ISRAEL: Israeli food and drink megapost / Aroma coffee / Palestinian beer

There’s no way I can get into detail about all the food in Israel, but I’m going to do a megapost of some of my favourite/notable things. The food is broadly Mediterranean / Middle Eastern – a lot of Israelis have Sephardic or Mizrahi backgrounds – and more importantly, my god, the food is FRESH.

The quality of the ingredients that go into everything, from falafel to sushi to ice cream, was out of this world. I’m sure this is common among most Mediterranean countries, but likely even more so as Israel doesn’t have much trade with it’s direct neighbours, so many foods are grown or made locally.

It’s also probably because food in Canada just isn’t that fresh, and with our climate, we rely so much more on the mass global food industry.

The first thing that stunned me was the quality of the hotel breakfasts. This isn’t a sad little dry croissant and an overpriced orange juice, every hotel I stayed in across the country had massive buffets, with dozens of choices of dips, cheeses, breads, salads, fresh shakshuka made to order, and more.

Most of the hotel restaurants were dairy kosher, meaning there wasn’t any meat available. The exception is fish, which doesn’t count as meat under kosher rules, so there were good amounts of smoked salmon and pickled herring too.

Restaurants as a whole in Israel are either dairy kosher, meat kosher (no dairy), or not kosher at all, so meat and dairy are mixed. A lot of the secular Israeli majority, alongside the large Arab Muslim and Christian population, don’t follow kosher laws and generally don’t care if a restaurant is kosher or not. However, with the large Orthodox (both Modern and Ultra-) population, a lot of restaurants make sure to keep kosher to keep those customers. Pork is the only thing that’s really not served anywhere (I think Libiria in Haifa was the only place I saw it on the menu), but other non-kosher animals like shrimp are pretty widely served.

There’s great food markets everywhere – on our first day, we went to Jerusalem’s shuk, and ended up at a little hole in the wall Kurdish / Iraqi restaurant. There were wonderful veggie dishes, and spiced meatballs, aromatic rice, stews, and great pickles.

The dishes started coming … then kept coming … then kept coming, even after the table was covered. It was all so delicious, but the restaurant definitely won that battle.

There were some other amazing finds at hole-in-the-wall restaurants. I went to a little falafel stand in Paris Square in Haifa and had possibly the best falafel pita of my life. I had no idea falafel was even supposed to be so tender, it’s often a bit dry or gritty in Canada. It’s worth it to get all the toppings – pickles, garlic sauce, preserved turnips, cucumbers, hot peppers, and lots of sauce.

The food in Israel isn’t all just Mediterranean or from the Jewish diaspora, there’s are many good international options – especially sushi. I’m picky about my sushi quality, since I used to live in Vancouver, which arguably has the best sushi outside of Japan.

The sushi in Israel was extremely high quality, with very fresh fish, though the options were mainly the basics of tuna, salmon, and veggie rolls.

When my friend Pauline took me on a great tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, we went through the Muslim quarter to try some Arab food. We stopped at a cold-press tahini factory that still uses a huge millstone to grind sesame seeds. We got to taste-test a few of their offerings – the smoked tahini was my favourite.

I also got to try knafeh, a great sweet-and-savoury pasty of warm goat cheese, layered under kadaif and covered in syrup, as well as some really top notch kebab, spiced beautifully, and hot from the grill into a pita with tomato, cucumber, and yogurt.

As I had made the brilliant plan of going to the Middle East in August as a Canadian, I was also keeping my eyes on ways to stay cool. Lemonade is almost universally paired with mint, and there’s fresh fruit juice stalls everywhere, which are particularly good blended with ice. The ice cream game in Israel is particularly strong, Golda and other ice cream chains are ubiquitous. The cookie/chocolate flavours seem particularly popular, and the portions are extremely generous.

One of the things I relied on to beat the heat were all the coffee shops, particularly Aroma. Aroma is an Israeli coffee chain, and it’s so dominant there that it’s likely part of the reason Starbucks failed in Israel.

Israelis are big coffee drinkers, and in the hot weather, either a cold coffee (what I’d call an iced coffee) or an iced coffee (a coffee blended with ice) was essential.

The food at Aroma was also fantastic – the picture below is their breakfast plate – eggs done the way I want, fresh salads and bread, cream cheese, coffee, all about $15 CAD. And this is from a chain coffee shop?

