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.

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.

BANGLADESH: Borhani and chotpoti

I was in Montreal this past weekend, and poked around the Bangladeshi neighbourhood in Park Ex – there’s a whole bunch of Bengali grocers and halal restaurants. I got a snack to go from Appayon, a nice little restaurant specializing in Bangladesh cuisine (and big screen cricket tests – England beat the Kiwis).

It was mid-afternoon and I wasn’t hungry for a full meal, so I got a little appetizer of chotpoti. It’s in the same food family as papdi chaat: street food that’s a big mix of chickpeas and other legumes, spices, onions, and crunchy puri pieces. However, chotpoti is served hot, and instead of yogurt, is topped with hard-boiled egg (which is pretty common in Bengali cuisine). This was flavourful and spicy, with lots of coriander and cumin and black pepper as well as a good dose of chilies, and a little bit of tartness, I think from tamarind.

I washed it down with something equally spiced – borhani. Borhani is a savoury lassi, made with yogurt, green chilies, mustard seed, more coriander and black pepper, salt, and mint. There’s a little bit of sweetness naturally in the yogurt and from the mint, and it balances out the peppery punch to make it very sippable.

This month so far is really showing me how much we under-use coriander seed and black pepper in Western cooking – they can really add serious flavour if you’re willing to use a heavier hand.

UKRAINE: Chebureki, sour cherry pyrizhky, and even more varenyky

I’m in Calgary right now, and with the huge Ukrainian population in Alberta, there’s a lot of good food options here. I went to get some meals to go at Kalinka, an Ukrainian deli and market just off Macleod Trail. I’ve had their chicken cutlets before (they do delivery) and they were really good, so I was looking to see what else was availble. Of course, they make it very clear that they are truly an Ukrainian deli.

For quick lunch snack on the go, I was feeling something sweet from their bakery section. I had tried a savoury pyrizhky earlier back in Ottawa, but here they had ones with sweet fillings too. There were several fruit options, including apple and poppyseed, but I went for sour cherry. It had a nice tart filling inside very thick eggy bread that reminded me of challah. I washed it down with some “Our Juice” cherry and blackcurrant juice from Ukraine.

For dinner with my dad, I picked up more cabbage rolls and beef chebureki. Chebureki are considered a national dish for Crimean Tartars, and I’m adding unofficial tally of “bureks” I’ve tried from different former Ottoman territories: Algerian boreks, Israeli bourekas, and Albanian byreks – all different, but all based on the same idea of pastries with meat fillings.

We reheated them in the oven with the cabbage rolls. The chebureki were really nice, flaky pastry with ground beef and onion inside, and went really well with sour cream and the cabbage rolls’ tomato sauce. My dad loves cabbage rolls, and these impressed him so much that he wrote down Kalinka’s address so he can get more.

Kalinka also had huge handmade varenyky / pierogi selection – they had all kinds of regional variations, Kyivan (beef and pork with garlic), Crimean (beef, pork, and chicken, with Georgian khmeli suneli spice mix), and Canadian (potato with cheddar and bacon).

I went for the Crimean, since that’s totally new to me. The spice mix sounds really interesting, with basil, fenugreek, coriander, mint, savoury, and marigold. I also got a tub of homemade sour cream to go with them (and the cabbage rolls).

I boiled some for breakfast and had them with sour cream and some cooked zucchini. They’re really lovely, I can taste the chicken, and there’s a nice hint of mint and savoury that really works. The homemade sour cream was fantastic, with a sharp tang like kefir.

UKRAINE: Sweet vs savoury varenyky

When I got an Ukrainian pierogi (aka varenyky) lunch at Ottawa Pierogies, I also grabbed some frozen treats for later. I got some borscht, and two kinds of pierogies that I’d never tried before – saurkraut and mushroom, and sweet cottage cheese pierogies.

I boiled the savoury pierogies first, then cooked the sweet ones while I was browning the first batch in a bit of butter. The borscht was lovely and flavourful, and the mushroom pierogies were out of this world – especially with sour cream (with lemon squeezed in, trust me) and some pickles imported from Ukraine.

The sweet pierogies weren’t my favourite – they were too sweet. I’ve had sweet Polish pierogies before and liked them, but they had blueberries in them instead and went well with sour cream. I think the cream cheese ones need just the full dessert excess treatment to really work – chocolate syrup on top or something like that.

