Like the United States, Israel is an ethnic melting pot of cultures, religions and immigrant influence. As a result, the food scene in Israel is extraordinarily diverse. Although 80% of Israelis are Jews and half of them were born in Israel, most of their parents, grandparents or great grandparents came from more than 120 other countries, bringing foods, recipes and traditions from six continents. And the 20% of non-Jewish Israelis have their own food traditions too. Israel is also a part of the Western world, so everything that happens in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and Paris finds its way to Israel within a few weeks. Put all this together and you have the ingredients for one of the most dynamic, fascinating – and delicious – food scenes in the world.
If you asked an Israeli 25 or 30 years ago about the country’s typical fare, chances are the answer would have been falafel, hummus and tahini, with a side of couscous or gefilte fish. A lot has happened since then. These dishes still exist, of course, but Israel has all that and more now. From hamburgers (Israel’s first McDonald’s opened in the 1990’s) to pizza to sushi (more sushi restaurants per capita in Tel Aviv than in any city on earth, including Tokyo), to the cuisines of India and China, to the finest influences of Paris, Brussels, Lyon, Barcelona and New York, the sophisticated Israeli food scene keeps up with the latest trends. Many of Israel’s leading chefs have studied, prepped and apprenticed at some of the finest restaurants in the world.
But there’s more. Some restaurants in Israel serve eclectic cuisines existing nowhere else on earth, particularly from areas now devoid of Jewish people. Large Jewish populations once created their own food traditions in places like Salonika, Dubrovnik, Tripolitania, Mesopotamia, Persia, Yemen and Bukhara and now the only place to taste those lost cultures is in Israel.
Two elements make food in Israel so unique. One is our location on the shores of the Mediterranean. Like Turkey, Greece, Italy, France and Spain, our cuisine reflects the warm sun right down to the olives that grow on our trees. The high quality of our olive oil, breads, fish and meats has contributed to the Mediterranean diet’s healthy reputation. Quite simply, it is the source of the best things to eat. Second, Israel produces the most splendid quality of fruits, vegetables and dairy products, from the legendary Jaffa oranges first exported to Europe in the 1930’s, to the kiwis, star fruit, citrus, tomatoes, peppers, flowers, yogurts and cheeses we export today.
Almost every restaurant in Israel provides menus in English. Occasionally, the spellings may be different and the translations can be amusing. As you would for anywhere else in the world, research restaurants online or use a good guidebook, and get advice from friends or your hotel front desk about their favorites. Use common sense when choosing a place to eat. Selecting establishments that look clean and welcoming and have a large turnover of diners.
Most restaurants and food stalls are open nonstop from the morning until the evening hours. Restaurants with bars remain open until the wee hours of the night. In the major cities, especially in Tel Aviv, you can find something to eat at any hour of the day or night.
Reservations are a must at the top restaurants, particularly in Tel Aviv. A great deal for tourists are the business lunches at restaurants, especially the top-rated places, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. These lunches are special ‘prix fixe’ menus with several choices – at prices a third or half of the same meal in the evening.
Israelis generally eat later than Americans. Typically, lunch is between 1-3 p.m. While the better restaurants open at 6 or 7 p.m., they don’t usually become crowded until 9 p.m. or later.
In Israel’s early days, pioneers on kibbutzim would rise at 4 a.m. to work the fields and milk the cows, and return for a hearty breakfast at 8 or 9 a.m. Breakfast revolved largely around their own produce: eggs, bread, dairy products, fresh vegetables and fruit.
Fast forward five or six decades and those pioneers’ breakfasts have become one of the most delicious – and renowned – gastronomic experiences in Israel. Every hotel serves a version of the “Israeli Breakfast” – invariably a giant buffet of vegetables, salads, cheese, eggs, smoked fish, breads, pastries, yogurts, cereals and fruit.
Café life is vibrant in Israel. Sidewalk cafes throughout every city and town offer a varied menu of coffees, teas, cakes, sandwiches, pastries and light meals. Israelis often sit in cafés for hours over a cup of coffee. One of the Israeli favorites is “café affuch” (“upside-down coffee”), a combination cappuccino/café latte. U.S.-style coffee bars are more and more common in Israel and one Israeli chain now operates two stores in New York.
Israelis love to eat at all hours. Falafel is considered Israel’s number one street food, and it’s available everywhere. If you’re driving, the restaurants, snack shops and stores at gas stations are invariably spotless and serve excellent fare. The ubiquitous juice stands provide orange, grapefruit, carrot, pomegranate, and grape juice freshly squeezed to order.
“Kosher” is an adjective (“kashrut” is the noun) used to describe food that is “fit” or “clean” or, in other words, prepared and served according to Judaism’s 3,000-year-old dietary laws, which can seem complicated to the uninitiated.
Simply put, kashrut prohibits the eating of pork (Muslims proscribe pork too) and shellfish and the mixing of meat ingredients with dairy ingredients.
Many Israelis observe kashrut – or some version of it – while many, perhaps most, do not. Almost every hotel in Israel is kosher (so that anyone can eat or stay there), but the majority of Israeli restaurants are not kosher. Restaurants that are kosher display a kashrut certificate; kosher restaurants usually close after lunch on Friday and don’t reopen until late Saturday night, or noon on Sunday.
Drinking in Israel
The water throughout Israel is perfectly safe to drink. Bottled water (still and fizzy) is available everywhere. When touring, be sure to keep hydrated: the sun is hot and many tourists forget they have to keep drinking. Fresh fruit juices are wonderful in Israel and every kind of soft drink is available. Israeli beer is excellent too.
WINE IN ISRAEL
For 3,000 years, vineyards and wine have been part of the celebration of Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. In the late 19th century the wine industry in Israel was given a boost by France’s Baron Edmond de Rothschild and by the dawn of the 21st century the production and flavor of wine in Israel had reached the highest international levels of quality. In 2008, the influential U.S. magazine, Wine Spectator, published a feature story on Israeli wine and summed it up by affirming that “Israel’s wines are world class.”
In Israel, more than 200 wineries of all sizes produce excellent red and white vintages and sparkling wines.