Aroma has expanded into Canada, the US, and Ukraine. There’s spots all over Toronto, so when I was there last week, I went to a location to compare to what I had in Israel. The blended iced coffee is just as good, and I did appreciate that they made my breakfast sandwich fresh. I’d say it was miles better than Starbucks or Tim Hortons, but the Israeli Aroma is still much better than the Canadian one.

As for drinks in Israel, of course, wine is immensely popular – this has been a wine-growing region for quite literally millennia. While not much of a wine connoisseur, I did get to try a great variety of their offerings, almost all of which are home-grown. There’s reds and whites, mainly common grapes, as well as rarer “bilblical” varieties. The prime growing regions are up north around the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights, where it’s cooler and there is good elevation – though you get the wild sight of vineyards right up to the Syrian border.

I’m more of a beer drinker, so I was happy to see how many local beers there were. There seems to be a lot of pale ales, lagers, ambers, and blondes (who wants to drink a cream stout in 35C heat?) but not much in the way of IPAs or sours. Some of the local beers I tried were from breweries like Negev, Malka, Shapiro, and the ubiquitous Goldstar. I also tried a nice flight of offerings from Libiria brewpub in Haifa.

I also got to try a beer from the first Palestinian brewery – Taybeh in Ramallah. I bought it at a little cafe in Nazareth, which is an almost entirely Arab city in Israel. I was politely discouraged from drinking it on their patio, since it was a mainly Muslim neighbourhood, so I took it back to my hotel and chilled it.

It was a light lager, straightforward but refreshing. They have several other beers, with a lot of German-styles like Marzens, Witbiers, and dark lagers.

ISRAEL: Kadaif and a flight of microbrews

The microbrew scene is pretty strong in Israel – there’s brewpubs everywhere, usually with good restaurants. So after a hot day exploring Haifa, I took the Carmelit down to Libira Brewpub, in a cute port-side neighbourhood full of restaurants and bars.

I tried a tasting flight of all their beers – a Weiss, and Double Pils, a Bitter IPA, a Smoked Stout, and a Belgian Ale. I’d say the beers were very drinkable, but a bit lighter than I’ve normally had for each style. For example, the Weiss had good but not overwhelming banana esters, the IPA was pleasantly hoppy, and the Belgian really nailed the wild yeast notes, but I felt I could probably down a pint of the Belgian where I would normally sip one.

There was one that knocked my socks off, however: the Smoked Stout. Here, the lightness kept it from being too cloying (perfect for a hot day), and the smoky flavour was absolutely stunning – a little bit campfire, a little bit BBQ, with a slight caramel edge to round it out. Out of this world good.

Of course, I went for something completely new to me for dinner. The menu listed “Kadaif” as an entree, describing it as a “noodle-like pastry filled with creamy leek and goat cheese. Served with fresh tomato salsa, soft boiled egg, and tomato chutney”.

Kadaif isn’t really a dish itself, it’s an ingredient – fine shredded phyllo, like angel hair pasta, that’s mainly used in desserts in the Middle East. There’s also savoury uses of kadaif, especially with goat cheese or lamb. This is a upmarket restaurant take, and the warm goat cheese and soft egg made it a very rich and creamy, countered with the crunch of the kadaif and the acidity of the tomatoes.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Podcasts

Along the Chari River on the northern border with Chad – Source

A mix of podcasts I’ve been listening to this month on the Central African Republic – some English and some French. There’s a lot of reporting on conflict in CAR, but there’s also some good podcasts and interviews out there by Central Africans.

The Talking Point: Looking at Central African Republic (CAR) – (En) A South African podcast from 2019 that gives a good overview of CAR’s history that sets it in the larger regional context, looks at la Françafrique, the competition between French and Chinese interests in CAR’s natural resources, and current political dynamics. So much of CAR’s post-independence political history is a process of balancing outside interests – France, Russia, China, South Africa, Chad, and more – and this podcast helps make sense of it.

Elo Africa: Au coeur des conflits en République Centrafricaine – (Fr) A Gabonese podcast interviewing Bernice, a young man who fled as a child from CAR in the early 2000s because of ethnic violence. Bernice is Yakoma, a small ethnic group from the south of the country. The previous president, André-Dieudonné Kolingba, was Yakoma and had heavily favoured his own ethnic group for government patronage – when he was removed from power, the Yakoma faced attacks and persecution. Bernice speaks about his experience as a refugee, his education in Cameroon, his return to Bangui as a young man, and the current political situation there.

