Passover, Israeli law forbids the sale of bread in Jewish areas.) In Ashkenazi communities, other festive treats include chicken soup with matzah balls (kneydlakh in Yiddish; dumplings made of ground matzah, eggs and oil or chicken fat) and gefilte fish (poached cod or carp balls).
  • Shavuot Judaism's most vegetarian major holiday is a time to dine on dairy. Popular cheese-based dishes include blintzes (stuffed, folded-over crêpes), often topped with sour cream.

Muslim Festivals & Celebrations

During the month of Ramadan, observant Muslims refrain from eating or drinking (or smoking or having sex) during daylight hours, but it's what happens before and, especially, after the fast that turns Ramadan into a culinary festival – and a time when many Muslims actually gain weight! Fasters generally awaken before sunrise to eat because they won’t take food or drink again until the iftar, the festive, break-the-fast family feast at dusk. (In some places, such as the Israeli seaside town of Jisr Az Zarka, organised programs invite paying, non-Muslim guests to the iftar meal.) The best-known Ramadan treat is qatayif, a pancake folded over a cluster of crushed nuts or small mound of cheese and drizzled with sugar syrup.

On Eid Al Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), Muslims traditionally sacrifice an animal, often a lamb or sheep, as an act of thanksgiving for God’s mercy. Not surprisingly, lamb or mutton are often on the menu.

When a baby is born, relatives might prepare mughly, a spice-laden rice pudding said to aid lactation. During periods of mourning, bitter Arab coffee replaces the sugared variety.

On major holidays and celebrations, sweet pastries are everywhere. Keep an eye out for maamoul (grainy cookies made of buttery semolina and stuffed with dates or nuts) and a host of honeyed pastries and sweets, including baklava, that are carried to the homes of relatives and friends in wrapped bakery trays.

Where to Eat

Tel Aviv and neighbouring Jaffa have become international-calibre dining destinations, with food options for every budget, including a bumper crop of high-end brasseries and mis'adot shef (restaurants whose decor and dishes reflect the chef's larger-than-life personality). Jerusalem, too, has plenty of dining choices but, with a few exceptions, the standard is far below that of Tel Aviv. In other parts of the country, dining experiences well worth trying include seafood in Akko, traditional Arab cuisine in Haifa and the Galilee, locally raised steak on the Golan and meat-free meals in vegetarian Moshav Amirim in the Upper Galilee.

Most Jewish restaurants are kosher, which means that, except for those in hotels, they're closed on Shabbat. Elsewhere in Israel, the vast majority of establishments offering fine dining are not kosher and so stay open seven days a week – and may serve milk and meat together, seafood and even 'white meat' (the Israeli euphemism for pork).

Heavenly Hummus

Vegetarian Bonanza

Few countries offer a better selection of vegetarian options than Israel. Street food includes falafel, sabich and boureka; almost all restaurants serve giant – and often creative – salads; and even in grilled-meat joints and meat-heavy Arab and Levantine eateries, the mezze-style appetisers can serve as a remarkably inexpensive vegetarian meal.

Breakfast

Hotels, guesthouses and even hostels really shine come breakfast time. Most serve generous smorgasbords that include eggs, matjes herring, pickled herring, soft and hard cheeses, vegetable salads, green olives, jams, breads, breakfast cereals and hot drinks.

Based on the dining traditions of the kibbutzim, whose members often worked in the still-cool fields for several hours before breakfast, the 'Israeli breakfast' has become a much loved feature of the local hotel scene; variants are on offer in cafes and restaurants.

Falafel Sauce

'Im hareef v'amba?' the busy falafel guy asks. What he wants to know is whether you'd like s'chug (fiery Yemenite hot pepper paste) and amba (Iraqi-style mango chutney) shmeared inside or dripped on your falafel. Unless you're an old hand or a masochist, the prudent answer is 'ktzat' (a bit).

Taboun

Palestinian Arabs, Bedouin and Druze often bake their breads in a taboun (clay oven), also used for pizzas and bourekas (stuffed, flaky Balkan pastries).

Breakfast Eggs

A question you’re likely to hear at breakfast time: would you like betzei ayin (sunny-side-up eggs), beitzim mekushkashot (scrambled), a chavita (omelette) or just a plain beitza kasha (hard-boiled egg)?

Cheese

Favourite cheeses include gvina Bulgarit (Bulgarian cheese, similar to feta), gvina Tsfatit (a soft, set cheese, originally from Tsfat), gvinat emek (a yellow cheese) and deliciously creamy cottage cheese, so popular that price rises set off a consumer boycott and Knesset inquiries in 2011.

Three Ms

Lebanese and Palestinian specialities include the 'three Ms': majadra (rice and lentils garnished with fried onions), mansaf (lamb cooked in sour yoghurt and served atop rice) and makloubeh (layers of stewed chicken or lamb, rice and vegetables, turned 'upside down' before serving).

Resources

Two useful websites listing thousands of restaurants, cafes and bars:

  • www.restaurants-in-israel.co.il
  • www.restaurants.co.il