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Food in Israel

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Israel is a melting pot of cultures, and food is no exception. Israeli cuisine is a very diverse cuisine consisting of local dishes as well as foods brought to Israel by Jewish immigrants from around the world. All cuisines are a result of the interplay of many forces–historical, sociological, and agricultural. Israeli cuisine and Jewish food is no different.

Therefore, many foods that are typically considered “Israeli” originated from the wider cuisine of the Middle East – including the popular falafel and the famous “Israeli salad” of cucumbers and tomatoes in distinctively small pieces. In addition, Jewish traditions of Eastern Europe play an integral role in Israeli cuisine, with ingredients such as sour cream and dishes such as borscht (a cold soup made from beets).

It is natural that geography has a major role to play in Israeli cuisine, and therefore foods common to the region – olives and olive oil, wheat, chickpeas, yogurt – are also quite common in the culinary preparations. Jewish and Kosher dietary laws also have a strong influence, including the separation of milk, meat and the aversion to foods such as pork and shellfish. In addition, Jewish holidays and festivals have helped shaped the cuisine, resulting in the Israeli tradition of Sufganiot on Hanukkah and an original Israeli Haroset, a traditional Passover food, kosher recipe.

That is not all. Israel has also embraced modernity faster than many nations and this finds resonance in the food scene. From hamburgers (Israel’s first McDonald’s opened in the 90’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 some of the finest influences of Paris, Brussels, Lyon, Barcelona and New York – the Israeli and Kosher food scene is utterly sophisticated and in step with the latest trends.

Some of the popular foods in Israel are as follows:

  1. Salads – A wide variety of salads is often set out on the table before the main course. Hummus, tahini, matbucha red pepper salad, Moroccan carrot salad, Israeli salad – which is a finely diced tomato and cucumber salad, coleslaw and various eggplant salads are common.
  2. Spicy dips – Skhug brought to Israel by Yemenite Jews, Harissa brought by Tunisian and North African Jews, and Pilpelchuma brought by Libyan Jews, are different hot sauces made from chili peppers and garlic.
  3. Amba – Indian and Iraqi Jews introduced amba, a pickled mango sauce that is spooned over shwarma and falafel.
  4. Labneh – is a soft white cheese with a slightly sour taste derived from the Middle Eastern kitchen.
  5. Pita – a popular Middle Eastern item is a soft, round bread that can be halved and stuffed with falafel, salads or various meats. Bits of pita can be torn off and used to scoop up creamy spreads like hummus or eggplant salad. Schnitzel or steak in pita are said to be an Israeli invention.
  6. Soups – Bean soup and lentil soup are Mizrahi favorites.
  7. Pastries – Bourekas brought to Israel by Jews from Turkey and the Balkans are very popular.
  8. Sandwiches – Sabich is a Middle Eastern sandwich stuffed with eggplant, hard-boiled eggs and tahini. Fricassee is a fried roll stuffed with tuna, cooked potatoes and matbucha brought from Tunisia.
  9. Grilled meat – Kebab and shashlik are popular, as is the Kosher Jerusalem mixed grill.
  10. Shwarma – Originally from Turkey. Traditionally it was made from lamb.
  11. Fish – Fried, grilled and baked fish is often served whole, with the head intact. Hraime, fish baked in hot pepper sauce, is served in many Mizrahi households in honor of Shabbat.
  12. Hummus, chips and salad – The most common accompaniments to food served in a pita. The addition of French fries seems to be exclusive to Israel.
  13. Desserts – Baklava is a sweet pastry often served as dessert, along with small cups of coffee, in Middle Eastern restaurants.
  14. Halva – This sweet, made from techina and sugar, is popular in Israel and used to make original desserts like halva parfait.
  15. Black coffee – Sometimes served with Hel (cardamom).