Smart Peace: Central African Republic – (En) CAR has been called the “world champion of peacekeeping” as it has had a non-stop revolving presence of French, UN, African Union, and EU peacekeeping missions. NGOs and peace organizations are trying various tactics to build stability – Smart Peace is a project by Conciliation Resources that looks at facilitating local solutions to peace. This podcast adds further detail to the reasons of CAR’s instability – instead of looking at big leaders or movements, they look at communities and how individuals navigate instability and build their own networks in the absence of institutions.

Juridiquement Vôtre: L’année 1236, la Charte de Kurukan Fuga – (Fr) Dr. Jean-François Akandji-Kombé is a Central African law professor, currently teaching at the Sorbonne in Paris. He has a series of podcasts, some on law and citizen engagement, some on Central African current events, and some on African legal history. This really fascinating podcast is on the Kurukan Fuga, the 1236 constitution establishing the Empire of Mali. It’s one of the oldest charter of rights, from the same era as the Magna Carta, and is noteable for setting out women’s rights (including political participation), laws on sustainable hunting, and inheritance and status rights. Dr. Akandji-Kombé frames it as an reclamation of African history and using this history to build a more stable legal tradition for African countries, and as a counter-argument to a narrative that constitutionality is a foreign import.

Reportage Afrique – Centrafrique : la course aux chenilles dans les forêts de la Lobaye – (Fr) A short trio of episodes through RFI’s Africa bureau on caterpillars as food in CAR – the first is on gathering them in-season, the second on the supply chains to get caterpillars to market and the risk of deforestation, and the third on cooking with caterpillars and their place as an effective and environmentally friendly source of protein – and a beloved one. I liked the smoky flavour of dried ones when I made yabanda, but I’d love to try them fresh!

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Yabanda with caterpillars

Going to try a dish that uses two ingredients that are totally new to me. Yabanda is a Central African dish that’s simple, rustic, and uses local ingredients – specifically koko leaves. Koko is a vine leaf that’s also called ukazi or afang, especially in Nigeria. The leaves are shredded and used for soups and stews.

Oh, and yabanda also uses caterpillars.

I know a lot of people, especially in the West, get really squeamish about eating insects – it’s a cultural thing. However, insects are eaten all over the world – they’re quick protein and easy to either raise or forage (they’re also much more environmentally friendly than livestock). This isn’t my first time eating bugs – I’ve had some really good roast cicadas when I was working in China, and the cheesy mealworms at gift shops are actually kinda nice!

Caterpillars are a common meat across equatorial Africa, but these aren’t tiny inchworms. These are great big suckers – I think they’re shea caterpillars, and they’re 2-3 inches long. These ones are dried, so they need a good boil to get them tender – so do the koko leaves.

I’m using this recipe from DW (in French), which uses meat, but you can basically pick your protein. The recipe itself is very simple – sautée up some onions in red palm oil, add a hot pepper, Maggi cube, the koko and caterpillars and a bit of water and cook it up together, serve with a side of fufu. You could also use with a side of chikwangue, or gozo (either another term for ugali/pap or closely related). And if you’re not feeling caterpillars, the recipe is just as easily made with meat or smoked fish.

So how does it taste? The caterpillars have a lovely smokey scent, though not much flavour, since they’re been hollowed out and dried to safely ship around the world. The Maggi and the onions infused some flavour back into them, as do the hot peppers. The koko leaves are slightly bitter, and take a bit of time to soften (kind of like cassava leaves) but also soak up the flavour.

BANGLADESH: Mughlai paratha and sanar toast

More frozen Bangladeshi treats – so far I’ve tried green mango and wood apple bhortas, plus dal puri and shami kebabs. Now for a snack and a dessert!

The Mughal history of this dish is pretty clear – it’s in the name! Mughlai parathas are turnovers with fillings, usually meat, egg, veggies, and spices, and are likely related to Turkish golzeme.

This one is vegetarian, so just egg and veggies, with spices. You can pan-fry or bake, I went for baking the paratha. It’s mildly spicy, very flavourful, and has a really satisfying crunch to it.

I can’t find a lot of references for “sanar toast” apart from the company’s own website, so I’m not sure if this is a brand name for this dessert – is it the same as a malai sandwhich?

Regardless, it’s a soft, sweet dessert of fluffy cream of wheat and chhena – cheese curds that can be made into paneer. It’s very dainty and creamy, and these frozen desserts can be quickly microwaved.

