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Nomming in Israel

2013 June 30
by Dylan

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For those of you who aren’t aware, I got back about a week and a half ago from my trip to the Motherland–Israel–and it was absolutely spectacular. The visit was made possible as part of Birthright, a program where a bunch of wealthy Jews (did you really think I wasn’t going to be facetious with my wording?) and the state of Israel pool money together and send kids from the US, Canada, and some other countries (not sure which) to Israel. The cost? Free. Yeah, it’s totally awesome.

Before I went, I was a little skeptical about what to expect–would it be overly religious? Filled with propaganda? Would they try to get me to join the IDF? None of those things happened…at all. It was secular, everyone was awesome, and I had an absolute blast. I have no desire to join the IDF, but I’ll say this–I could definitely see myself moving to Israel. It’s an incredible (and gorgeous) country. Anyways, that’s all fine and good, but this is a blog about food and, rest assured, the food in Israel was delicious. Click below for the full scoop!

That picture you see above is shakshouka, a Tunisian (thanks, Wikipedia!) dish that’s hugely popular in Israel, and has been for quite some time. It’s tomato based, but has a bunch of spices as well as peppers and onions. Everything gets sauteed, and then you crack a couple eggs on top and bake it. Our Israeli friends told us that it’s mostly eaten for breakfast, but I was thrilled to have it any time of day. We had it on Day 1 in the portside city of Jaffa, at the nationally-famous Dr. Shakshuka. It came with a bunch of accompaniments, seen below. Everything was fantastic.

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And then, there was the food the Middle East is most famous for–falafel. I can officially say that the dish is ruined for me, because nothing–and I mean nothing–can come close to the quality of what you can get out there. Falafel in Israel is offered one of two ways–in pita or laffa, a giant rectangular flatbread (basically, the Israeli version of a tortilla). Toppings for falafel include pickles, cabbage, shredded carrots, tomato/cucumber salad and most importantly…hot sauces. These sauces, while not overly spicy (although our Israeli friends…and most people on the trip…disagreed), serve as fantastic complements to the dish. Oh yeah–some places even shove french fries into the falafel (which was delicious!), or serve tempura-style fried slices on top. All in all, though? So, so good.

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What you see above is actually one of the few recovered pictures of falafel on the trip–and it wasn’t even taken by me…especially odd, considering my near-obsession with food photo-taking. Regardless, it was excellent. Oh, and that pita? Homemade, baked fresh. Guys know what they’re doing. This one was from a semi-famous rest area with a guy who appeared to be on cocaine–or, that was the aura he projected. You can see a video of him here (not ours)–but he’s an awful lot crazier in person. Still, pretty hilarious.

The other mainstay in Israel had to be shawarma–forever symbolized (to me) by Halal street vendors in NY. Shawarma is a dish typically made with lamb, loaded with toppings (like peppers, onions, etc) and thrown into pita…or laffa (which is so much better). Like the falafel, I always asked them to load up on the spicy condiments–red and green hot sauces–which provided some wonderful, flavorful heat.

 

Shawarma meat (usually lamb) is roasted on one of these cool, vertical rotisseries and is then shaved off to order. The meat juices drip down and make for wildly flavorful meat. I did my best to label the pictures–you can see the piles of delicious, delicious lamb on the rotating rotisserie, as well as some faaaaaaaaantastic shawarma (in laffa!) with a side of fries. Yes, friends–they don’t differ too much from us in terms of typical side dishes.

Other notable pictures: Sabih, from Tel Aviv–a dish made from boiled eggs, eggplant, and tahini…so delicious. And then we have an unknown Lebanese dish purchased at one of the stalls in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem–kind of like a Lebanese version of pizza. I got the mini one, but my friend got the large–it was delicious. The family who runs the stall was also incredibly friendly and talked our ears off. Not pictured (I stupidly forgot to take one) is a Yemeni dish in Tzfat that was one of the only things on the entire trip I thought met my “spiciness” standards–lachuch with cheese. First, you can read about it here, but lachuch is a Yemeni flatbread that’s made in a pan and has a wonderful, crispy bottom. It was topped with za’atar, a wildly spicy paste, fresh tomatoes, onion, and then loads of cheese. So, so wonderful.

The massive set of pictures you see above had to be my favorite part of the entire trip, food-wise. The open air markets in Tel Aviv (above) and Jerusalem (below) were like something straight out of a movie–bustling with people talking loudly, haggling for prices, checking out the wonderfully fresh produce and breads (and candy!)…it was simply amazing. I managed to score a kilo of grape tomatoes (whose origin is Israel) for 5 shekels ($1.37)–and I was told that I overpaid! But seriously, that was a pound of grape tomatoes for about 69 cents…and they were a million times better than anything you could get in the US. So, so delicious.

And now, we arrive at my favorite market–Mahane Yehuda. We only had about 90 minutes there, which wasn’t nearly enough time for full exploration–I could’ve spent the entire day! Check out the spices, produce and fresh olives. The best part, though, had to be the challah stall–these guys churned out piping hot, fresh challah at a crazy-fast rate. 11 shekels (about $3) got a massive loaf of doughy goodness. It barely made it back to our hotel room, mainly because I ended up giving most of it away on the bus!

So, last thing has to be my two gripes with Israeli food: 1) Apples. The apples there are fine, but we (US) have them handily beat in terms of variety and quality. 2) Coffee. Coffee in Israel is disgusting–seriously. You really only have two options–instant coffee (terrible) or Turkish coffee, which is sludgy, gritty nastiness. Apparently, a former barista at the coffee shop up the street from me (the always outstanding Bradburys) opened up a small coffee shop in Jerusalem. I wish I had known–what I wouldn’t give for a cup of freshly roasted, single origin coffee. Maybe it’ll make its way there eventually!

All in all, though, the trip was fantastic. I enjoyed the food so much that I ended up purchasing Yotam Ottolenghi’s outstanding cookbookin Ben Gurion airport (via eBay, of course). It took a week to arrive, but the book is fantastic and the recipes are spot-on. I can’t recommend it enough! You can buy it here, via Amazon: Jerusalem: A Cookbook.

That’s all I’ve got for today! If you’re interested in seeing any other pictures from the trip, you can click here.

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