Flavors of Israel
Most Israelis divide the day into at least six excuses to eat. There's breakfast, a 10 am snack, a quick lunch, a 5 pm coffee break (around the time that the Western world is calling for a cocktail), a full dinner, and a snack before bed, just for good measure. Satisfying this appetite is made easier by the great grab-and-go food with soul, including crispy falafel, sold on Israel's streets and in small food joints.
A good number of Israel's restaurants are kosher, and conform to Jewish dietary laws. Essentially, kosher restaurants do not serve food that mixes milk and meat. Fish and eggs can be served with either, although note that some fish (skate, for example) and all shellfish are not kosher. Most restaurants that identify themselves as strictly kosher may not be open on the Jewish Sabbath. The majority of hotels countrywide serve kosher food. Bon appétit, or, as they say here, betayavon!
The classic "Israeli breakfast" is legendary, but fewer busy Israelis have time to make it at home these days. You will mostly find it at hotels, B&Bs, and cafés. Hotel buffets will include bowls of brightly colored "Israeli" salads, platters of cheeses, piles of fresh fruit, granola, hot and cold cereals, baskets of various breads and baked goods ranging from cinnamon or chocolate twists to quiche, smoked fish, fresh fruit juices, made-to-order eggs (betza ayin, or "egg like an eye," means a fried egg, chavitah is omelet, and mekushkash is scrambled), and pancakes (locals pour on chocolate sauce). Country lodgings such as B&Bs offer homemade versions, and city coffeehouses specialize in the Israeli breakfast, accompanied by croissants and cappuccino, often served until 1 pm—and sometimes all day.
The Essential Cup of Coffee
Gone are the days when the only coffee available was a tiny cup of botz, or mud. You can have that, too (ask for café Turki), but Israel has a coffee culture on a par with Europe's. Most places use Italian machines; the past decade has seen the advent of Western-style coffee-shop chains, the biggest being Aroma, Café Hillel, and Café Joe. You can have a robust and flavorful cappuccino (known as hafuch, or upside-down); an Americano should you be homesick; espresso; and in the summer, iced coffee known as barad, a slushy chilled confection made with crushed ice. Soy milk is often available, as is decaf (natoul in Hebrew). In the Old City of Jerusalem and Arab establishments, espresso is made with the addition of a pinch of cardamom, or hel.
There are several different kinds of chopped salads in Israel, but there's one classic, and there's no question that this is a trademark dish. Its origins probably lie with Arab cuisine; basically it's a combination of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and onion, but the secret's in the chopping—each ingredient must be chopped small and evenly. Cooks who fly in the face of tradition might add chopped parsley and mint, and bits of chopped lemon. Then the salad is dashed with quality olive oil and fresh lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt and pepper or za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend made with dried hyssop, oregano and sesame seeds. It can be eaten on its own with white cheese and bread before work, spooned into a pita with falafel and hummus at any time of day, and with the main dish at most every meal.
Grilled Meats and Steaks
Virtually every town has at least one Middle Eastern grill restaurant, where you can find kebab, skewered grilled chicken (dark meat baby chicken, or pargit, is a favorite), lamb, beef, mixed grill or spit-grilled shawarma, generally prepared with turkey seasoned with lamb fat, cumin, coriander, and other spices.
If you want a good steak, don't worry: order entrecôte and see for yourself. You can even get a good hamburger these days. In Jerusalem, around the open fruit and vegetable market, are grilled-meat eateries famous for their chicken and beef on skewers, called shipudim, and their meu'rav Yerushalmi (Jerusalem mixed grill), a mélange of chicken hearts, livers, and spleen.
There are fish restaurants all over the country, but locals say the best ones are in cities and towns that border the Mediterranean (like Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Ashdod, Haifa, and Akko), around the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), and in Eilat. In nonkosher restaurants the chance of finding shrimp, squid and other nonkosher fish on the menu have increased substantially.
The world salat in Hebrew means salad. But many small dishes, served cold, as an appetizer, are called salatim. It's basically a mezze. In less fancy restaurants, and often in fish and grilled-meat places, these are slung onto the table along with a basket of pita before you've even managed to get comfortable. They're usually free, but ask. Dig into selections such as two or three types of eggplant, hot Turkish condiments in red or green, cumin-flecked carrot salad, tahini-enriched hummus, fried cauliflower, pickled vegetables, and cracked-wheat salad (tabbouleh), but leave room for the main course, too.
Holy Land cows are hard at work providing milk for cheeses, and these top the list, followed by goat and sheep milk cheese and, last but not least, the healthy buffalo cheese—mostly mozzarella. Soft white cheeses reign supreme. An Israeli favorite is gvina levana, a spreadable white cheese available in a variety of fat percentages. A few famous cheeses are Bulgarit (goat), on the salty side; Brinza (half goat, half sheep); Tzfatit, originally made in the northern city of Tzfat, not too salty; the ubiquitous goat cheese, feta; and Tom (goat), a zingy white cheese.
There's a surfeit of choice when it comes to excellent wine in Israel, made from all the major international grape varieties in five main wine regions from north to south.
The last decade or so has brought fusion cuisines to Israel—a superb blend of local flavors and ingredients with French-Italian-Asian or Californian influences—designed by young Israeli chefs, many of whom have studied abroad.
Although gourmet restaurants dot the Galilee, Golan, Jerusalem, and other parts of the country, it's definitely worth saving up to eat at one of Tel Aviv's top establishments. These restaurants are most often pricey, and though dressing up is never necessary, feel free. The locals also adore sushi, and Japanese restaurants and fast-food sushi joints abound. If you like to poke around, try some home-cooked ethnic foods—like Moroccan, Persian, Bucharian, or Tripolitan (Libyan) fare.
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