BANGLADESH: Green mango bhorta and naga pickle

I’m trying another frozen bhorta, this one made with sour green mango. Bhortas (sauteed spiced veggies) are usually a simple comfort food served with rice. The green mango is wonderfully tart and just slightly spicy. It’s good warm but this would make a really nice savoury summer treat served semi-frozen.

I had with it with the hottest damn hot sauce I’ve had in a long time. Bangladeshi cuisine doesn’t go light on the heat to begin with, but these pickled chillies are hot even by Bengali standards. The first ingredient is naga peppers – likely the Naga Morich, which grows in northern Bangladesh. It’s the hottest naturally-growing chili pepper, at over 1 million Scoville units. As a comparison, jalapeno peppers are about 5000 Scoville. To get hotter than the Naga Morich, you need to start specially breeding the peppers or just using capsaicin extract.

Just a little bit on the plate and this is HOT – full face of fire, sweating, feel where it is in your digestive system hot. It’s also a bit smokey and citrusy (so it goes great with the bhorta) but also holy shit this is hot. Absolutely fantastic. I am in love.

BANGLADESH: More snacks

Another haul of Bangladeshi snacks – this time from the little grocery stores along Danforth in Toronto’s Bangladeshi neighbourhood.

Well Food Ovaltine cookies – Extremely crumbly little cookies made with Ovaltine. Ovaltine is a chocolate malt drink mix that’s really popular worldwide – except in North America, where it’s almost unknown. (Malt drinks are also really rare here.) Apart from leaving crumbs all over my desk, these are not too sweet, with a bit of malty bitterness in the aftertaste.

Frutika – Another thick mango nectar drink, like the Frutta one I tried earlier. Not too sweet, and I think this is from a bigger company, because they have a lot of ads, including this absolutely emotionally devastating one (with subtitles). Remember, this is for a tasty little bottle of mango juice:

Banoful Energy Biscuits – These cookies are advertised as giving you energy, but from the ingredients, I think that’s just because of the sugar. Very soft melt in your mouth butter cookies, quite tasty. I really like the texture of these Banoful cookies – the orange ones were my favourite.

Haque Mr. Cookie Butter Coconut – Really airy and flaky cookies, almost like a rice cookies meets a butter cookie. The coconut flavour is really mild, tastes more like vanilla. But a really lovely texture, even if it makes a lot of crumbs!

Pran Jhal MuriJhal muri is a Bengali street food of puffed rice, mixed with chanachur, nuts, and other little treats. This one has peanuts and fried noodles. They’re wasabi flavoured, kind of like wasabi peas, on top of the more classic Bengal spice mix of cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, chillies and mustard oil. Not the flavour combo I was expecting but pretty good, it’s really satisfying to eat by the handful.

BANGLADESH: Shami kebab, dal puri, and wood apple bhorta

Got some frozen Bengali food from MF Foodmart, a little grocery with a lot of imports from Bangladesh – I also picked up a bunch of Bangladeshi snacks from there.

Kothbel bhortaBhorta is a classic Bengali dish of lightly fried mashed vegetables that’s real comfort food – it’s used as a main dish, a side, or even as a topping. It’s usually really simple (as opposed to other Bangladeshi dishes) and this one is just wood apple, chillies, salt and oil. Wood apple (kothbel) is a totally new fruit to me – it’s native to the Bay of Bengal, and it’s been called an acquired taste (and uncharitably, “ugly“). It’s got a bit of a funky, meaty scent to it (no worse than durian), but the flavour is really wonderful. It’s smokey and savoury, but also tart and citrusy – almost like smoked tamarind. The bhorta is also nice and spicy, with lots of green chillies in it.

Chicken shami kebabShami kebabs are common across Pakistan, northern India, and Bangladesh – they’re likely originally Persian, and come from the cultural influence of the Mughal empire. They’re usually beef, but can be mutton and chicken. The meat is ground and mixed with chickpea or lentil flour and spices, then cooked. These ones say to bake them – they come out looking a bit like gingerbread cookies. The spice mix is nice, there’s lots of cumin and coriander, and I think a bit of mint. The texture isn’t great, though, it’s pretty mealy and dry. I think I’ll try frying the rest later and see if that improves the texture.

Dal puri – This is a snack that’s eaten not just across the subcontinent, but has also become a staple of Caribbean cuisine. It’s a crispy flatbread, somewhere between panipuri and naan in texture, with a filling of spiced lentils. These puff up huge when cooked, with a big air pocket (watch the steam!). The lentils have a pretty mild flavour, but it’s the hot crispy bread that’s the really satisfying part.

