By Marsha Fottler –
A recent trip I took to Israel focused on the food culture of the country and how food, cooks and farmers might bring together diverse elements of a very diverse society. Breaking bread together at a big table might be a way to solve problems. It often works for families. From days and nights of eating, observing and interacting with the animated and outgoing people of Israel, here are some impressions that may be useful to one traveling to this vital and fascinating land.
Culinary impressions from a recent traveler to Israel:
- I never saw so many pomegranates or baby strollers in one place at one time and probably won’t again until I’m in Israel again.
- Most of the time, I couldn’t tell if I was eating Arab food or Israeli unless someone told me or I knew from the restaurant’s name.
- Israel is a vegetarian’s paradise. Eggplant, zucchini, carrots and tomatoes fixed a hundred different ways. Spices and sauces turn ordinary steamed or grilled vegetables into something extraordinary.
- I learned that in the “land of milk and honey,” milk is goat milk and honey comes from pressed dates. No cows or bees involved. Dates are important to the country food economy.
- Most of the fruits and vegetables grown in the desert are not in the ground but are cultivated in massive greenhouses.
- Purveyors of foods in Israel are proud of their products. They want you to taste and comment. Engage them in the marketplace or in stores. They are eager to talk and, of course, to sell. Participate. You can definitely haggle in the food markets.
- The hummus, both Arabic and Israeli, is so light and so full of flavor that it ruined me forever and now the commercially-produced hummus we get in the United States will not suffice. I’m going to have to start making my own. It’s not hard, but time consuming.
- Everybody loves shawarma. Me too. (See below for a recipe).
- The bread products in Israel are a revelation. The variety of sweet and savory breads seems endless. I ate way too much bread in Israel and I miss it. There are bakeries and bread stalls in Israel to tempt you every couple of blocks and liberally scattered throughout the food markets. What heavenly aromas.
Foodie tips if you’re visiting Israel in the near future:
- Carry around with you a bottle of water and drink all day. Israel is dry and you’ll dehydrate before you’re aware. Refill your water bottle with tap water if in Tel Aviv or another major city. Israeli water is good.
- Sit down at a sidewalk cafe or restaurant and your server is likely to bring to the table a pitcher of fresh lemonade. Very nice and so refreshing.
- Hire an experienced guide to take you through some of the food markets and to introduce you to some of his or her favorite spice, olive or nut, date or fig shops. Culinary tourism is big in Israel right now and these guides make great shopping companions. Engage one for half a day and you won’t be sorry. You’ll eat well and get an intense and useful education.
- Stop at a juice bar at least once a day for a smoothie or mix of several fresh fruits. So delicious and healthful too.
- Avoid coffee unless it’s being brewed and served at coffee kiosk, a coffee bar or in the dining room of a pricey hotel. Most Israeli coffee is instant and it is vile.
- The yogurt is thick and delicious. The gelato is sublime. You want some of both.
- Bottled camel milk is prized among locals for its beauty and medical benefits. Bottled goat milk is everywhere. And, of course, the goat cheese is entirely special.
- You can bring spices back home in your luggage. Make sure they are well wrapped and labeled. If you declare spices on your custom form, you may have your luggage inspected but you’ll almost always be allowed to keep your spices. Packaged chocolate is fine too. But, no food and no seeds or plants.
The shawarma sandwich is street food that is hugely popular in Israel but also in many parts of the Middle East. Roasted lamb meat (or beef) is shaved off a large rotating cone. Slices of the hot meat are stuffed into a folded soft pita and with garnished with hummus, yogurt sauce, garlic mayonnaise, chopped tomatoes or chopped cucumbers. Start with this recipe but modify to your own tastes.
Two pounds lean lamb or beef sliced very thinly
3 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup yogurt (Greek or thick, if possible)
¼ cup lemon juice
Fresh pita bread
Mix all the ingredients together in a non-reactive bowl and set aside to marinate for anywhere from 1 hour to overnight. Drain and discard any excess marinade.Heat coals or set gas to high heat. Spread the meat in a grill basket and grill until cooked through, 5 to 8 minutes, turning occasionally. Serve the shawarma hot inside folded pita bread with your garnishes.