UKRAINE: Varenyky and pyrizhky

I stopped by Ottawa Pierogies, a little gem of a Ukrainian deli, for some lunch to go. While I was there, I got a bit of a language lesson – while pierogies is the term used in Canada, that’s actually the Polish name. The Ukrainian name is varenyky. Likewise, when I ordered some pyrizhkhy to go, they were sold under the name perojki – possibly a Polish name as well (Canada has almost as big a Polish population as Ukrainian). So while this restaurant is Ukrainian, like many other places in Canada, it uses the Polish names for Ukrainian foods.

I picked up their “Baba’s Visit” platter – pierogies and cabbage roll of my choice, with sour cream and a vinegret salad (beet, potato, and sauerkraut). I went for the potato and cheddar pierogies, boiled and then lightly pan-fried, with a pork and meat cabbage roll. They were really really good, tender and hot pierogies, and the vinegret satisfied my beet cravings. (I made a related salad, rosolli, when I covered Finland).

I also took home two pyrizhky – hand rolls stuffed with fillings, eaten hot. I got a nice but not exciting pork and rice one, and a really good tangy potato and mushroom one. They also had frozen pierogies in less common fillings, plus other treats, so I took some home for later – but that’s for another day, I’m carb’d out!


I was down in Toronto this weekend, and got a chance to stop by an Uzbek restaurant. Toronto’s magic is having restaurants for almost every cuisine in the world: there’s three dedicated Uzbek spots….and they all happen to be in the same two blocks! I went for lunch at Samarkand Hall – they had fantastic decor and really friendly staff.

I went for a plate of manti – huge steamed dumplings, filled with spiced ground lamb and topped with caramelized onions and dill, with sour cream on the side. They were fantastic – I hoovered them down!

Manti are eaten throughout the Turkic-speaking world, and vary in size, filling, and topping, depending on location – Central Asian ones are usually these huge steamed dumplings, and are sometimes filled with pumpkin, cabbage, or beef, as well as lamb in Uzbekistan.

It’s likely the name manti comes from the same etymology as Chinese mantou, but mantou has shifted to mean steamed buns instead of dumplings in China. The manti I had reminded me of giant xiaolongbao in terms of shape and texture, but the flavour profile of the meat, dill, onion, and sour cream felt more Eurasian – not unlike how you serve pierogies.

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Curry goat roti

Curry goat roti is originally from the Indo-Trinidadian community, but the pan-Caribbean nature of these dishes is really evident in how widespread they are, both in the Caribbean and among ex-pat communities.

I’ve noticed that here in Ottawa, there’s very few Caribbean restaurants that are dedicated to only one country’s cuisine – they usually focus either on the English or the French Caribbean, or even mix the two. I went to Island Flava, which was definitely English Caribbean – the menu is a mix of Jamaican and Trinidadian dishes, and the lady at the counter had a St. Lucian flag mask.

For the curry goat, I had the option of bone-in or boneless – definitely went bone-in, that’s where the flavour is. They also give the option of making it extra spicy, went for that too!

The roti is HUGE – this will definitely be both lunch and dinner. The goat is tender and falling apart, mixed with curried potatoes, and it’s lovely and spicy – made me break a sweat. This is DELICIOUS, I’m going back to try their other dishes.

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Doubles with extra toppings and a Carib

Had a nice little takeout Trinidadian dinner – I ordered some doubles from BESS, a Caribbean restaurant near my house. Doubles are an amazing street food from Trinidad and Tobago – bara (fried dough) topped with curried chickpeas and lots of sauces. They can be served with a second bara on top, or open-faced.

The ones that I picked up had a nice tamarind sauce and cucumber chutney on them. Without any added sauces, they’re quite salty, a little bit spicy, and the flavours work together well.

I decided to boost them a little with some Trinidadian toppings from a Caribbean grocery. I added some kuchela to one of the doubles – kuchela is a pickled green mango relish with lots of spices and a bit of heat. It blended really nicely with the tamarind, adding some additional tartness.

The other double I hit with some hot sauce – Matouk’s Calypso Sauce. It’s a wonderfully spicy sauce – aged pickled Scotch Bonnet peppers are the first ingredient. It’s bright and flavourful and didn’t overpower the flavour of the double, but also was hot enough to make me break a sweat.

Washed it all down with a Carib Lager – Trinidad’s biggest beer. It’s a straightforward lager, and goes well with spicy food.