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: How small it all is

One of the things that I stunned me on my trip to Israel was just how small and close everything is in the Levant. I think it’s particularly hard to vision for Canadians – we’re so used to having huge, empty spaces.

The whole of Israel and Palestine put together is only half the area of Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s smallest provinces. At it’s narrowest, Israel is only 10km wide. From north to south, the country is just 400km long, not much more than the drive from Ottawa to Toronto – a drive I’ve done just to go shopping.

And yet, Israel has 9 million people, plus another 4 mil in Palestine. And about half of all this territory in uninhabitable desert. You can see it in the crammed housing in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the sky-high property prices in Tel Aviv, and from Israelis who don’t support the settlements into East Jerusalem and the West Bank but live there anyways, since it’s the only affordable housing around Jerusalem.

Not just holy sites in Jerusalem

It’s also why the conflicts are so difficult and intractable, including with neighbouring countries. There is very little room to maneuver. One evening, we went ATVing out into the desert in the West Bank (which was very fun and also very dusty).

We stopped at one point to take in the view. From where we stood, we could simultaneously see the individual towers of Jerusalem, the Palestinian city of Jericho, Jordan’s capital Amman, and the north end of the Dead Sea.

Jericho, in the valley, and Amman, up on the far hills

Our trip also brought us up to the Golan Heights. We stayed overnight at a nice little winery kibbutz that happened to be only 3km from the Syrian border. In the morning we went up to a lookout that gave a view into Syria.

Israel and Syira. The white buildings in the upper right are a UN camp.

We weren’t alone, as two UN officers were also using the lookout. They have a camp right on the Israeli side of the border – likely originally to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria (the vineyards below were the site of tank battles in the Yom Kippur War) but now used to track the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

We heard from several people that from the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 to about 2018, you could hear the explosions and fighting in Syria from the kibbutz, and even see puffs of smoke from the lookout down in the valley. It seemed like a shocking contrast between the peaceful mountain resort feel on the Israeli side.

Interestingly, this is also why Israel has been much more restrained in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine than other western countries. Russia has been supporting the Assad government in Syria and has little desire to see the Syrian Civil War spill over into Israel, which could turn into a much larger war and destabilize the whole region. Right now, Russia also (usually) turns a blind eye to Israeli strikes on Iranian / Hezbollah-linked targets in Syria. So, while Israel is no supporter of the invasion of Ukraine, the home front is taking priority.

A few kilometres away is another lookout, this time into Lebanon, and a different flashpoint. This border is just as heavily armed, and was the site of a much more recent war in 2006 – one between Israel and Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, but deeply entrenched in Lebanon. While there is a ceasefire, it is no peace, and Lebanon is currently facing serious internal instability that could see things spiral out of control again.

The fortified wall is the border between Lebanon and Israel

Even with more stable neighbours like Egypt and Jordan, who recognize Israel and have diplomatic relations (unlike Lebanon and Syria), the proximity and conflicts in the region create from very weird international situations.

On the vacation part of my trip, I took a day trip to Petra, in Jordan. Our tour bus picked us up in Tel Aviv at an absolutely unholy hour (2am) so we could be at the Jordanian border by morning. But then, if the country is so small, why was it such a long drive?

We stopped for gas near the Allenby Bridge, a border crossing about 30km from Jerusalem and about an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. If we crossed there, it likely could have shaved many hours off our drive (and let us sleep in!). But Allenby is meant to be the main crossing for Palestinians into Jordan and until recently, the only way for both Palestinians and Israeli Muslims to go on the Hajj. Non-Muslim Israelis cannot cross at Allenby, and there are limits on visas and entry for foreign tourists.

So, as we were on an Israeli tour bus, we instead drove 250 km south, all the way down to the Red Sea, where there is a border crossing that Israelis and foreign tourists can cross into Jordan normally. We then backtracked back north, just on the Jordanian side, to get to Petra.

At our crossing by the Red Sea

It was one more interesting real-life experience of the complexities of the geopolitics here. And as for the long drive, it was totally worth it. Petra is stunning.

ISRAEL: The Western Wall and Temple Mount

The day we flew in to Israel, our group poured off the 11 hour flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv, got into a bus, and took a short drive up into the hills of Jerusalem. We were stupid with jetlag, but as the bus came around a turn, we all gasped – we could see the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.

