Israeli food is something that is hard to define because of the large mix of cultures which are squashed into this small country. As a visitor, you may be surprised at the range of different types of food on offer in Israeli restaurants. On the other hand, what Israelis eat in their own homes is generally dictated by their family’s origin or religious beliefs. The subject is endless so, for the sake of brevity, this article deals with what you shouldn’t miss on a trip to Israel if you want a “taste” of the food culture.
Starting with the most important meal of the day, what is an Israeli breakfast? Israelis love to eat, and because of the warm, dry climate most of the year, the place to do it is outside – most restaurant and coffee shops have some tables outside and on Friday mornings (when most businesses are closed) the pavement cafes are packed with friends, families and couples enjoying breakfast. A typical menu is eggs cooked anyway you want but generally omelette with a choice of fillings, a variety of cheeses and spreads, fresh bread or rolls and a vegetable salad. This, washed down with fruit juice — often freshly-squeezed orange juice, but on a hot day lemon and mint is very refreshing — and coffee or tea to finish.
In hotels and guest houses there is a buffet breakfast including all of the above and more – the sky’s the limit! In addition, you will find cereals, granola, yogurt, fruit and a selection of sweet and savoury baked goods according to the chef’s creative imagination. Usually there are pancakes, cheesecake or other cakes, croissants and Danish pastries.
If, after all this, you still want to grab a quick lunch, you must eat at least once on your vacation at one of the many falafel stands that you will find in every city, town or village in Israel. Of course, as in every other country in the world, there is also Macdonalds, but felafel is traditional Israeli fast food from pre-Macdonalds days. Basically, these are balls of minced chick peas, flavoured with spices especially cumin and deep-fried. Today, you can buy them ready-made in supermarkets in many parts of Europe but the way to eat them in Israel is fresh out of the fryer and tucked inside pitta bread. You can generally choose what to add inside from a selection of finely chopped vegetables, humus, tehina (made from sesame paste) and chips. The tehina tends to drip, so it’s advisable to eat at one of the tables or stand bending forward, to stop it dripping down your shirt!
So, what’s the deal with Israeli restaurants? Globalization has had its effect on dining in the big towns and cities and you can find many excellent gourmet restaurants serving international cuisine. Japanese and Asian food is very popular and there are sushi restaurants and noodle bars galore. But if you’re looking for something a bit more authentic and not overly expensive, try one of the middle-east-style Israeli restaurants serving grilled meat and/or fish. You start with a selection of small salads (known as mezze, in other countries), and a plate of humus with tehina and hot pitta bread. For the main course, you can choose from grilled steak, lamb chops or various skewers with chunks of meat or poulet, called “shishlik”. Kebabs here are skewers of spicy chopped meat. Fish is usually grilled whole (with the head on) so be prepared for that, or ask for it to be removed if your squeamish. There’s usually a small dessert menu or you can finish your meal with Turkish coffee or mint tea and baklawa, which are small pastries, usually filled with pistachio nuts and soaked in a sweet syrup.