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.