Metre for metre, the Old City of Jerusalem is probably the most contested and controversial piece of land in the world, and the Temple Mount is quite literally at the centre of it. This is where wars have been fought, both historic and modern, and the competing religious and political forces pulling on this one place continue to make it a flashpoint.

The Temple Mount has the distinction of being the holiest site in Judaism, the location of the Second Temple, the very heart of Jewish life, religion, and identity, before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE as part of crushing Jewish revolts against their rule. To massively oversimplify history, Jews were later banned from visiting Jerusalem in 132CE, and Roman persecution through that time period led to Jewish communities fleeing in all directions, starting the diaspora. Unsurprisingly, this spot underpins the modern State of Israel and the idea of a return to rebuild their homeland.

The outline of where the Second Temple stood over the current Dome of the Rock.

At the same time, the Temple Mount is also the third holiest site in Islam (after Mecca and Medina), and what most of the complex is currently being used for. On the same site where the Second Temple stood is the Dome of the Rock. This beautiful golden dome is the site of Muhammad’s Night Journey, where he ascended to heaven to receive instruction on prayer from God.

The Dome of the Rock, right in the heart of it all

The religious importance of this spot is amplified by the tradition in the three Abrahamic religions that this is also the spot where Abraham almost sacrificed his son (Isaac in Judaism/Christianity and Ishmael in Islam), and even some traditions that this was the site of the creation of Adam.

The Western Wall (aka the Wailing Wall) is the remaining piece of the Second Temple, and is a spot for Jews to pray and mourn the temple’s destruction. The wall itself isn’t holy, but for most of the time since the destruction of the Temple, this is as close as Jews were allowed to come – at times fully banned from the Old City.

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jordan annexed the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem. After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel took control of Jerusalem and Jordan’s Palestinian territories. Jordan gave up claims to sovereignty over the West Bank in 1988, though they kept control of the Muslim sites on top of the Temple Mount as part of the 1967 “Status Quo” agreement with Israel, a renewing of older Ottoman religious authority agreements. The Jordanian Waqf continues of manage and control access to the top of the Temple Mount, while the rest of the Old City is under Israeli control and management.

The covered walkway for non-Muslim access to the Temple Mount

Non-Muslims are allowed up onto the Temple Mount at certain times, and both Israel and Jordan enforce a ban on prayer, particularly by Jews. Up until 2000, non-Muslims could enter the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, though no more. There’s also contested opinions among Jews if they should even walk on the Temple Mount for risk of standing on the site of the Holy of Holies, though it’s not a universal belief – there were several Haredi boys that went up with us.

While the Western Wall is busy, the Temple Mount is quiet and peaceful, with families picnicking. I went up on a tour given by my friend Pauline, a professional Israeli tour guide, and we had no issue accessing it in the non-Muslim hours. A couple of elderly Palestinian women from the West Bank came over to chat, and after learning I was Canadian, had a sympathetic joke at me braving the heat. It was a peaceful, friendly moment, and a change from the animosity and violence that frequently makes the news over this site.

ISRAEL: The Dead Sea is dying

The Dead Sea is dying – it’s going the way of the Aral Sea, and is dropping by about a metre a year. If this continues, it’ll likely be gone in 30 years. The video below sets out why, but the tl;dr is that both Israel and Jordan are using evaporation pools to extract the potash and other valuable minerals, and are also drawing deep on the Jordan River for hydroelectricity and fresh water. Essentially, not enough new water is flowing into the Dead Sea to replace what evaporates. (Climate change is not helping either, with hotter weather and less rain in the winter.)

This video talks hopefully about the Red-Dead Sea pipeline, a plan to bring salt water from the Red Sea by pipe to the Dead Sea, providing hydroelectricity and desalinated water along the way – something Jordan needs badly. Israel used to be as desperate for water, until it discovered huge natural gas reserves and invested that into fuelling its own desalination from the Mediterranean.

However, the Red-Dead Sea pipeline was cancelled last year due to lack of cooperation between the two countries, who have a “cold peace”, plus financing issues, environmental concerns, and the ever-changing Israeli government. Jordan instead will continue to buy water from Israel, but that does nothing for the Dead Sea.

The exposed lakebed of the Dead Sea – that used to be all underwater just a few decades ago.

On our trip, as we drove down to a resort on the Israeli side, I could see the exposed lakebed, stretching many metres from the old shore. We also saw the sinkholes that have taken out resorts, and even took a stretch of new highway that detoured around the old one, collapsed into the ground.

