Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In Love with the Food of Israel

I’m completely in love with the food of Israel.

What’s not to love about a culture that eats salad for breakfast?  Happily and with gusto, I might add.  It’s a nutritionist’s dream—a country with abundantly available fresh, simply prepared local and seasonal foods.  Good food—food that tastes good and is good for you—is the standard, not the exception. 

Because Israel imports very little food from its neighbors, Israelis truly eat seasonal and locally-grown and produced foods as a rule and a necessity.  Food is reasonably priced, meaning healthy, fresh food is affordable for everyone.  And street food—or fast food—can be healthy, real food, like a freshly blended watermelon juice in summer, pomegranate juice in the fall, or a small bag of nuts or olives from the stands found in every street market.  But perhaps most importantly, there is a spirit of hospitality that pervades the country, where people meet and gather over lengthy meals, spending time together and connecting with each other as they nourish their bodies. 

They’re doing it right.

Here are some recommendations on what and where to eat when you visit Israel.  And you should.

We might as well start at the beginning—with breakfast.  Israelis know how to start their day right—standard fare might be eggs with chopped vegetable salad paired with fresh cheeses and olives, or my favorite—shakshuka, a tomato stew with eggs poached in the sauce.  I ordered it off of every menu.

In Tel Aviv, visit the LovEat cafes for the classic Israeli breakfast, including organic, shade-grown coffee and freshly squeezed juice for only 49 sheqels, which is about $12 US.

breakfast at LovEat

Café Sheleg is a must for good music, great breakfast and a hipster vibe.  At Sonia, sit in the lovely outdoor garden and order shakshuka, served with hearty homemade Moroccan bread.  Or, if you’re feeling chic, head to Hotel Montefiore to dine with beautiful people in the Casablanca-inspired dining room.  Their Tunisian Eggs—a riff on shakshuka—is deeply savory and soul-satisfying. 

breakfast at Cafe Sheleg
the garden courtyard at Sonia
Tunesian Eggs
Did I mention the coffee in Israel is very, very good?  And the café culture is prominent.  More people meet over coffee than cocktails.

Speaking of cocktails, Israel nurtures a burgeoning wine industry.  Definitely sample wines from artisan vineyards including Golan Heights Winery, Pelter and the boutique Galileo (my personal favorite).

If you’re a wine—and food!—lover, escape to the Upper Galilee to visit Pausa Inn.  Owners Einat and Avigdor helped launch the Slow Food movement in northern Israel, and their farm and food reflects their passion. They will feed you (very) well, with breakfasts and dinners featuring foods harvested from their own garden, including olives (and their own incredible, buttery olive oil) and pickled kiwis, and from neighboring farms and vineyards. Einat and Avigdor will also introduce you to outstanding local wines, entertain you with stories of life close to the Lebanese border and encourage you to slow down and relax on the farm.  It’s a lovely place.

breakfast at Pausa
relaxing in the vineyard
first course, fresh from the farm
 While you’re visiting Pausa, have lunch at Focaccia in neighboring She’ar Yeshuv, where we found our favorite eggplant dish—fire roasted eggplant so creamy, it smears on bread like butter.  Served on a bed of lemon-spiked tahini and the best olive oil, it’s crazy good. 

charred eggplant, at Focaccia
Eggplant makes a starring role in Israeli cuisine, as does hummus—the dip of chickpeas, tahini and lemon is a ubiquitous presence in every Israeli home and on most menus.  But the best hummus in Israel can be found deep inside the maze of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, at the small, family-owned hummus place.  Walk through Jaffa gate and straight down the Muslim Quarter entrance.  Turn left at the end and it's right there. It has no name.  Swimming in olive oil and topped with herbs and stewed chickpeas, it’s worth getting lost for. 

hummus at Abu Shukri
Hummus is a great example of the delicious, fast and affordable real food options available all over the country.  There are plenty of falafel and shawarma to be found, and half a pita filled with chickpea fritters or sliced lamb accompanied with fresh vegetables, tahini and yogurt can make a fast, satisfying and delicious lunch.

Vanessa's falafel
Snacks most often include fresh or dried fruit, nuts and olives.  To stock up and take some home (which you will want to do!) head to one of the Shuks, or outdoor markets.  Here are some of the ones you shouldn’t miss.

