Saturday 8 November 2008

israeli food

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

Damascus Gate

Clumps of dry yoghurt for cooking.

Sesame loops

Wonderful pickles from the Arabic Souq in Jerusalem. Don't know what that
mysterious dark purple pickle is, but it's my favourite.
Turns out it's eggplant, .

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 but I have no idea what it is. I've since been told it's eggplant dyed with beetroot juice.

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.


  1. Looking to the pic, i had the feeling i was ther ein Israel.
    My hubby was there for a week years and years ago.

  2. Lovely photos!
    Those purple pickles, believe or not, are eggplant pickles! I have no idea how they make them so purple, though. They're mostly sold in cans in Israel.

  3. grainpower - now that i think of it, they definitely had the texture of baby eggplants. they just dye them with beetroot juice i think.
    thank you!!! it has really been driving me crazy.

  4. What I wouldn't give to visit Israel! So much history, so many different cultures. I'm slightly jealous :)

  5. Thank you for reporting from Israel about food. I enjoyed reading your post.

  6. Great post -- just wondering what you found less tasty about Israeli hummus vs Lebanese hummus?

  7. michael - i think i mentioned in the post that israeli hummus had a stronger tahini flavour than the lebanese style hummus. maybe they use more tahini, different tahini, less chickpeas? who knows, it just tasted more like tahini. hope that helps.

  8. I loved Tel Aviv. You didn't speak so much of your experiences there. Did you spend more time away from Tel Aviv?

  9. merry - i spent a few days in tel aviv but i was working most of the time so i didn't get a good sense of the city's vibe. i did eat at a wonderful modern israeli restaurant called raphael which was in one of the major hotels on the beach. even tried some pretty good israeli wines.

  10. wow! What a different culture! I love the look of that salad course too! What an amazing experience.

  11. YUM! This post has made me very hungry! I love middle eastern food, thanks for sharing this trip!

  12. Terrific site. Yum. The eggplant pickle experts are right.

    Next time you're here, though, let me take you for some hummus you won't regret.

  13. Wow! what a great post.your food recipe presentation an eye-pleaser. This Armenian salad looks so beautiful with the colors,I'm sure it'll be a big hit with the all of ages!Although I'm to a big fan of Armenian salad.thank you for shearing your post.

  14. Hi :) I came across with your blog while searching information about isreali food. I found your text and pictures quite interesting!
    About the pickle in the Armenian Salad, though the picture isn't big enough to be sure, it seems to be beetroot: beets are commonly used in the picked form.

  15. borboleta - thanks for reading through it all and enjoying it!
    i know that pickle looks like beetroot but it wasn't. hey, you're talking to an aussie here -we consume more beetroot per capita than any other country! :)
    this pickle was very soft. people in earlier comments have suggested it was eggplant dyed with beetroot juice.
    recalling the flavour, i think they might be right.

  16. yum - how good are the salads and pickles in Israel? I can't wait to go there again and eat them! :)

  17. Hi,I am craving this kind of food! Your pictures and remarks are great....I am almost certain that the pickle you love is made out of turnip. I had this in a Lebonese restaurant. They made them fresh..they are amazing and refreshing!

  18. i heard about a foodie tour in israel. i haven't tried it out but someone let me know if you do:

  19. Just thinking about our upcoming trip to Israel really makes me excited even more. My Jewish friend and his family will be celebrating his son's Bar Mitzvah in Israel, and he has invited me to go with them.

    As someone who also loves eating and discovering new food, I'm looking forward to what the Jewish cuisine has to offer. I know for sure that I'll be discovering a lot.

    Thanks especially to the reflections you've written on this post. They're a big help for me as I get there for the first time. I love the pictures, too.

  20. Great report! I found it because we're just back from Tel-Aviv and I was looking for a recipe of a delicious chocolate cake I tasted there and brought one with me, but cannot find the name, you even have it here on the pastry picture... it has the texture of a cinnamon roll but filled with melted chocolate instead. they told me there that they call it Crunch Chocolat, but cannot find it!!!

  21. Israeli food is sooo tasty. I was satisfied but I couldn't stop eating, gosh!

  22. Shaheem from cape town south africa. great article. i was searching for pictures about jerusalem damascus gate and came across this site. good read!

  23. Hi,

    My fiancé and i just opened a new restaurant review blog in Israel. that should help also for anyone visiting Israel soon.

  24. OMG! I really want to go! But I don't want to go alone so I have to wait to find some friends to go with! I love food! International food, so I will be pleased in Israel!!!! :D

  25. I'm Hungry...
    MIAM MIAM...

    Thank a lot for your beautiful blog...



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