|Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah|
I have blogged about so many overseas trips but it just occurred to me that I never blogged about my Israeli food experiences from May 2007! I am well overdue!
I was very fortunate to visit Israel on a business trip where I managed to see the bustle of Tel Aviv, the quiet charms of Jaffa, Arab food markets in Ramla, agricultural and industrial kibbutzim in the Golan Heights and Galilee, and the crowning jewel: Jerusalem.
Such a new country is naturally comprised of many migrants and Israel is certainly a multicultural environment. Jews from Africa, Middle East, India, Europe and the Americas have melded (or not) with Armenian and Greek Christians, local Arabs and other indigenous groups such as Samaritans (yes, these people aren’t just a Biblical footnote). With them have come a multitude of interesting and unique culinary habits.
For the most part, Middle Eastern and European recipes prevail. Falafels, hummus and tahini are everywhere, as are savoury pastries and breads for Shabbat. In Jerusalem the large Armenian population have also coloured the food landscape and I tried some gorgeous lamb and yoghurt dishes (certainly not Kosher).
Israelis always claim their falafels are the best in world and I was initially sceptical, but I have to say they were the best I’ve ever tasted with crispy, brown crusts and soft, moist, green interiors.
I wasn’t so keen on the local hummus, as they seem to use more tahini than the Lebanese styles I usually eat in Australia. Although I did try some interesting dishes of runny tahini with whole chickpeas that I enjoyed.
Israeli pickles were fantastic! And I mean fantastic! There were so many different kinds and they were all superb: mildly sour and salty with perfect crunchy textures. One of the best I tasted was a deep purple, soft ball which I think was a fruit of some kind (found out it's eggplant!).
So, what surprised me about Israel:
• Secular Israeli people were much more liberal, pragmatic and open-minded than we are led to believe by the news. This was true on almost everything, including Palestine, Lebanon and everything in between. From what they told me, it seems Jews outside Israel are more hardline about these subjects than people inside Israel, which really surprised me.
• I felt safe the entire time I was there. Not a care in the world. Really.
• There were less security checks in obvious places (airports, stations etc) and more security checks in random places (cafes, entertainment areas etc). I guess it’s a reflection on who the real terrorist targets are: civilians.
• The only time I got nervous was at the Wall when an old woman (tourist) started photographing people praying on Shabbat (a HUGE no-no) and a few Hassidic men got very, very angry at everyone and started chasing her. That was quite terrifying.
• For some reason I imagined Israel to be very Western (European/American) but it definitely felt like a Middle Eastern country.
• It seemed like a much more patriarchal society that I had expected. In general, women definitely seemed more submissive than the fiesty stereotypes on TV.
• Muslim Palestinian women seemed to have less community-imposed social restrictions than Orthodox Jewish women. That really surprised me considering how the media portrays women in Islam. Perhaps that's a reflection of my own naivety about both religions.
• After spending time in Jerusalem, the three religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam don’t seem very different at all. Perhaps I’m being trite, but from an outsider's perspective they’re so alike I can’t understand what all the fighting has been about these last few thousand years.
• The country was comprised of soooooo many ethnic groups. It's a visual feast.
• There were soldiers stationed at every bus stop and teenagers wield automatic weapons. It’s quite surreal to see a red-head 18yr old girl careering around on top of a jeep with a massive machine gun in her hands.
• There were so many half-constructed buildings around the country. People had started to build houses and then run out of funds (or security) and abandoned them. It made areas seem like ghost towns. I know this isn’t uncommon in the Middle East, but I guess this goes back to my incorrect assumptions that Israel was going to be more like Europe or the US.
• The Armenian Orthodox priests I met in Jerusalem were very friendly. The Armenian Quarter had warm vibe and I felt quite comfortable there despite it's ultra-traditional slant.
Overall, I had such an enjoyable time and all the people I met (Jews, Muslims and Christians) were all warm, friendly and inviting. I highly recommend visiting Israel if you can.
Following are some of the scenic and foodie highlights.
|A typical alley in the Jerusalem’s Old City. This one is part of the Muslim Quarter.|
|I got lost in the Muslim Quarter and surfaced from an alley-way at Damascus Gate. Clearly I looked out of place so a sweet old man, selling these semolina & almond cakes, gave me free dessert and some directions.|
Northern Israel, near the Sea of Galilee and borders with Jordan and Syria, consists of rolling hills and beige colour schemes.
At Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda markets, European-style pastries are extremely popular among Hassidic families on Shabbat. The market was so vibrant and it was hard to decide what to buy.
|Souq spice shop with an amazing, elaborate decoration. They had everything in there!|
Tel Aviv beach culture. Just don’t take your laptop to the beach to do some work in the open air or gigolos might offer you some “company”, as my colleague unfortunately discovered.
We went for dinner in Jaffa and decided to get some kebabs with salad.
These are 17 of our 25 dishes we received as our salad course. It was so much food I couldn’t get over it.
|Lemonade stall at Ramla markets|
Clumps of dry yoghurt for cooking.
Wonderful pickles from the Arabic Souq in Jerusalem.
mysterious dark purple pickle is, but it's my favourite.
|View from Jerusalem’s walls out to the newer part of the city.|
Lunch of falafels, chopped salad, tahini with chickpeas and a very delicious spicy sauce.
|Pastries with za'atar|
|Beautiful Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah, or Dome of the Rock was finished in 691 and is the oldest existing Islamic building in the world. It’s also contentiously built on the Temple Mount, Judaism most holy site.|
|Lonely Planet recommended the Armenian Tavern in the Old City where I ate this amazing Khaghoghi Derev. Minced meat is spiced then wrapped in vine leaves and served in a type of yoghurty broth. It was good.|
|Armenian salad with yoghurt dressing. Those purple wedges are the pickle I mentioned earlier. |
My favourite all time pickle
|View over Jerusalem|
|This young baker was up early making fresh pita and I asked if I could take a photo. |
Not only did he let me snap him in action, but his father gave me some fresh bread, hot from the oven.
|Wailing Wall on Shabbat|
You’re not allowed to take photos at Shabbat because you’re not supposed to do work and pressing the button on your camera is technically work. It's also respectful not to as well, I suppose. But I did leave the square and took this photo of the Wailing Wall from a high rise very, very far away. It's the most my camera can zoom in (hence blur). The black figures are mostly Hassidic Jews, whereas the swirl of white is young Orthodox Jews singing and dancing in a big circle.
|Mezze - stuffed vine leaves and cabbage rolls|
I couldn’t believe how many different flavours of halva there were.
This dessert is made from sesame paste (tahini) and is almost like a slab of nutty, dense fairy floss.