In Jerusalem, shop at the Shuk Mahane Yehuda, where the halva (a sweetened sesame seed paste) from Halva King and flaky burekas (savory pastries filled with cheese, potatoes or spinach) from Marzipan are a must. 

buying burekas
If tasting from the vendors doesn’t satisfy your cravings, have breakfast or lunch at Cafe Mizrachi, which serves gorgeous salads and a very good shakshuka.

shakshuka at Cafe Mizrachi
In Tel Aviv, visit the Shuk Ha'Carmel, a loud and boisterous marketplace selling everything from olives and watermelon to sunglasses and the omnipresent Dead Sea lotion.  Or, head to the port marketplace at the Namal and explore the postcard-perfect shops.

buying halva and pistachios, at the Namal
You can stroll down the streets of Florentin neighborhood and sample the spices, olives, and cheeses at the stands lining the streets.

Or get adventurous and visit Shuk HaTikva, in one of Tel Aviv’s working class neighborhoods, settled by immigrants from countries like Yemen, Iraq, Ethiopia and Russia.  Shopping here proves fresh fruits and vegetables are not elitist. 

watermelon, in season

Iraqi mango sauce
While you’re there, have lunch at the Yemenite diner at the entrance.  Try traditional jahmoun served with tomato puree and a hardboiled egg—or shakshuka, of course, served with flatbread topped with za’atar.  All made more delicious with zhug, a spicy herb sauce.   

shakshuka, with zhug
Here are a few other restaurant recommendations, to help you narrow down your must-taste wish list during your Israeli travels.


No trip to Jerusalem is complete without a meal at Machneyuda, which gets its name (and much of its ingredients) from the Mahane Yehuda market.  Meals here are fanciful, lively affairs complete with loud music and dancing between tables.  Order the tasting menu and enjoy the scene—Elie and I did.

dancing chefs, at Machneyuda
first of a dozen (or so....) courses


Tel Aviv

Delicatessen 79/81 is the perfect spot for breakfast or lunch—or to stop and pick up picnic provisions to go. Their ready-to-eat counter features amazing flatbreads and a variety of salads perfect for the beach.  Be sure to sample their olive and cheese bread stick (delicious!) or one of their sweet treats.

cheese and cured meat selection, at Delicatessen

picnic on the beach, with flatbread & salads from Delicatessen
For dinner, the list of great restaurants is endless, but this will get you started.  If you’re in the mood for handcrafted pasta or pizzas made from seasonal, local ingredients, meet friends and share plates at Ronimotti.

tomato bruschetta, at Ronimotti

For modern and creative Israeli cuisine, visit HaShulchan on Rothschild Avenue. Sit outside on the patio, have a cocktail and enjoy the Tel Aviv scene as much as the food (which is lovely).

beet salad, with the incredibly creamy Israeli cheese
If you want to feel like a local, try to find off-the-beaten path Joz ve Loz, where you can sit outside in the courtyard and sample the daily menu, created each day from market-fresh ingredients.  One of the friendly servers will gladly help you translate from Hebrew—there is no English menu available.

seasonal salad at Joz ve Loz
Or, try the elevated seasonal creations from Oasisthe bright green walls surrounding the open kitchen create a happy evironment for dinner with friends.  Or sit outside, but don't let the mosquitos bite.

fresh herb salad with duck, at Oasis
Jaffa (Yaffo)

Jaffa, the ancient port city next to Tel Aviv, is home to the Old Man and the Sea, a ‘fish restaurant’ overlooking the Mediterranean, where each table automatically receives over a dozen small plates containing salads, roasted vegetables, hummus, tahini, avocado and other dips and spreads to eat with baskets of charred flatbread.  It’s heaven.  Go hungry.

selection of salads at the Old Man and the Sea
For some of the best breads and pastries in the city, head to the Margoza Café.  And after shopping in the Shuk Ha Pishpishim, have lunch at Puah The eclectic restaurant sits in the middle of the flea market, complete with mismatched tables and chairs sitting outside on Persian carpets.  It’s a great neighborhood gathering spot with good food.

shakshuka at Puah
Finally, when in Tel Aviv and Jaffo, you must seek out the paletas—Latin American fresh-fruit popsicles—created by Elie’s beautiful and talented cousin, Nomi.  Her handcrafted and uniquely-flavored paletas are available at numerous cafes and restaurants around the city.  Try the perfectly portioned and not-too-sweet avocado, halva or lemon and poppy seed yogurt. 

There’s so much more about Israel to talk about—rich history, religious sights, gorgeous landscapes and beaches, politics, nightlife.  You’ll just have to join us next time and see it for yourself.

enjoying gelato at Anita 

No comments:

Post a Comment