Israel’s Culinary Scene

Walking through the Lewinsky Market in Tel Aviv is a feast, literally, for the senses.

Barrels of dried fruits and brightly-colored rice and grain mixtures tempt the eyes, while the tangy olives and aromatic spices entice the nose.

Then there are the tastes. Flavorful cheese, three varieties of savory hummus, six varieties of burekas, the sweetness of creamy Malabi, made of corn flour, vanilla bean, rose water and coconut milk topped with fresh pomegranate seeds – it’s a foodie’s dream.

On this beautiful spring day, I’m lucky enough to be tasting my way through this almost 100-year-old market on a Delicious Israel Tour, led by Israeli Inbal Baum, who grew up outside Washington, DC. The food I’m tasting is delicious. Yet, what comes out of this tour, and, perhaps, is the most astonishing to me, is that the answer to the question — “what is Israeli food?” — is not what I expected.

“Israel is a nation of immigrants and each group brought their culinary traditions with them. As such, Israeli food is a melting pot of flavors from all over the world. There is no one Israeli food,” says Baum.

“For example,” she adds, “shakshuka (eggs baked in a spicy tomato sauce), which we’ve come to associate with Israel was originally brought to this country by North African immigrants.”

Huppit Bartov, a native of Ashkelon who now lives in Baltimore with her family, agrees. “The definition of what is Israeli food is a tricky question.”

Bartov, whose grandparents arrived in Israel from Tunisia adds, “Street food is often thought of as Israeli — falafel, schwarma (which, by the way, is often served with French fries), hummus. But, in reality, like much of ‘Israeli’ food, its origins are in other parts of the world.”

Jews from Arab countries brought shabach, falafel and schwarma; Jews from Turkey added burekas to the mix. Jews from Europe brought rugalach and schnitzel; Russian Jews incorporated borscht and herring, while the Northern African Jews of Tunisia and Yemen also contributed malawach and couscous to Israeli cuisine.

A case in point. Aliza Friedman recalls that growing up in Israel, her family table was filled with foods that originated from different Sephardic countries. There was Middle Eastern favorites such as shakshuka, hummus and kebobs, Moroccan specialties like chicken with celery, onions and currants. And a special meat dish made with prunes, apricots, carrots and onions. There was also fish made with olives, garlic, sweet pepper, saffron and cilantro.

And always there were the salads. “There were a lot of salads. We probably had Israeli salad almost every night,” Friedman says.

In fact, if there is one food that is quintessentially Israeli, says Bartov, it is the chopped salad, which consists of finely chopped cucumber, tomato and onion, dressed with lemon and salt.

“It’s very basic, but most families eat it at least once a day,” she says. “Men often get into the act. They are often proud of how fine they chop their vegetables.”

Yet, although some foods may not originally hail from Israel, many have been become a point of pride for most Israelis. Take hummus. “Everyone has their own recipe and everyone thinks theirs is the best,” laughs Bartov. “It’s like a friendly competition.”

No one is sure exactly where hummus originated, but it is central to many Middle Eastern cuisines. The word “hummus” means chickpea in Arabic.

In Israel, I’m told, as I dip into a warm, freshly-made version on my tour (I also eat one mixed with foul, an Egyptian fava bean), is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s served fresh and warm and often doesn’t last more than a few hours. And it has to be made with chickpeas. “Avocado and black bean versions are not hummus,” Baum says.

Some foods brought to Israel have been adapted to the culture such as the bureka. Brought to Israel by Turkish immigrants, this pastry is often filled with such items as eggplant, mushrooms and spinach. Immigrants, often adhering to the rules of Kashrut, substituted oil for the butter so that these savory pastries could be eaten with meat.

Today, Israeli cuisine continues to evolve, with many Israeli chefs integrating these ethnic cuisines with local Israeli ingredients, fruits and vegetables, to create their own style of Israeli fusion cooking.

“Even the classic shakshuka,” laughs Baum, “has become trendy. It used to be something one made at home. Now people go out to eat and it’s become expensive. You can even find versions with cream and spinach.”

Make your own tabouleh salad! A simple and delicious salad from Ashkelon resident, June Narunsky

Ingredients: 1 cup Israeli couscous; 1 lemon, zested and juiced; 3 Tbsp. olive oil; kosher salt; freshly ground black pepper; 1 cup finely chopped parsley; ½ cup finely chopped cilantro; 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint; 2 ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced; and 3 scallions, chopped.

  1. Bring a medium-size saucepan of salted water to a boil over medium heat. Add the couscous and cook until al dente, 7 to 8 minutes. Drain couscous and cool.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice and zest with the olive oil to make a vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. In a large serving bowl, mix together the couscous, parsley, cilantro, mint, tomatoes and scallions. Toss with the vinaigrette and season to taste. Allow to sit for at least a half hour so the flavors can marry.

This article originally appeared in the Connect to Israel publication. Read it to get more recipes, explore Ashkelon and learn about the BDS movement.  

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