BANGLADESH: Podcasts

National Martyrs’ Monument, Dhaka – Source

I got fooled several times looking for interesting podcasts from Bangladesh – there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but while the titles and descriptions are in English, the podcasts themselves are most often in Bengali – you don’t find that out until you’ve already downloaded and started to listen! While English is used in higher education in Bangladesh, despite/because of the colonial history (see French in Algeria), it doesn’t serve as a lingua franca like it does in India, as the vast majority of Bangladesh’s population speaks Bengali. That means a lot of podcasts and interviews with Bangladeshis in English are from outside sources, especially India or Britain.

BBC History Hour: The Birth of Bangladesh – A really useful primer on the creation of Bangladesh, with interviews and archival news clips. This overview covers Partition, the 1970 Pakistan election and the refusal of leaders in West Pakistan to transfer of power to Sheikh Mujib, Operation Searchlight, the Independence War, the effect on civilians (especially women), and India’s intervention on the side of East Pakistan/Bangladesh.

Cricket with an Accent: Mohammad Isam talks about the Bangladesh Cricket Landscape – I still have only the vaguest sense of the rules of cricket, but this interview with a Bangladeshi sports journalist is less on the game itself, and more on Bangladesh’s struggles to build an internationally strong cricket team, and how money and political influence play a big part in professional cricket and sports journalism in the country.

Naan Curry with Sadaf and Archit: How to eat like a Bangladeshi with Dina Begum – Another cross-border interview, this one between Indian and Bangladeshi food experts. They cover the differences between the cuisines of West Bengal (Indian side, around Calcutta) and East Bengal (Bangladesh), as well as Pakistan, and how options for South Asian cuisine are slowly diversifying in Western countries.

Desi Crime Podcast: Hercules: The Vigilante Killer – If you’re a true crime fan, this podcast covers all kinds of stories from across the subcontinent. This episode looks at the case of a vigilante killer in Bangladesh murdering men who had assaulted young women, with a larger discussion on police corruption, the crisis levels of rape in South Asia, the pressures on victims’ families, and the ethics of vigilantes.

Bangladeshi Trailblazers – Interviews with Bangladeshi entrepreneurs, with a focus on young female entrepreneurs. I listened to the episode Finding spaces in Dhaka with Farhia Tabassum, who co-founded the app Chaya, which is like an AirBnB but for photoshoot locations, and then has expanded into rentals for individuals, especially women.

The World: Tintin in Bangladesh – A short, fun podcast with radio personality Zahidul Haque Apu, who during the pandemic started drawing covers for fictional Tintin books set in Bangladesh. While Tintin never visited Bangladesh (he did go to India, Nepal, and China, among others), these are fun what-ifs. The podcast also touches on comics in Bangladesh, where Tintin is particularly beloved, to the point where people assume it’s a local comic (old colonial stereotypes aside). I loved Tintin comics as a kid – these are just great.

BANGLADESH: Chicken biryani and aam panna

I was down in Toronto for a work event, and got some time to poke around Toronto’s Bangladeshi neighbourhood out on the east end of Danforth. There’s a whole lot of Bangladeshi and Bengali restaurants there to choose from. I first went to Dhaka Kebab, a spot with a huge selection of Bengali food, including takeaway desserts.

I ordered the chicken biryani – a massively popular dish in Bangladesh. Recipes look incredibly complex, so I figured it’d take the easy way and get a dish made by the experts. Biryani is usually layered, and so was mine, with spiced rice on top, and a hard-boiled egg and two pieces of chicken underneath. The chicken was fantastically tender, and the rice was moderately spicy with all kinds of beautiful flavours – I could taste the warmth from the garam masala, especially the cardamom. It was also a huge plate, had to take extra home with me!

I followed that by heading down the street to Star Plus Kabab House – I was hoping to try their jolpai juice, but unfortunately they were out. Jolpai is an olive-like fruit grown in South Asia, and it’s supposed to be nice and tart – it’s also used for pickles and chutneys.

Instead, I got a different drink – aam panna (also called amm pora sharbat). It’s green unripe mango, blended with ice, mint, cumin, black pepper, and hot chillies. It’s a summer drink, meant to cool you down and give you back nutrients lost in the sweltering heat. While it wasn’t that hot a day in Toronto, it was very cool and refreshing, sour and sweet, with just a little bit of spice.