A section of highway closed off due to sinkholes from the dropping water level

While it was extremely fun to float in the Dead Sea (the buoyancy is really surreal), the drive down really gives you a sinking feeling, pun intended. The Aral Sea has shown us that we’re fully capable of destroying bodies of water on this scale in a single human lifetime, and Israel, Jordan, and the international community seem fully prepared to let the Dead Sea die too.

Fun while it lasts

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Making Sense of the Central African Republic

Making Sense of the Central African Republic is a collection, edited by Tatiana Carayannis and Louisa Lombard, of shorlarly articles on CAR. It’s probably the most comprehensive book you’ll get on the country, though it was published in 2015 and so misses out more recent developments. There’s articles from a mix of experts, including Central African academics.

It captures both the macro an micro, with articles looking at the broad sweep of CAR’s history and it’s identity – how it is caught between the politics and identities of Sahel countries like Chad and Sudan in the north and the Congo Basin in the south. It also gets into the micro, examining the Pk5 neighbourhood, which has both flourished as a trade hub and been fought over.

The works also build up a larger picture of how a state like CAR ends up so fragile or even failed – the ineffectiveness of peacekeepers, rent-seeking from elites and outsiders, and how natural resources underpin most of the chaos.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Jospin Pendere-Yé, Aka Pygmy music, and a song for Putin

I know, there’s a lot going on in this title. Jospin Pendere-Yé is a Central African artist who focuses on traditional music. He’s an accomplished ngombi harpist, and was featured in Résistances Rythmiques.

Here’s a really cool song he did with Aka Pygmy singers – traditional Pygmy music has such complex polyphonies that it’s on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

However, there’s one song of Pendere-Yé’s that’s really caught my attention. I get that Russian influence is growing in the Central African Republic, and the use of a balalaika is a neat cross cultural blend, but Putin’s judo?

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Wagner Group and Russia

I keep on touching on France’s involvement in CAR – military, political, economic – but other countries are also competing for influence in the country and over its resources. Russia has a growing presence, as officially they’ve been invited by the Central African government to train troops to combat rebels and insurgents. This is some bold reporting from Al-Jazeera in 2019, including meeting with Russian military representatives in the same place where Russian journalists were killed investigating the same:

However, it’s not just military trainers. Russian mercenaries, particularly the Wagner Group, have been in active combat in CAR. There have been reports of violence and killing of civilians, and Russian mercenaries been taking hold of Central African resources, ostensibly to protect them from insurgents. Again, more bold journalism, this time Vice in 2021, including an interview with the insurgents themselves:

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Bokassa 1er, empereur de Françafrique (2011)

I keep on coming back to la Françafrique, France’s direct selection of African leaders post-independence and ongoing involvement to this day in the politics and economies of former French African countries, but Bokassa 1er, empereur de Françafrique is a great study of it.

It’s a short documentary in French, using archival footage and interviews, on France’s support for Bokassa, the context of his much-mocked coronation, and France pulling the plug and removing him in Operation Barracuda.

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: What’s going on?

There’s over the last few decades in the Central African Republic there’s been fighting between Séléka (a coalition of northern Muslim rebels) and Anti-Balaka (mainly Christian anti-Séléka rebels). Things were starting to get a bit more stable in recent years, including holding elections and a major UN peacekeeping presence. However, as of 2021, former enemy rebel groups were forming alliances and actively fighting the government together. Here’s a short recap from the BBC last year on the rebel insurgencies in the Central African Republic:

The current situation is part of one larger story of instability. This history video below gives the best overall look at CAR’s history – France modelling the colony on Belgium’s Congo, WWII and decolonization, the optimism of first President Barthélemy Boganda‘s anti-racism and social policies, and his untimely death …which is where everything seems to really start to go wrong, including Bokassa’s Empire. Over the last 50 years, it’s been a confusing series of coups, crackdowns, French interventions, juntas, sectarian violence, UN interventions, and near-constant insurgencies.

There’s a ceasefire on right now that’s only partially successful, with the CAR government only having meaningful control over Bangui. The Central African Republic is an incredibly fragile state – poverty and colonialism gave the country a difficult start, and since then, it’s been grinding instability and violence.

There have been real efforts for peace and democracy, however, but it’s a slow, awkward process with many setbacks – not helped that CAR hasn’t captured the world’s attention the same way neighbours Sudan and DR Congo have.