Flavors of Israel
Many 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: menus may contain meat or dairy but not both, and pork products and shellfish are out (fish is neutral). Strictly kosher restaurants are closed on the Jewish Sabbath and religious holidays. 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’ll 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 maple syrup or 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 instant, tiny cups of Turkish coffee (café Turki), or its lazy counterpart, botz (“mud”: powdered grounds stirred into boiling water). Israel today 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, Café Joe, Arcaffe, and Café Café. You can have a robust and flavorful latte (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, coffee 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, with origins in Arab cuisine. Basically it's a combination of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and onion, and 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 herb of hyssop with a sprinkle of 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 chicken and beef on skewers, called shipudim, and their meu’rav Yerushalmi (Jerusalem mixed grill): 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 seafood on the menu has 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, 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 (“Bulgarian”), a firmer, tangier version of feta (sheep or goat); Brinza (half goat, half sheep); Tzfatit, originally made in the northern city of Tzfat, not too salty; the ubiquitous goat cheese, feta; and Tomme (goat), a zingy white cheese. Hard, yellow cheeses have always been around, but the variety and the quality have soared.
The excellent wine in Israel is made from 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.Updated: 11-2013
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